How one village in Saxon Transylvania is coping with too many of the wrong kind of tourists.
by James de Candole
The Saxon farming settlements of Alma Vii (or Almen in German), Biertan (Birthälm) and Viscri (Weißkirch) all have magnificent old fortress churches that sit well in their enchanting landscapes. Where the churches’ hard wooden pews and collection boxes were once filled by disciplined Lutheran farming families, today they are being filled by tourists.
Alma Vii, with just 390 inhabitants, is just starting out on Romania’s tourist development path, a trajectory that begins with slow, independent travellers, on foot, horseback, bike and in passenger cars, and ends with coach tour operators and their regimented cannon fodder. The restoration of the fortress walls of the village’s monumental medieval church complex is now complete, and visitors are starting to trickle in, some 1,500 or so last year. A couple of coaches at most might make it into the village each week in high season but most visitors arrive by car. Alma Vii’s location, a dead end at the end of a bumpy lane some miles off the main tourist routes, discourages the coach tour operators keen to pack in several stops in one day.
Biertan is more advanced along this trajectory thanks to its classification as a World Heritage site and the fast new road linking it with the main road between Medias and Sighisoara. Between April and October, an estimated 1,000 coaches and 25,000 passenger cars bringing 100,000 visitors park on the edge of the square beneath the village’s heavily fortified cathedral, with its nine gate towers. The town hall raises some 5,000 euro a year in parking fees from these visitors. The church raises much more, as much as 50,000 euro a year, with at least 30,000 visitors each contributing 2 euro (half that amount for children). Local craft – honey, jams, wooden spoons & bowls, and linens – is sold to the tourists and this supports several families in the commune including the growing family of the Orthodox priest. The dozen or so guesthouses dotted around the commune and a restaurant beneath the church all benefit.
None of Biertan’s 1,600 inhabitants would consider that their village needs fewer tourists. Quite the contrary. By teatime, with the coaches all gone, the village square returns to its normal quiet self. A couple of local pensioners in wheelchairs (they lost limbs in tractor accidents and the local sawmill, the largest employer in the village), banished during the day because they “put the tourists off”, return to the square to soak up the evening sun. As for the rest of the village, it hardly notices the intrusion – the great majority of visitors never venture beyond the church and square.
Viscri has 400 inhabitants, like Alma Vii, and based upon the number of entrance tickets sold by the Saxon church last year, had well over 40,000 visitors, raising some 60,000 euro. Viscri’s popularity is not hard to understand: Its reputation as un unspoilt farming village is deserved and well reflects its character.
Latterly, the Prince of Wales Foundation has set up its Romanian HQ in the village and this has attracted lots of interest both from abroad and within Romania. But it is the daily efforts in the field of the Romanian branch of the Mihai Eminescu Trust (MET), which enjoyed the patronage of the HRH Prince of Wales from its establishment in 2000 until five years ago, that has made Viscri what it is today. Thousands of small, incremental steps taken by the MET, involving hundreds of village houses and their owners in at least a dozen villages over two decades, have helped gradually to transform this and other abandoned farming settlements, impoverished by the departure of all but a handful of their Saxon inhabitants in 1990, into sustainable communities enjoying a modest economic revival.
Caroline Fernolend, who leads the MET and is a native Saxon from Viscri, believes there are already too many tourists coming to the village today: “This is why we created our guesthouse website, ‘Experience Transylvania’, to encourage people to visit other Saxon villages and so take some of the pressure off Viscri.” Fernolend says the problem is not just numbers but the kind of visitors that are starting to arrive. She argues that Viscri’s association with HRH Prince Charles has been invaluable in the past but these days is attracting the “wrong tourists”, by which she means Romanians from Bucharest with the wrong expectations who arrive unprepared for the real thing, the simple food and the high street peppered in cowpats. “The real tourists visit the church but many of these Romanian tourists actually think the citadel around the church is the prince’s castle. They cannot believe that a prince would live in a village house that looks just like all the other houses here and feel cheated,” says Fernolend.
Mihai Grigore, the owner of Viscri 125, appears to share this view. “I do not give interviews anymore. There has been too much, and the wrong kind of publicity given to Viscri. We want our visitors to come to Viscri for its wild flowers, butterflies and birds. Viscri has little to offer tourists looking for sophistication. We are boring for such people and they should stay away to avoid disappointment.”
The street facade of the Grigore family’s remarkably lovely guesthouse – he has lived there with his wife and three children all year round since 2010 and must have invested 500,000 euro in the place – is quite unremarkable. Like the street facade of the house of Prince Charles, it looks like all the other houses from the street. There is nothing to suggest that there is a stylish guesthouse inside. Grigore says that some of his Romanian guests want him to smarten up the facade. The absence of signs on the houses – visitors are directed to a house number, never a name – is perhaps one of the most pleasing aspects of the village. There is nothing commercial to attract or rather to distract the attention of visitors from the architecture and its setting in the landscape.
Another reason why Viscri has retained its authentic character is the fact that a great many of its inhabitants are involved in taking care of the tourists. There is no single hotelier or hotel. The ownership of the guesthouses is spread among many people. It is a true ‘albergo diffuso’. The rooms are spread out across the village and a virtual reception desk operates over the guesthouse owners’ mobile phones. If one guesthouse is full, the owner rings around and quickly finds beds in other guesthouses. There is lots of friendly competition.
Viscri is an outstanding example of what a small, coherent community, albeit bolstered by a handful of university educated middle-class outsiders and two internationally renowned charities, can accomplish when it acts together. There are tensions but these are usually overcome.
Viscri is one of five villages in the commune of Bunesti. The council’s plans to lay asphalt over the village’s cobbled streets and to install concrete drains on either side of the wide high street were thwarted by the villagers acting as one. A UNESCO expert was invited by them to give evidence to the council and persuaded council members to drop its abominable plans.
But the village is starting to feel the strain of its popularity, especially in July and August and at weekends. It is bracing itself for a surge in numbers next year, after the completion of a brand new 7m wide, 15km long road linking Viscri and Dacia to the main road between Sighisoara and Brasov.
Today, visitors wishing to reach Viscri by car or coach would turn off the highway at Bunesti, between Rupea and Sighisoara, and travel the last 7 km along a country lane full of potholes and, until last year, through an avenue of 320 poplars trees.
In early 2017, Brasov County Council finally accepted the argument long put forward by the village that the poor condition of the lane has made it hard for local inhabitants to get their children to school in nearby Rupea. Everyone agreed that the lane must be improved. But rather than resurface the narrow road, remove some of the trees and introduce lay-bys to allow larger vehicles to pass each other during the high season, the council went for a whopping 6.6 million euro project that has involved cutting down all the trees and in their place inserting a wider road and deep concrete drains with a 1m diameter to carry away the water that the poplars once absorbed. This new 15km thoroughfare will connect Bunesti to Dacia through Viscri.
The great majority of the inhabitants of the village accepted that the trees were a sacrifice worth making if it meant a better road. Many of the trees had reached the end of their lives and the council was unwilling to maintain them or to replant new ones where gaps appeared. The burden of looking after the trees was taken up by the MET but it gave up replanting new trees along the road after local shepherds kept on cutting them down to make their temporary sheep folds.
Even so, a handful of locals, when they learnt of the enormity of the project, objected. They presented their case to the council, arguing that the new road would bring more and faster road traffic and perhaps even encourage commercial lorries to use the road as a shortcut. Cutting down the trees, they pointed out, would remove the natural solution to high water and wind levels, the reason why the Saxons, in their wisdom, planted poplars along the lane that runs through water meadows.
The removal of the trees, the oldest of which were planted by the Saxons as much as 100 years ago, has removed the windbreak and sponge, as well as the habitat of the hordes of crows that once lived in them. The noisy crows have moved into the village itself and are making a pretty nuisance of themselves – in revenge, one must suppose, at having their habitat destroyed.
The objections to the sheer scale of the new road were politely and firmly ignored, and what had started as a request for a repair job of the lane had turned into a multi-million euro high speed corridor. There was no public consultation. True, formal notices were posted in obscure, online places, but no attempt was made to alert or to invite the people of Viscri to participate in the formation of the policy decision that would so dramatically affect them. “We were presented with a fait accompli,” says Mihai Grigore. “Either we accepted the project in its entirety or nothing. We had little choice but to accept the big road.”
The poplars were reduced to firewood, though not firewood for Viscri. Five of the thicker trees have ended up in the village and have been turned into “Saxon” water troughs for the livestock on the high street, a pathetic reminder of what had been a defining landmark of this open landscape for a century or more. “We shall replant the trees,” says Caroline Fernolend, “but only after we have taught the shepherds not to steal the young saplings.”
The new road did not split the village for long. People are now working together again to deal with the congestion that the road will bring. Two car parks, one public and paid for by the commune, the other private and already in use, will provide parking for 150 cars. These are situated on the edge of the village. Passengers will be obliged to walk through the village in future, or take a horse and cart up to the church across a meadow. “We have contacted the Romanian coach tour operators and asked them to use the private car park we have made, at our own expense. The coaches from abroad will be asked not to park on the village high street but we cannot enforce this, at least not until the public car park is built later this year,” says Caroline Fernolend.
Preserving the character of this place is a constant struggle. The village recently decided not to host the start and finish of the ADEPT foundation’s annual Transylvanian bike trails race through 6 local villages. Mihai Grigore again: “The race is a great event, but too big for Viscri. We are still part of it (the trail goes through the village) but agreed with the organizers that the start and finish will no longer take place in Viscri. And it works well now.”
Ironically, the latest challenge has come from within, a most unexpected quarter – the Prince of Wales Foundation itself. The foundation has just handed over the running of The Prince of Wales Guesthouse to Jonas Schaefer, a German restaurant entrepreneur and owner of the Valea Verde Resort in nearby Cund. The “eco-retreat” is popular with richer Romanians who drive up from Bucharest for a weekend break in the countryside. Guests may soak away their stress in the resort’s small, natural(-ish) pool in the warmer months. In the winter, the resort stages truffle hunts, with guests taking part in a guided search for this “elusive and mysterious black gold”, and then enjoying a five-course truffle dinner.
The prince’s foundation is now mapping artisan food production across five historic regions in what is now modern Romania – Transylvania, the Danube Delta, Bucovina, Banat and Maramures. The idea is to showcase this regional produce in the foundation’s “Food Barn” in Viscri.
“This is not the right approach for Viscri,” insists Fernolend. “We have trained eight women in the village to cook for visitors using food grown and raised in the village.” Fernolend argues that this joint venture will attract the kind of visitor Viscri does not need – the kind that is drawn to the village, not to savour what the village offers naturally and unaffectedly, but rather to indulge in a heavily marketed “experience”, to sleep in the holiday house of Romania’s most famous living prince, to be served gourmet dinners prepared by Transylvania’s most celebrated chef.
The media theorist Marshall McLuhan coined the term “global village” to describe the way in which the world was shrinking thanks to the instant transfer of information, in short, the modern travel industry. At least that English landscape artist, who painted out the cars and coaches on Viscri’s cowshit-splattered high street, knows what the real thing should look like: The “global village” tourist, his head buried in an on-line copy of Condé Nast Traveler, never actually knew.
James de Candole settled in rural Transylvania in 2015 after 25 years in Bohemia