By Stephen McGrath
As 58-year-old Carmen Schuster taps away at her computer as she sits in a beautifully restored, well-lit part of her guesthouse in Cincșor, a small rural settlement in Brașov County, it’s hard to imagine that this is the building in which she spent part of her childhood, at school.
Schuster’s family history in Cincșor stretches back hundreds of year, “at least,” she says, so leaving it all behind in 1984 as her and her family moved to Germany was not an easy move on a sentimental level; but the harsh reality of communism drove them to up sticks when the opportunity came.
“My family had quite a difficult situation, my uncle was condemned to prison for 25 years in Romania,” says Schuster. “He was a writer and there was a big process against Saxon or German-speaking writers because they were considered to be profoundly anti-communist.”
Schuster grew up in Cincșor as part of the Transylvanian Saxon community — a Germanic tribe who moved to the region in the 12th century. During communism and in the years after, many thousands, like Schuster, left the country.
“I never expected to come back to Romania,” says Schuster. “I was working on a bilateral [banking] project between Germany and Romania and I came back to Cincșor and saw that the entire Saxon community had collapsed from around 250 people to around 20 people.”
The exodus meant that many Saxon homes and community buildings fell into critical states of disrepair. Meanwhile, in Germany, however, Schuster was having a successful career as a high-level banker, where she helped with the restructuring of the country’s banking system, and then on a bilateral project for Romania’s national bank in 2006.
The series of serendipitous events led Schuster and her husband Michael, a former teacher, to move back to her native village in 2008. Their project was ambitious: to buy, restore and repurpose her former Evangelical school, the local parish house and a smaller peasant house into superb guesthouses, in a project which she calls ‘private-public’.
The Cincșor Guesthouses opened in 2015, is just a 45 minutes drive from Sighișoara and can accommodate up to 30 people.
“We expected to get more visitors from Germany, a kind of nostalgic German [Saxon], but it wasn’t the case, about 80 percent are Romanians, between 25-44 and well educated,” says Schuster.
One of the Schuster’s prime goals, the public part, has been to help fund the restoration of the local fortified church. Nostalgia, luck and drive has played no small part in the fruition of one of Romania’s fanciest guesthouses and the revival of a towering Lutheran fortified church, once a focal point of the Saxon community.
“Nostalgia played a big role because I felt we were in a situation in which we could do something to ensure development [of the village and the church],” says Schuster.
Restoring the buildings has been a years-long project and the results are impressive.
The art nouveau style Evangelical school, built in 1910 and designed by local architect Fritz Balthes, was abandoned and deteriorated when the Schuster’s bought it a decade ago. Now the building’s large sitting room, adjacent to the church, resembles a thoughtful mix of sophisticated country house and Transylvanian and Scandinavian chic – every bit worthy of a Farrow & Ball brochure.
In the Parish House there are centuries-old frescoes that required a team of (extremely patient) specialists to uncover, paid for by the centimetre, and not cheap. But, like many things in Romania, the restoration of the historic buildings was not a straightforward task.
“Our intention was to focus on what the buildings had to offer historically, and we changed architects four times,” says Schuster, adding that many of the early architects wanted to “put their own mark on the buildings”. That was not part of the plan: Schuster wanted the buildings of her once-bustling community revived, not changed.
Naturally, the collection of key Cincșor buildings now owned by the Schuster’s forms a kind of central point to the village, employs many locals and is far more than a slap-on superficial veneer.
Schuster’s estate, as it can only be described, offers a combination of nature, cultural events, impressive historic architecture and centuries-old artefacts that makes a visit there both relaxing and culturally enriching.
On top of this, there is the excellent food by chef Adrian Boșcu, who Schuster says was given a year to experiment before serving a customer. Schuster doesn’t do substandard and when she says it’s important to make Romania “more European and modern”, it’s clear that she means it and is playing her part.
“Even if the Saxon community in ten years doesn’t exist, a good sustainable project could get people involved and maybe some will move back,” says Schuster. “I think everyone who works for a big corporation should at some time in their life go back to their roots.”
Cincșor Guesthouses is the sort of enterprise often imported to Transylvania by foreigners from Western Europe, except that, Schuster is very much in her native home and her passion for it is evident in what she and Michael have created.
It’s a 24-hour live-in business, but Schuster takes it all in her stride.
Stephen McGrath is a Romania-based correspondent. His work appears regularly in the international press, for publications including The Times, BBC, The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Spectator, New Statesman, Forbes, and others.