A varied day for sure - city walking tour, wine tasting, boat trip and cave monastery
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.
Any place that serves champagne as a regular item on their breakfast buffet gets my vote.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
The current bell tower is a replica and was built in 1961 to replace the original, which was destroyed during the Soviet era.
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.
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.
Giant chess set
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.
Cricova – an Underground Wine City
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!
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).
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.
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.
Later, after another little ‘train’ journey, we see an English film about Cricova and its history.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Presidential Suite
Working fireplace with a 60m high chimney!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Stuffed cabbage leaves is another popular dish in this region, where it is known as sarmale.
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.
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.
At the end of a small naturally made ‘jetty’, a speedboat is waiting to whisk us off for a trip on the Dniester River.
The boat is fast, and skims the surface as it speeds past fishermen and fishing birds.
Many fishermen spend considerable time on the river, staying in specially constructed floating cabins, some of which are quite elaborate and look rather comfortable.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
There is a great view over the valley from the ledge outside.
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.
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.
Our room is large and comfortable, with the traditional style under-bed heating!
In the grounds we find an adorable and playful kitten who keeps us occupied for some considerable time.
As the light fades, dozens and dozens of house martins hang around on the telegraph wires before retiring for the night.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.