Kindly contributed by Lucy Abel-Smith, author of the new Blue Guide Travels in Transylvania. With maps, plans and photographs, this accessible guide to Transylvania's "land that time forgot" focuses on its small towns. With cultural heritage from Romania, Hungaria, Saxony and Judaea, the lovely Tarnava Valley is home to an extraordinary mix of cultures and landscapes.
Richis/Reichesdorf is a small village in the centre of Transylvania, now part of Romania but Hungarian until 1918. It thrived under its Saxon population, from its 12th century foundation under the Hungarian kings. These Northerners were there to farm and defend Christiandom against the Ottoman Turks. It is in this once rich village that I chose to buy my house. The wealth was due to wine, alas little is produced today. My farmhouse is on one of the less fashionable streets – the grandest houses of this priest-led community are those near the medieval fortified church in this village of some 400 people.
It was to my advantage that the Saxons left in a sort of self-ethnic cleanse when they were the only people offered an exit by a unified Germany in 1990, after 850 years as freemen, farmers and defenders. So many of these beautiful, but simple, houses were left empty and those that have come after, mainly Romanians and Roma, have tried to adapt to the Saxon ways.
The farmhouses are all adjoined echoing the self-contained society developed by these early settlers. My yard is similar to those throughout the village. The barn encloses one end of the courtyard, the neighbour’s farmhouse another and on the third a huge gate high enough to take laden carts, a common sight still in the streets. My living quarters and the open summer dining room make up the enclosure.
In the middle of the yard, an elderly pear tree’s roots make the cobbles uneven. Its fruit makes delicious schnapps which saw the Saxons to their fields in the early mornings before their exodus to Germany. Elderly Saxons, now long gone to Hamburg or Frankfurt, returning for their holidays, say they remember the tree before World War II. Beyond my gate is a hill from which a neighbour, one of the few remaining Saxons in Richis, as a child, waved to the Luftwaffe as they flew over to bomb the allies. Feeling their culture under threat from the majority Romanians, Saxons were encouraged to join the Nazis when Hitler came to power in 1933 and many were conscripted into the Waffen SS. This had terrible consequences as the Soviets sent thousands of them to work as slaves in the Ukranian mines when they invaded in 1944.
Apart from the Saxons, all the other communities continue in fascinating diversity only a few kilometres apart. The Szeklers to the east where the river rises, Hungarians usually with manor houses in their communities, Armenians, Jews, Roma and Romanians can all be found along the 120 kilometres of the Tarnava Mare valley. Each village or town with their differing forms of Christianity, languages, architecture and traditions, an extraordinary mix which even the 21st century has not managed to meld.
The landscape around Richis is all embracing and idyllic for walking, riding, biking, etc. I love to go up into the hills overlooking the wild beech, oak and hornbeam forests, with the Carpathian mountains in the distance, and meet with the shepherds, some among them still practising transhumance - the ancient movement of flocks from summer to winter pastures across eastern Europe and the Balkans, in one of the last medieval landscapes in Western Europe. What extraordinary people they are. My short guide is about all these differing people within a landscape that exists nowhere else in Europe.
Politics are still a problem for those who want them to be. Unwittingly, I ran into some of this nationalist fervour when the Romanian Cultural Institute ‘un invited’ me from the book launch they had offered, claiming (I think) the historical introduction not Romanian enough. It is rather interesting being a banned author, especially one who has founded a Book Festival in the middle of this beautiful and fascinating place to illustrate that diversity is its joy.