I just came back from a 3 day trip to the country of Moldova. A country that is not just one of the least visited countries in Europe (only beat by the micro-nations Liechtenstein and San Marino), but also the world. The world bank ranks it as the 18th least visited country in the world in 2016, with a mere 121.000 tourists. In addition to this statistic, it is also the poorest country in Europe. So why go to Moldova? Well. Moldova has a rich history, and has at times been a vital battleground between the east and west. Given that it is so poorly visited, it is also a mostly unspoiled country where you get a true authentic eastern European experience. And finally, found within the borders of Moldova, there’s a unrecognized soviet republic, Transnistria, that is a little piece of Russia in the heart of Europe.
Your first question might perhaps be “where even is Moldova”? It’s a small landlocked country nestled in between Romania to the west and south and Ukraine to the north and east. It’s a former Soviet union state, and is located on the crossroads between the Balkans and Eastern Europe. Due to its important geographical location, it has had some influence and importance in history – today however, not so much.
The capital city is Chisinau located in central Moldova. The capital has a population of about 635k and the country as a whole has just about 3 million people.
My trip lasted 3 days, in the republic of Moldova and Transnistria, and a afternoon in Bucharest prior to that.
Since Moldova is so relatively isolated, catching a flight to the capital city, Chisinau, can be both expensive and complicated. There’s no direct flights from Denmark at least. So i opted in for another plan, taking a plane to Bucharest, the Romanian capital, then spending a few hours there with a friend of mine, before taking the over-night bus to Chisinau. A great plan, that would also allow me to experience the exciting trip through Romania, to Moldova. Or so i thought.
The flight, and the afternoon in Bucharest was great. I got to just relax with my friend, since I’ve been to Bucharest before, so there wasn’t a great need to go sightseeing. We did however, of course, still pass by the Palace of Parliament, one of the largest buildings in the world, and always an impressive sight.
After a few hours, I went to the bus station, and caught the first bus to Chisinau for just 15 euros. It was already late at this time, so the dark had startled to set. By the time we left Bucharest, it was also completely dark outside. The trip to Chisinau goes along the country-side highways of Romania, through a couple of smaller cities. The drive is about 450 kms and was scheduled to take 8 hours in the bus, but we somehow ended up spending 11 hours in total, including a 2 hour involuntary stop at the border, for no apparent reason, but after the 2 hours we were led into another bus that took us to Chisinau. The bus itself was comfortable for sitting, but not very good for sleeping, thus it was quite a horrid night that left me rather tired upon arrival in Chisinau, so I walked straight to my hotel; “Mesogios Deluxe Hotel” – not exactly that deluxe, but for Moldovan standards it was probably very high end.
The first day
After arriving, and sleeping for a few hours, i woke up again around 9am and went out to explore town. Before coming, I didn’t really know much about what there was to see or do in Chisinau. I knew there’s a bunch of churches and fancy government buildings, but that was about it. So I just went with the flow, led on by a few map-apps, and found some of the more interesting sights of the city.
The first stop was the Stefan cel Mare square. Stefan cel Mare is the national hero, who successfully repelled a turkish invasion in 1475, defending the christian Europe from the islamic invasion that had swept over the rest of the balkans in those years. He is very highly revered, and his name and face is present all over the country. At the square, there’s a grand statue of Stefan, at the entrance to Stefan cel Mare park. Straight south from this park, is the government building. It is a grand grey building that looks like it was ripped straight out of a soviet nightmare.
Other sights in the surrounding area, serving as the central square of Chisinau, is the Belfry clock tower, the Nativity Church right next to the Belfry tower, and the Triumphal Arch, which is almost cutely tiny attempt at replicating the Arch d’ Triomph in Paris.
Beyond these sights, my first city-sightseeing brought me past the local Armenian church, the Pushkin house museum, the Chisinau university, strolling along the Grigore Vieru boulevard from the central square through the city, and across the Dniester river splitting the city in two. Across the river is the stunning Church of Saints Constantine and Helen, located on a hill overlooking different parts of Chisinau, offering a good view of some of the old brutalist apartment blocks, and big factory smoke stacks that sticks out across the cityscape.
Finally, something that was very interesting and peculiar indeed, is that there are no less than 2 monuments to the victims of soviet policies, which left many Moldovans dead. One is near the central square, and is specifically dedicated to the victims of Lenin, and the second is further out of town, near the Chisinau central station, and it is dedicated to the victims of Stalinist policies. This is quite unusual to see a former soviet republic going to such lengths to publicly distance themselves from their old rulers.
Chisinau isn’t a very developed city, and there aren’t many skyrises here. Those that are here are general typical soviet apartment blocks. This also means that it is generally fairly easy to tell that the country and city isn’t among the richest. In fact, Chisinau reminds me more of a medium sized European city rather than a modern European capital. Food and supplies here are also cheap. I enjoyed a nice classical homemade Moldovan chicken-herb soup during my exploration.
Another thing that you immediately realize is that there’s not a lot of people speaking English here, like at all. I’m used to old people not being able to speak any English, but usual the young people, and staff at restaurants and hotels are able to communicate in English. Not the case here. The staff at my hotel were way more adept in Russian, and it took some signing and repeating of words to get my meaning through. Same at the restaurants. Despite all this, Chisinau and the people are fairly nice, but the inability to communicate effectively with people does make interaction harder. But at no point did i feel unsafe, even while walking through some otherwise sketchy neighbourhoods.
After walking around the city for a couple of hours, I went back to the hotel to rest a bit, before heading out again in the evening. In the evening, I went and saw the impressive and huge World War 2 memorial complex, which is located in a park a bit out of the city center. It is very tranquil and beautiful. It was right after V-day, so the place was overflowing with flowers, which added to the beauty of the place. The complex is made up of the central eternal flame and tomb of the unknown soldier, and is surrounded by mural cut into red stone of the brace heroic soldiers and their struggles, dotted with tombs of military personel of all ranks. At the outskirts of the complex is a large military grave yard. Finally there’s also a specific monument to the children who died in the wars. As a beautiful touch, children are not just allowed, but also encouraged to ride their bikes, roller blades, play ball games etc here, so it isn’t just all sad, and connects today’s children to their demised predecessors. Visiting the complex was certainly a very solemn experience.
After that, I walked down to the previously mentioned victims of Stalin monument, before venturing back to the hotel to get a good nights sleep before the big tour the next day; Transnistria!
Going to unrecognized land
I had booked a day tour to Transnistria beforehand, through the company Top Tours Moldova. Beyond me, there was 2 girls from Finland as well, for 3 persons, the tour was a reasonable 75 euros per person, for a full day in a modern car, with a personal guide/driver, and entry to all the places. The tour was led by the local guide Oleg, who was very good with English, and led us through an interesting day of soviet sightseeing.
Second night in Chisinau
After returning from Transnistria, I set out for another small walk around town, which led me past the Moldovan Parliament building, the Presidents palace – which by the way, is a giant ugly tower with golden window panels everywhere, not very beautiful to be honest. Finally I saw the Transfiguration church, which, while not being the biggest and most grandest church, is definitely amongst the prettiest in Chisinau, and it is adorned with classic russian orthodox golden domes, and beautiful murals of Jesus Christ on the facade.
Giant wine cellars and beautiful nature
The third day was spent on another tour out of Chisinau, again with Oleg from Top Tours Moldova, but this time it was just me and him. The tour went first to the Cricova Winery/Wine Cellars, which is one of the biggest in the world, with a staggering 120 kms of very wide underground tunnels. It is capable of storing a mindblowing 10 million liters of wine. I had a guided tour through the complex, which mostly consisted of going through parts of the underground tunnels in a train, and seeing the wine making facilities. The end of the 2,5 hour(!) tour is a visit to their museum of old wines, and visits of dignitaries and leaders from around the world. They have hosted people like Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, John Kerry, Ilham Aliev and Yuri Gagarin! There’s pictures of all these leaders in the facility, and they also each have a personal wine storage here, that they can deposit from whenever they wish. It was quite grand! The finale of the tour is a wine tasting, of 5 different wines. Quite frankly i didn’t enjoy the wines very much, only their desert wine was to my taste. But the actual tasting (along with snacking) took place in a majestic room, and it felt very grand for sure, making up for the rather poor wine.
Riding through the massive tunnels in the little train felt magical, almost giving a sense of being in Gringotts from the Harry Potter universe, and this feeling was only amplified by our guide wearing an extremely neat coat that also looked like it was taken directly out of the Harry Potter universe.
After Cricova, we ventured on, through Moldovan countryside and small picture-esque villages, all while the sky was clear and the sun was high in the sky. Truly a lovely day indeed. The next stop would be at a very small village called Curchi, which is located out in the middle of nowhere, and has no cities or larger villages in the immediate vicinity. Despite this, a lot of people are coming here. Why you might ask? Because it is home a fantastic, and big, church and monastery, where monks still live and practice to this day. The church is located on the banks of a beautiful lake, and is surrounded by raw nature on all sides. It is a lovely site. The church itself is colored red, which makes it stick out, but also makes it somehow appealing to the eye. On the monastery complex is yet another smaller church, which is very much out-shined by its bigger brother.
Finally we ventured to the last stop of the day, the canyon of Old Orhei, and Orheiul Vechi. Central Moldova is mostly flat, only getting more mountainous to the north, so this fairly large canyon with a calm river running through the bottom, sticks out quite a bit in this otherwise flat landscape. The river has a bend, and so does the canyon, which makes for a spectacular sight. On one side of the canyon is a village nestled up along the hillside, while on the other side of the canyon, is a cave monastery and a church. Both of these sites are magnificent to observe. In recent times a church was built near the cave-monastery, this church isn’t very big or impressive however. The monastery is by far the biggest attraction here. There’s also a small village here, called Trebujeni, which has cashed in on the steady stream of tourists coming here. Building a small traditional hotel, restoring old houses to show off old-time Moldovan village life and original Moldovan houses etc. Restaurants are also found here. The whole area demands a hike by foot, something which is almost required since the roads here are very small, and they are very strict about how many cars are being let into the area. Those who can’t enter with their cars, must park outside the village at a big parking lot and then walk into the village.
The cave monastery is also still in use, although it is not as hidden and secret as it used to be, especially after the fall of the soviet union, these monks are again allowed to exercise their faith in public.
Standing on the small cliffs near the monastery provides a magnificent view of the whole canyon, and you can definitely find yourself being spiritual here. The natural wonders of this place are almost unbelievable.
That was the end of the day tour. Back home in Chisinau, I went around to some of the places I had already visited previously, before heading out to pick up some fast food at Andy’s Pizza, a ever present chain in russian speaking countries apparently. With snacks and drinks in tow, I settled down and watched the Eurovision final, before having to get up early next morning to fly home.
In conclusion, Moldova while at first look might not be very interesting and have much to offer, does however have its bright spots and wonders to witness, both natural and man-made. It is a must-see destination for people who likes off-the-beaten-path places, and that’s even though it is located in the heart of Europe! Transnistria in itself would make it worth coming here. Just don’t expect too much, it is not a traditional tourist place, and the tourist industry is in it’s infancy, but that might just be appealing to you!