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Romanian watermills face renovation or ruin

Vencl Sramek's family used to bake bread with flour from the mills and he says nothing compares to the taste of homemade 'pita'
Vencl Sramek's family used to bake bread with flour from the mills and he says nothing compares to the taste of homemade 'pita' Daniel MIHAILESCU AFP/File
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Gârnic (Romania) (AFP)

In a small Romanian village, Alois Nemecek is not ready to give up grinding grain yet, but he might be one of the last to run a watermill.

"The young ones left for work in the Czech Republic, and some people have already started buying their bread," says the resident of the village of Garnic.

The tiny community, inhabited by a Czech minority, is located in Banat, a region along the Danube river in western Romania that is home to some 250 watermills, about 150 of which are still functional, according to the NGO Acasa in Banat ("At home in Banat").

In Garnic, about 15 families owned each of the 10 watermills, and took turns using them.

As in many other parts of Romania, emigration has decimated the population of a village founded nearly 200 years ago by settlers from Bohemia, and only around 230 inhabitants remain, surrounded by forests and fields.

At least four million Romanians are estimated to be living abroad, with many having left the EU's poorest member of almost 20 million people in search of better jobs.

Nemecek counts the days he'll still be able to carry grain bags between the mill and his home, where his wife bakes bread for them to eat and occasionally trade.

"I can't work like before", says the 65-year-old, a man of imposing stature with smiles to spare.

- 150-year-old grindstone -

A few hundred metres (yards) downstream, Iosif Kapic, 57, continues to grind corn for his calves and pigs at another mill once or twice a week.

"I'm the last one; everyone else left," he said.

Pointing to the oak structure that straddles a stream and is surrounded by vegetation, he adds: "This mill is 150 years old. I just replaced the tiles, but the wood and grindstone are the original ones."

Owing to a lack of use however, several Garnic mills have already become soulless buildings, with blocked water channels and crippled wheels.

Striving to keep the ancestral occupation alive, Acasa in Banat has launched a project to renovate them in hope of attracting tourists.

In mid-July, around 60 volunteers cleaned up the Camenita river that runs through Garnic, replaced tiles, reinforced foundations and treated the wood with flax oil from four mills.

"Our goal is to keep the mills alive," the organisation's vice-president, Nicoleta Trifan, tells AFP.

Her group hopes the project will be beneficial for the villagers who will be able to earn a little more money, for example by selling organic flour to tourists.

"This is a fantastic heritage, we hope that other communities will follow our example to showcase it... Tourists are now more than ever in search of authentic experiences," she adds.

The presence of holidaymakers could indeed encourage Vencl Sramek's family to bake bread again, as they did until a few years ago, the 72-year-old says.

"Nothing compares to the taste of homemade 'pita'," the villager recalls wistfully.

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