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Copsa Mare: Restoring a Transylvanian Village

Copsa Mare Guest House is a firm favourite among our guests visiting Transylvania. Long term Slow Cyclist guide Iancu sat down with owner Giovanna to learn how she restored the beautiful Saxon buildings. 

It hits you as you cross the ridge: colourful houses nestled in a lush valley, with a fortified Gothic church towering above and forest all around. The tiny Transylvanian village of Copsa Mare knows how to make an impression. 

It was the view that greeted and charmed Italian couple Giovanna and Paolo back in 2006, as they were touring the area. It took a trained eye to see the potential under the peeling paint, crumbling walls and leaky roofs of what was a mostly deserted village.

Eighteen years later, I am sitting with Giovanna in the large, open-plan kitchen at her guest house, where Slow Cyclists tend to begin their Transylvanian journey, to talk about the resurrection of this once-forgotten village. While preparing dinner, she recalls the early days, when she and Paolo set about renovating the first house they bought in the village; the one they now live in themselves for much of the year.

We had a local team of builders. Some days they didn’t come, because they had to work in the fields, or had to take care of the animals. But we learned a lot from them and we followed their advice throughout the restoration.”

Working with local people provided the couple with a gateway into the community, which was heavily impacted by five decades of Communism. Facing economic adversity, the majority German-speaking Saxon population chose to migrate to Germany in the 1990s, and their houses and fields stood deserted and decaying for more than a decade. The few people who moved in didn’t have the resources or the incentives to maintain the centuries-old homes, and the village was losing its character, as Giovanna recalls:

We saw that the village was very well preserved architecturally, and we also saw how other villages were getting ruined. We decided to try to buy and preserve other houses somehow – either by restoring them ourselves, or by selling them to someone who understands restoration.”

Using traditional techniques, architectural flair and sustainability principles, they set about converting some of their new properties into guest houses, implementing the Italian concept of ‘Albergo Diffuso’ – guest rooms spread out within a small community, with one of the houses serving as the focal point.

We didn’t want to change anything; we noticed that the proportions were perfect. We only needed to do minor adjustments, but we wanted to also adapt for modern style and comfort. For example, each room now has its own bathroom. Also, each house has its own private areas – living room, veranda, garden – so it doesn’t feel just like a room, but a home.”

Copsa Mare Church, visited on a Slow Cyclist journey through Transylvania

Soon they realised that preserving their own properties wasn’t enough: “We really understood the risk of losing the village, losing the architecture, losing the beauty which attracts people, so we worked a lot with the authorities. In 2012, we became one of the founding members of Asociata Monumentum, which later became Ambulance for Monuments (or Ambulanta pentru Monumente, in Romanian). At this point, even the county authorities understood that this village could become a protected patrimony, so the central part of the village is now protected.”

There was also a lot of ‘leading by example’ within the local community. While renovating their first guest house, Giovanna and Paolo bought restored Saxon furniture from a shop in a nearby town. “When the truck arrived, everybody gathered to have a look, and they were surprised: ‘But we have plenty of this furniture in our house!’. So I bought and restored some objects from the village.

“Once the guest house was ready, it was time to open our doors,” says Giovanna. “There was a queue of people outside: everybody wanted to see the first guest house in Copsa. When they entered and saw the Saxon furniture, nobody wanted to sell it anymore! They kept it in the house, and they painted it and they used it. They realised that Copsa was a place to be preserved.”

As Copsa Mare Guest House grew, so did the village; new people moved in and started to renovate the houses. Some were local people that began working for us, as Giovanna proudly points out: “For me, it’s really important to train people. For example, one of our workers opened his own company. Simona, who worked for me for ten years, has since opened her own guest house and kitchen. Now I am training two ladies and I hope that later they will be able to do something for themselves.”

Paolo, an owner of Copsa Mare Guesthouses where Slow Cyclists stay in Transylvania, in the field with his horse and cart

Looking towards the future, she outlines the importance of sustainable, small-scale tourism, which will further benefit the local community: “A sustainable amount of tourism – not mass tourism – helps the people in the village develop small-scale businesses, such as horse and cart rides, felt making, honey, food and accommodation.”

 With true Italian passion, she argues for the importance of architectural and environmental conservation movements: “You have to fight for what you have. Even King Charles wants to preserve this place, because he understands that the architecture is unique, the biodiversity is unique, the forests are incredible!”

I leave Giovanna to finish the dinner for the approaching Slow Cyclists, as the gentle chords of Gianmaria Testa’s Seminatori di Grano wafts out through the open door of Copsa Mare Guest House – a place that challenged and changed a community’s perception of their village.

If you’d like to stay in Copsa Mare, you can cycle with us on our Enchanted Saxon Transylvania journey. Enquire now to find out more. 

A bedroom at Copsa Mare Guesthouses, where Slow Cyclists stay in Transylvania

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