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The Saxon villages were established in the 12th century when King Geza of Hungary invited yeomen from the Rhineland region to defend the empire’s eastern flank. These settlers established farming villages scattered across Transylvania’s gently rolling hills and deep valleys. Their distinctive culture survived little changed until the mid-1980s and early 1990s, when many Saxons left for Germany. Today some of these isolated villages and their surroundings, now mainly home to Romanians and Gypsies, remain largely intact.

The villages possess distinctive Romanesque and Gothic churches, prominently sited and protected by high stone walls, within which ample storage space and cattle stalls enabled the villagers to withstand long sieges. Their castle-like buildings form the centrepiece of medieval-planned villages with long, wide main streets ordered by regular arrangements of long, narrow plots running back from the road.

Each house and gate wall is colourfully and distinctively painted and each gable is often decorated with a symbol or proverb and a date recalling an important event in the building’s history. Along the streets, mature fruit trees line the verges, providing shade for geese, ducks, chickens, turkeys and sleeping dogs. The gravel roads are never empty but thronged with people and animals, especially during mornings and evenings.

Cattle (as well as horses and buffalo) are turned out daily onto the village pasture, where they are overseen by a cowherd. At dusk they return to find their way to their own backyards for milking. Sheep range the distant grasslands on the hills, closely shepherded by fierce dogs. The sheep stay out all summer, with the shepherds living in timber-built encampments, where the sheep are milked to make “footballs” of soft, white cheese.

Hay is still cut by scythe, dried outside, then carted to farms to be stored in haystacks or lifted into the lofts of barns.

One of the glories of the Saxon Transylvanian landscape, shaped over the centuries by generations of hard-working farmers and craftsmen, is the rich wildlife, largely unaffected by chemical fertilisers and herbicides. The traditional land-use patterns, maintained until recently, and in several areas even today, resulted in highly biodiverse, un-fragmented landscapes with large spatial heterogeneity. In spring and summer, the road verges and grasslands display a bright array of flowers.

The diversity of plants and wealth of habitat supports a remarkably abundant fauna. The first to be noticed might be the red-backed shrikes on the power lines, the storks on the chimney stacks and the swallows nesting in the outhouses, but the wolves and bears that still inhabit the forests stay well hidden. Even the most ephemeral pools are full of tadpoles, frogs, toads and newts, and the dry banks rustle with snakes and lizards. The whole landscape is full of butterflies and moths, such as marbled whites with various blues and coppers on the grassland flowers, clouds of fritillaries around the flowering limes, patches of scrub and grassy margins of the forest, purple emperors on rubble and drying sheep droppings, and swallowtails swooping around puddles formed on tracks during afternoon thunderstorms.