Meeting two Moldovans during the Lingua Franca summer camp convinced me and the friend I was traveling with that we had to visit this landlocked country between Romania and Ukraine. As one of my friends informed me via facebook while there, some studies list it as the least visited country in Europe. From Iasi, the regional capital of the Romanian state by the same name, we found an antiquated 15-passenger van that was the primary form of public transit. The van had to be pushed or towed every time it stopped; on its last breakdown, the driver just had us all get out on the outskirts of the Moldovan capital. Thankfully, Moldovan taxi drivers are considerably more affordable, and more honest, than some of their Roman counterparts.
The capital of Moldova is Chisinau (pronounced Kish-ih-now), and we found a new hostel just behind Malldova, the nation’s largest shopping mall, a twenty minute walk from the center. You can see most of the capital core in an afternoon of walking around, including a giant chess set conveniently located between the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Nativity and the National Assembly.
In 2009, after communists won a majority of parliamentary seats, Moldovans joined the ‘Arab Spring’ and there were massive demonstrations, including setting fire to the main federal buildings and even burning the original copy of the national constitution. One of our Friends referred to it as the ‘forgotten revolution’ because of the relative lack of attention they got, despite timing it to join the wave of uprisings that made the western news cycles.
Today, as you walk down the sidewalks, nearly every corner boasts a small bar – basically a keg with a plastic counter built over and around it – where you can buy a pint of Kvas for about fifty cents. Housing was about seven euro a night, and twenty euros was enough to cover a full traditional meal at an upscale restaurant, complete with a bottle of aged cabernet, for two.
While in Chisinau, we took a tour of Milestii Mici, a winery and wine storage facility, with about 200km of underground tunnels, a quarter of which are used to store the world’s largest single wine collection. There are approximately 2 million litres of wine here. It is best to think of it as something like Napa Valley meets Moria (sans balrog). You literally drive into the caverns, following road signs named for the varietals stored in massive oak barrels or in the catacomb-like casas of the Golden Collection. Their prize possessions are a little less than 200 bottles of 1973 vintage – each registered as a part of the national heritage – and which cost upward of 2000 euro apiece. The last one purchased by actor Steven Segal to be given as a gift.
Our second full day gave us a choice: we could visit a sliver of disputed land called Transnistria, where Soviet Communism still survives, we are told, and half a million people call it home. (Transnistria is not recognized by any other nation, only other unrecognized “frozen-conflict zones” of the former Soviet Union).
Instead, we choose to go to Orhei Vechi, where a series of caves used have been used as a monastery since the 13th century, but with more ancient settlement in the area. The site was clearly once under the sea, as the caves (now hundreds of feet above the riverbed) are almost covered with fossilized shells. Set in the middle of a double bend in the river, which has long since carved out a broad canyon, some guides claim it is the most beautiful place in Moldova. I am inclined to agree.
*”Backpacking in the Balkans Plus” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it!