Travel: Exploring Moldova – Europe’s “least known country”

MOLDOVA is perhaps the least known country in Europe. It is also one of the smallest (3.5 million inhabitants) and poorest; and probably the least visited by anyone in the UK.

It has recently made headlines as it borders Romania and Ukraine and, despite its poverty, has accepted more than its fair share of Ukrainian refugees. It was also a member state of the Soviet Union for most of the last century. It has now been granted candidate status for EU membership. It was also a member state of the Soviet Union for most of the last century.

As with much of Eastern Europe, Moldova’s history for more than half of the last millennium has been dominated by its larger neighbours. The Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires fought their endless battles against each other in its territory; and the region now called Moldavia (formerly Bessarabia) has always been controlled by one or other of them.

During World War II, it was annexed by the Soviet Union, invaded by the Nazis, and then retaken by the Soviets. The Nazis exterminated the large Jewish population and the Soviets transported several thousand people to Siberia who they thought could oppose the Soviet regime. The capital Chisinau (also known as Kishinev) was virtually destroyed in the process; aggravated by a severe earthquake in 1942, and droughts and famines in 1946 and 48.

Chisinau Cathedral, in one of the largest central parksRural Moldova view from Orheiul Vecchi monastery

Chisinau is now a pleasant, comfortable, friendly and human-sized city; with wide tree-lined streets, vast parks with lakes, trolleybuses, open street markets and places to eat and drink. However, it has few significant buildings or monuments apart from the occasional Orthodox Church, so it is not notable as a tourist destination on its own.

But Moldova has several places worth visiting outside the city; most of which can be reached by minibus or marshruta (private communal taxis) from the vast bus station.

The region of Transnistria (across the Dniester River), bordering Ukraine, is one of them – or was before the current war with Ukraine. It declared independence from Moldova in 1991; and after a brief civil war that cost a thousand lives, remains an independent pro-Soviet oddity unrecognized by the rest of the world.

Chisinau Cathedral, in one of the largest central parksView of the Raut river from the monastery

It has its own border guards, currency and garrison of Russian “peacekeeping” troops. In the streets of the capital Tiraspol there are floats for children to climb on, statues of Lenin, slogans of extortion and billboards proclaiming unification with Russia. When I visited in 2017, it was considered a real tourist attraction and a visitor could walk through its streets without any sense of danger. With the current tensions, visiting now might be inadvisable. Odessa is only 70 miles away…

Chisinau Cathedral, in one of the largest central parksStatue of Lenin in Tiraspol

Further from the current conflict, there is the monastery of Orheiul Vecci, carved into the living rock on the side of the cliff.

The monastery itself is small, occupied by a single monk. It is reached by an almost invisible staircase in what appears to be an isolated bell tower. Some beautiful icons and religious paintings are exhibited inside; but you can also slip on a narrow ledge overlooking the S-shaped bend of the Raut River and the villages of Trebunje and Butucene, which have depended on subsistence agriculture unchanged for centuries. An intensely dramatic place.

Chisinau Cathedral, in one of the largest central parksSolitary monk at Orheiul Vecchi Monastery

There is a church further up the ridge with more of the same (except above ground) and the whole area would be well worth a good few hours of walking just for the view of the surrounding largely deserted landscape.

It is possible to combine a visit to Orheiul with a visit to the nearby Cricova wine cellars. Moldova is renowned for its excellent wines, most of which have been exported to Russia. The cellars claim to be the largest in the world: over 100 kilometers of tunnels under the village of Cricova, containing over 1.3 million bottles. It is actually a huge wine factory, processing grapes from all over Moldova; most of which are currently in storage and ripening to their best-to-use date. The visit (with an English-speaking guide) is done by underground mini-train. You can observe some of the wine production processes and also see collections of rare and valuable ancient wines – all culminating in a guided tasting (of four different wines), with tips on how to judge the quality of wine. a wine. Quite an experience.

Chisinau Cathedral, in one of the largest central parksInside the Cricova wine cellar

Moldova has no beaches or access to the sea, no resorts, no cheap air flights and little tourist infrastructure; well what there is can easily arrange a tour for you. It is therefore a place that can only appeal to the most intrepid travelers, interested in history; and simply visiting a place few other people would consider.

As such, it can be very rewarding.

* I visited in March 2017, spent four nights/three days in Chisinau and visited the places described above.