Although I spent most of my time in Chișinău I did have two days working in Bălți (the second city in the north) and Cahul (the sixth city in the south-west) which involved a couple of road trips. Because Moldova is such a small country, it was possible to get there and back to Chișinău in a day.
I can’t tell you much about the cities themselves as all I saw was the inside of a classroom but in the Spring sunshine they didn’t seem as depressing as I thought they’d be, although I’m sure the notorious problems of drug addiction (2001 article) and human trafficking (2004 article) are still real and very serious.
Another problem here is police corruption; charging fines for false traffic misdemeanors being a specialty. I even read about someone being fined for impersonating a member of the military for wearing camouflage trousers!
Two of my colleagues were also shaken down for not carrying ID with them. It might be a good idea to have the Embassy number in your mobile phone and if the police hassle you, you could give them a bell on+373 2222 5902 ( or +373 6910 4442 out of hours).
The countryside we drove through was relatively featureless with low rolling hills (there are no mountains in the country) and treeless plains.
Occasionally the monotony of the green fields was broken by bright red strips of poppies, growing wild their thousands.
The wine making industry accounts for 30% of GDP and as you would expect there are vineyards everywhere, in varying states of repair.
If you see people selling cherries and strawberries by the roadside, make sure you stop and get some. The cherries we had were fantastic, and probably completely organic as the farmers can’t afford to buy pesticides and fertilisers, not that they need them really.
Some of the houses in the small villages we passed through were very pretty. I felt a bit strange stopping to take pictures but the images from this Google search will give you an idea.
We did stop to capture this Orthodox church with its onion spires, creatively fashioned from aluminum sheeting.
Orthodox crosses stand vigil by the roadside everywhere you go. They all seem to bear a skull and crossbones motif for some reason. Perhaps a reminder of our temporary existence on this planet.
Driving from Cahul we passed through Comrat, the capital of the breakaway region of Gagauzia. The people here are of Turkish Christian origin and very pro-Russian, as demonstrated by their choice of municipal statue.
Coming back from Bălți we took In a viewing of Orhei Vecchi, a famous historical site and national cultural symbol about 60km north of Chișinău.
Located on a narrow loop of the River Răut, the site has been occupied since the Paleolithic.
Although there are archaeological sites all around the area, visually there’s not much to see except for the dark brooding apertures of the 14th century monastery, carved out of the rock strata.
With more time I would have liked to have visited some of the country’s famous wineries such as Purcari, www.purcari.md, Chateau Vartely www.vartely.md and Et Cetera www.etcetera.md.
There are also two very famous wineries that would make a good day trip from Chișinău. Both store their wines in old limestone mines which once produced the stone that built the capital. The cool temperature underground is ideal for storing wine.
The Cricova wine complex www.cricova.md is the second largest in the country with 120km of natural galleries holding 1.25 million bottles of wine.
Various legends are attached to this place. During the German invasion of the Soviet Union, many Jews were hidden from the Nazis in the barrels down here. Another story is that Yuri Gagarin had a party in the mine in 1966 and had to be carried out two days later. Putin also celebrated his 50th birthday here.
However the largest wine complex is Milesti Micii www.milestii-mici.md which, with over 200km of tunnels and 2 million bottles of wine, is the biggest wine storage facility in the world.
The tunnels are so wide that you can drive a car through them. Upon arrival you simply purchase a ticket, pick up your personal tour guide and drive your car straight inside.
In reality only 55km is used for wine storage but it’s still very impressive driving past the huge storage butts. You can get a feel of it from this video.
The rarer bottled wines are kept at the centre of the mine in numbered caches stored on shelves built into the tunnel walls.
Some of the caches belong to rich private collectors from as far afield as China and Japan who rent the space to store their wines.
After exploring the maze of tunnels we eventually came to two huge wooden doors which opened to reveal an underground banqueting complex that would make an ideal lair for a Bond villain.
My colleagues and I had opted for a more expensive ticket that entitled us to a lunch and wine tasting, as well as our own two folk musicians to serenade us.
We were shown to the main banqueting hall where plates of cold cuts, cheese and salad waited for us. The food was simple basic fare (B) but it did feel very special eating in this unusual place.
Sadly the four wines we were given to taste were pretty horrible, as were the two complementary bottles gifted to us at the end of the tour. I gave mine away and went to the Carpe Diem wine shop in Chișinău for better stuff to take home,
I did buy a bottle of their famous dessert wine from their shop once we got outside. My guide had recommended the 1986 vintage but I later found out at Carpe Diem that this was the year of the Chernobyl disaster which Is why they were selling it off! The wine was fine, it just had a stigma attached to it.
I’d definitely recommend a visit here for the experience, just don’t expect to taste any good wine!
You might also enjoy reading Michael Palin’s travelogue about his experiences in Moldova. I really liked the country and would happily go back.