The course ‘Investigating Traditional Lime Burning and Products’ was organised by ARCH Network in Scotland and Satul Verde in Romania. The course was funded by Erasmus+.
For the week Monica Oprean from Satul Verde and Martin Clark from ARCH were our guides and transport, as well as the source of never ending information and stories. We were so grateful and appreciative for all they, and everyone we encountered, did for us and we carried out a small ceremony with gifts of thanks the day before we left.
As we travelled from Cluj-Napoca we went through mountains, countryside, cityscapes and villages. We spent most of our time in the state of Bihor which is the border region between Romania and Hungary. Many of the people, foods, and languages we encountered were influenced by Hungarian traditions.
To begin the report an introduction into our schedule for the week:
We arrive in Cluj-Napoca late and briefly meet the rest of the group from Grampus at the airport before going to the hotel for the night. First attempts at Romanian (very unsuccessful) in trying to buy some beer. Astounded at the low prices when converted to pounds, which was our first realisation into the difference in economies.
We have breakfast at our hotel then met up with the rest of the group before heading to the Apuseni Mountains. First we head to a small Hungarian settlement village called Rimitea. This is more of a tourist area as there are busloads of people snapping pictures and buying trinkets from the overpriced shops. It is beautiful with an usual and striking landscape of limestone coloured mountains with medieval moulded pastures below. These ‘steps’ were formed in the Roman times using oxen to plough the fields and still exist throughout the countryside. We stop at a small village near Avram Iancu called Vidra-Goeşti to see an old church built in 1712 and painted in 1790 that has most of the internal timber panelling painted in biblical scenes (many portraying the enemy as Turkish people from the Ottoman era). These are painted onto limewash which protects the timbers. However, due to poor maintenance and some failings by the governing bodies the roof was repaired and also some of the original panelling internally was replaced with shockingly bright new timber panels. There was no need to do this and was in fact carried out without permission. Reminiscent of failings of contractors carrying out works on listed buildings in Scotland in non-traditional materials or methods. The original panelling covered in paintings are stained from the water penetration from the leaking roof, and also blackened from candles which have burnt too closely to the walls. On the way to Vidra-Goeşti we looked at some field barn structures. These are typical Romanian and can be seen throughout the countryside in the mountains along our trip. The barns have very steep pitched thatch roofs which are not layered in the method used in Britain but coursed like building blocks in a wall. This allows the thatch to be built in a very steep pitch which lets water run off without the possibility of it penetrating the roof due to the packing of the thatch. This type of construction is medieval in design but replicated in the modern day still using the same techniques which is great. It shows traditional ‘buildings’ being built with the same knowledge and understanding of the landscape, exposure and materials as their ancestors. We don’t have the same level of skill or architectural design being passed on to younger generations in the UK, which is the crux of the lack of skills in traditional buildings in all trades. Following our stop at Vidra-Goeşti we have lunch of soup chicken with polenta dumplings (supa de galuste) in a beautiful alpine setting next a meticulously loaded and groaning wood shed. Got to our accommodation in Albac which was stunning and reminded me of the alpine pensions I stayed at in Austria and Switzerland as a child. Beautiful alpine hotels and scenes beside a river. At dinner we had our first taste of plum brandy (tuica the sweeter, dark liquor) And palinka a clear spirit which is much stronger.
Breakfast at our hotel and on towards to the glacier in the mountains called Scarisoara Ice Caves. The underground glacier is located near the hamlet of Ghetari and is within the Apuseni National Park. We climbed 48m down steps to the cave which houses the exposed section of glacier where it became very cold. Beautiful stalagmites and stalactites filled the caves although some had recently fallen. After our casual hike up and down the stairs and hills we had a lunch of placinta (pies) with bilberry and sheep cheese. From there we travelled to Gărda de Sus to see another church similar to the first but with different repair strategies. Both churches were painted by the same man and both have similar paintings on the walls internally. Like the first church the roof had failed and had cause quite widespread water damage to the internal timber elements which had caused the majority of the wood to become rotten. This has been removed and replaced with bright blonde timber sections in some places as thin as a 1p coin demonstrating the degree of attention to detail. However, the degree of intervention is quite large compared to what we consider in the UK where minimal intervention is key although it was needed due to the vast amounts of rotten timber. Due to a lot of the panelling being replaced a lot of the paintings have been lost and there is an argument whether this was actually required or not i.e. rotten timber perceived to be a threat where it may have been satisfactory to leave in-situ. We also asked the question whether these new elements would be painted and the decision is to leave them as they are. It could possibly be another idea to whitewash the new wood to tone down the newness of it and allow the paintings to be appreciated although conservation is sometimes all down to opinions. This church is also in the process of being re-rendered as we visited between coats and could the clay based render which was applied had dried and cracked ready to receive the next coat. So great to see traditional methods and materials we are familiar with but in a modern and different way. We also looked at the newer orthodox church nearby which had paintings on a much brighter and gaudy scale and also affected by water penetration due to lack of rainwater goods. From here we set off to our hotel in Beuis.
Lime burning starts in the village of Meziad where we meet Dimitru and Silvia. At the cuptor (kiln) we meet several other Romanian men who were there to help. An old man called Delu and a dramatic man called Nelu who placed the limestone in the kiln. See KILN details below. We helped pass stones each time to what size was required until lunchtime. All the while getting instructions from the bossy Nelu who appeared to like strong woman who could lift heavy stones. He was keen to keep Will and Peace to help with further lime burning. Lunch was an amazing feast with beautiful Romanian food cooked by Silvia and her friend helping, Olivia. Back to kiln after lunch and completed the loading. Delu did the lion share of the wood feeding and was briefly relieved by Mitru and Silvia now and then. This is where the hardworking and humble nature of the people came in as although they were clearly very tired from being up all night and day to stoke the fire they were charming and hospitable.
- KILN – the kiln is constructed using clay/mud mortar and local river boulders in a circular shape. The loading side has a higher ground level to allow loading the limestone into the top of the kiln, via a small opening in the wall of the kiln. On the opposite side and ground level there are two openings for loading wood into the fire. At first both openings are used until the amount of coals is too much and then just the top opening is used to load wood. Inside the kiln there is a small ledge which is where the limestone begins to be placed. Once a substantial ‘wall’ of stone is created, two people can be inside the kiln loading and passing stones. The stones then slowly gets corbelled in using logs as props to create a dome, which is carried out by a skilled person (Nelu) and is quite a dangerous task. As the hole gets smaller in which the person stands so does the precariousness of the surrounding stones. Several instances where a brief ‘heart-in-mouth’ moment occurred but a skilled person knows exactly which stone to place where and is something that I could imagine is very difficult to teach and pass on to others. We were told this particular skill is the major reason why these kilns are difficult to replicate elsewhere. A little ceremony is carried out once the last stone is placed in the hole and the structure built with the stones is now stable, cue dancing on the stone and swirling hats in the air in celebration. The skilled individual (the omniscient Nelu) then chooses the size of stones to be loaded and packs the kiln in such a way that it is packed full but with small air gaps to allow the fire to be drawn through. Once packed full, the small opening on the higher side is closed with mud and stones to complete the kiln. This is the only temporary part of the kiln other than the loading of the stones. The insides of the kiln are vitrified from the high temperatures and recent clay mortar has been applied to the internal walls to repair some areas. The final step in loading the kiln is applying a layer of straw or dried grass/plants to the top of the limestone and covered in a ‘dough’. This hardens during the burn and forms a crust. It is applied to just before the very edge to allow a small gap where the fire is allowed to draw through and around. The fire is lit and beer is drunk in celebration of the task being complete, and handed off to Delu to continue with the constant feeding of wood.
Delu still stokes the fire after a long night. We walk around the meadows at Silvia’s house and experiment with plants and seeds/husks to use as pigments for the lime paint. We also collect alder bark and elderberries from near the cuptor as well as plums from the many trees that hold fresh fruit. We tried different methods and other mineral pigments but none were so exciting as the reaction between lime and elderberries which turned from intense purple to bright green then teal and eventually getting more yellow. Following a few visits to the cuptor (on one we had chicken cooked on the coals from the fire – simple yet delicious), we headed towards the caves along the winding river to get lime putty from the slaking pit. There were the remains of a few ancient kilns which have been claimed by the landscape and only resemble small mounds of earth now. It just shows the historical prevalence of lime burning in this area near to the river. We noted the fire now from the top of the cuptor around the ‘dough crust’ and not just the black smoke from around the edges. Once we returned to the house and had another enormous gourmet lunch we started the grid drawing on the wall for the pattern to be painted. We (mainly Margeret and Peace the more artistic minds) used inspiration from Silvia’s tablecloths and from the paintings in the churches we saw. A few of us had a chance to milk Silvia’s cow called Milka which was such an experience, one I am glad I got the opportunity of having. That night we eat at Silvia’s and spend the night singing songs at the cuptor (and drinking a wee drop of palinka). We eat potatoes cooked on the coals with another family who came to use the hot coals to cook their food. The social experience was superb.
We start the day by heading to the pastures to see water buffalo and were lucky to see them in their mud bath. The wood pastures are as they would have been in medieval times with trees being the centre of the ecosystem. The shade the trees provide means cattle collect more often underneath in turn creating more manure for the grass and other plants to grow. The cows and buffalo use the trees to scratch and the trees have burrs from the disruption to the bark. We then finished the grid pattern back at Silvia’s and started mixing paints to paint the wall. We had to dampen down the wall often due to the heat of the sun. We used charcoal, elderberries, copper sulphate, red earth, and cow dung for colours. The colours we ended up with were earthy tones from the mineral pigments which last longer, and some greener fresher colours using the elderberries which may fade quicker. Trying to get purple turned out too difficult so Monica suggested just to use the copper sulphate and make a sky blue. It turned out great and in the design we unintentionally created a few saltires to leave behind our Scottish legacy for Silvia and Mitru.
Last day in Meziad. We go to the markets first in Beius to the tool and animal market with feed and lime on offer as well. Then we went to the main market in the town centre where it was hot and busy. The fruit and veg stalls were groaning and it felt such a shame to not buy any it was so beautiful. We bought honey and beaded necklaces for gifts before heading to a supermarket for the rum infused chocolates which are everywhere in Romania. We headed to Meziad where we helped unload the quicklime.
- Facts of the burn:
The kiln capacity is approximately 8 tonnes of limestone which burns for around 48 hours. This uses up 8-10 cubic metres of drywood (our burn used 8 cubic metres) and produces approximately 4 tonnes of quicklime.
Before we left for Cluj we handed out our thank you gifts and said goodbye to Mitru, Silvia and Olivia. It was quite emotional even for those who didn’t stay at the house and it shows their incredible hospitality and warmth toward total strangers. Silvia was as emotional as if she were saying goodbye to her children, even Olivia shed a few tears. Mitru was so sad to see us go he had to drive away as he was too upset. They are an incredible couple who I feel very lucky to have met.
Travelling through towns and villages on the main route to Clu-Napoca we saw a change in landscape and architecture. The gypsy palaces were so out of the ordinary and to think they are empty while the family live in a small room or hut in the back. On the way we stopped in a village called Izvoru Crisului where a couple were selling beautiful and vintage textiles and clothes, as well as an eclectic mix of antiques. The whole village was filled with these shops but theirs was a real treasure trove. We bought many things and haggled a lot (the done thing in Romania). We drove through the old town of Cluj which was beautiful, with lots of beautiful architecture and squares with stunning statues. We later went there for dinner and saw some of the Roman ruins from the Roman city which lies beneath Cluj. It was stunning with some good examples of art nouveau architecture alongside classical and baroque. We leave the next morning very early and have Silvia’s donuts for breakfast.
What I’ve learnt
Different cultures can teach you an enormous amount about their building techniques and why the vernacular architecture works for the area, as well as how social aspects come into how these are actually carried out.
I have never met such warm, welcoming, humble and kind people before as I have in Romania. They meet total strangers as if they are their family and include them in anything they wish to be included in. We milked their cows, we fitted into their team of lime burners, some of us stayed with them in their home and we shared stories and jokes. When we left it was like saying goodbye to family and it is like nothing I have experienced before.
This emphasises the social and cultural benefits of a lime burning village as we saw when we stayed at the cuptor at night to sing songs and eat potatoes cooked on the coals from the kiln. Other families from the village were there too and it shows the all-welcoming attitude and embrace of the Romanian people, particularly in the rural villages.
The lime burn itself is actually incredibly cheap (in British/European currencies, probably not as cheap for Romanians) both in monetary and resource aspects, and it produced a high quality quicklime. However, it is labour intensive and requires a specific set of skills which is not as easily transferred as other traditional kiln techniques. That is what makes it truly authentic to Romania, and as this kiln is the last in the village it is a huge shame for it to not continue. In Scotland we have had the same issue, and in Charlestown in Fife the lime was considered one of the best on an international scale, but now we produce no hydraulic lime for building at all in the UK. Our technique is more resource intensive using fossil fuels and is slightly more difficult to control when burning, but little or no skill is required in loading the kilns. It is purely the demand for lime that vanished due to more modern materials being produced, and as the knock on effect to lime producers ceased producing lime, the traditional building sector took a hit as skills disappeared. Knowledge of the processes and importance of lime kilns and the proximity of these to villages and towns has dropped off, and the social and cultural aspect has almost been lost completely. It is so great to see some of these traditions still retained in Romania and for a small family it actually provides an income with little impact on the environment.
It taught me the importance of keeping traditions and skills going, and using a sustainable supply source for fuel producing a high quality lime product which is commercially viable for small scale lime burners. However, just like in Scotland skills are being lost due to children moving away, and the introduction of modern materials leading to the decline in the lime production market small or large scale.
Summary & Conclusions
Romania is not somewhere I would have considered to visit, and this course has completely invigorated me towards other cultures and their own traditional methods of construction. However, it also shows the similarities in construction when the raw materials are the same, just with different outcomes due to the cultural differences and warmer climates. It really highlighted to me the fantastic way these skills and methods have been retained in the modern age for Romania as we lost these ways of burning lime a very long time ago. They are affected the same way Scotland and the rest of the UK was affected by the younger generations moving away and not willing to continue older traditions and the introduction of newer materials. However, being able to witness the lime burning in such a traditional way in a family team, in their home and for it not be a reconstruction of something past but very much the present for them was wonderful. It really was a great experience with fabulous people and I would recommend anybody to experience even a little of the culture and people.
Stacey Rowntree is a Building Surveyor for the Scottish Lime Centre Trust, a traditional skills training facility and building conservation consultancy with over 20 years of experience and an international client base.