A Travellerspoint blog

Moldova

Danube Delta - Galati - Moldova - Chișinău

The end is nigh

sunny 34 °C
View The Undiscovered East (of Europe) - Moldova, Transdniestr & Romania 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Setting the alarm early to see if I can catch the sunrise was well worth it – the river is bathed in a beautiful light this morning as the sun peeks up through the mist.

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It’s not even eight o’clock in the morning and it is already blisteringly hot as we walk down to the jetty to wait for our boat out of the Delta. This region of Romania has not seen a drop of rain since June and farmers are getting desperate.

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The early ferry back to the mainland seems to be attracting a lot of passengers.

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Thankfully it is a much bigger boat this time

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We sit outside on deck, next to a group of Russian men with a couple of youngsters (sons?). They start drinking as soon as they have boarded (as well as chain smoking – it seems to me that everyone here does!), and get louder and increasingly more annoying as the morning wears on.

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There is not a great deal to see along the shores of the canal, especially not once we get to the end of the linear village of Crișan.

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Little Egret

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Common Gulls

So many of life’s necessities here in Crișan and other similar villages in the Delta, have to be brought in from the mainland – including farm equipment, building materials, furniture etc.

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The ferry is most people’s lifeline here, and we make a few stops along the way.

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Andrei enjoys a spot of sunbathing.

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The canal-side offers some inviting beaches, where we see people picnicking and fishing.

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The arrival at Tulcea heralds the end of our Danube Delta adventure.

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Andrei shows us the map of the Delta and where we went on yesterday’s two boat trips.

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Today is going to be a long day, so we grab a couple of pastries at Tulcea before continuing on our journey.

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Plăcintă cu brânză – sweet pastries filled with cheese. (2 lei is ca. 40p)

I giggle to myself when I see the name of the local petrol station. I Norwegian the word ‘rompetroll’ (directly translated ass-troll) means tadpoles; and in my mind’s eye I can just imagine pouring a bucket full of baby frogs into the fuel tank of the car. OK, OK, it’s childish, I know, but this really tickles me!

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We get the ferry back over the Danube to Galați, where we have to call in Vila Belvedere (where we stayed on the way down), as Andrei walked away with his room key in his pocket!

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Blue Acqua Restaurant, Galați

We stop for some lunch at this riverfront restaurant specialising in seafood.

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David chooses a mixed seafood skewer with sweet chilli sauce, which is really nice.

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As usual, I like to scour the menu for ‘new’ food – dishes or ingredients that I have never tried before, are local to the region, or just somewhat unusual. This Snail Skewer fits that bill perfectly. Quite tough and rather chewy, I am very pleased it comes with a spicy Hoi Sin Sauce. Not my best selection, but it is always worth a try!

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The road from Galați to the Moldavian border is mostly smooth, traffic free and winding its way through beautiful countryside. From time to time we see these portable beehives – transported and parked to follow the blossom.

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The outside temperature is 34 °C, but the A/C in the car is efficient. Having suffered really badly with my knee on the way down here, I park myself in the front seat today, something which proves to be an excellent move as have no pain in my knee even after several hours in the same position. Andrei tries to engage me in one of his in-depth and serious discussions this afternoon (this time about crime and the success - or not - of penal reform systems), but I am just too tired.

Andrei worries me when he asks: “Do I need a passport to enter Moldova?” “What? You don’t have a passport?” I demand incredulously. “No, it ran out a couple of years ago.” he answers nonchalantly. For a few seconds I have visions of being stuck for hours, or even overnight, at the border with a passport-less guide; until I remember that most European countries issue ID cards that are good for international travel within EU. As it turns out, we have no problems at the border and we are soon out of Romania, through the ubiquitous no-man’s-land and back in Moldova. We just have to purchase a vignette for road tax, and we are on our way to Chișinău again, just as the sun starts to set.

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Andrei pulls up outside the Codru Hotel at 19:40, and we are thankful that there is no queue for check-in tonight; as we are being picked up for dinner in 20 minutes. Back in the now very familiar Room 313, we have a quick shower and change; and make it to reception with plenty of time to spare before Leonid arrives promptly at 20:00.

Vatra Neamului Restaurant

We explain to the waiter – whose English is only marginally better than our Moldovian – that tonight’s meal is paid for by Amadeus Travel; and ask if there is a special menu, or maybe a set meal that we should be ordering from. He just passes us a normal menu, smiles and walks away. We are nor particularly hungry, and as we have a very early start tomorrow morning (04:30 pick-up from the hotel), we just order a simple dish with no starters, sides or desserts.

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Chicken with cheese sauce

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Pork with cheese and mushrooms

The restaurant is quaint, with antique furniture and several cosy alcoves. We appear to be the only people eating here tonight, although I think there might be a private party in a back room. Strange, considering it is Saturday night.

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Two pretty singers and a chap on a cobza (a kind of lute) entertain us – at least the words to the song are easy to remember should we wish to sing along.

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So, our travel adventure is over for this time. Moldova, Transdniestr and Romania have all been compelling destinations, and despite considerable shared history and culture, they are surprisingly dissimilar to each other in so many ways. Each has given us highlights and new experiences to remember for years to come.

Thank you Undiscovered Destinations for showing us these hidden places in a small world.

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Posted by Grete Howard 09:37 Archived in Moldova Tagged danube adventure dinner snails romania border_crossing ferry delta immigration moldova danube_delta undiscovered_destinations galati traditional_dinner Comments (0)

Chișinău - Bendery - Tiraspol

♫♪♫ Back in the USSR ♫♪♫

sunny 38 °C
View The Undiscovered East (of Europe) - Moldova, Transdniestr & Romania 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

That pesky lift this morning! Complete with our luggage, ready to check out, we press the call button. We can see the lift come up from the ground floor, then go straight past us to the top floor. It's the same on its way back down – it does not stop on the third floor for us. Five lifts whizz past on their journey either up or down, as our frustration grows. When one eventually stops, it is full. The same happens with the next two. This is getting beyond a joke; walking down the stairs is not an option with all our luggage. Finally an empty lift arrives and we manage to get in. Just. We feel like sardines pressed up against the mirrored walls of the miniscule lift.

Today we have a new driver, Ivan, to take us across the border from Moldova into Transdniestr. Valeriu pulls us aside before we get to the car and with a hint of drama requests that as Ivan hails from Transdniestr, we do not mention anything about the relations between the two countries or the political situation while in the car with Ivan.

Border Controls

The Moldavian side of immigration goes without a hitch and we don’t even have to leave the car. After travelling through a substantial stretch of no-mans-land, we arrive at the Transdniestr border, where we enter a small wooden hut on foot. Having heard stories about how previous travellers have had to bribe officials and even having their camera equipment confiscated at the border, I leave everything back in the car. Through the small window used by the immigration official, I spot a wall full of a ‘rogue’s gallery’ featuring artist impressions of ‘wanted’ travellers. We hand over our passports. Valeriu is travelling on an ID card, whereas Ivan has what looks like an old USSR passport, but is in fact issued by the government of Transdniestr. As Transdniestr is not recognised as a nation by most countries in the world, this passport is about as useful as a chocolate teapot: it cannot be used for overseas travel!

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The atmosphere in the hut is tense; with people shuffling about uncomfortably and speaking in hushed voices. Finally we receive our approval to enter the country. The border officials do not stamp passports; instead a loose-leaf permit is issued which we need to hand in when leaving the country. “Do not lose it!” Valeriu implores, and I guard this piece of paper with my life, fearing the consequences!

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We have permission to enter the country for 24 hours only, with the permit dated and timed TO THE SECOND!

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We’re in!

Transdniestr

So what’s the big deal with the border crossing between these two countries?

Transdniestr is a breakaway republic nestled between Moldova and Ukraine. Following the break-up of the USSR, conflict between Moldova and the Transdniestr republic escalated to some serious and bloody military clashes, which ended in an uneasy ceasefire. The territory of Transdniestr broke away from Moldova, who granted it the status of ‘Transnistria autonomous territorial unit with special legal status’. Although the ceasefire has mostly held, the territory's political status remains unresolved: Transdniestr is an unrecognised but de facto independent state with its own parliament, currency, flag, anthem and border controls. And passports.

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So why did they not want to be part of Moldova?

Unlike the majority of Moldavians who are of Romanian descent and speak a form of Romanian, the people who live in this small, self-declared republic are mainly ethnic Russians and speak Russian.

This is how the BBC describes Transdniestr:

”…one of the post-Soviet space's ‘frozen conflicts’. The international community does not recognise its self-declared statehood, and the territory, which remains in a tense standoff with Moldova, is often portrayed as a hotbed of crime. It has a reputation for corruption, organised crime and smuggling, and has denied accusations of illegal arms sales and of money laundering.”

That’s OK then.

Wikivoyage also warns tourists that:

”Visitors should note that they are highly likely to face demands for substantial bribes from the border guards either on entry or exit from Transnistria (or both). Despite official orders from the previous President Smirnov to act professionally and to decline such payments, bribery is rife and your passport may be destroyed if you do not pay. Indeed, you may be turned away from the border on the Moldovan or Ukrainian side if you are unwilling or unable to pay the border guards a bribe.”

Which is the reason we approached the border controls with some trepidation and distrust, and why I am terrified of losing my slip of paper.

Bendery Fortress

The fortress, also known as Tighina, dates from 1538 when it was built to protect what was then one of the most powerful cities in Moldova.

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The Military Historical Memorial is the cemetery where soldiers who died in the two world wars are buried, as well as those who lost their lives during the storming of the fortress by Ottomans, Ukrainian Cossack soldiers of Mazepa, and Swedish soldiers under the rule of Charles XII (who took refuge here), mostly from the 18th century.

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In 1710, Pylyp Orlik (a Cossack Hetman in exile) wrote one of the first state constitutions in Europe here at Bendery, and was named as the ‘Protector of Ukraine’ as a result. This open book celebrates the occasion.

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Busts of various Russian generals who liberated the fortress from the Ottomans in the 18th century.

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It looks like the Ottomans have returned.

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The fortress is pretty unusual in that each of the eleven towers has a different shape.

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In the small museum hangs a portrait of Carl XII of Sweden, who fled south after the Swedish assault in the Great Northern War in the 18th century ended in disaster and saw him badly injured. He and around 1000 of his men took refuge in Bendery Fortress where he was initially welcomed with open arms by the Ottomans.

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Also in the museum are relics from an ancient Greek settlement found here, old currency, and a cool model of the fort showing how it would have looked in its heyday.

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Outside in the courtyard we find a trebuchet and some stocks.

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We move slowly back to the car as the temperatures are already in the high 30s. It’s going to be a hot one today!

Tiraspol

Internationally this city is recognised as the second largest city in Moldova, but Tiraspol is in fact the capital of the breakaway republic of Transdniestr, and celebrates its Russian connections with a fairly modern statue of Lenin in front of its Parliament.

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Glory Monument

Monument Plaza features commemorations to those who died defending Transdniestr during both world wars, the Afghan War, and the Great Patriotic War (the breaking up of USSR and ‘independence’ from Moldova 1990-1992).

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The T34 Tank was brought from Hungary in 1945. Underneath it is a capsule with soil from Volgograd (site of the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942).

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Statue of the Sorrowful Mother

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Eternal flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

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A newish chapel

Dniester River

The river is used for a variety of leisure activities, such as boating, fishing, sunbathing, or swimming.

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Central Square

Here we find a statue to Alexander Suvorov, a national hero and city founder who liberated Bendery Fortress back in 1770.

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What I didn’t expect to see, however, is a group of Hari Krishna singers here!

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Independence Day celebrations

Two days ago – on September the 2nd – Transdniestr celebrated its Independence Day, and everywhere we go in Tiraspol, we see posters and decorations, including these banners in the colour of the Transdniestr flag.

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A statue to Catherine the Great, the Russian leader under whom Suvorov fought when he founded Tiraspol.

In-Line Skating

I am really impressed to see this guy, who must be well into his 70s, keep up with the youngsters in the skate park! Respect!

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City Hall

We stop to admire the City Hall and later Valeriu asks if we would like to taste some Cognac. We are both feeling the heat today, and I have an upset tummy, so we kindly decline.

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Kvmahëk Restaurant

Instead we continue to lunch, at a Ukrainian restaurant well known for its excellent food.

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When we arrive, we are presented with vodka shots accompanied by some amuse bouche.

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This will be 'kill or cure' for my upset tummy, for sure.

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I'll go with the 'cure.

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We start with the ubiquitous soup of course, this time traditional borscht – beetroot soup with smetana (soured cream).

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The restaurant specialises in varenyky – traditional Ukrainian pierogi - and we have a selection, filled with cheese, potato, and even cherries.

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Hotel Russia

After the late lunch, Ivan drops us off at Hotel Russia; he then has to drive Valeriu back to Chișinău for another tour this evening! Talk about being in demand!

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The hotel is very new and modern, with a retro style throughout.

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The A/C is very welcome and we take a long nap, followed by a refreshing shower and feel very much better afterwards – almost human again.

I start to snigger as I read the description of the hotel services, detailing how they offer “speed dating” in the bar. It certainly sounds like a euphemism to me, and I become even more convinced when I read about their “private room where you can relax in utmost privacy or conduct confidential business negotiations” I feel sure that there is more to this place than just a hotel.

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Dinner and ‘entertainment’

It is still very warm out when we go down for dinner, but thankfully there is a shady courtyard where we can eat.

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It seems they are expecting us, and a very pretty waitress brings us some water and later a salad, explaining that the ‘meat will be around 20 minutes’. Or at least I think that is what she is trying to tell us.

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Initially we are the only two people in the restaurant, but there seems to be a private party or something going on next door, and we watch guests arrive. One by one, or sometimes in pairs, the most stunningly beautiful girls arrive, wearing precipitously high heels, skirts so short that if they even slightly bent over I could see their breakfast, or dresses so tight they would have needed a shoe horn to get into them – usually with splits reaching for the armpits. When I say that these girls are glamorous, I mean it to the point that they would not look out of place on a red carpet in Hollywood. These are amongst the most beautiful and elegant girls I have ever seen!

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Watching the comings and goings. No pun intended.

The girls are truly conversation-stoppers. Or rather starters – we do wonder with so many flashy and seductive girls (and mostly scruffy corpulent men) if this is anything to do with the “speed dating” and “private room” we read about earlier…?

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David is bemused but enjoying the view.

They all disappear behind a wall at the end of the terrace, to what I presume is a private party, but being the nosy sort, I go to have a peek. The setting is equally sophisticated, with colourful drapes and a multicoloured fountain.

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Having taken what I had hoped was a surreptitious photo of the girl in the gold dress; the chap in the background comes up and starts to talk to me in Russian. Although I can’t understand what he is saying, I feel quite uncomfortable about his demeanour, so I shrug my shoulders, smile sweetly and hurry back to where David is sitting.

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Our main course soon arrives, a very tasty beef stew with potato wedges.

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The dining area is more like a café or bistro, and the first two courses were fairly plain and ordinary; the dessert is therefore all the more of a surprise when it arrives! It is almost as glamorous and dazzling as the girls!

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Not wishing to gatecrash the party next door, nor wanting to change money into Transdnistrian Roubles just so that we can have a drink in the bar; we retire to the room fairly early.

I’ve been asleep for a couple of hours when a sudden noise wakes me up. I hear the clippety-clopp of high heels on the hard floor of the corridor, then the slamming of a door. I look at my watch – it is 02:30. More clippety-clopp and door slamming follows, accompanied by giggling and laughter. It seems a number of guests are returning to their rooms a little worse for wear.

I have almost managed to drift back off to sleep by ignoring the noise from the corridor, when I hear shouting. Loud shouting. First a male voice, and then a female. A very loud door-slam follows, with the noise seemingly emanating from the next room. More shouting. They are obviously having a major ‘domestic’ dispute. At around 04:15 there appears to be a ceasefire, and I am just returning to a slumber when they start off again. At one stage the fight gets pretty intense, it sounds like things are being thrown around, and I am very much expecting to hear the sound of broken glass followed by sirens. Thankfully that does not happen.

At 05:15 the argument reaches a crescendo: the female screams what I can only assume are Russian profanities, slams the door and leaves him, running down the corridor with more clippety-clopps. It doesn't sound like he follows her.

Was this another "speed date" gone wrong, or did the "confidential negotiations" break down? Either way, I am extremely grateful for silence at last. and I collapse into a deep sleep.

And so endeth another 'interesting' day in Moldova / Transdniestr with Undiscovered Destinations.

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Posted by Grete Howard 04:13 Archived in Moldova Tagged lenin fountain memorial museum party border_crossing fortress passport chisinau immigration moldova bender transnistria hookers hotel_russia tiraspol transdniester transniestra hotel_codru codru bendery tighina bendery_fortress tighina_fortress berder_fortress carl_xii glory_memorial Comments (0)

Butuceni - Capriana - Hincu - Chișinău

Our first canonisation


View The Undiscovered East (of Europe) - Moldova, Transdniestr & Romania 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

The restaurant looks completely different this morning without the wedding party, decorations and DJ equipment.

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For breakfast we are on the same table as a group of eleven Finnish tourists, and like last night, there is way too much food.

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Some sort of rice pudding, doughnut-type pastries, feta-style cheese, yogurt and tomatoes more than fills us up.

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After breakfast we take a short walk around Butuceni Village, with its collection of cute old buildings, ornate gates and jumbled street furniture.

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I call in the village shop to get some water, and notice the elderly shopkeeper uses an abacus to add up the purchases. I don’t think I have seen one of those in use since we visited the old USSR back in the 1980s.

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I am also very surprised to see a British car in the village!

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Capriana Monastery

On our way to Capriana, we spot a number of police cars that increase in frequency and number the nearer we get to the monastery. The last bit of road leading to the complex is closed off with a police cordon, and parking is impossible anywhere near the area. There are people everywhere; most dressed in their Sunday best. The national TV station is present and there are food stalls and first aid tents set up. Somebody important must be visiting – other than us, I mean.

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Even from a great distance we can clearly hear the church bells and some beautiful chanting.

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Valeriu is as perplexed as we are, but his confusion soon turns to awe as he realises that the liturgy is being led by none other than the Patriarch of Moscow – who for those of us not in the know (including me and David), he is the 'head honcho' of the Moldavian Orthodox Church, held in the same esteem as the Pope is for the Catholics.

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The air is full of celebratory reverence, devoted admiration, and pious wonderment; and we soon discover the reason: Moldova is getting its very first Saint in the shape of Metropolitan Banulescu Bodoni who died 200 years ago. We, along with thousands of others, are in fact attending their – and our - very first canonisation. How cool is that?

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The Church of St Mary

The crowds are too great to do sightseeing justice, but we follow the throngs of worshippers into the church of St Mary. Dating from 1545, it is the oldest of the three churches that make up the monastery complex, and the oldest preserved church in Moldova.

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After falling into decline during the 17th century, the church was reinvigorated in 1813, and for a while thrived. In 1940, the whole monastic estate was confiscated by Soviet troops, the monks fled and the churches were desecrated and pillaged. During the 1960s and 70s, the monastery was used as a sanatorium for sick children and later as a dance hall. In 1989 reconstruction of the monastery began and Capriana once again became a place of religious services.

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It amuses me that a woman’s hair must be covered before entering the church, yet a tight, short dress is fine.

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Despite not being religious, I find the visit to the church quite emotional and very spiritual. Valeriu gives us a candle each as we enter the church, for us to say a prayer and then ‘plant’ the candle.

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The Church of St George

Dating from 1907, the church of St George is smaller and nowhere near as crowded.

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We leave the crowds behind and call Leonid to come back and pick us up for the journey to Hincu.

Hincu Monastery / Convent

Located in the picturesque Codrii Forest, reaching Hincu Monastery involves a very pleasant stroll up through the woods, although I didn’t expect to see a monk on a tractor along the way.

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Founded in 1678 by the daughter of the High Steward Mihai Hincu, Hincu is one of the richest monasteries in Moldova. The convent was then known as Parascheva. After the wooden church and cells were destroyed several times during Tatar invasions in the 18th century, the nuns left. The care of the convent fell on monks from a nearby monastery, who repaired the cells and eventually moved in.

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With the arrival of the Soviets in 1944, the monastery closed and the monks were 'asked' to leave. In 1978 the monastery was taken into use as a sanatorium for tuberculosis sufferers, while the church was turned into a club. After the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1990, Hincu once more became an active monastery, albeit short lived: in 1992, the community was abolished and the monks moved out. Later the same year, a few nuns returned and started the reconstruction of the monastery / convent – which just proves that if you want a job done, get the girls in!

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Next-door a new church is in the process of being constructed, but apparently they have run out of funds, so the interior is still fairly basic, without any of the usual adornments normally associated with orthodox churches.

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The grounds are beautiful, with beds bursting to the seams with brightly coloured flowers. I guess this is the female touch that comes from it being a convent now rather than a monastery.

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The nunnery has one of the best tended and colourful cemeteries I have ever seen!

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From Hincu we continue the short distance to the official visitors area of Codrii Forest.

Codrii Nature Reserve

At the reserve head quarters we have a picnic in a specially constructed ‘pavilion’, set in a serene and tranquil location in amongst the trees.

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Founded in 1972, it is the oldest scientific nature reserve in Moldova, and boasts some 1,000 species of protected plants, 43 species of mammals, 145 species of birds, 7 species of reptiles and more than 8,000 species of insects.

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Natural Museum

Guided by the curator’s daughter Doina - who is keen to practise her somewhat limited English - we are shown around the small museum detailing some of the species found in the area.

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While David goes with Doina for a hike down to the lake, I join Valeriu in the ‘pavilion’, listening to Deep Purple and discussing palaeoanthropology. As you do.

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We leave the countryside behind and return to Chișinău, taking a nap in the car on the way.

Chișinău

Back in Chișinău we drop the bags off at the hotel and continue to the National History Museum.

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Chișinău National History Museum

The museum's large, bright, clean and modern rooms feature exhibits dating from pre-history, through various occupations to independence of this small country.

The visit feels a little rushed, but to be honest I am not at all unhappy about that as I am tired, it is uncomfortably hot and my back is hurting.

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Hotel Codru

As it is only a couple of blocks away, we walk back to the hotel (rather than let Leonid drive us) to pick up the luggage we dumped earlier and check in. We’re back in Room 313, and yet again we negotiate the tiny lift, just about 1m², where there is barely enough room for two (large) people with two backpacks, two wheelybags and two camera bags.

Dinner

After some chill time and a welcome shower, we wander downstairs to have dinner. The restaurant is closed for of a wedding reception (another one? That’s exactly what happened to us last night!), and the outside terrace is out of bounds because of a private party; which leaves us the bar. That suits us fine, as we really just want a small meal and a glass or three of wine.

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Chicken stew with branza (feta type cheese), smetana (soured cream) and mămăligă (polenta)

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Moldovan style roast beef in a clay pot
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Side dish of grilled vegetables and country style potatoes

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Wine!!!!

The food is delicious (especially the cheese) - and we are both very impressed with the wine - very, very smooth!

Thank you to Undiscovered Destinations for another great day in Moldova!

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Posted by Grete Howard 00:49 Archived in Moldova Tagged trees food flowers nature hotel cemetery museum woods wine monastery forest saint convent chisinau moldova nunnery natural_history codru_hotel pucari pucari_wine capriana capriana_monastery hincu codrii codrii_forest canonisation moldovian_food Comments (0)

Chisinau - Cricova - Lalova - Orcheiul Vechi - Butuceni

A varied day for sure - city walking tour, wine tasting, boat trip and cave monastery

semi-overcast 34 °C
View The Undiscovered East (of Europe) - Moldova, Transdniestr & Romania 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Day ONE of our private tour of Moldova, Transdniestr and Romania, arranged by Undiscovered Destinations.

As we weren't served any food on either of yesterday’s flights, it has been a long time since we last had a meal, so we head straight for the breakfast buffet this morning. And very nice it is too.

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Any place that serves champagne as a regular item on their breakfast buffet gets my vote.

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For holding the bread hygienically while cutting it, the restaurant provides plastic gloves. Very different - I have not seen this in any of the 650 or so hotels we have previously stayed in.

The Repulic of Moldova

And so it is time to start our exploration of Moldova, yet another of our trips to draw a response of “where’s that?”

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Until 1991, Moldova was part of the Soviet Union, and it sits between Ukraine and Romania in Eastern Europe. It has a chequered history, but now appears to be very stable, politically. The name ‘Moldova’ comes from the river of the same name, which again is said to have been named by a 14th century prince whose dog called Molda drowned in the river.

Itinerary

We are amused to receive a very detailed itinerary from the local agent, setting out our days minute by minute. I see the old Soviet regimented precision style is very much alive and well.

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Chișinău

We start our sightseeing in the capital. Dating back to the 15th century, most of the older buildings in Chișinău were destroyed by extensive bombing during WWII. Rebuilt on a typical Soviet grid system of streets, the city now contains one of the highest proportions of green spaces found in any large European city.

Cathedral

Built in 1936; the cathedral suffered serious damage during WWII, but has since been reconstructed to its current state and today it is the main Russian Orthodox place of worship in Chisinau, as well as the biggest church in Moldova.

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As we enter the church, we can hear singing emanating from inside. There is a service on, and we are not permitted to take photographs of the gilded and highly decorated interior.

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Arc de Triomphe

Built in 1841, the Triumphal Arch was constructed to commemorate the victory of the Russian Empire over the Ottoman Empire in 1829.

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A bell was made by copper smelted down from cannons captured from the Ottomans during the Russo-Turkish war, to be installed in the arch. Unfortunately, when the bell was completed, they discovered that it was too big to fit in to the space allocated, so a separate belfry had to be especially constructed nearby to house the bell (hence the tower between the arch and the church). Doh!

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Belfry

The current bell tower is a replica and was built in 1961 to replace the original, which was destroyed during the Soviet era.

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Parliament

During the civil unrest in 2009 that caused some serious damage to the building, the parliament moved out, to return in 2014. Today we see preparations in place for tomorrow’s celebrations of Army Day, including lines depicting an outline map of Moldova. This national holiday was established to celebrate the anniversary of the establishment of Armed Forces of Moldova in 1991 after the country declared independence from the Soviet Union.

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Ştefan cel Mare Monument

Stefan The Great is a national hero who defended the country against an Ottoman invasion in the 15th century. This sculpture replaces a previous statue to Alexander II (destroyed in 1918 by the Romanian authorities).

It’s a well-travelled monument: being moved to Vaslui (East Romania) in 1940, then two years later returned to Chisinau. A couple of years after that it again travelled to Romania, to finally be returned to Chisinau in 1989.

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City Hall

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Giant chess set

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Monument to popular folk musicians who died in a car crash.

Complexul Memorial Eternitate

Commemorating the Soviet soldiers who fell for the liberation of Chişinău and Moldova during the Second World War, this striking memorial is made up of five stylised ‘rifles’ coming together in a pyramidal point some 25 metres above a central eternal flame.

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Cricova – an Underground Wine City

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Who knew Moldova was famous for its wines? Not me for sure.

Moldova is in fact a country full of wine, vineyards and wineries, with 360,000 acres of the stuff, mostly for export. 250,000 acres of that are commercially grown vines, the rest are smaller family businesses, with grapes strands and recipes that have been handed down through generations.

A very commercialised and slick operation, our visit to Cricova Winery starts with a ‘train’ journey into their cellars. And what cellars they are!

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The wine cellars of Cricova are the second largest in Moldova (after Milestii Mici, which are the largest in the world), boasting 75 miles of underground labyrinthine roads descending to a depth of 100 metres).

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In the 15th century, mines here were excavated for limestone to be used as building materials in the construction of Chisinau; the tunnels were later converted to an underground wine emporium in the 1950s. During WWII, wine barrels were used to hide Jews from the Nazis, and Putin is said to have celebrated his 50th birthday here.

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Pictures of some of the famous people who have visited Cricova Winery.

We are taken on a journey through some of these cellars, first by ‘train’, then a short walk amongst the barrels accompanied by an informative talk about the winery.

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Later, after another little ‘train’ journey, we see an English film about Cricova and its history.

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In the bottling room the guide explains how six workers – all female – spend their days turning the bottles of sparkling wine. One woman can gently twist 50,000 bottles in two days. That sounds like a soul-destroying job to me.

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Part of our group consists of a 13 strong stag party from Israel, who do seem to have already been drinking rather a lot. Despite the guide frequently requesting: “Please do not touch the bottles”, they seem unable to restrain themselves.

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The first time they burst into patriotic songs it is amusing, the next dozen times it just becomes plain annoying. The guide is having a hard time trying to control them, with the rest of us becoming increasingly frustrated by their lack of respect and general disruptiveness.

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Around 50% of the roads are used to store the 1.25 million bottles of wine, the oldest dating back to 1902. I wonder if they would miss a couple? The porosity of the limestone creates a perfect environment to store wines, where the temperature is about 12 °C all year round.

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Not only is the winery full of underground 'streets' where wine is stored, there is a whole little city here, complete with meeting rooms and lounges for relaxing, and it is very popular as a wedding venue.

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The Presidential Suite

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Meeting Room

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Working fireplace with a 60m high chimney!

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Map of the underground city!

At the end of the tour we are shown in to a nautically-inspired Tasting Room. Thankfully the Israeli stag party have not paid for tasting, so we manage to lose them. There are eight of us: a delightful couple of Asian-Africans from London who are here for a friend’s wedding, a young couple from Poland and their friend who have hitch-hiked their way here, a lone Italian guy and us. It is all very civilised.

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Each table setting has two wine glasses plus one for champagne and another for water. There is also a selection of snacks to help clear the palate and soak up the alcohol.

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Four wines are being offered: a very fresh white wine, a light rosé, a very drinkable red and a rather enjoyable sparkling wine; with each one being explained to us.

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Wine making is certainly not a new thing to Moldova – the tradition dates back 5000 years, and is a major contributor to the country’s economy: 25% GDP and 50% of total export earnings. Not only that, this small country (4.5 million inhabitants, about the size of Holland) ranks as 7th amongst the top wine exporters of the world. And to think I have never before tried a Moldovan wine! Until today, that is.

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Before we leave there is the opportunity to purchase some of the wines, at a cost of ca. €2 per bottle. Bargain! We get a red and a rosé, and the couple from London buy a whole case of sparkling wine to take to the wedding.

Moldovan Countryside

Heading out of town, the surroundings change dramatically, from a modern post-Soviet big city, to an eastern European peasant society with donkey carts, one-storey wooden houses in desperate need of modernisation, and frequently-used wells along the side of the road.

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After the pre-lunch snifters, it is time for a siesta in the car until we turn off the main road on to a washer-board effect dirt track. The scenery is picturesque with rolling hills, blue-domed churches and far-reaching fields of sunflowers.

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Lunch at Hanul lui Hangana

Our next destination is the village of Lalova and the Hanul lui Hangana Guest House where we are taking lunch in a beautiful rural setting overlooking the Dniester River.

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Soups are customary for every meal in this part of the world, and we start lunch with a chicken noodle soup called zeama, which is served with smetana (Russian style soured cream) and a whole fresh chilli for nibbling.

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Valeriu is horrified when I pick up the chilli and go to take a bite from it; shouting out the warning: “it is very hot, be careful; it is REALLY hot”. I just smile and carry on, while David reassures our very caring guide that “she will be fine, don’t worry”. Which of course I am.

Branza, the home made brined cheese, reminds me of feta cheese – it is very salty and absolutely delicious, way better than its more famous counterpart! Out of politeness I take one of their home grown cucumbers, despite this being just about the only food I do not like the taste of. I try it to see if my tastes have changed. They haven’t. I eat it out of courtesy, but make sure I have plenty of tasty cheese and the scrummy tomatoes to take the taste away afterwards.

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Stuffed cabbage leaves is another popular dish in this region, where it is known as sarmale.

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Just as I think we cannot possibly eat any more, a dish of cheese-stuffed pastry, called plej placinta, is brought out. They are really fresh and doughy and I wish I could have room for more.

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Throughout the meal, home brewed wine is flowing freely for us with freshly made peach juice for Leonid the driver and Valeriu the guide.

Boat trip on Dniester River

As we walk from the guest house down to the river, we notice a Land Rover parked in the water and muse whether it is a local car wash. It seems a rather odd sight, but we soon forget about it.

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At the end of a small naturally made ‘jetty’, a speedboat is waiting to whisk us off for a trip on the Dniester River.

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The boat is fast, and skims the surface as it speeds past fishermen and fishing birds.

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Many fishermen spend considerable time on the river, staying in specially constructed floating cabins, some of which are quite elaborate and look rather comfortable.

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The opposite bank of the river is Transdniestr, the breakaway nation that sided with Russia during the disbanding of the USSR, despite being officially part of Moldova. A self-declared republic, relations with Moldova are tense after bloody skirmishes in 1992, followed by an uneasy ceasefire.

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Tipova Monastery

From the river we get a good view of Tipova, the largest cave monastery in Eastern Europe. The monastery dates back to the 10th century AD, and is best known as the place where Stefan cel Mare, the local hero who defended Moldova from the Ottomans in the 15th century, got married. The caves have now been turned into a museum.

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In the distance we see what looks like a lighthouse, but as we get nearer we discover that it is in fact the sun reflecting on the gold roof of a church, creating a bright beacon of light! Totally surreal!

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The boat trip is serene and exhilarating at the same time, as we watch eagles soar above and the sunlight sparkling on the surface of the river.

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On returning to the shore, we discover why the Landrover is parked in the water, as the captain floats his boat on to a submerged trailer to pull it back on land.

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For me, one of the highlights about the boat trip is listening to Valeriu in the car afterwards. I am assuming from his exuberant comments that it was his first time in a speedboat, and he is waxing lyrical about the experience, exclaiming that is was the highlight of his day.

As we continue on our journey, Leonid tells me that the owner of the guest house where we had lunch was convinced I was from Romania, because I "spoke fluent Romanian" (the language of Moldova). My conversation with her consisted of the only four words I know in Romanian: “hello”, “please”, “thank you” and “goodbye”. I feel flattered and amused in equal parts.

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David talks to the locals.

Orheiul Vechi (‘Old Orhei’)

The name ‘Old Orhei’ comes from the word ‘orhei’, meaning ‘fortification’; referring to the original (ie old) city built in this place. The position - on a ridge overlooking a valley on one side (now a village) and the river on the other, is certainly strategic.

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The earliest discoveries in this ‘smorgasbord of civilisations’ is a Late Palaeolithic camp site, believed to be some 25,000 years old – give or take a few thousand years. Other settlements date from Copper Age (4,500-4,000 BC), Iron Age (1,200-100 BC) and the medieval period (500-1,550 AD).

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Today Oheiul Vechi is an open-air museum, showcasing a number of man-made caves that pre-date Christianity in the region, created some 2000 years ago by the Dacian tribes. Orthodox monks turned some of the caves into a monastery in the 13th century; and occupied the site right into the 18th century. In 1996, a handful of monks returned to the cave monastery and have since been working on its restoration.

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Here you can see the caves hewn out from the limestone rock underneath a much later chapel (as well as people standing outside the cave on a ledge). We climb up a number of stairs to reach the chapel, followed by a number of stairs down to reach the cave.

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The evening service is just finishing off as we arrive, with solo chanting creating a spiritual atmosphere. We are the only people here, apart from three monks.

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The cells where the monks stayed are very spartan – they would sleep on the hard concrete floor without the use of any mats, and the ceiling was kept deliberately low so that they would have to stoop. The current monks are no longer living here.

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There is a great view over the valley from the ledge outside.

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Ascension of St Mary Church

Built in 1905, the church has recently been restored after it was shut down in 1944 and abandoned during the Soviet era. Services resumed in 1996.

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Butuceni Agro-Rural Pension

Situated in the small village of the same name at the bottom of the ridge, Butuceni Agro-Rural Pension is a collection of traditional peasant houses set inside mature gardens. We are warmly welcomed by the owner, whose English is only marginally better than my Romanian.

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Our room is large and comfortable, with the traditional style under-bed heating!

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In the grounds we find an adorable and playful kitten who keeps us occupied for some considerable time.

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As the light fades, dozens and dozens of house martins hang around on the telegraph wires before retiring for the night.

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Dinner is scheduled for 20:00, but when we wander around the grounds a few minutes before, we are unable to locate a restaurant. Or any sign of human life inside or outside the building.

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After much searching we discover a faded sign on the outside wall of the pension, directing us to the restaurant 200 metres along the road.

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We find the restaurant but it seems to be full of a wedding party, who all stare at us as we walk through. As there doesn't seem to be any other rooms where food is being served, we ask a girl in a national costume (who looks like she works there) about the ‘hotel restaurant’. She speaks no English and my Romanian doesn’t stretch that far; so David holds up the room key while I make eating motions with my hands. She gestures towards some stairs at the back of the hall, and we clamber through a pile of DJ equipment to reach them.

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At the top of the stairs is a very unwelcome closed door that we reluctantly open, leading into a room with one long table full of tourists, who all turn around and stare as we stand there somewhat lost and bewildered. We find a small table suitable for two people and sit down, not quite sure what to do next.

After what feels like a long, awkward period (but is probably just a few minutes), a waitress walks in, and while she initially looks at us quizzically, her face suddenly lights up and she flashes us a lovely warm smile before rushing off again. OK… now what?

She returns with food. Lots of food. Bottles of water and a jug of home made wine. Then more food.

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I love the home made cheese, the tomatoes are really tasty too; and there is enough Placinta du Branza (cheese pie) to feed a large family.

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Friptură de porc (stew) with smetana (soured cream) and branza (brined cheese); served with mămăligă (polenta) which the waitress cuts into segments using a thin string.

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For dessert there is Placinta cu visine, a delicious sour cherry pie.

We feel really bad for leaving so much of the food, and hope there are some very well fed pigs around (in addition to us). All the dishes are delicious, but we had a very late lunch, and there really is way too much food for two people!

We waddle back to the accommodation and retire to bed after the long and varied first day in Moldova.

Thank you Undiscovered Destinations for arranging our trip.

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Posted by Grete Howard 05:42 Archived in Moldova Tagged food fishing boat travel river adventure rural wine lunch pie winery tourism speedboat chisinau vinyards cheese moldova pastry boat_trip polenta orheiul orheiul_vechi dniester_river spee_boat placinta hanul_lui_hangana bryndza plej_placinta sarmale zeama moldovan_food butuceni butuceni_agro_rural_pension mămăligă cricova cricova_winery smetana branza Comments (0)

London - Chisinau

We're here!


View The Undiscovered East (of Europe) - Moldova, Transdniestr & Romania 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Thankfully the flight is not early this morning, so we can have a leisurely start to the day, with a full English breakfast in the hotel. Probably just as well, as we won’t be getting any food on either of the flights today.

Gatwick Airport

At the Ukraine International Airline desk, the check-in girl weighs my backpack and frowns. It is nearly 10kg, and I am only allowed seven. She tries her best to help me out by asking if I have a laptop in there that I can take out. No. She wonders if I can transfer any of the contents to my ‘handbag’. I explain that both are full of camera equipment that I really don’t want to check in. “It is not safe” she agrees. Finally, after establishing that David’s backpack is only 5kg, she reluctantly lets mine go. Phew.

Security is very well organised, with slots marked on the floor next to the conveyor belt, each person having an area to unload their stuff before it actually goes on the belt; rather than a free-for-all that usually ends in chaos. It works well and seems to be much less stressful, as you are not holding anybody up even if you take your time.

The first flight from London Gatwick to Borispol, Kiev is not full and we are able to spread out a little. We both sleep most of the way anyway.

Kiev Borispol Airport

The airport looks brand new, and has certainly been built since we were here last in 2008. Our flight lands at the furthest gate, so we have a long walk to Security, where – after very slow processing - we just turn around for another long walk back to the next gate. Which is in fact the same gate we landed at, and the same plane. We sleep on the next flight too, which is only around an hour.

Chisinau Airport

Moldova’s main airport is also brand new – in fact it is still under construction. A flight from Istanbul arrives just before us, so there is a long and slow queue at Immigration and chaos at the baggage carousels. Sharp elbows are a must, even more so when trying to exit the Arrivals area through a long thin corridor where passengers stop to greet their friends and family, completely blocking the exit. Arghh. I easily lose patience with people who have no consideration for others; and I ‘may’ have ‘accidentally’ shoved someone suitcase into their shins and knocked into them with my backpack…

Tatiana from the local agents waits for us just outside the Arrivals Hall. She has fairly limited English, but is very sweet. Leonid, the driver, is parked right outside the terminal building, and he soon whisks us off to our four star hotel in the centre of Chisinau.

Codru Hotel

I didn’t expect a long queue to check in to our hotel after 22:00 on a Wednesday night. I guess these other people arrived on our flight too, or maybe on the one from Turkey.

large_Hotel_Codru__Chisinau.jpg

We finally get in to (the very pleasant) Room 313 (once we have negotiated the tiny lift which barely fits two people with bags), and crash out.
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Posted by Grete Howard 06:09 Archived in Moldova Tagged airport kiev ukraine flights airline chisinau moldova borispol gatwick airport_security uia ukraine_international_airline codru_hotel hotel_check_in Comments (0)

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