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Looking back – or forward?

By Ruth Slavid

Photo ©: 1 – Agnese Sanvito

I hope you had a good summer and that you went on holiday somewhere interesting. I did and I am now going to indulge myself in the verbal equivalent of boring you with my holiday pictures – only I hope this won’t be boring. Because my holiday, in Romania, was not only enjoyable but also thought-provoking.

We were largely in Transylvania but also in Maramures, the area where agriculture is most traditional. Although compared to the UK, one could say that most Romanian agriculture is traditional. Horses are still used widely for transport and farm work, every scrap of grass is cut for hay – cut with scythes and piled into the kind of haystacks that Monet loved to paint. There is still transhumance, with shepherds taking their own and other people’s flocks into the mountains for the summer, where they make cheese and, with the aid of dogs, protect their charges from marauding bears and wolves.

In Breb, a village where we stayed, there is still a working mill, so scruffy looking that it seems derelict, but used regularly by the villagers to grind their maize into mamaliga, the polenta that is a staple food. Farmers grow and pickle their own vegetables, collect herbs to make delicious tea, distil plum brandy, preserve jams and weave rugs. It feels like a life that hasn’t changed for centuries.

That of course is not true, not least because Romania has one of Europe’s most troubled and complex histories. And it is still changing. An Englishman, William Blacker, spent several years in Breb after the fall of Ceaucescu, and wrote a book about his experiences called Along the Enchanted Way. From the start he regrets how fast things are changing, and his book is both charming and a reminder of how easy it is in any period to look back to a fictitious golden age that just preceded our own.

Romanian agriculture and traditions will doubtless continue to evolve. But is the country as it is today really so antiquated? It has got a lot of things right in terms of conservation, hanging on to its large carnivores as well as its deer and birds and wild flowers within generous areas of forest. Could there be lessons for the future? Could our countryside actually become more like this, once the cheap fuel and fertilisers run out?

Prince Charles is something of a hero to the Romanians, helping to protect forests, supporting conservation efforts on traditional houses and even owning a holiday home in the fading Saxon village of Viscri where he has constructed the country’s first reedbed sewage treatment plant. (In guide books, he claims to have a ‘stake’ in the country as a descendant of Vlad the Impaler). The prince has a reputation, particularly in the architectural world, of being over-wedded to tradition. Perhaps his ideas are a better fit with the Romanians than the Brits?

We shouldn’t romanticise a way of life that is tough and in many ways hidebound. But at the very least, Romanian agriculture is an interesting study for those debating the future of our rural landscape – and it also makes for a jolly good holiday.

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