In villages tucked away deep in the Apuseni Mountains, there is a saying: “A house will stand as long as it is inhabited.”
In these places, the villagers never complain about the harshness of winter. Nor are they overwhelmed by the burden of loneliness. It is the sadness of collapsing homes that reminds them of the people who temporarily left for the city and never came back.
When villagers leave the homes of their birth in order to make enough money to care for themselves, they leave everything in order: a tablecloth, a cup on the table, and their work clothes hung on a hook by the door. It is as though they just left for a long weekend.
Over time, their uninhabited homes crumble, one after the other, year after year, next to the hiking trails that only tourists – most of them foreigners – venture out on.
Enter the Sulimans
Five years ago, a young, married couple from Bucharest took their children to escape the “concrete jungle.” They say it came down to a simple life choice: keep on playing the role of ‘adapted human’ or build their dream. A dream that did not include an Ikea instruction manual.
They settled in Cheia, a small village belonging to the commune of Râmeţ, located in the Trascău Mountains. They bought two crumbling houses and some land for only 3,500 €.
On August 6, 2013, the Suliman family made the 90 minute trek up a hiking trail from Brădeşti to their new home. The path through the forest, marked by blue crosses, follows a small stream that used to turn the wheels of twelve water mills a century ago. They carried their belongings on horses provided by the man who had sold his land.
“We didn’t have anything. We didn’t have a home or water but we said that if we’re all together and if we’re happy, everything else will take care of itself.
Just a few days ago, I was thinking about how it’s been five years ago since we moved here. The time flew by so quickly, but that’s because my time here is full.
Since then, lots has happened. If I think about it all, about all the people who have come through here, time seems limitless. It’s like an accordion, you open it up and it suddenly becomes extremely wide,” says Gabriel Suliman.
For the first couple of years, Gabriel and Cristina Suliman and their children, David and Alice, made their home in the former village school. During that time Gabriel learned how to ride horses and craft objects he never imagined he would ever be able to make. They disassembled the two old homes, beam by beam, and relocated them to the land they bought using a tractor and oxen.
The family has now expanded to have three goats, one horse and a mare that was born on Easter Sunday. They also have two dogs, a cat, and five hens. All four family members work on the land they own.
Alice, the youngest member of the family, arrived in Cheia as she was learning to walk. She is now seven years old and believes she lives in wonderland. She picks dandelions for her mom and keeps her own herb collection. She explains to the photographer which of the herbs can be used in food.
David is 10 years old and knows how to make claystone. Last year he harvested and extracted the clay himself, using a shovel and pickaxe. He built a stove with it, but his father was not entirely impressed and helped him to rebuild it. He wanted to make sure it would not crack after a few months.
Every three weeks, the two children go to boarding school in Râmeţ, where they spend five consecutive days. Gabriel hitches up the horse every Monday morning and returns on Friday afternoon to pick them up.
Cristina stays with the kids throughout the week as there are no teachers working the evening shift. The boarding school has six bedrooms with 20 beds, just for the three of them.
During the two week period when they are not at school, they study at home in Cheia. Cristina, who is a certified Waldorf teacher, follows a curriculum planned by their school teacher, however, her teaching methods are based on the Waldorf system. The parents plan to send them to high school in Sibiu, Alba Iulia or Cluj.
Gabriel and Cristina, who both have degrees in Psychology, say their decision to leave the city is not a sign of their eccentricity. They simply felt the need to be much more actively involved in their children’s lives.
“Most people head off to work at 8:00 or 9:00 in the morning, then drop the children off at school, daycare or their grandparents. In our new life, we are with them all the time.
We live through every life experience together. When it’s time to play, we play. When it’s time to take care of the chores, we all have a responsibility.
This is important. I think it was the case with the peasants. They didn’t go to work for eight hours at a time. Everything was done with their children alongside, even if all the kids did was sit in the shade as the parents worked.
I believe this is essential for children, at least in their first seven years, maybe even until they are 14 or 15 years-old and start to feel a desire to move away.
I have no idea if they’re going to come back to Cheia once they’ve finished their studies. But even if they don’t return, I will have peace of mind because I know they were able to enjoy childhood. I didn’t come here out of obligation, but rather out of the desire to spend time with my children. There is no greater pleasure than family,” says Gabriel Suliman.
Escaping the Big City
Before moving to the Apuseni Mountains, Gabriel worked as a graphic designer for a multinational company in Bucharest. He didn’t know the neighbors in his block apartment. Once in a while, he would meet one in the elevator and make some small talk, without disclosing anything personal.
“This would happen 365 days a year, year after year. You would never learn anything about people, it was all so impersonal.
Whereas here, there are few of us and it’s a much more intimate experience. There are things that you can’t ever experience in the hustle and bustle of city life. Life in the city is not bad, but I have this feeling that humans were not made to live in a small, crowded space while breathing filthy air.
We are like sardines, squeezed together yet in our own little boxes. We don’t even have a small piece of land to grow flowers.
And yet, just look around us, there are thousands upon thousands of hectares of abandoned land waiting to be occupied,” says Gabriel.
He made promises that he would one day take his children on the hiking trails discovered during his youth, with a tent on his back. Trails through Bucegi, Făgăraș, Piatra Craiului or Iezer-Păpușa. He kept postponing the trip until 2012, when he traveled to Făgăraș to find some old cottages he could renovate for the growing tourist trade.
But a friend in Făgăraș threw him off his plans when he said, “I found an abandoned village in the Apuseni Mountains. It’s perfect for tourists. You can’t access it by car, it’s exactly what you’re looking for.”
Spurred on by his curiosity, Gabriel got on a train and went to discover the area. In Cheia, he set up his tent precisely in the same spot where he now lives. When he woke up and looked towards Piscul Vulturului (Eagle’s Peak), a rocky vertical wall that stands guard over the valley, he felt his decision was already made for him.
“It had drizzled all night long and mist was making its way out of the forest. The cliff was shrouded in a light that I can’t describe in words. I knew this was the place.”
Laure Praja, nicknamed “Grandma”, was the first person Gabriel met in Cheia. He asked her if she knew whether anyone in Cheia was selling land. She wanted to know for what purpose. To move his family, he told her.
The woman sent him off with a son-in-law’s phone number. When he called, he was confronted with a definitive no. “I have nothing to sell”, said the man on the other end, almost rudely.
Gabriel returned to Bucharest unsure of what to do. A week later, he received a phone call: “You called me last week about land in Cheia. If you come back, I’ll show you around and you can see what’s available.”
The man had thought that he was the victim of a prank. A popular show about Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent was on TV at the time, so when a Mr. Suliman called him to ask about land in Cheia, he thought it had to be a joke. Plus, who would actually want to buy land in a forgotten village in the middle of nowhere?
When the Suliman couple sold their apartment in Bucharest, they felt an immense relief to be free of debts. They had no idea what was waiting for them in Cheia, but they were not the least bit worried.
Grandma was waiting to welcome the family to Cheia. “She is an extremely strong woman with incredible grace. She took our enthusiasm for the move with a healthy dose of skepticism, but she was thrilled to have someone else to chat with,” Gabriel says.
Back in the day, there were 70-80 families in Cheia. Today, aside from the Sulimans, there are three other people. On Easter Sunday, it was just the four of them at Mass, along with a monk and a few nuns from the Râmeţ Monastery.
The Sulimans are not alone in their passion for the Romanian mountains. When they finished restoring the two small homes, tourists started to appear. Last year, more than 1,500 people crossed their “threshold.”
A Belgian rode over 2,000 kilometers on his bicycle just to meet them. He admitted that the journey was a type of initiation for him.
A group of Czechs camp out on the Suliman family’s land every year and help them with the farm work. They are in awe of the Apuseni Mountains’ beauty.
Grandma Praja remembers the area was much more deforested in her youth, but nature has once again established its supremacy and the forests have grown over the former pastures and over all the other traces of man.
“I find houses that have crumbled under things, rotting from year to year. They look like they’re out of a horror movie, like the Blair Witch Project. But once upon a time, they were beautiful households with vast spaces for growing grass and making hay.
Each year, the tourists return and find yet another home buried in the ground. Then one day, they found us and the kids. It was like witnessing a rebirth.
They were fascinated by our story, they found it exotic. But we were absolutely dying to make the move. We did it out of necessity.
Some people congratulate us, they say that this is the good life, whereas others, who are deeply entrenched in the system, have adverse reactions: what idiots, look at what they’re doing to their poor children, they have no one to play with…”
Gabriel says hiking trails in the Râmeţ Gorge help select his clientele for him. It’s not just anyone who can end up there. It’s why he doesn’t make an effort to equip his guesthouse with modern amenities. The house is heated with stoves he built himself.