Carla Carlisle on visiting Romania

The wise J. B. Priestley maintained that ‘one of the delights of age, and beyond the grasp of youth, is that of Not Going’. I’m of the Priestley school, although, occasionally, I feel the urge to budge.

Back in January, when friends invited us for a week in a ‘restored Hungarian manor house’, I lit up. I envisioned a manor house in Hungary as being like a villa in Tuscany 50 years ago: beautiful unspoiled countryside; day trips into Budapest, which wouldn’t be nearly as hot and crowded as Florence; cafes overlooking the majestic blue Danube instead of the lazy brown Arno.  

Then I read the fine print. The Hungarian manor wasn’t in Hungary. It was in Transylvania, the heartland of Romania. An easy mistake. For 1,000 years, Transylvania was part of Hungary, until 1920, when the Treaty of Trianon gave the country to Romania. Over-night, two million Hungarians, 10 centuries of Hungarian heritage and an area the size of Ireland passed into Romanian hands.

More complicated still, the manor house was in Malancrav, one of the villages established in this part of Romania in the 12th century by Saxons who came from the Rhineland, invited by the King of Hungary to defend his empire against the marauding Turks. Granted land and near autonomy, the Saxons built Teutonic villages with wide main streets lined with lime-washed houses, each with its own barn, kitchen garden and hen coop behind. Presiding over the village was the Lutheran Church, with its fortified tower to protect against invaders.

Of course, the Second World War changed everything. Churchill did his deal with Stalin, giving him Romania in exchange for Greece. The Saxons paid for this infamous swap with seven years’ hard labour in the Soviet Union, and the half who returned found that their Saxon houses and lands had been handed over to Romanians, Hungarians and gypsies. Under Ceausescu’s
tyranny, the whole country became a forsaken land of abject poverty. After the Berlin Wall fell and Ceausescu was executed, Germany invited their kinsmen back. The Saxons left in droves.

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Today, a typical Saxon village may have 20 or so Saxons, 80 Romanians and 350 gypsies. And a patron saint who lives in England. Jessica Douglas-Home  spent the 1980s making clandestine trips to eastern Europe, keeping contact with scholars and dissidents, creating the Mihai Eminescu Trust ( to help provide books and funds.

In 1988, when Ceausescu announced his plans to bulldoze the villages, the trust led the movement to save them. But, when Jessica returned to Romania in 1993, she found the villages were wastelands of neglect, with streams clogged with rubbish, wooden bridges replaced with concrete slabs and impoverished gypsy families crowded into derelict houses. She immediately redirected the trust to save these rare and special villages before it was too late. Called the Whole Village Project, the work involves everything from sustainable farming to the revival of ancient crafts, such as handmade roof tiles and weaving.

The trust has now restored 500 houses, including Apafi Manor, bringing craftsmen from England to supervise and teach long-lost techniques to the team of locals. From the locks on the doors to the sheep’s-wool insulation, the woven curtains and the stucco walls, it’s comforting proof that the skills live on.

My week here was a journey into another century. The manor’s Saxon cook, Regina, prepared breakfast and dinner from the produce of her farm. Andrea from the trust led excursions. The church next door has the finest frescoes in Transylvania. Preserved by a miracle from the scourge of the Turks, and preserved by another miracle, the tenacity of an English woman, a pilgimage to Malancrav outweighs the delights of Not Going.