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Ashgabat and Nisa

Our first day in the Forgotten Stan

33 °C
View The Forgotten Stan - Turkmenistan 2019 on Grete Howard's travel map.

As he dropped us off at the hotel last night, or rather early this morning, Meylis (our guide for the trip) suggested meeting at 11:00 today, allowing us time to catch up on a little sleep. We are therefore rather surprised when we get a call from reception at 08:30: “There is a man from your company here who needs your passport for registration”. Reception sends the bellboy up to collect the passports, which is great as we then don't have to get dressed yet.

Five minutes later there is another call from reception: “There is a man from your company here who needs your passport for registration”. David tries to explain that we have already dealt with this and that the bellboy has our passports. They don't understand and after a few minutes of trying to explain in every different way possible, David ends up having to go down to talk to them in person. By the time he gets down there, it is all sorted, of course. So much for sleeping in!

This is what we were woken so early for – several copies of a 'Entry Travel Pass'. Ironically we were never asked for copies of this during our two week tour.

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This was our first sight of the capital city of Ashgabat in daylight, the view from our hotel window.

We later ask the guide what the amazing monument is. "Oh, that is just a roundabout" he said. As the trip goes on, we find that every large roundabout in the major cities has such beautiful white marble and gilded monuments in the centre. Quite surreal.

This is what the roundabout looks like from Google Maps:

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The 8-pointed star seen on the aerial view of the roundabout is found everywhere in Turkmenistan. And I mean EVERYWHERE: railing, lifts, walls, lamp posts, the country's flag, trash cans, emblems.... you name it, it probably has a star on it! Apparently it signifies the Muslims' belief that there are eight steps to heaven.

White Marble Buildings

As I mentioned in yesterday's blog post, the former president of Turkmenistan had a thing for white marble, a tradition that his successor has carried on. Today Ashgabat holds the Guinness World Record for the most marble buildings in any city, with 80% of public buildings covered, using 5 million cubic metres of marble.

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It certainly makes for a bright and clean look for the city, something that is further enhanced by the total lack of advertising hoardings, graffiti, litter and traffic. Ashgabat has to compete with Pyongyang in North Korea as the capital city with the least amount of cars on the road.

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We see a few of the many gleaming buildings as we drive through the empty streets this morning.

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Owadan Tourism

Our first stop this morning is at the office of our local agent, where we are introduced to the General Director.

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They have created a small one-room ethnographic museum where tourists can learn about the history and culture of the various aspects of Turkmen life.

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Here we see two different types of carpets – the white one, made from felt, symbolising spring; while the red carpet, coloured by pomegranate, indicates autumn.

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The Dutar - a two-stringed musical instrument

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I love these colourful boots. On the shelf above you can see the traditional skull
caps many of the local men wear.

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David 'playing' the Dutar

Silk Road Map

The Silk Road Map on the carpet is prepared according to the map from Seyahatname 'Book of Travels' written by the well known 17th century Turkish traveller Evliya Chelebi (1611-1684), who travelled for more than 40 years, mostly on the western part of the Silk Road.

UNESCO considered Chelebi 'Man of the Year' in 2011 on the 400th anniversary of his death.

The carpet was woven by the General Director's family in 1999.

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Before we leave we are encouraged to have a cup of tea, and are given a box of chocolates to take away, as well as a couple of traditional wallets.

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Nisa

By the time we arrive at the ruins of this 3rd century capital of the Parthian Empire, which are reached via a long staircase, I am very hot, my back is hurting, the two blisters on my feet are painful, and the jet lag is catching up with me. It all seems too much trouble.

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Known as Midridatkert city in ancient times, the fortress of Old Nisa had walls that were nine metres thick with 43 rectangular towers and has now been given a UNESCO Heritage status.

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The so-called Round Hall, with a diameter of 17 m. The Old Nisa architecture is unique, original and is unprecedented in whole Central Asia, merging architectural traditions of antique Greece, Rome and the East.

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Old Nisa's walls protected the royal palace, Zoroastrian temples and the power and prestige of successive ruling dynasties until its eventual destruction at the hands of the Mongols in the 13th century.

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Old bricks and shards. I am utterly disgusted to see some Australian tourists picking up bits to take home as souvenirs, boasting about the age and historical importance of the fragments. Shame on them! I really regret not saying anything at the time.

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Restored pillars showing the old and new bricks.

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The necropolis. Only about 30% of the site at Old Nisa has been excavated.

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The Red Hall; so called because remains of red walls have been found underneath the mud.

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Looking out over New Nisa in the distance. It has not been excavated as yet, so does not feature on our itinerary.

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Lunch

Returning to Ashgabat, we stop for lunch at a tourist restaurant where seating is offered in private yurts with no furniture where you sit on a carpet on the floor; or at 'proper' seating areas in the leafy gardens.

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The waitress brings over a menu in tablet form, with photos of each dish and a clickable caption in English which brings up more information about the dish. Love this idea, especially when you don't speak the language.

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For starters we choose a dish called Dograma, consisting of lamb, bread, green onion, fresh tomatoes, water, salt and pepper. It is very tasty, and extremely filling.

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Main course is Manty, which is delightful little dumplings, a very traditional Turkmen dish. They are usually filled with a choice of meat, pumpkin or spinach. We decide on the meat variety. They are served with a small dish of smetana (a type of soured cream).

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The choice of salads in Turkmenistan really impresses me. Each and every restaurant has a huge selection of interesting salads, not at all what I am used to from the UK. Today we choose a concoction called Men's salad: green leaves, boiled beef, gherkins, mayonnaise, white cheese, salt and pepper.

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Independence Square

The Independence Monument is an extravagant affair, covering an area of more than 80,000 m². The entire structure is 118m high, with the minaret-like tower standing at 91m.

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The monument is surrounded by statues of 27 of the most prominent Turkmen heroes.

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Quite by accident we manage to time our visit to coincide with the changing of the guards; which takes place every two hours.

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The square is also home to a number of spectacular fountains.

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The founder emperor of the Seljuc Empire that reigned in this region prior to the Mongolian invasion in 1037.

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Statue to the first Turkmen leader. In his hand he holds three arrows. Legend has it that he demonstrated the power of team work by breaking an arrow in two, quite easily. Then, holding all three arrows in his hand, breaking them was not so easy; and when he had six halves together, it was impossible to break them – proving that alone you are weak, together you become strong.

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The five heads of the eagle on this symbol represent the five states of Turkmenistan, protecting both internal and external enemies (the two-headed snake)

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Everything in Ashgabat is ornate, include the street lamps; here decorated with the crescent (symbolising the new moon = new country) with five stars representing the five states, and the ubiquitous eight-pointed star denoting the eight steps to heaven.

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One of the numerous gold-plated statues to the former president Saparmurat Niyazov. As the self-declared 'President for Life', Niyazov gilded the country with his own image in a cult of personality that makes Kim il Jong look like an amateur.

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National Museum

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As with nearly all museums and archaeological sites in Turkmenistan, we have to pay a 'camera fee' in order to be able to take photos inside. Mostly the price is 50 manat as here, around US$14 according to the official exchange rate of 3.5 manat to the dollar.

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Like so many of the places we visit on this trip, the museum is housed in a grand building, with lots of gold and marble.

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Map showing the five states that make up Turkmenistan

The museum covers several sections, from prehistorical man to more recent finds.

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Archaeological finds from the 3rd Millennium BC at Altyn Depe

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Model of how Gonur Depe - which we shall be visiting later on during our trip - would have looked in its heyday in the 3rd millennium BC

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Bronze Tools from Gonur Depe, dating back to the 3rd - 2nd millennium BC

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Also found at Gonur Depe

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Terracotta fragments of Ossuary found at Munun Depe, from 1st century AD

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Beautiful Rhytons (horn-shaped ceremonial drinking vessels)

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Buddhist sculpture found at Merw

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The campaign of Alexander the Great in the 4th Century BC

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A much more recent ceremonial sword, set with 98 precious stones

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Items found at New Nisa, 3rd century AD

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Turkmenistan has been very much a crossroads of cultures over the years, including being part of the famed Silk Road.

Flag

Everything is grand in Turkmenistan, including this flag pole, complete with a jet engine at the bottom to ensure the flag billows even on windless days. There is no need for it today.

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After independence from the USSR in 1991, a new flag was designed for the independent Turkmenistan, and it is the only country in the world that has carpet designs on its flag. The red stripe on the left with the five patterns, shows the various traditional design of carpet from the five different states in the country. These five motifs, like the eight-point star, feature in so many places within the country: boxes of chocolates, hotel door frames, posters, building decorations, the airport etc. The crescent moon, as well as being a traditional Islamic symbol, also represents the rising of a new country, and the five stars its separate states.

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Arch of Neutrality

While countries like Switzerland and Sweden have neutral foreign policies, Turkmenistan in the only country which is officially recognised by the United Nations as truly neutral. This has been recognised by the addition of a wreath below the carpet symbols on the country's flag.

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Note the five carpet designs on the plaque, as well as the eight-pointed star decorations.

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On top of the 75 metre high monument stands a 12 metre high gold statue of Saparmurat Niyazov, the infamous previous leader. His statue was designed so that it would rotate in order for the great leader to always be facing the sun. Upon his death in 2006, it was agreed that the statue should 'die' with him, and the rotations were turned off.

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Wedding Palace

On a small hill outside the otherwise very flat capital city, sits the bizarre and eccentric Wedding palace – also known as the Palace of Happiness. Built in 2011, the Wedding Palace is created of a number of star shaped floors topped with a 'disco ball' featuring a map of Turkmenistan in gold. Note the eight-pointed stars around the globe and the carpet pattern decorations on the sides of the stars.

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As well as six halls for wedding ceremonies, there are banquet halls for parties and receptions, shops, hair dressers, beauty salons and photography studios, and a small hotel with 22 rooms for newly-weds, Apparently, you can get a divorce here as well, as it is said that divorce can bring some people happiness too! There is also a huge portrait of the current president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, and one of the conditions for being granted a marriage licence is to have your photograph taken in front of his picture.

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The (white, obviously) wedding cars in the country are always lavishly decorated.

Further up the hill stands the equally offbeat building that houses Yildez Hotel. The roads, like elsewhere in the capital, are totally empty for cars, and the numerous street lamps sport unusual, and elegant shapes.

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Being just slightly higher than the main part of town, we do get a bit of an overview of the White City below.

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Grand Turkmen Hotel

When we get back to the hotel, we notice a couple of little things that we later realise will come to be standard in most the places we are staying on this trip: just one set of towels and no spare toilet paper.

The view from the balcony is pretty darn good though, with changing coloured lights on the monuments.

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Considering this is supposed to be a four star hotel there are a few other annoyances too: the bedside table and the glasses in the bathroom have not been cleaned when they made the room up today; one of the bedside lamps do not work; neither does the standard lamp next to the TV, and there are no spare sockets for charging our phones, so we have to unplug one of the bedside lights. I suppose as it is not working anyway, it doesn't really matter.

We are too tired to even contemplate going out for dinner tonight, and settle for a glass or two of Duty Free rum and some nibbles. My back is hurting, and I now have two more blisters on my feet!

Thank you to Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this private tour for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 15:11 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged fountains ruins monuments flag museum necropolis lunch unesco carpets turkmenistan ashgabat nisa silk_road united_nations central_asia national_museum manty undiscovered_destinations wedding_car smetana ethnographic_museum lamp_posts guinness_world_record neutrality dutar grand_turkmen_hotel ex-ussr entry_travel_pass eight_pointed_star white_marble empty_streets owadan_tours turkmenistan_national_museum old_nisa parthian_empire parthian tablet_menu dograma independence_square changing_of_the_guards seljuc saparmurat_niyazov arch_of_neutrality neutral_country wedding_palace gurbanguly_berdimuhamedow yildez_hotel Comments (11)

Sucevita - Moldovita - Marginea - Sucevita

Monasteries, painted eggs and black pottery

sunny 33 °C
View The Undiscovered East (of Europe) - Moldova, Transdniestr & Romania 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Despite all the snoozing I did in the car yesterday, I slept really well last night. The room was nice and cool, the bed comfortable, and we had two single quilts rather than one double. Luxury! I have never understood people wanting to share one large duvet rather than having their own – there is always one person who hogs the covers (me – I like wrapping myself up in them), exposing the other person to the cold air; and often there is a gap in the middle. In Chișinău the duvet was exactly the same size as the bed, so that when we put two generously proportioned bodies under it, we had to bundle up in the middle in order for the quilt to cover us. Much as I love a good cuddle, I sleep way better when not snuggling up.

Anyway, I digress. In daylight this morning we can fully appreciate the architecture and surroundings of the delightful family-run Casa Felicia, a collection of traditional old cottages that have been brought together here in the village of Sucevita.

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Our room is in the right hand side of this cottage, and Andrei is staying in the other half. We have a private bathroom behind the room off a shared corridor (there are two bathrooms there, one for each of the rooms); and all around the outside of the cottage is a lovely balcony with seating.

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We take breakfast in the ‘sun room’ in the main building.

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Painted Monasteries of Bucovina

The main reason I wanted to include this part of Romania in our itinerary is the painted churches in this area, all of which have been dedicated UNESCO Heritage sites. These Medieval churches are richly decorated on external and internal walls, with scenes from the Bible to spread the word of Christianity to those unable to read or write at that time. The churches served a dual purpose - in addition to religious services they were heavily fortified with strong defensive surrounds and sheltered large armies of soldiers preparing to defend the country against Turkish invaders.

Moldovita Monastery

Dating from 1532, the paintings that adorn this Gothic-style church were completed over a five-year period, using the fresco style of adding paint to still-wet plaster.

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One of the main frescoes on the exterior walls, is the Siege of Constantinople, depicting the divine intervention of Virgin Mary during the attack by the Persian Army in 626 AD.

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It is very sad to see graffiti on such ancient and important pieces of art, even if it is from a couple of centuries ago.

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The Last Judgement covers the entire surface of the west wall around the tall arches of the entrance, featuring a river of fire with the sea giving up its dead to judgement.

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Like the exterior walls, every inch of the interior is covered with frescoes illustrating scenes from the Old Testament and the Bible.

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While photography is technically not allowed inside the church, it is explained to me that this came in to force because so many people were unable, or unwilling, to switch the flash off on their cameras, with the intense light damaging the valuable paintings. The ban is not strictly enforced and I take a couple of pictures – without flash of course.

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Egg Painting Workshop

Decorating eggs for Easter has long been a tradition in Romania that has now turned into a year-round cottage industry. We visit Gliceria Hrețiuc’s home and workshop to see it all in action.

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There are many legends and beliefs surrounded these painted eggs; here are a few of them:

  • If the Easter egg is still in one piece the following Easter without cracking, the family will be protected for the whole year.
  • Cracking eggs with friends and family at the church on Easter Sunday will ensure that you will all meet on the other side.
  • It is thought that badly decorated eggs were created so that the hens wouldn’t recognise them
  • Red eggs are traditional at Easter, symbolising the Passion of Christ - when Mary went to see her crucified son, she was carrying a basked of eggs unto which some of Jesus’ blood was spilt, colouring them red.
  • The shell of an egg is symbolic with the stone covering the grave of Jesus. Friends will crack each other’s eggs with the words “Christ is risen", to which the other will reply “Indeed he has”.

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Gliceria mostly uses ducks’ eggs because of their strong shells; and the first thing she does it is drill a hole in the bottom and pump out the centre. I guess they live on omelettes in this house!

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Duck eggs with ostrich eggs behind

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There are two ways in which she decorates her eggs; the first one is the lost wax batik-style method. Everyone around here keeps bees, so there is no shortage of beeswax.

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The wax is melted and the reservoir in a hollow stylus is filled with liquid wax and applied to the egg to cover the areas that are to remain eggshell white.

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Any mistakes can be rectified fairly easily using a razor blade.

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The eggs, complete with a pattern painted on in wax, are dipped in a colour. Once the colour is dry, subsequent layers of wax, followed by more dipping, can be applied; until she has completed the design.

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Gliceria then holds the egg over a naked flame to melt the wax (which can be re-used) to reveal the pattern underneath.

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The result is a smooth and glossy egg.

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The second method uses oil colours mixed with wax and painted directly on to the egg. This gives a very different result, with the pattern protruding from the shell creating a raised 3D effect.

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Sometimes she uses a mixture of both methods to create the effect she wants.

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She has even been known to carefully cut out parts of the shell to create an even more fragile and exquisite design.

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Gliceria shows us some quails’ eggs she has painted – such delicate and painstaking work!

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With so many beautiful eggs in Gliceria's workshop it is hard to know which to choose. I want to get some for myself as well as a gift for a good friend.

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We choose these three for ourselves

As we are leaving Gliceria’s place, we hear the sound of a steam train whistle; and sure enough, just up the road a small tourist train approaches.

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I am baffled at how any train can run on tracks so uneven!

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Many aspects of Romanian life has changed beyond all recognition since we last visited the country some twelve years ago, but the rural scenes remain the same. Agriculture dominates the landscape in this part of the country, and horse carts remain popular for transport.

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Lunch

We stop for lunch at a small road-side guest house popular with German tour groups (around 50 of them arrive as we are eating)
The food is very nice, and the outlook pretty – what more could you want?

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Bread Basket

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Ciulama de pui - chicken in smetana (soured cream) sauce with mămăligă (polenta)

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Mititei la Grătar - minced meat sausages with mustard

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Tocinei Moldovineşti - potato pancakes with smetana (soured cream) and sirene (brined cheese)

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View from our table

On the way to our next monastery, we stop to refill our water bottles at a natural spring.

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Sucevita Monastery

High walls and heavily buttressed defensive towers surround the monastic complex of Sucevita, giving it the appearance of a fortress.

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The complex was a princely residence as well as a fortified monastery.

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Sucevita is said to be the largest monastery ever to be covered in frescoes.

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One of the most noteworthy and impressive murals is that depicting the Bible story of Jacob’s Ladder; showing red-winged angels leading the righteous on their climb to heaven.

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Dating from around 1600, the paintings have retained an impressive amount of colour and detail, and is the best preserved of all the painted churches in this area.

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In 2010 the monastery was inscribed on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.

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Marginea Black Pottery

The pottery produced in this small village is unique in that it is the only place in the world where the black colour is obtained without any additions to the clay.

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The Magopăţ family has produced the pots in the same way since the 16th century – hand turned and fired in a coal furnace.

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Around sixty families practised the art in Marginea up until the communist era, when it became illegal to own a pottery wheel. Many families chose to give up the trade and only a couple continued to practise the art surreptitiously.

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Today it is a thriving business, with tourists from all over the world visiting. We buy a small mask to add to our ever-growing collection.

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While Andrei goes off to try and find a traditional embroidered blouse for a friend, we sit in the shade with a jug of home made lemonade each.

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Very tart, the lemonade is served with sugar sachets to sweeten to taste. This is exactly ‘what the doctor ordered’ on a hot day.

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Chill Time

We go back to Casa Felicia for some free time.

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When we find they don’t sell beer, Andrei goes off in the car to get us a can each. Good man.

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As we sit on the balcony surrounding our cottage and sip our cold beverage, the owner arrives with his horse and a cart-load of firewood.

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I had no idea it was even possible to reverse a horse and cart. Until today, that is.

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Having offloaded the wood, the horse is once more put out to graze and the cart stored again for next time.

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Dinner

Simple but delicious home cooking is the order of the day here at Casa Felicia.

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Noodle soup

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Pork meatballs

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Vegetables and noodles

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Plum slice

Lots of home made red wine and some horincă, a double distilled moonshine.

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While David finds the pure alcohol rather too strong, I love it and have a little too much. Andrei and I get into a deep and heated but extremely interesting discussion, about anything and everything, from childhood memories through European history to cooking, culture, religion and politics.

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Having ‘put the world to rights’, we retire to bed after yet another fascinating day in Romania. Thank you Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this trip.

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Posted by Grete Howard 02:31 Archived in Romania Tagged beer travel church train sleep monastery unesco europe photography frescoes soup haystack pottery eggs noodles kiln quilt legends eastern_europe bucovina meatballs discussions duvet smetana casa_felicia sucevita unesco_heritage_site painted_monasteries egg_painting easter_eggs gliceria_hretjiuc red_eggs christ_is_risen steam_train spring_water horse_drawn_cart ciulama_de_pui mititei_la_grătar tocinei tocinei_moldovinesti peninsuea_valcan marginea black_pottery marginea_black_pottery moonshine horinca how_to_reverse_a_horse 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)

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