Brits and Romanians in Ardent Heritage Work in Romania: The Mihai Eminescu Trust


The past and the future
Are two sides of one page;
He who learns them will discover
A beginning’s found at the end of an age
Mihai Eminescu (1850-1889)

The Mihai Eminescu Trust was formed during Ceaușescu’s dictatorship, to help persecuted dissident academics by smuggling in books and journals so that they could keep abreast with the civilisation they had once shared. Our clandestine contacts took us to strange places. In 1987 I visited the lonely mountain hut of Constantin Noica, a much-revered sage who told me the ancient villages around him were facing the imminent threat of “systematisation”—obliteration by bulldozing—to make room for factories and concrete apartment blocks.

In response, the Trust formed the English-speaking wing of an international movement to save the Saxon villages. Would we have succeeded without the collapse of communism? We will never know. But the Berlin Wall fell, Ceaușescu was killed and overnight the tables were turned. Until then, our movements had been restricted and kept under 24-hour surveillance. With Ceaușescu’s death, we could at last visit the villages without the constant attentions of the Securitate.

In July 1993, with two friends, I set off from Bucharest north to Brașov, quite unprepared for what we were to find in Transylvania. Driving through an area the size of Wales, we visited but a fraction of the 250 Saxon villages and seven towns of the Siebenburgen. Here were fortified, frescoed churches, cobbled streetscapes, stuccoed and gabled houses, fields, woods and valleys filled with wild flowers, rare birds and butterflies. Cows and buffalo made their daily excursions into the hills, each returning un-erringly to its own courtyard at dusk for milking.Houses were boarded up, churches all but deserted. An elderly Saxon would stop us, weeping over the exodus that had so recently taken place—telling us of their families’ flight and abandonment of their heritage. For, following the events of 1989, Germany’s Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher had invited Eastern Europe’s German-speaking populations to return to the Fatherland, and only a few families remained.A spell had been cast on us. We had discovered a visual record of rural Europe with all its ancient richness and beauty intact. Laid out before us was not just a panorama of evocative architecture and ­magnificent churches, nor was it reducible to the unique harmony between man and nature or the traditional ways of farming which still survived here. Its secret was that it was the outcome of successful ­settlement, the visible result of routines maintained over centuries, in which men and women had shaped the earth to themselves and themselves to the earth.

The introduction of the Saxon culture to Hungarian Transylvania dates back to 1153, when King Geza recruited mercenaries from the Mosel and the Rhineland to guard his kingdom’s borders. In exchange he gave them fertile land, their own legal system and permanent rights of settlement and autonomy. Over the following eight centuries, the Saxons built their villages, kept their seclusion, intermarried and retained their own laws, religion, educational system and their arts and crafts. What now, we asked ourselves, would become of this fallen paradise? There must surely be an alternative to decay or cheap modernisation. At first tentatively, later with a growing confidence encouraged by the commitment of long-term support by the Packard Humanities Institute—and always hand in hand with the villagers—we began a campaign to revive the local economy through the renewal of its heritage. We saved houses and churches from the dilapidation that had overtaken them since the flight of their Saxon inhabitants; in parallel we turned our attention to the villagers’ means of earning a living. We called this our Whole Village Project – an idea which we developed with the Horizon Foundation.

To give the villagers’ a trade, and to instil pride in their surroundings, we offered training in traditional techniques and the use of authentic materials. Most of them now were Romanians or gypsies, but a few dynamic Saxons remained, one of whom, Caroline Fernolend, became our national director and an inspiration for our hopes and ambitions. To date (2014) we have completed over 1,100 restoration projects, large and small, in 29 villages and towns.

To add professionalism to the task, we brought craftsmen from Germany and Britain to supervise (and themselves imbibe) the ways of villagers steeped in a centuries-old congruity of man, nature and architecture. We brought back to life once-thriving crafts: locksmithery and iron forging, masonry, joinery and metalworking, brick and tile making, painting, stuccowork and carving, linen making and basket weaving.

What we were seeking was a reconciliation of old and new. Without care of their heritage, the villages would die. But they would also die if they became nothing more than empty relics, to be gazed at by curious tourists. In these villages beauty and prosperity had gone hand in hand for centuries. To divorce them would be to kill them both. With our help, the enthusiasm of the villagers to become self-sufficient was stirred.

Jessica Douglas-Home (Founder of The Mihai Eminescu Trust)



Throughout Transylvania, thousands of historic houses, mills, barns and bridges are falling into ruin or are being defaced by modern development. Whereas some of the larger towns and cities, such as Sibiu and Sighisoara, have received international support, the rural communities have been less cared for. Remote and poor, they are, for the most part, little aware of the value of their heritage – not surprisingly, as the exodus of the Saxons after Ceausescu’s death left them occupied by Romanians and gypsies from very different cultures.

In starting our pioneering Whole Village Project, we offered an alternative approach both to haphazard development and to abandonment. Initially, for visual impact and to stimulate the communities’ pride in the settlements, we worked as if washing a beautiful face – patching and lime-washing the ancient stuccoed facades, uncovering their Latin and German inscriptions, mending windows, shutters, and roofs. But the restoration of a single house or church can leave it out of context, a jewel spoiled by its setting. To retain the full architectural cohesion and harmony of the mediaeval streetscapes would be a transient achievement unless the villagers’ themselves came to “own” the concept. For this their living conditions must be transformed. Their incentive to remain in situ was not naturally grounded in appreciation of historic architecture, but if they saw their heritage as a fragile economic asset – once gone, never retrieved – and if with outside assistance it could be converted into a sustainable source of income, then there would be a future for the rural communities as well as for their ancient surroundings.

The Trust started work in 1999 in five villages 50 miles north of Brasov, centred on the village of Viscri. Our methods of procedure were strict. First we met with local representatives, discussed their ideas for development, assessed structures at risk, identified houses most suitable for restoration, appointed a conservation expert and finally created an inventory of historic buildings. The one proviso was an insistence on sympathetic design and use of traditional materials and the principle of minimum intervention, with patch and repair taking precedence over renewal, and as much as possible being kept of the original fabric. Where new additions or treatments cannot be avoided, they are designed to be removable and we try to ensure that repairs mirror the quality and the spirit of the existing work and its craftsmen.

Our Romanian architect, Gabriel Lambescu, exemplified this philosophy, with his love of the vernacular, his insistence on using local labour and materials and his dedication to the highest restoration standards. Together with Caroline Fernolend, he found sites for lime pits, oversaw their preparation, discovered timber and masonry yards and nurtured village blacksmiths and metalworkers. He was adored by his teams of budding or already accomplished restoration builders. His last project was our first wood-fired kiln, which now operates throughout the season producing hand-made tiles and bricks.

After his sudden death in 2006, we found by sheer good luck another inspiring architect, Jan Huelsemann, who moved to Sighisoara and added an extra dimension with his love of wood. He instilled his own demanding standards through village master classes in the repair of wooden structures – whether the 12th century church tower in Bunesti, the meticulous art of furniture, shutters and window making, or the reconstruction of collapsed ancient barns. His greatest gift to Transylvania was his magnificent restoration of two lovely buildings, the Apafi Manor in Malancrav and the Tower House in Sighisoara, which contributed significantly to the MET winning the First prize for Conservation Europa Nostra Prize in 2007.

Over the years, under the watchful eyes of architects and overseas experts, the Trust has given on-site training to many local craftsmen and helped a wide variety of small rural entrepreneurs to improve their production and marketing. We are active today in 25 villages (and 4 towns), several of which, having heard of our work, sought our advice and set up on their own.

Viscri is the foremost example of a successful Whole Village Project. Under the leadership of Caroline Fernolend, the village has attracted international acclaim for its combination of historic preservation and economic regeneration. It has been estimated that more than half of Viscri’s population has benefited from the Trust’s work. In this village alone we have undertaken 180 restorations, mended cattle troughs, re-cobbled roads, planted trees and provided a school bus. We have built stables for horse trekking and converted buildings into guesthouses. Most ambitious of all, with money-raising help of Prince Charles, who bought one of our restored houses in the village, we have installed an ecological sanitation scheme which today is becoming a model for others to follow.

In 2001 we expanded our reach west of Sighisoara to a further 5 villages around Malancrav, which is evolving towards a similar level of self- sufficiency as Viscri. Here, in addition to an extensive programme of restoration, the Trust acquired and presently manages an ancient 266-acre apple orchard, generating income and employment from the only organic apple juice in Romania. Close beside the orchard stands the romantic Apafi Manor. The Manor is run by two Malancrav villagers who, seven years previously, had emigrated to Germany but, homesick, had come back with their two children.

With Viscri, Malancrav and our recent launch in Alma Vii as examples of what can be achieved, there is no hiding behind bureaucracy or post-communist apathy to put Romania in the “too difficult” pile. The proof is there for all to see. The entry of Romania into the EU, however, has introduced a new threat – that of subsidised uniformity, robbing Transylvania of its uniqueness.

We prefer to look at Romania’s membership of the Union as an opportunity. The award by the European Commission of its premier conservation prize to the MET shows that Europe understands the need for exceptions. The Whole Village Project was evidently seen by the judging panel as a model for the future rather than merely a vehicle for rescuing the past. In that spirit, the EU’s system of aid and derogations for special regions could be just what is wanted to take forward the work we have started.

ADDENDUM: STRAY SNAPS by Michael Roberts, in Romania in July August 2018

I am afraid I cannot provide specifics … BUT most snaps below are re the fortified monasteries in the Moldava region of Romania. Just insert “Bucovina” or Voronet” or “Sucevita” in Google and click…. OR see = for the UNESCO feature on these sites

The SUCEVITA painted monastery

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