Small landlocked Moldova may be one of Europe’s best kept secrets. It is not (as yet) flooded by tourists, it’s easy on the budget and has great sites to see. This former Soviet republic is bordered by Romania to the west and Ukraine to the north, east and around its southern tip. The country’s climate and rich soil is perfect for grape cultivation to feed its many wineries. These vineyards, along with orchards and fields of swaying sunflowers are interspersed with rustic villages.
Chisinau, the capital of nearly 700,000 citizens, has plenty of urban amenities. Our first day is spent absorbing its historical essence along the typical Soviet grid system of straight wide streets. The Holy Gates (dating back to 1841) are near Central Park and front the city’s main Orthodox Church and bell tower. Government House, Parliament House, and the Presidential Palace are all handy for officials to take care of state matters.
Our Moldova Photo Gallery
Stefan cel Mare Park is the city’s oldest park, spanning seven hectares, with numerous trees, some of the mulberries and acacias are between 130 and 180 years old. The grounds are guarded by a statue (erected in 1928) of Stefan III of Moldova, a.k.a. Stephan the Great. This medieval prince fought off Hungarian, Polish and Ottoman rule and symbolizes the country’s brave and strong past. His image appears on all denominations of the Moldova Leu (MDL) currency.
The National History Museum is fronted by a sculpture of Lupoaica Romei (the wolf of Rome) with the twin brothers Romulus and Remus, who were raised by the wolf for a time after their mother sent them down a river in a basket, thus saving them from being killed by enemies. Moldova citizens favour this Roman tale which ends in how Rome got its name.
Inside the great rooms of the museum we gaze at ancient artifacts from archeological digs, a 200,000-year-old mammoth tooth, tools of ancient man, Golden Horde coins, wine vessels with Greek mythological figures, Soviet-era and WWII weaponry.
As we breeze about the capital, we note that although Moldova is one of the poorest countries in Europe, one would never know it from shiny new BMW’s and Mercedes parked along Chisinau streets.
Ready to venture out of Chisinau, our hotel receptionist hooks-us-up with Victor to take us 15km north to Cricova, the underground wine kingdom located beneath the streets of the village by the same name.
Outside the winery we hop on a golf-cart-type vehicle that holds a dozen or so visitors, plus Elena our guide. After a short informative spiel she waves to the driver, who promptly drives downward into the tunnels.
Cricova boasts 120km of labyrinthine limestone roadways, half of which are used for wine aging and storage in a perfect microclimate (temperatures of between 12-degrees Celsius and 14-degrees Celsius, with humidity at 97% to 98%) to a depth of 100 metres!
Our first tour stop is at the 60m-mark lined with oak barrels, from large to gargantuan. “You will find street and avenue names like Cabernet and Pinot Noir, for the types of wines stored along them,” says Elena. “The annual output of wine from Cricova was10 million litres in 2015”,” she adds.
These tunnels began with hand-diggers in the 15th century, and in later times by machines; all the limestone extracted used for building material in Chisinau and around Moldova. In some branches excavation is still active. These tunnels were converted into this wine emporium in the 1950’s.
Our next stop is an underground theatre where a short video gives us insight into the region’s lengthy history of wine making and Cricova’s applauded methods. Back on the motorized cart and a half-dozen straight-a-ways and hairpin turns later, we are at a depth of 90 metres. The sight of rack after rack of sparkling wines is jaw-dropping! Each of the half-million bottles along this 4km tunnel are turned daily by six women until the wine is ready for the next procedure in its production.
Another short ride ends in a series of elaborate tasting and banquet rooms. “In this room cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin spent two days in 1966, says he was lost and just drank until found,” Elena chuckles. Jian Zemin visited is 2001, Vladimir Putin celebrated his 50th Birthday here in 2002, Angela Merkel sipped Cricova blends in 2012, John Kerry in 2013….just a few of a whole wall of visiting celebrity photos.
Onward to the National Oenotheque, which houses 1.2 million bottles of over 600 names of local and world brand wines, and private collections, such as Putin’s. Most intriguing are the earliest wines, which after years of accumulated dust and humidity are encased in moldy webs. The oldest and most treasured bottle is “Jerusalim de Pasti” (Eastern Jerusalem) which was produced from one single lot in 1902. “Someone offered $100,000 for this bottle a few years ago, but it was not for sale,” Elena mentions.
Orheiul Vechi Monastery Complex
A monastery cave dug out of a limestone cliff in the 13th century…we’re in! Victor, since proving himself at Cricova, is our man for all other excursions. A 45-minute drive, then taking a few minutes to see some artifacts at the Orheiul Vechi (Orhei Vechi) Information Centre, we veer onto a rural road where the monastery lies between the villages of Trebujeni and Butuceni.
Victor leaves us to climb up 170 steps where between a tower and a concrete cross we find the tunnel-opening to the monastery cave. Inside we stand in wonder with thoughts of this all being dug with hand-tools by Orthodox monks so long ago… so isolated from the outer world. And they were not the first to break into the calcareous rock; the cliff face is a mass of caves cut by pre-historic tribes that are only accessible by experienced rock climbers.
A young girl sits at a table to monitor visitors and to sell souvenirs. The walls are covered in paintings of saints. What appear to be the oldest and most faded holy icons have flickering candles at their base; an altar holds crosses and images of Christ.
Down on the main level again we venture out the back of the cave over a cliff with the Raut River flowing down below. Visuals of the monks hauling water up this steep incline fill my mind. Before leaving we stand once more before the altar breathing in the cave’s faint moldy scent and absorbing the haunting aura of its past. A handful of monks have been restoring this cave – but alas, none are about while we are there.
From the monastery cave we climb towards the golden cupolas of the church built by the villagers in 1905, dedicated to the Ascension of Mary. The interior is lovely, with a multitude of religious icons, stained glass, and gold leaf trimming. It was shut down by the Soviets in 1944 and remained abandoned until after Moldova’s independence from the USSR in 1991, resuming service in 1996 after restoration. Across from the church entrance, an enticing shop to buy religious items beckons, and I depart with four small necklace crosses.
A country within a country?
Learning a bit about the self-declared republic of Transdniestr (Transnistria, Trans-Dniestr) we had to take a look for ourselves. Our gallant chauffeur Victor has a puzzled look on his face during the drive when we break out in song with the Beatles 1968 hit, “Back in the USSR”. This narrow strip of land on the eastern bank of the Dniestr (Dniester) River in Moldova is known as one of the last surviving bastions of communism.
Briefly – with the demise of the USSR the Transdniestr area refused to be a part of the independent Moldova, resulting in a bloody civil war. Transdniestr adopted their own currency, flag, postal system, police force, army (1,400 Russian troops are still stationed here, which is down from the 9,400 back in 1992), and it has its own border control. Although Western travellers are welcome, we were glad to have Victor who speaks both Moldovan and Russian to speak to the border guards for a fast entry (about 15min, which by Moldova standards is speedy).
We pass through bucolic surrounds with goats and cattle munching in the fields, the roadways are rife with old restored army vehicles and Lada cars. Entering Tiraspol, the capital of Transdniestr, we make our way to the famed 25 October Street where grand Soviet style buildings rise in stately fashion.
Across the street we find a gold cupola church dome, and beside it a Soviet armoured tank, and the Heroes Cemetery with its Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and where an eternal flame burns in memory of those who died on March 3, 1992 during the first outbreak of civil war.
Some other stops are the Kvint factory which since 1897 has been producing fine brandies, the military-themed Museum of Headquarters, and Kirov Park, in which the statue of Kirov (the once Leningrad boss is missing) and the grounds are overgrown with weeds.
Back down the road to Chisinau, Victor says with confidence, “The aim of the current political leaders is to improve trade and diplomatic relations between both sides of the country.”
All-in-all, Moldova’s pleasant and relaxing atmosphere made for an outstanding visit. The variety of sites is great, combined with the ease on the pocketbook (supper for two at a fine restaurant costs 360 Leu or $24 CAD), and last but not least, although Moldovans are reserved, they are truly hospitable.
More info on Population/Ethnicity of Moldova
Moldova 3.55million (2013 World Bank)
Chisinau – 669,694 (2012)
Transdniestr – over 500,000 mostly ethnic Russians/Ukrainians (2015)
– Ethnic groups: Moldovans 75.8%, Minor ethnic groups: Ukrainians 8.4%, Russians 5.8%, Gagauz 4.4%, Bulgarians 1.9%.
– Official Languages: Romanian (officially known as Moldovan) spoken by 76% of the population), Russian and Ukrainian languages also granted official status in Transdniestr.
-English widely spoken in Hotels and restaurants