Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

In just a few years at the end of the last century, the majority of the Saxons of Transylvania moved away from the village where their families had lived for over 500 years. Rudolf Abraham visited Romania to learn what has become of the Saxon villages of the Carpathian region.

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Eugen emerges from among the racks which fill the large storage shed beside the kiln. “Yes, this is the one,” he exclaims with evident delight. “Here, take a look.”

The bright afternoon sun filters in through the narrow wooden slats of the shed. On the shelves around us, some 12,000 traditional Saxon roof tiles lie drying in the warm air. He holds out the tile and points at the name carved into the surface of the soft, grey local clay. ‘Charles’ it reads in a neat, flowing hand. It is the signature of the heir to the English throne, the Prince of Wales, who had opened this traditional kiln near a remote village in Transylvania just a few days before.

The traditional architecture of Saxon villages in Transylvania, and their settlement patterns, are among the last of their kind in Europe, in many cases dating back to the thirteenth century. The kiln near the village of Apos is part of a project run by the Global Heritage Fund (GHF) and Asociatia Monumentum. These initiatives, along with the Mihai Eminescu Trust (MET), have supported conservation projects to preserve the distinctive heritage of these villages, which is under increasing threat from decay as well as uncontrolled modern development.

The Saxons of Transylvania arrived in several waves, mainly from Rhenish and Flemish territories of the Holy Roman Empire, having been invited to settle in the foothills of the Carpathians by the region’s then Hungarian rulers in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The Hungarian interest was clear: here were motivated settlers who were prepared to colonise the sparsely populated hill country on the margins of the kingdom. The fact that these settlers were all subsequently labelled as ‘Saxon’ remains a source of confusion even today. They did not in the main come from the areas we now know as Saxony or Lower Saxony.

Following the devastation inflicted by the Mongols in the thirteenth century, many of the Saxon churches were fortified, and surrounded by stout walls within which the entire village could find refuge in case of attack — this required far less work and money than encircling an entire settlement with defensive walls. Seven of these fortified churches are now inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. They are in the villages of Biertan, Câlnic, Dârjiu, Prejmer, Saschiz, Valea Viilor and Viscri.

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Rudolf Abraham is an award-winning travel writer and photographer specialising in Central and Eastern Europe – in particular Croatia, Slovenia, Austria and Montenegro. He is the author of a dozen books including Peaks of the Balkans, The Mountains of Montenegro, Walking in the Salzkammergut, Walks and Treks in Croatia, Torres del Paine and The Islands of Croatia, all published by Cicerone, National Geographic Traveller Croatia, and The Alpe Adria Trail, published by Bradt. He is co-author of Istria - The Bradt Travel Guide and has contributed to many more books including DK Eyewitness Slovenia and Unforgettable Journeys. His work is published widely in magazines.

Rudolf lives in London, and is a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers. Find out more about his work at Rudolf Abraham Photography, or visit Rudolf Abraham | Travel Writer. You can also find him on Instagram at rudolfphoto.

This article was published in hidden europe 47.