Festivals for Informal Learning in Europe (FILE)
Report on visit by group from Scotland to Rimet village, Alba County, Romania 3-9 July 2014
The Grundtvig FILE project provides the opportunity for people, from mainly rural communities in Scotland, Romania and Slovenia, to come together to share their local knowledge, experiences and traditions.
I was part of a five person group from the Strathearn area of Scotland, which took part in what was to be the first of six exchange visits planned for 2014/2015. Our programme in Romania centred on visiting the village of Rimet in Alba County, Transylvania, to observe and take part in the local village festival. We were to be joined by a similar group from the village of Ivanci in Slovenia.
Before travelling to Romania, my knowledge of the country was very limited. I had the preconceived idea of a poor Eastern European country, emerging from years of communist control. I remembered only too well the images of the fall of the Caeusescu regime and the violent upheaval that followed. Woven into these historic images were the pictures of rural peasants driving their oxcarts and hay wagons along rutted tracks, and little old village women in black head scarves working in household vegetable plots. I also expected to see turreted medieval castles and Gothic church steeples dominating the rural landscape. In order to dispel some of these ideas, I delved into the travel book, A Rough Guide to Romania, which painted a more modern picture of a dynamic and vibrant European country actively engaged in economic and social development. Romania became a member of the European Union in 2007, which firmly places the country within the wider international community.
On Thursday 3rd July our group gathered at Glasgow airport, only to discover that our Easy Jet flight to Luton was delayed till the late afternoon, which meant that we would miss our connection to Sibiu on the inaptly-named (as far as we were concerned) Wizz Air. However, after several frantic phone calls by Libby, and some re-scheduling, we managed to catch a flight to Cluj later that evening. After a long and tiring journey, we eventually arrived in Romania and were delighted to be warmly welcomed at the airport by two of our hosts, Dumi and Arina. Following a one hour drive through deserted streets we finally arrived at the Victoria Hotel in Aiud at 4.30 in the morning. We were much relieved to be informed that, due to our late arrival, Dumi would come and pick us up at 10 a.m. – allowing us, at least, a few hours’ sleep.
Friday 4th July: After leaving the town of Aiud, we were soon out in the countryside, travelling the rough road to Rimet. On the journey through forested hillsides and meadows, we eventually caught sight of the steep-roofed, thatched vernacular farm buildings of which we had seen pictures. In the distance we could see the rugged Apuseni mountains. After an hour we arrived at Rimet school, where we were greeted by Monica our host from Satul Verde, and Mark. After introducing ourselves, we were treated to a grand and welcome breakfast which included local cheese, tomatoes, salad onions, cucumber, and locally baked bread. For the next few days the school dining room in Rimet would be our central gathering, meeting and eating place. In addition to our group, we soon learned that there were many other visitors – from Germany, Hungary, Turkey, Iceland, England – as well as the FILE group from Slovenia.
It had been arranged that, during our time in Rimet, we would have all our meals in the school dining room, rather than at the hotel in Aiud, so there might be some economic benefit for the local community. The school cooks certainly produced wonderful food for all of us – breakfast, lunch and an evening meal. One particularly memorable meal included delicious, creamy mushroom soup made from a variety of large mushrooms that Dumi had collected earlier in the day. The informal environment of the school dining room provided the chance for us to interact and chat with many of the other visitors. We particularly enjoyed the company of Marko, who translated for his group from Slovenia and proudly showed us photos, videos and aerial views of their home village, Ivanci, and the surrounding countryside.
We spent the afternoon becoming acquainted with the area and hearing something of the challenges faced by this rural community – particularly the fact that many of the farms are looked after by elderly people – the young people of the area having moved away to seek employment in the cities. Sustaining small scale agriculture, and indeed an age-old way of life is a major challenge for the community and the local authorities.
It was apparent to our group that probably this landscape had changed very little over the generations. However, there are now genuine concerns that in the future there will be no-one to take care of the farmland and countryside. What mostly impressed me was the beauty and amazing diversity of wild flowers in the mountain meadows – truly beautiful – attracting numerous butterflies and insects. We learnt that, because of the decline in the local farming populations and consequently a reduction in the number of cattle grazing the meadows and the loss of local labour, some of these meadows are being increasingly invaded by scrub. Apparently the EU is contributing funds in some areas to provide labour to ring bark and pull saplings and cut back bushes to be cleared and burnt, in an attempt to preserve these otherwise unspoilt meadows.
The area around Rimet is certainly a place of special interest and with some financial input and technical assistance could become a special ecotourism destination. Apart from the mountain scenery, the vernacular architecture of the farmhouses and their outbuildings are of particular interest. We were particularly fascinated by the steep thatched roofs of the farmhouses, designed to minimise damage from the weight of snow.
Later in the day we walked from Rimet down a steep hillside, along a path through the wildflower meadows and passing farmsteads, to the river valley and to Rimet Monastery – a quiet peaceful sanctuary with a lovely church at its heart. The resident nuns, a few of whom we saw walking in the
grounds, manage their own vegetable garden and apple orchard. Within the well-tended orchard, lines of beehives were positioned underneath the apple trees.
Saturday 5th July: After breakfast we met briefly with the Mayor of Rimet in his office, and then gathered together with Monica and the group from Slovenia, to learn about the local festival planned for the following day. We also had the opportunity to talk about the community activities we are individually involved with in Scotland – for Bob, the Heritage Group at Cultybraggan Camp, for Carolyn, the Drovers Tryst from Crieff and Di, the Comrie Community Orchard in Cultybraggan Camp.
Later…while some folks opted to visit the local ethnographic museum and church, another group of us chose a long walk, through the apple orchard and hay meadows, through beech woods, down to an abandoned village in the valley below. On our way, we passed a small homestead, set in the hillside, and to the side was a barrel turning in a waterfall, and acting as a washing machine! An example of appropriate technology!
During our walk we discovered a number of abandoned homes and farm buildings, and one house in particular had obviously been abandoned relatively recently – there was still furniture, beds, old clothes and possessions scattered around the floor. One was left to ponder on what might have happened to the occupants of this remote homestead.
It was apparent to us that this area could be promoted as wonderful walking /trekking route, if accommodation was made available. We understood that, if we had continued, the path would have led us to the Rimet Gorge and then eventually to Rimet Monastery. As a means of supporting tourism, possibly some of the abandoned houses could be renovated and converted into simple tourist lodges.
Sunday 6th July: The Festival in Rimet turned out to be larger event than we had anticipated. The event, which was hosted by the Mayor and people of Rimet village, was organised as a competition between seven of the local communes and named, “Culture of Cultures”.
Before the official opening ceremony, many of the local people gathered together in front of the nearby memorial, for a short commemorative service and the laying of wreaths, in remembrance of those Romanians lost in both the First and Second World Wars.
The people of the local communities were smartly dressed in their traditional black and white, embroidered costumes. Many of the menfolk wore splendid hats – some wore the traditional black Astrakhan hat, others a type of bowler hat and many others a trilby. Each commune’s tent was decorated inside with local crafts, furniture, produce and wonderfully vibrant woven fabrics. There were examples too of wood carving, icon painting, basket making, spinning, and metalwork. A blacksmith had erected a basic forge and gave demonstrations of shoeing a horse. There was a great variety of food on display, which we were able to sample once the judges had made their rounds. There was a particularly delicious venison stew which we had witnessed being prepared.
Throughout the day there were performances on a stage by each village, of music, singing and traditional dancing. For an outsider, it would seem that there is still a very vibrant rural life in the area and certainly the participants were of all ages, with plenty of youngsters taking part…..with everyone appearing to be thoroughly enjoying themselves.
A traditional Astrakhan hat
Monday 7th July: We visited the once fortified Old Town of the Transylvanian City of Sibiu.
This was a wonderful maze of cobbled streets and baroque squares, with many recently renovated premises of sixteenth and seventeenth century merchants. Some of the houses had the distinctive eyelid windows in the roofs. We climbed the cathedral tower to obtain a view over the terracotta-tiled rooftops, some old and some new, and we could see on beyond to the high-rise suburbs.
The city of Sibiu, with its historic centre and lower new town, is a modern day city with shopping arcades, boutiques, cafes, museums and art galleries.
Outside town we visited the open-air Museum of Traditional Folk Civilization – a wonderful collection of thatched and wooden roofed homesteads with their adjoining barns and workshops, various types of wind and water mills, many different presses and a reconstructed vineyard home with its own wine cellar. Possibly, these old traditional, well-preserved exhibits would have been considerably enhanced and enlivened by the presence of rural folk, explaining their uses.
Tuesday 8th July: Much of our final day was spent in the historical old citadel in the upper town of Alba Iulia – an impressive baroque fortification built in the 18th century and full of historical sights. Much of this has been magnificently restored in recent year. We also visited the stalls of the nearby fruit and vegetable market, with its wide variety of fresh locally grown produce. We tasted some particularly delicious, juicy strawberries and peaches.
Finally, we gathered together at a local cafe with our Slovenian friends, and Monica, Mark, Dumi and Arina to say our farewells, and to look forward to meeting again in Slovenia and Scotland.
We stayed the night in a hotel in Cluj, relatively near to the airport, so that we could get a taxi very early in the morning. Fortunately our journey home was easy and uneventful.
…… On the flight home, I had the chance to reflect on the past few days and to try to put the visit into some sort of context. My main thoughts were of the contrast between the cities we had visited and the rural mountain area around Rimet. I was particularly struck by the fact that the people around Rimet were trying very hard to actively retain their cultural and natural heritage, but that the area is becoming steadily depopulated and in economic decline.
Di McNab, Comrie, Scotland. July 2014.