January 7, 2000

Romanians lost their traditional construction skills under communism, especially after former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu took power in 1964. He banned brick-kiln firing, lime-mortar rendering and vernacular woodwork and masonry in favour of the universal adoption of cheap cement. During the 1980s he ordered the demolition of thousands of villages and historic buildings, with the aim of obliterating the past and transporting the rural population to bleak urban settlements under state control.

Last summer, with financial help from the Mihai Eminescu Trust, 18 Romanian craftsmen spent a month in Ludlow and Hereford on a course to study British conservation practice. Arranged by the Institute for Historic Building Conservation, the emphasis was on repair rather than replacement. The students were attached to building companies, lime and mortar producers, master carpenters, stonemasons and wall-painting conservers. They are now passing on their experience to other craftsmen in Romania.

The trust is also involved in a project to restore the decaying classical building of Bethlen Gabor College, in Transylvania. British and Romanian conservationists will oversee the work and train 64 students.

Further to the east, around the towns of Sibiu and Sighisoara, in the Siebenbergen area inhabited for 850 years by German speakers, the trust has other plans.

There are 500 or so villages that are unspoilt examples of medieval structure and design, one-storey houses with huge wooden gates set into arches in their high walls. Each property reveals a self-contained world of lofted terracotta-tiled barns, stables, blacksmith's sheds, ovens for baking bread and vats filled with wine. Many of the villages contain magical renaissance altar pieces in fortified churches, within which generations of Saxons were protected from marauders and jealous neighbours.

In 1990, a reunified Germany offered the Saxons citizenship. Most took it, leaving the villages in the hands of those too old to leave. Today, 15,000 remain. The buildings lie empty. The churches are without vergers or guardians. Gypsies have moved in. Yet this unique heritage can still be saved.

Building on the resolve of a few determined Saxons and exceptional Romanian and gypsy villagers, the trust has begun to revive small-scale agriculture and to restore the region's crumbling, stuccoed buildings. It has selected six villages where grants, assistance and training will be offered to villagers who agree to restore their houses in the traditional way rather than pulling them down. Sources of indigenous materials - lime, sand, kiln-fired bricks and roof tiles - have already been identified and the Shropshire conservationists will work alongside local craftsmen. One empty building of architectural significance will be bought or leased in each village; once restored, it will operate as a guesthouse for eco-tourists along the lines of the Landmark Trust in Britain.

This will provide alternative long-term income and an incentive to conserve the villages. Craftsmen interested in joining our teams this summer, and for eco-tourism information, please contact the Mihai Eminescu Trust at npage@eminescu.org.uk or 01747 830835 (fax).

Jessica Douglas-Home

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