To Soars, a small village just over the hills from Fagaras, a village in which Mother-in-law of Bucharest Life worked (at the mayor’s office) for a time in the 1980s. Some friends have a house there, and as we were at a loose end this holiday weekend we decided to go: we hadn’t been for getting on a decade.
First thing we noticed is that mobile phones now work in the village (those of the Orange variety at least). On our last visit there was no signal of any real strength via either of the main networks, and making a call quite literally meant waiting until the wind was blowing a bit and then climbing up on to the church roof.
Soars – like almost all of the villages in the area – was a Saxon settlement all but abandoned in 1990 when the population upped sticks and fled to Germany. Few have returned. The village (like most in the area) is struggling. Although it’s just 12 kilometres from Fagaras the extremely poor state of the roads turns the journey into a bone-crusher that can take a good half an hour or more. And as we were to discover, the road from Fagaras to Soars is – by the standards of the area – relatively good.
Soars, you see, is not far from Viscri, currently the most en vogue village in Romania. It has been made famous by none other than our eternal nemesis, that great friend of Romania, Prince Charles, who owns property there.
Indeed, it is difficult to even mention Viscri – not least if you are English – without the name of the heir to the British throne cropping up. He is almost invariably mentioned in glowing terms, and when we proffer our own views on the man, offence is sometimes taken. Quite why, we have no idea. As we have said before (many, many times) the man is no friend of Romania, nor the Romanian countryside and absolutely not the Romanian peasant. His entire world view is based on the simple idea of ‘know your place’. To Charles, peasants were born peasants because that’s the role they were assigned in the grand scheme of things, just as princes, kings and queens were born to rule. The notion of social mobility, of peasants becoming kings, queens, princes or astronauts is one Charles rejects. His work in Romania is therefore all about keeping peasants exactly where they are, ensuring that they know their place and obey their betters.
Anyway, being so close to Viscri (at least we thought) we decided to pay the place a visit, to see what kind of fame and riches the patronage of Brian has brought the village. We are alas inclined to report (not without a slight hint of ‘we told you so’ in our voice) that the place remains more or less as it was pre-Charles: a bit of a dump.
Certainly, the village’s fortified church is impressive and worth a visit if you can get there (more on that subject later). A couple of houses have been renovated and offer accommodation, and the village pub appeared to be doing a roaring trade. Outside some of the village’s houses locals had put handicrafts and such like on tables in the hope of attracting the odd buyer, yet the overall impression you get visiting Viscri is much the same as that you get anywhere else in the Romanian countryside: poverty and desperation. If this is a showpiece, Potemkin-village, woe betide a few other places (such as Rotbav, a village through which we drove – at 10kph, the road does not allow you to go any faster – the following day. We’ve not seen such utter, grinding poverty since we climbed aboard the wrong bus while visiting Teotihuacan and ended up in one of Mexico City’s most desperate favelas).
As it is, Viscri today is the Romanian countryside in the image of Charles. For him, Viscri is more or less as good as it should get for a Romanian peasant. A home made of traditional materials, some land to farm (using traditional, back-breaking methods of course) and a regular stream of visitors to keep the village’s pensions in business. Why would anyone want more? Why would anyone aspire to the kind of life that, oh, Charles himself enjoys? A life of unadulterated privilege and luxury? No, dear peasants: such things are not for the likes of you.
No indeed they are not. For while Charles might want to make the life of the Romanian peasant (or at least some of them) a little less uncomfortable, he would be horrified if the population of the entire Romanian countryside decided en bloc to down tools in order to demand something better. Like the troopers sent to wipe out the Diggers’ claim on St. George’s Hill he would tell them to know their place and get back to work else they feel the wrath of their masters. So spare me the ‘friend of Romania’ bollocks. Charles is a reactionary determined to conserve the existing social order. If he genuinely cared for the Romanian peasant he would be trying to turn that order upside down. Yes, he may bring in a few tourists, but then so does Dracula, and you’d hardly call him an agent of progressive social change.
Viscri then, is not yet a model for the for the future of the Romanian countryside, neither is it the kind of place we could ever see ourselves settling down. For what it’s worth, there are plenty of other villages and churches in the area far more worthy of your time: Cincu and Mosna in particular. Even Soars – though its fortified church is little more than a ruin these days – is a far nicer place in our opinion than Viscri. And all of the places we have mentioned offer far better access than Viscri. The newly restored fortress at Rupea is also worth a look.
Which brings us to perhaps the biggest problem facing the old Saxon villages: the roads.
For all our objections to the happy peasant ideal, we have no doubts whatsoever that there is a genuine, special charm to the entire area. We by and large loved our time there. We are convinced that agro-tourism is a genuine alternative to working the land, and a way out of poverty and subsistence farming. Where we do have doubts is with the idea that such a route is available to anyone: right now it certainly isn’t, as although there are plenty of visitors, there simply aren’t enough. (There are also a number of other bureaucratic obstacles facing anyone wanting to open a pension. One is the need to obtain a ‘fire evacuation route’ certificate from the county fire brigade. Even if your property has just one room and one exit, the certificate – without which you can’t legally operate a pension of any kind – costs €1500).
Yet the biggest reason there aren’t enough visitors is that the shockingly poor access puts them off coming. Even celebrated Viscri is accessed via a terrible road (the DJ104L) from Bunesti or an even worse road from Rupea, via Dacia. Taking either route risks seriously damaging your car. The kind of potholes on the road are not the kind you see in Bucharest or other Romanian towns: these are more like bomb craters. With the exception of the DJ105 from Cincsor to Agnita, and the DJ141 from Barghis to Medias – which are OK – every road in what should be ground zero of Romanian agro-tourism looks as though it has suffered from a prolonged shelling campaign by an enemy army. The roads we have marked on the map below are all but impassable. In most parts of Europe they would be closed to traffic. Driving the 30 km from Soars to Viscri takes 90 minutes. Even in the unhurried world of the Romanian countryside, it puts you off.
You probably know our views on the subject (we have, after all, more or less outlined them all above).
For us, the clue is in the title of the piece: ‘Europe as it once was’. Now ask yourselves: Why? Why is the rest of Europe no longer like rural Romania?
Answer: (For the zillionth time) Europe long ago realised that it doesn’t want to live like a peasant. It doesn’t want to be sentenced to a lifetime of back-breaking agricultural labour using only medieval-era tools.
If other Europeans long ago decided they don’t fancy a lifetime of subsistence farming, why should Romanians be any different?
Answers on a postcard please.