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Dream-parks and theme-parks

Jessica Douglas Home
4 June 2002

I first heard of the Siebenburgen – seven towns – district of Romania from a Bucharest dissident, editor of a German-language newspaper. He spoke sadly of the fate of the Saxon farmers who had settled in the twelfth century around Brasov, Sibiu and Sighisoara, intermarrying and keeping their culture, language and religion alive against every form of brigandage and persecution, and whose beautiful houses and fortified Lutheran churches were now threatened with destruction.

Airview of a Siebenburgen settlement
Viscri, one of the Siebenburgen settlements. (Click for bigger image)

Nikolai Ceausescu, Romania’s vainglorious Conducator, had not only decided to bulldoze the villages, along with thirteen thousand others, as part of his plans for systematisation; he was also getting rid of the Saxons themselves, selling those with exportable skills at a few thousand Deutschmarks a piece to the West German Government. When, after the fall of communism, the German Foreign Minister invited anyone of German origin to return to the fatherland, some two hundred thousand Saxons stampeded out of Transylvania, leaving a scattered and predominantly elderly population to look after this most precious of European landscapes.

Because of the difficulties of travelling in communist Romania it was not until 1994 that I got round to visiting the Siebenburgen. I had expected to find an enclave of German culture: in fact I discovered an image of Europe as it must once have been everywhere – a landscape still disputed between wildlife and people, villages still fortified against marauders, a deep intimacy between farmers and domestic animals, and a religious tranquillity radiating from churches adorned by centuries of pious workmanship.

Viscri, one of the Siebenburgen settlements, where the relation between hoestead and farmland enables residents to continue to farm in the ways established by the Saxons in the 12th century

In the forests of oak and beech roamed wolf, bear, lynx and wild boar; in the skies were eagles, owls and storks. The meadows were decked with wild flowers, alive with butterflies and crickets, and encircled by lark-song. Streams ran fresh from the hillsides and gathered into swift, clear rivers in the valleys.

The houses melded with the landscape as though they had grown from it. Built to a format, they stand end-on to the street, and are painted like wildflowers in ochres, greens and blues, with stucco-patterned facades and hipped roofs. Each possesses a cobbled courtyard, a winter and summer kitchen, a vegetable patch and a colossal timber-framed barn enclosing the rear end of the courtyard.

Behind the barns lie larger vegetable plots and orchards, with a row of walnuts at the far end to act as a wind- and fire-break and to provide insect-free shade in summer time. Further off the pasture rises towards the woodland, which in most places still crowns the high ground, the haunt of animals who have disputed this territory with the farmers since Roman times. As in much of medieval Europe, the egalitarian Saxon communities divided their arable land into strips.

The endurance of faith and beauty

Animals are as integral to the household as people: cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, ducks and goats are stabled a few feet from the back door, and when the huge gates are opened in the morning the cows and horses amble on to the central track through the village, there to join other cattle and their herdsman, who take them into the meadows to graze with the sheep.

An atmosphere of settlement hangs over the landscape, and yet everywhere are the little signs that the work of settlement can at any moment be undone. The wild forest above seems to be waiting to reclaim the valleys, and in the heart of each village, next to the Tanzplatz or dancing circle, stands the fortified church, vivid reminder of the Turkish and Tartar invasions that spread havoc through these lands.

Within the church walls, sometimes two or even three deep, are the sleeping areas allotted to each village family. Here they would come, bringing livestock and food, to protect themselves until the storm had passed, thereafter to return to their burned and pillaged homesteads and begin again the daily work of settlement. Even in 1994 we were shown a hunk of dried pork in the Speckturm for general village consumption. It tasted very fatty and a little acrid.

drawing of a village plan
Village plan (Click for bigger image)

These reminders of terror and hardship contrast with the gaiety and naturalness of the church decorations. The pews are painted in delicate flowered patterns; pulpits are capped with crowns and encircled by two-dimensional painted angels. In the sacristy or at the back of the church stands a magnificent organ, and the doors which lead to the priest’s quarters are inlaid in many-coloured woods, with finely wrought locks, keys and hinges.

In the church in the village of Roades the eighty-five year-old Frau Dorner opened for us the sixteenth-century tryptych from the studio of the Master of Schassburg, a pupil of Veit Stoss: painted wooden statues of St John the Evangelist and St John the Baptist, flanked by panelled doors which open to reveal eight scenes from the New Testament, exquisitely carved in limewood. Five very old Saxons stood vigil over this altarpiece in 1994, the other villagers – comprising two hundred gypsies and seventy-eight Romanians – attending the Orthodox church down the road.

These stalwarts were the last of those who had guarded the altarpiece against marauders for four and a half centuries, with hardly a curious visitor to trouble its religious calm. Unsurprisingly, this Renaissance masterpiece fell victim to the new age of freedom and was stolen in 1998. When its panels were recovered by the Hungarian police, hidden in a billiard table in Budapest, the altarpiece was returned – not to the church in Roades, but to the Lutheran Bishop’s museum in Sibiu.

The fate of the Roades altarpiece typifies what might happen to the inimitable landscape in which the village stands. The beauty of the Saxon villages is not simply a matter of their evocative architecture and magnificent churches; nor is it reducible to the unique harmony between man and nature, or the quaint old ways of farming, or the extraordinary eco-system which still survives here – although all of those are important.

The beauty of this – as perhaps of all landscapes – is that it is the outcome of successful settlement. The Siebenburgen is the visible record of a routine maintained over centuries, in which men and women have found happiness and sorrow in equal measure, but have gone on reproducing nevertheless, and shaped the earth to themselves and themselves to the earth in mutual harmony.

Now that those who made this landscape have fled, what is to become of it, and what attitude should we take towards its future? Should it be placed in an ecological museum, to become the property of some equivalent of the National Trust, like the Roades altarpiece? Should it be allowed to decay into wilderness? Should it be rationalised by global agribusiness (little better, to many people’s way of thinking, than being systematised by Ceausescu)? Or should it be rescued, in whatever form, by the tourist trade – the only trade that seems to find value in unspoiled landscapes, even if only as a prelude to spoiling them?

Making Romania known to the world: two paths

These questions troubled me greatly, and for two reasons. First, because I had discovered, for the first and perhaps the last time in my life, an intact visual record of the agricultural way of life – by which I mean the way of life which produces food as a culture rather than a business. Encapsulated in these villages and their real but fragile economy is a memory that is precious to all of us, since it is the folk memory of Europe. I did not want that memory to vanish.

Secondly, I recognised that what I felt about the Saxon villages of Romania was merely a heightened and dramatic form of what so many of us feel about the man-made landscapes that provide our visions of rural peace. We all of us remain attached, in some part of ourselves, to a real or imaginary Eden; and, as Hugh Brody points out in his book, The Other Side of Eden, Edens are not merely man-made but made by farming. In other words, they belong to an endangered way of life, and the troubling question arises: what happens to the landscape, when the way of life that made it comes to an end? This is the question that confronted me in the Saxon villages.

A landscape enriched from centuries of un-intensive farming that allows wildflowers and wildlife to thrive. What is its future in a world driven by global commerce?

Perhaps it will help to start this discussion on openDemocracy if I briefly contrast the two solutions currently being considered for the Saxon villages, which might be called, respectively, ecotourism and sadotourism. I support the first and abhor the second; the attitude of Romania’s Ministry of Tourism is the reverse of mine.

Through the Mihai Eminescu Trust – originally founded to support the Romanian underground against Ceausescu – I and a few friends began a campaign to save the Saxon villages. We hoped to revive as best we could the local economy, subsidising it through tourism – but tourism of the right kind, the motive of which would be to enjoy the landscape and the local life without destroying them.

Our pamphlet – The Plight of the Saxons of Romania – caught the attention of David Packard, the great American benefactor, and also of Prince Charles. Working at first to save houses and churches from the accelerating dilapidation that had overtaken them since the flight of so many inhabitants, we soon turned our attention to the revival of agriculture. The State farms and the village cooperatives were bankrupt; the government promised restitution of the land but constantly delayed its implementation; vast tracts lay fallow, and the farm buildings were rapidly decaying.

At first that might seem like the end for a farming community. For us, however, it was the beginning. For it was the best possible starting point for organic farming. The farmers could not afford artificial fertiliser or pesticide, and besides the best hope for marketing their product was to take advantage of the new desire for organic products.

While introducing the techniques required by the farmers, we began a scheme to train villagers – most of them now Romanians or gypsies – in the use of traditional building materials, and in the art of conservation. We began to restore the old drinking wells, the cobbled streets, and the wattling that shores up the banks of the streams through the villages. We have encouraged inns and guest houses that might cater for discerning tourists and have built stables for horse-trekking.

All this might seem like so much lacquer on the face of a corpse. But, to our delight, it is encouraging people to stay in the villages, to re-work the land, and to take the same kind of interest in their surroundings as we take, seeing them as the precious imprint of a valid way of life, and a unique interface between man and animal.

The rhythm established by the Saxon villagers has revived, with the daily ritual of milking the cows, followed by their morning drink at the well, their exodus up into the hills and the evening return. Hay-making, crop gathering and storage for the winter once again mark out the seasons. And young people are staying, either to take part in the revived economy, or to add some new enterprise of their own.

Siebenburgen or vampires

house and text saying 'dracula'
Sighisoara, the town around which the Dracula theme park has been proposed by the Romanian Ministry of Tourism. (Click for bigger image)

Connecting the villages of Viscri and Malancrav, which stand sixty-five kilometres apart, are a myriad ancient cart tracks, etched over centuries into the hills, forests and valleys. Those who walk or ride in this semi-wilderness encounter the rarest of wild flowers, a variety of near extinct wild animals, and only the occasional human being – usually a solitary shepherd with his flock and his dogs. Those journalists who have described this piece of country have come away as I did – not just amazed by its beauty, but refreshed by a kind of self-discovery, as the folk memory of our ancestors is stirred within.

Thanks to those journalists the message is spreading, and a profitable ecotourism is beginning to take off in the Siebenburgen. But it is threatened by the sadotourism proposed by Agathon Dan, the Minister of Tourism.

Mr Dan wishes to turn the area into a Dracula Theme Park, so taking advantage of the only Romanian inhabitant (albeit an imaginary one known to those who would normally holiday on the Costa Brava). A fake fifteenth century castle, replica of a torture chamber, vampire roller coaster, institute of vampirology, an enormous hotel – all are to be situated in the environs of Sighisoara, a UNESCO-protected site, and at the very heart of the Siebenburgen.

To some the theme park is only a variant of ours – in other words, a different kind of lacquer on the corpse, another way of turning a living landscape into a theatrical décor, although one that caters for a more down-market clientèle. And I am acutely aware of the difficulty of defending my kind of tourism, while denying others the right to theirs. (See the press coverage of the Ministry of Tourism’s proposals, and the political strife surrounding them.)

But I am also aware of the very great difference between tourism which respects the real local life of a place, and seeks to add to that life and take joy in it, and tourism that merely imports an imaginary life from elsewhere. And when this imaginary life is packaged in all the hullabaloo of the global entertainment industry, and implanted without the slightest regard for the delicate social fabric that it is bound to tear, I am sure that my sentiments will be shared by all those for whom landscape is not merely a décor, but the symbol of a way of life.

Recently, the Prince of Wales came as an ecotourist to our villages. I am hoping that his sketchbook will not be the last record of the harmony, simplicity and vitality that Mr Dan’s sadotourism threatens to destroy.

We would like to thank Kim Wilkie Associates for permission to re-use photographs from the Mihai Eminescu Trust’s publication The Saxon Villages of Transylvania, Romania (2002).

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