Once, most of Europe looked like this. Gavin Bell visits deepest Romania where low-key tourism is helping to preserve an increasingly threatened way of life
Mati the blacksmith was worried. A Romanian gypsy, he was usually in lively good humour, but today he was distraught. Recently men from a television company had come to his village, offering to install satellite dishes for free, and his daughter had taken one. Now he had been sent a bill for renting it, and he didn't have the money - or a television. His daughter had gone to work in Hungary and taken it with her. So he feared the worst. Would the police take him to prison?
His neighbour, a local councillor, read the contract and reassured him. All he had to do was tell the company he didn't want the satellite dish, and they would take it away. Mati beamed. Life was simple again.
The incident a couple of weeks ago highlighted a clash of cultures deep in the rural heart of Romania, where a way of life that has been virtually unchanged for centuries is struggling to adapt to the demands of a new age.
In Mati's village, five miles from the nearest paved road, rush hour begins soon after dawn when people lead cows and horses from cobbled yards outside their kitchens, past gaggles of geese, ducks and chickens, to where a herdsman waits to take them to communal pastures for the day. At dusk the process is reversed, to the tinkling of bells and shuffling of hooves, as the animals are led back to their byres and stalls for the night.
In between, not much happens in the village. Depending on the season, most people are in the fields tilling or harvesting small plots of hay, oats and potatoes with horse-drawn implements handed down through generations. The most common form of transport is the horse and cart, designed to carry crops, logs, people, sheep, tools, and pretty much anything else that needs to be moved.
Like England before the land enclosures of the 18th century, there are no walls or fences, and the hillsides are common land. The scene is reminiscent of a Thomas Hardy novel, and in truth it lays fair claim to being a fragment of a rural idyll lost in most of modern Europe.
This is southern Transylvania, a high plateau of wooded hills and valleys shielded by the Carpathian mountains, where Saxon settlers and their descendants have farmed, traded and fought to preserve their land and traditions for more than 800 years.
They came in the 12th century from Flanders, Luxembourg and the Moselle valley at the invitation of a Hungarian king, to defend the mountain passes from marauding hordes from the east, and they built fortified towns and more than 200 villages that safeguarded their communities until the second world war.
Then the Russians came, 30,000 German-speaking Saxon men and women were bundled off to Siberian labour camps, and barely half returned. Another exodus followed in the 1990s with repatriation to newly unified Germany, and today about 50,000 remain in villages with Romanian and gypsy neighbours.
Now their polyglot communities face fresh challenges with Romania's entry into the EU earlier this year. In hamlets where women still draw water from wells and shepherds guard their flocks by night from wolves, there is confusion and concern over impending rules and regulations that threaten their livelihoods.
Subsistence farmers with a couple of cows are worried by reports that they must buy milking machines, they may not sell their home-made (and highly prized) cheeses beyond a 20-mile radius, and they may no longer keep livestock in their back yards. One bizarre suggestion was that shepherds be issued with GPS devices to ensure they kept flocks away from planned new highways. When a local journalist showed one to a shepherd, he was told: "Go away with this thing. You are scaring my sheep."
None of this is apparent to the few visitors who ignore the over-hyped Dracula myth and explore genuine vestiges of an older Europe, far from the madding crowds of Bran Castle. The road to Mati's village, Viscri, is a rough track that passes through a gypsy settlement and then meanders through countryside that those of us of a certain age remember from childhood, when wildflowers brightened meadows untainted by chemicals.
Over a hill the red tiled roofs of Viscri appear in a valley beneath the distinctive towers and ramparts of a fortified church, a common feature in a land exposed for centuries to the slings and arrows of outrageous neighbours.
The church and most of the farmhouses around it were built by descendants of Saxons who arrived in 1142, and the lay-out is unchanged - a broad dirt road flanked by pear trees and houses in medieval half-timbered style, with gates between them wide enough to take a loaded hay wagon.
Throw in water troughs for the livestock, and wooden benches for people to sit and watch the world go by, and you have the essence of a traditional Saxon village. Viscri has a couple of small general stores that also serve as bars, one of which has wooden tables by the door. This is a perfect place to sample local cheese, and observe the owner and her friends knitting socks, a cottage industry in the village. When people have little money, barter economies flourish. The current rate for hiring someone's car for the day is three pairs of hand-knitted socks.
Before the last exodus there were 300 Saxons in Viscri, now there are 25 in a population of 450. In an old school building there is a faded photograph of a brass band, featuring 34 men posing seriously with their instruments, an image of a bygone age when the village would gather for music, dancing and revelry fuelled by home-made plum schnapps.
One of the few who remembers those days is Sara Dootz, 70, who shows tourists around the church and maintains a centuries-old tradition of ringing its bells at noon. "We had a very rich cultural life," she says in the Low German dialect of her ancestors. "The band played at concerts, tea dances, weddings that lasted for days, and even we had theatre. The actors were the ones with the big mouths."
When the Berlin Wall fell, a young priest advised the Saxons to leave for Germany, saying there was no future for them in their villages. "The old people who left regret it now, but they are too proud to come back," Sara says.
But many of them do return, once every two years, for a week-long reunion when old instruments are dusted off and played at a dancing circle around a lime tree in the grounds of the church.
That they still have a viable community to come back to is due in part to the Mihai Emenescu Trust, a British-Romanian charity dedicated to preserving the culture and traditions of Saxon villages threatened by depopulation and lack of resources. So far, it has restored hundreds of historic buildings, trained local craftsmen in traditional building skills, and helped villagers to set up small business ventures.
One of the schemes is low-key tourism, renovating decaying farm buildings for guesthouses. I slept in a room with a wood-burning stove and an antique box-bed that slid from a chest of drawers. My stay coincided with one of two nights of the year when legends warn that vampires prowl, but all that disturbed me was a crowing cock with a befuddled sense of time. The room was typical of village guest houses, clean and simply furnished, with an authentic back to basics air. Hearty soups and stews are the order of the day at most meals, and there is a farmer's wife in the village of Crit who produces arguably the world's finest pork sausages.
Caroline Fernolend, Saxon resident and a director of the trust, says Viscri can accommodate 60 French or 30 English visitors: "The French will share a room, the English prefer not to. I always have to ask."
One English visitor who had a room to himself is Prince Charles, an enthusiastic patron of the trust who has bought a property in the village to be donated as a guesthouse. Following one of his visits, he wrote: "The area represents a lost past for most of us - a past in which villages were intimately linked to their landscape."
He probably came to this conclusion after walking a seven-mile trail from Viscri, over pastures and through wondrous woods of oak and hornbeam, to the village of Mesendorf. A less strenuous alternative is to arrange for Sorin Popescu the wood-cutter to take you in his cart, and show you scars on a trees made by bears climbing to nests of honey bees, the footprints of wild boar, and dens of foxes. From a high ridge in the forest there is a panorama of green hills dotted with sheep, smoke drifting from shepherds' camp fires, and in the far distance, hazy like a mirage, the snow-capped peaks of the Transylvanian Alps filling the horizon. It is the kind of place where you want to sit in the shade of a tree, melt into fragrant grass, and not go anywhere for a long time.
Milu the shepherd knows this feeling. It is a yearning that comes on him every spring, when it is time to take the sheep of his village to summer pastures in the hills, where he remains with them until autumn. "I can't wait to come here, to hear the birds singing in the morning and the dogs barking at night," he says. So does this land make poets of shepherds.
A guide takes us to his sheepfold, a rudimentary hut of wood and corrugated iron that he shares with two other shepherds and a pack of dogs as fierce as the wolves they fight to protect the sheep.
Milu's wife has come to prepare lunch over an open fire, and her four-course meal of flavourful meats and aromatic cheese would put classy restaurants to shame. They are vaguely aware that EU regulations may soon intrude on their lives, yet it could be argued that instead of meddling with these traditional farming practices - which are as organic as they get - we might learn from them.
Patrick Holden of the Soil Association, a patron of the Mihai Eminescu Trust, suggests the old Saxon ways of Transylvania could be a model for the development of green agriculture throughout Europe.
For now Milu, looking forward to summer in the hills with his sheep and dogs, is sanguine. "We are still optimistic, life goes on," he says.
Way to go
Sunvil Discovery (020-8758 4722, sunvil.co.uk) has fly-drive packages to Transylvania with B&B from £892pp for one week; tailor-made tours of rural areas from £1,028pp, including flights, accommodation in hotels and village houses, most meals, excursions by horse and cart, and visits. Add £425 per couple for an English-speaking guide and driver.
Country code: 00 40.
Flight time: 3hrs.
£1= 53.40 lei.