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Saturday 16 March 2019


Europe’s last pastoral

The farmers of northern Transylvania are the final vestiges of a centuries-old rural tradition

By Rena Effendi

For centuries, small villages in Transylvania have cultivated their hay meadows, raised cattle and run self-sufficient farms. Traditional agricultural methods, now extinct in western Europe, still perisist here. In Maramures, northern Transylvania, where Rena Effendi took these photographs, young boys learn to cut and rake hay by hand, village women are proficient weavers, and men can build a house from scratch, roofed with thousands of hard-split wooden shingles. In this old world, defined by traditional belief systems and respect for the environment, grass is allowed to grow tall before it is mown, cows and horses find their own way home along the muddy village tracks and river water is used for milling, washing and alcohol-making. 

Having survived the collectivisation of Ceausescu’s communist regime, this fragile rural environment is facing modern threats of industrialisation and globalisation since Romania’s entry into the European Union in 2007. Today, this world is on the brink of extinction, as its small farmers cannot compete with European imports and industrialised agricultural production.

As horses are traded in for tractors and wooden houses and gates are sold off for furniture parts, this pastoral world is vanishing. Yet these Transylvanian peasants will farm until they die – even 80-year-old men can still be seen cutting hay by hand. “We work hard for our animals and they work hard for us; this is our life,” they say. Stuck between an economic rock and a hard place, these proud, and mostly hidden faces deserve to be recognised before progress continues its march through the pristine meadows of Transylvania.

Every member of the family plays a part in the life of the farm. Eight-year-old Anuța, from Bogdan Vodă, helps with the cows and sheep.


Corn is shelled then fed to the cattle. Ion Petric and his wife, Maria Vraja, who live in Breb, help their neighbours’ daughter, seven-year-old Adriana Țânțaş. Village life remains intimately bound up with caring for farm animals.  


Andrei Rus relaxes in his father’s still in Strâmtura. Palinca, or fruit brandy, can be as much as 58 degrees proof. The palinca stills require copious amounts of cooling water and are mostly on the banks of streams, as are fulling machines, which use water-driven hammers to thicken the fibres of woollen cloth. 


Anuța Vişovan tends the fire at a still owned by her neighbour in Breb. Palinca, or “distilled spirit”, is made from plums, apples or pears, and a fiercely delicious dram is offered to every visitor. “When the first thing you do is have some palinca,” Lorinț Opriş, mill owner at Sârbi, says, “you know it’s going to be a good day.”


Making plum jam in the autumn is usually a man’s job. It takes eight to ten hours of uninterrupted stirring to make sure the jam on the bottom of the pot doesn’t burn. This grandfather from Sârbi wears the traditional small Maramureş hat. Anyone sporting one of these little hats in Bucharest would probably be laughed at. 


Vasile Cehi rests while the men load hay on to a cart. Each cow requires about three full carts of hay to feed it in winter. The red object on his whip is a lucky charm for the horses. Red items, attached to bridles, harnesses, even a puppy’s collar, are thought to keep away evil spirits. 


Cousins Anuța and Magdalena Mesaroș, 17, are going to a wedding in Sat Șugatăg.


Sheep used to graze mainly in the highest mountain pastures but an increasing number of flocks now feed in fields near the villages. 


Maria Covaci kneels at her husband’s coffin in the courtyard of their house in Strâmtura. No Transylvanian funeral is complete without a warning from the Orthodox priest of the fate that awaits those who have not led a good life. 


This privately owned wooden washing machine in Sârbi is rented out and used for cleaning household rugs at Christmas and Easter in river water in the traditional way.  

Irina Veciunca is comforted at the burial of her husband in Poienile de sub Munte.  


Wearing a linen shirt and woollen waistcoat, Vasile Burnar attends Sunday Mass inside the wooden church of Saints Mihail and Gavril, built in 1640, in Mănăstirea. 


Maria Cupcea, 30, stands in the hallway of the old house in Breb where her mother, Ileana Paul, 64, still lives. “I hope my children won’t continue to live in this village,” Cupcea says. “Life is too hard here.” 


The Borca family take a meal break during a long working day. Gheorghe and Anuța Borca were married in July 1995, in the middle of the haymaking season, which meant their honeymoon had to be curtailed. “We started making hay again one week after the wedding,” Anuța says ruefully.  


Maria Nemeș, 23, and expecting her first child, makes cornmeal porridge. She spent a year in France with her husband but missed the way of life. 


Mihai Țiplea is helped by his neighbours in Ferești to turn and dry the hay in his field. The work is shared but each patch of meadow is individually owned and its boundaries carefully marked. Hayforks, made of hazelwood, the tines often polished by years of use, are handed down as heirlooms.  


Tiran Raveica and his wife make a haystack in Breb village. The stack must be dry on the inside to make sure that hay does not rot. A good haystack can last five or six years. 


In her parents’ house in Budești, Ileana Borodi cares for her baby son, Ioan, while her three-year-old daughter Mărioara draws. Elderly family members often prefer to live in their wooden houses, with hand-decorated walls. Younger people usually live in modern homes built of brick and concrete, which are easier to heat and keep clean.


Nastafa and Vasile Nemes have been married for more than 50 years. When a boy takes a fancy to a girl, he first declares his feelings to her parents. The parents inform their daughter and, if she likes him, she goes out and stands on the front porch. At this point the boy has about two minutes to approach her and confess his feelings. 


Village musician and drum-maker Stefan Kovaci plays for his seven-year-old granddaughter Silvia Godgea, in Slatioara village. All his sons are working abroad in Italy and Spain and his granddaughter is visiting for the summer. 


Men drinking palinka shots at a courtyard wedding celebration in Calinesti. The men usually celebrate separately from the women. 


Anutza Tepei, an 82-year-old widow, with her unmarried daughter Voichita, 42, at home in Hoteni. After her husband’s death, a widow wears black for the rest of her life. 


Day of the Dead celebration in Budesti village. Each family brings bread and wine to the priest, along with a piece of paper with names of the deceased family members attached to a candle. The priest then collects the papers and sings the names in a prayer commemorating them. The bread is then distributed among the village poor.


Ileana, 28, and pregnant with her second child, takes a short break from pouring fermented plums from wooden barrels into a vessel to be taken by horse-drawn cart to the village distillery in Sarbi.


Ioana Oros rakes autumn grass in Guilesti village, collecting the last of the feed before the snows arrive.


Dunca Vasile, 53, from Sarbi village, has been a shepherd since he was nine. His only regret in life is that women kept leaving him because he was never around. Without the support of a family he could not have his own flock. “But if today they asked me to choose between women and sheep, I would still choose sheep!” he says. 


Vasile Chira and his wife Pop Viorica are buffalo herders from Mara. Sheep, cows and buffalos are kept mostly for dairy products and the sheep also provide wool. Mutton and beef are not part of the regular diet.  


A new village church in Breb. Larger, stone-built churches are more popular among the villagers.


Alfalfa stacks stand sentinel on the hillside outside Breb. Transylvania’s roots go back at least 1,000 years, but this traditional way of life will continue only if it is nurtured by the villagers and seen by Romania and the European Union as worth preserving. 


Women walk back to Breb after haymaking, carrying straw backpacks with hemp or cotton straps, a design used since medieval times. 


Opening image: The Borca family, from Breb, puts finishing touches to one of the 40 haystacks it makes each summer. 

All Photographs by Rena Effendi