On a scorching summer day in the Transylvanian village of Țapu (Abtsdorf an der Kokel in German), Doris-Evelyn Zakel is busy collecting pears from an old tree in the courtyard of her great aunt’s traditional Saxon home.

The old wicker basket is almost full, but it is one of many tasks required by Zakel, who lives in Switzerland but visits regularly, as she goes about maintaining and restoring this old farmhouse to keep her ancestral heritage alive. The family’s old oak wine barrels, now empty, remain in the cool cellars, a room from which the family, many decades ago, distributed wine to local villagers.

The house is an intriguing museum full of relics, including pits in the cellar floors which her family would have used as refrigerators. Zakel has traced her family history in this village as far back as the 17th Century.

“My great aunt lived here for more than 70 years,” said Zakel, who bought the house last year from a family member. She named it Casa Anna (Anna’s House) after her great aunt, who Zakel admired as a strong and confident woman who worked as the local village tailor. She died in 2014.

“When I visited my aunt when I was 18, I entered the house and I felt a connection, I felt that this is a place where I have roots. Saving this heritage is important because there is a history of [almost] 900 years.”

The Transylvanian Saxons (Siebenbürger Sachsen in German) indeed have a long and storied history, and over many centuries they left an indelible mark on the region.

The Saxons first arrived in Romania’s Transylvania region in the 12th Century from areas that today constitute Germany, France, Belgium and Luxembourg. They’d been invited to settle the area by Hungary’s King Géza II; their role was to develop an economy and to protect the borderlands of the Hungarian Kingdom from eastern invaders.

The Saxons became known as industrious, skilled craftspeople and smallholder farmers with their own language and culture, and they thrived here for centuries. However, over the past few decades the community has all but vanished from the region – decimated by one of modern Europe’s greatest ethnic migrations.

Between 1978 to 1989, under the cash-strapped communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaușescu, many Saxons were sold in a mutual government scheme to West Germany in exchange for cash. Many saw it as an escape from communist Romania, and willingly left. Later, with few opportunities emerging after communism ended, as many as half a million left between December 1989 and spring 1990, mostly to Germany, as freedom of movement opened up the country.

Many Saxon villages in Transylvania now have just a few remaining Saxons. Malancrav (Malmkrog in German), which boasts a population of around 120, is the largest of all of them.

The road to Malancrav follows a snaking path with vistas stretching out across wildflower meadows of shepherds grazing their flocks in hilly pastures. The landscape is dotted by haystacks that look as though they belong to a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Heading into Saxon Transylvania is to get a glimpse into ancient rural Europe.

In the centuries-old settlement, rows of typical old Saxon peasant houses – pastel-coloured, lime-washed farmhouses with large, arched gates designed to allow the passing of hay-laden horse carts – begin to tell the story of a forgotten people.

The church bells slowly toll and the smell of fresh roses permeates the air as 25 local Saxons, both young and old, file into the 14th-Century fortified church for Sunday morning prayers. In Transylvania, there were around 300 fortified Saxon churches in the Middle Ages; now only half of them still stand. The churches were positioned on high points overlooking the communities; stone structures punctuated with watchtowers and surrounded by high defensive stone walls. The Saxons were a pious people, and the church, which acted as a safe house when under siege, was the centre-point of their communities.

Church keeper Hildegard Linzing, who was born in the village, arrives with her young daughter, both wearing a traditional tracht, a floral patterned, finely embroidered dress often worn on special occasions. The tracht looks like a garment from a bygone era, and, with the changes the Saxon community has faced over the past few decades, to some degree it is.

“Lots has changed [in our community],” Linzing said. “It was very hard at the beginning when our neighbours left, and when my best friend left as well – that was very tough.”

Linzing lives in Malancrav with her husband and two children, who all speak in the Saxon dialect, which is similar to that of Luxembourgish, when they are at home.

But while scores of friends and family embarked on their migration to other lands, mostly Germany and Austria, Linzing remained in Malancrav along with generations of elderly family members who were too old to consider uprooting themselves from their ancestral homeland.

“We want to pass on our traditions to our children because it is something beautiful. We took our traditions from our parents and grandparents,” she said.

Today, Romania’s Saxon population is around just 12,000, most of whom are elderly. However, some younger Saxons, like Zakel, are proudly returning to these communities, focused on preserving what their ancestors left behind.

In 2017, after years of international travel, Marlene Stanciu and her partner Alex Herberth, who both have maternal Saxon heritage, moved to the large Saxon village of Cincu (Großschenk in German) to live in the former home of Stanciu’s Saxon grandparents.

“This house was built by my great grandfather in 1911, and my grandparents lived here until they died in 2013 – then I took over,” she said.

Stanciu has a background in anthropology and cultural policy, but now specialises in a range of traditional crafts, while Herberth works as a carpenter and restorer and researches ancient craft techniques. Between them, they are reviving lost Saxon traditions and crafts through their Kraft Made concept.

“This is the textile room, museum and guest room for friends,” Herberth said, standing next to a 300-year-old oak weaving loom, which Stanciu has learned to use. She recently made a series of tote bags from recycled second-hand clothes for a collaborative art project.

Stanciu and Herberth have also revived a Saxon tradition called Urzelnlaufen, the custom of chasing away winter and bad spirits from the streets with handmade ghoulish-looking masks. It’s a lively event attended by throngs of locals.

Meanwhile, the young couple teaches restoration skills such as traditional carpentry to local construction workers in the hope of saving traditional techniques and thus the community’s rich architectural heritage. Herberth, just like his ancestors would have, even brings raw wood by horse and cart from the local forest, which he says incurs far less waste and is more environmentally friendly.

“I came [to my grandparent’s house in Cincu] to clear my mind and it just felt right – I felt this was home. I can’t explain this kind of attachment,” Stanciu said.

It is an attachment felt by many with roots in this ancient community.

Throughout Transylvania, many Saxon homes remain empty, dusty and strewn with decaying personal belongings. But even forsaken communities such as these can be partly revived, as Carmen Schuster discovered on a fateful return to her ancestral village of Cincșor (Kleinschenk in German).

Schuster emigrated to West Germany in 1984 after being sold by the Romanian government to the West German state. At the time she didn’t mind: as a young woman, it meant liberation from oppressive communism, a chance to forge a life on the back of newfound opportunities in a wealthier country.

But as the years passed, Schuster was drawn back to Cincșor, where she found a very different place to the one she’d left.

“Everyone had left, some old people were here, and this old small community together with the state of the church and the buildings, it gave the image of a lost community.”

While many Saxon buildings these days have been insensitively renovated, or are in various stages of neglect, the architectural complex in Cincșor – which includes the fortified church, the large parish house, the former Saxon school and a typical Saxon peasant house – has been traditionally restored by Schuster and her husband and now operates as guesthouses. Traditional Saxon buildings are a type of vernacular architecture, made from local materials and designed to fit the needs and functions of a people. Building them was a shared community effort and worthy journey, but it hasn’t been easy.

“You should do something with this heritage by preserving it, put it in line for other people, especially for tourists, in 10 or 20 years it can be a sustainable model,” said Schuster, who describes these buildings as part of her “inner landscape”.

“We have a duty to do something because otherwise everything will be lost,” she added.

Back in Țapu, Zakel gives me a tour of Casa Anna, a more modest project than that of Schuster and her husband. In a small room hangs a black-and-white photo of her great aunt.

“Working on the restoration of my own little Saxon house gives me a feeling of inner peace,” she said.