The Saxons arrived in southeastern Transylvania in the 12th and 13th centuries, in the area occupied by 2 counties Brasov and Sibiu, and a small piece of Mures County. They were invited by the Kings of Hungary to defend the eastern borders of Christian Europe against the invaders from the west. They established about 200 villages, and 7 main fortified towns/cities – hence the German name for Transylvania, Siebenbuergen.
Saxon is not a written language and sounds similar to Dutch and the low German dialects of Luxembourg. Each village has its own dialect and villagers can immediately detect the village or area where any Saxon speaker comes from.
The houses were built in the style of their 12-13th century western European origins. The villages have remained unchanged in structure and largely unchanged in size for many centuries. The villages are typically built in line, along each side of a stream.
13th century village structure, brought by German colonists from Moselle and Middle Rhine regions, has been retained to the present day in the Saxon Villages area.
Each house has high walls and a large gate, wide enough for a loaded hay cart. Within is a very private cobbled courtyard – a dwelling house on one side, or both, is followed in a line by cattle sheds and pig sheds, and across the courtyard, at right angles and closing off the area, is a large barn for storing hay. Behind the barn is a small (about 0.5 ha.) vegetable plot, followed by an approximately 1 ha. fruit orchard. This is usually the border of the land attached to the house, often marked by a line of walnut trees, beyond which is the common grazing land or arable land .
Viscri church, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The distinctive fortified church was until recently the defensive as well as spiritual centre of each Saxon village.
The spiritual and defensive centre of each village was the distinctive fortified church. At times of attack, Saxons would retreat with their livestock within the walls of the church, in which stores of food were kept, and which had a well, to allow for a siege. In fact, households kept their dried hams and fat bacon within family storerooms built into the walls of the church for use, even in peacetime. Each Sunday villagers would cut off enough for the week, and the hams remained in the cool of the thick-walled church. This custom continues in some villages. Cultural and economic links with landscape and conservation
The flower-rich grasslands owe their survival to their intimate cultural, social and economic links to the villages. If these links are severed, the grasslands will be lost.
A typical village in the area has 200 families, of which most have 2-3 cows, and 10-20 sheep. The cows are milked at home morning and evening: the milk is used for home consumption, and the majority sold, often as the only source of cash income. Sheep are kept for milk, exclusively for cheese-making, and meat. Almost all villagers are therefore actively involved in agriculture.
Each spring there is a village meeting where the shepherds to be in charge of the village flock are chosen, according to their reputation and to the amount of cheese they offer to the owners for ‘rent’ of their sheep. The sheep are kept at one or two temporary summer sheepfolds, often several miles away from the village, during summer months. There are wolves and bears in the area, and generally every summer a few sheep and perhaps a donkey are killed: usually by old bears rather than wolves. The sheep are guarded by fierce sheep dogs.
Sheep milking and cheese making is by hand, up in the summer sheepfolds. The unique richness of flowers and herbs in the grassland gives the cheese a special character. The cheese is transported down to the village by donkey or horse and cart once or twice a week.
During the summer most families are found out in their haymeadows, scythe or rake in hand, making hay for winter feed for their cattle and sheep. Winter heating and cooking is by wood-burning stoves, supplied by the coppiced beech and hornbeam forests on the hills that also supply materials for the many agricultural and household implements still made in the village. Thus, summer and winter, the villagers’ lives are linked to the surrounding landscape