Archive for the Moldova Category

On the road in Moldova

Posted in Bălți, Cahul, Comrat, Moldova with tags , , , , on March 25, 2015 by gannet39

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.

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Occasionally the monotony of the green fields was broken by bright red strips of poppies, growing wild their thousands.

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The wine making industry accounts for 30% of GDP and as you would expect there are vineyards everywhere, in varying states of repair.

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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.

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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.

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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.

20140530_181519Although 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.

 

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With more time I would have liked to have visited some of the country’s famous wineries such as Purcari, www.purcari.mdChateau 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.

20140524_125729However 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.

20140524_120310The 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.

20140524_123925The rarer bottled wines are kept at the centre of the mine in numbered caches stored on shelves built into the tunnel walls.

20140524_124053Some of the caches belong to rich private collectors from as far afield as China and Japan who rent the space to store their wines.20140524_123643
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.

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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.

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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.

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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,

20140524_123306I 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.

20140524_131158I’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.

Chișinău – where to eat

Posted in Chișinău, Moldova with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 23, 2015 by gannet39

Culinary traditions in Moldova reflect the various ethnic and linguistic identities with influences from Romania, Russia, Ukraine and Turkey.

A typical Moldovan meal will invariably include a couple of scoops of yellow Mămăligă (maize polenta), their most recognizable staple.

This will be garnished with some sour cream or cottage cheese, as well as some grated Brînză (or Brânză) cheese.

Brînză is the generic word for cheese, but can also mean a specific hard salty sheep’s cheese. It’s also eaten in Poland, Slovakia, Romania and Croatia.

It’s a rare meal that doesn’t include at least one of these two ingredients in Moldova.

20140526_155835A very common dish is Plăcinte or cheese pie which you will come across in many versions, both sweet and savoury, all over the country. It’s a typical lunch time snack and convenient street food. There’s even a popular takeaway chain of the same name selling it.

In terms of flavouring, parsley and dill were the only herbs I came across.

Moldova used to be the main wine producer for the Eastern bloc, although many vineyards were uprooted during an anti-alcoholism campaign under Gorbachev. However viticulture is still very important with the red wines and cognacs in particular being very good.

 

Many of the following restaurants are quite expensive by local standards but very cheap for visitors. Usually the wine would account for half or more of the bill and a good bottle would cost as little as £10 (at 23 lei to the pound in 2014). As a result I lived like a king for the whole of my stay.

Here’s my Google map with these and other places not mentioned.

Big Deal (Intermediate B+), Strada Mitropolit Varlaam 69a

I came here with my colleagues on the first night as it’s the best place for traditional Moldovan food near the hotel. My only gripe is that it’s downstairs in a cellar, probably nice and warm in winter but in Spring it would be nice to sit outside.

20140518_193407The food is good, nothing amazing just simple and tasty. I had Tocana (stewed pork) with Mămăligă (polenta) and grated Brînză (cheese) which was all very nice (B+) and the first of many similar meals.

20140518_191731Three of us shared a bottle of 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon from Chateau Purcari, the most famous wine-producer in the country. This one was good (B) but I know they have better.

20140518_202400I finished with a glass of Divin (cognac) called Bălți, taking it’s name from the second city in the north. Again it was pretty good, but there’s better to be had.

 

La Taifas (High Intermediate B+), Strada Bucureşti 67 (entrance on Puşkin), www.lataifas.allmoldova.com

20140523_200104My favourite place, I came here four times in all. It’s high end traditional with lots of rustic decorations and waiters in folk costume.

There are four dining rooms. In the first room there is usually live traditional music which is excellent as it goes but a little loud, so I tended to sit in one of the side rooms.

I’d usually have a soup to start.

20140523_194728My favourite was the Ciorbiţa cu Perişoare de Carne, or soup with meatballs made I think with equal proportions of veal and pork (A).

20140528_195846I also liked the Ciorbă de Burtă Dreasă, or sour tripe soup, which looked terrible but tasted great (B+).

20140521_201155_2And the Borş su Carne de Raţă, or Russian beetroot soup with duck meat and a scoop of sour cream, was okay (B-).

20140521_203226For the main I had Chiftelute Moldovenesti, more meatballs made in the simple national style (egg, breadcrumbs, parsley) in a tomato sauce with noodles on the side. The dark purple basil on the plate was incredible by the way.

20140528_201950And you can’t go wrong with a steak and sautéed potatoes (cartofi), called Antrecote Moldovensc here.

20140531_205526If you’re not massively hungry you could just have some of their excellent Plăcinte cheese pie (B+).

20140528_193751I had a few wines here. The ‘Taraboste’ Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blend from Chateau Vartely was memorable (B+).

20140523_193736The 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Rezervia from Chateau Vartely was also very enjoyable (B+). I prefer it to their Merlot Rezervia although that’s very good too.

20140521_195515I also liked the ‘Fabula’ Cabernet Sauvignon from the lesser known Fautor winery (B).

20140531_205059On my final visit, having tasted nearly everything decent on their wine list, the waiter dug deep in the cellar for this 2003 Malbec ‘Carlevana’ which was just okay (B).

20140521_220642The desserts were pretty hefty, hard to finish and not particularly sweet so I only tried a couple. My favourite was the Clătite cu Vişine, or pancakes with sour cherries (B).

20140523_205925Prune Umplute cu Nuci, or prunes stuffed with nuts (a very common dessert) were fine in themselves but too numerous for me to finish (C).

20140521_222932To finish I tried a clear ‘brandy’ distillate made of quince, aka Rachiu de Gutuie. It was fine but not my preferred digestif (B).

 

Vatra Neamului (High  Intermediate B), Strada Puşkin 20b, www.vatraneamului.md

Another posh place, right next door to La Taifas. Perhaps slightly posher with a bigger menu. It’s fine but I prefer the atmosphere next door.

20140519_194902Here I had Zama (or Zeama) de Gaina cu Taiatei aka chicken noodle soup, which is considered to be the Moldovan dish. It was very enjoyable (A).

20140519_200237Also some Sărmălute cu carne, cabbage leaves stuffed in this case with pork mince and rice and steamed.

This was served with Smantana (Smetana), a creamy dip prepared with Brînză and lemon juice, all of which was excellent (A). This was my favourite dish over the whole stay and I had them whenever I could.

Their mixed grill with baked potatoes was fine but unremarkable in its simplicity (C+).

20140519_194503I drank a 2011 Merlot from up and coming winery Et Cetera which was very good (B+).

20140519_212033And finally a seven-year-old Divin called ‘Moldova’ which was okay (B).

 

 

 

 

Pani Pit (Intermediate B), 115 Strada 31 August 1989

A nice location with lots of tables outside in a leafy courtyard with a fountain and live tradional music. The food is ok but not the greatest.

20140520_201823I started with Tartar de Vită, a classic beef tartar, which was good (B).

20140520_204119The following Costită Moldovenească, a fried pork chop with all the usual trimmings. Perfectly edible again but tedious in its extreme simplicity (C+).

20140520_200837However the bottle of 2007 Cab Sauv Merlot blend called Codru Prestige from the famous Cricova winery (Codru  being the region) that I shared with my colleague Jonathan was one of the best reds I had here (B+).

20140520_211710Ditto the Luceafăr brandy, also one of the best I had during my visit (B+).

 

Café Opa (Low Intermediate B+), 88 Strada Mitropolit Varlaam

For a change from Moldovan food, Greek food is a cheap and readily available alternative and this was the best Greek place near the hotel.

I ended up eating lunch here a lot or finishing the evening with a cognac and a chat with the friendly staff. It also seems to be a favourite spot amongst the backgammon fraternity and you’ll certainly get a game here if you’re looking for one.

20140531_145303The food is simple Greek fare, nothing special. Typically I’d just have some chicken gyros with pita, rice, salad and tsatziki.

20140525_152450Perhaps with a side of their excellent hummus.

20140601_133727Or maybe just a mozzarella and rocket salad with some lovely ripe tomatoes (B). Not sure about the toast though (C).

I can’t remember their prices but it was next to nothing and cheaper than a Moldovan restaurant.

20140524_212703The Calarasi seven-year old cognac they have here is pretty decent (B+). They serve it Greek style with a couple of coffee beans in the glass which adds to the aroma. Mind you Greek brandy (Metaxa) needs all the help it can get.

 

The following places were sub-standard in my opinion:

 

El Greco (High Elementary B), Strada Vasile Alecsandri 86 (entrance on Strada Columna, opposite the Educational Centre bookshop)

Another simple Greek place, but not quite as good as Cafe Opa above. There is a courtyard where  you can sit outside and the restaurant turns into a disco later on. Handy for meeting my national manager and popular with some colleagues, but I’d go elsewhere if I had the choice.

20140601_211101The gyros are fine (B) but I was unimpressed by their moussaka (C-) and their hummus seems coarse and less tasty (C) than that at Café Opa.

20140601_205644As usual the wine came to the rescue. The 2008 Codru from Cricova was good (B+). Codru is the winemaking region that the best Moldovan wines come from.

 

Caravan (Intermediate C), Strada Mihai Eminescu 64

This is a relatively pricey Uzbek restaurant next door to Big Deal. Although the terrace is a nice place to sit, the food is terrible and I’d advise you to avoid it.

20140522_194632Having never tried Uzbek cuisine before I did a bit of research and found out the national dish is pilaf. When I ordered it here it looked wonderful visually, on a beautiful blue ceramic plate with the yellow pilaf decorated with pomegranate seeds, but it tasted really horrible and I didn’t finish it (D).

20140525_205134Not wanting to write them off on one visit, I came back and tried the Manty (or Manti) which are steamed, or in this case fried, meat dumplings of Turkic origin. From what I could gather from reviews on the internet these are supposed to be their best dish and they are better than the pilaf but still not that great (C).

20140522_193437However, the 2009 Cab Sauv Rezervia from Chateau Vartely was for me the best bottle of wine I had here (A) although the quality can be variable as I discovered when I ordered it again (C-). Think it must have been corked the second time but we didn’t notice till we got nearer the bottom of the bottle.

20140525_183126I also had a 2009 Negru de Purcari here, which is generally considered to be the best wine in Moldova. I found it hard to disagree (A).

20140522_211525To finish a shot of Kvint, Moldova’s best selling cognac from the breakaway region of Transnistria, which was okay (B).

 

Saslcioara (Intermediate B), Strada A. Puşkin 39, www.salcioara.md

Yet another traditional style place with lots of folk art and crafts on display. They don’t usually have live music which is a good thing, and there are tables in booths making for a more cosy eating experience. Unfortunately though my experience of the food wasn’t that great. I went twice but that was enough.

20140529_210119The Ciorbă de Fasole, or bean soup, is ok (B-), as is their oily and unphotogenic mushroom soup (B-).

However I can’t recommend either of the two pork mains I had here (C-) which were pretty ugly looking too.

20140529_205231The 2012 Rara Neagra de Purcari I had here is a very good wine (B+), although I’m not sure what the grape is.

20140530_195612The 2010 Rosu de Purcari is I think a Cab Sauv/Merlot/Malbec blend and also pretty good. Purcari generally was cheaper here than at other restaurants.

 

Grill House (aka Orasul Vechi) (High Intermediate B), Strada Armenească 24

I think Orasul Vechi and Grill House are the same place, as their signs are right next door to each other. I went in the entrance marked Grill House anyway.

It seems very popular and you would need to reserve for a large group in order to get a table on the small terrace. So it was inside for me. Lots of Italians and company executives eat here which would seem to indicate quality, but I didn’t enjoy my food sadly.

20140526_215821Ok so I did take a chance on the grilled Bulls Testicles (I like to challenge myself with offal if I see it on the menu) but they were pretty horrible, just very lightly grilled and topped with virtually raw garlic, yuck! (D).

20140526_215638The lamb chops with onion rings to follow were fine but were pretty unspecial for somewhere trying to be high end (B-).

20140526_214405The 2009 Cab Sauv from the Gitana winery was the saving grace (B+).

The chocolate profiterolles presented as a swan swimming on chocolate and vanilla sauce was quite beautiful though (B+). Shame my picture didn’t come out.

I really didn’t like the over attentive but rather unfriendly service from my waiter and I didn’t tip him, much to his chagrin. Overall not worth the high prices in my opinion and I wouldn’t go back.

 

And a few places I didn’t get to go to:

 

Barracuda (Intermediate B), Strada Puşkin 35

A fish specialist. My colleague recommends the prawn and salmon soup.

 

Gălbenuş (Elementary A), Strada Puşkin

I didn’t eat here but if you’re on a budget this canteen style place would be a good place to go. They weigh the food you choose and charge you accordingly.

 

Nobil Luxury Boutique Hotel, Strada Mihai Eminescu 49/1, www.nobil.md

The restaurant on the penthouse floor has the best view of the city according to a guide I read but it wasn’t open in the evening when I went.

 

Pensiunea La Hanul Lui Vasile (High Intermediate B), Strada Vadal lui Vodă, www.hanulluivasile.md

Our national manager brought us to this four star hotel and restaurant on our last evening to thank us for our hard work.

20140603_192512To celebrate we started with a bottle of fizz from Cricova who make some of the best sparkling wines in the country.

20140603_190057The hotel is built in wood in a traditional ‘forest’ style and has large attractive grounds with private dining tables on small islands surrounded by water for eating outdoors on warm evenings.

20140603_190347The beautiful garden is very romantic with black swans swimming in the pond. I presume it gets used for weddings a lot.

20140603_212256The food is ok but not amazing, it’s more about the setting here.

20140603_194551I started with some tiny dumplings stuffed with pork which were delicious dipped in sour cream (B+). I think they are called Pelmeni in which case they are Russian in origin,

20140603_195904We also had two kinds of Placinte, one with a cabbage filling (B) and another with cheese (B+).

The following main course of overcooked meat and oven chips out of the freezer doesn’t deserve a photograph (C-).

20140603_204601With our food we drank a bottle of Rose de Purcari (not to be confused with Rosu) which made a nice change (B).

20140603_193216All in all, a very pleasant way to end our Moldovan adventure, thanks all!

 

Please see the previous post for things to do in Chișinău.

Chișinău – stuff to do

Posted in Chișinău, Moldova with tags , , , , , , on March 22, 2015 by gannet39

See the following post for eating out in Chișinău. Here’s my Google map which has many of the places below indicated.

I worked in Moldova for sixteen days from mid May to early June in 2014. I will admit to being a bit nervous about going there due to the fact that pro- Russian forces had just seized the Crimean peninsula in neighbouring Ukraine, just a couple of centimeters away on the map.

However I was reassured by locals that Moldova had already had its disputes with its Russian citizens some years before, leading to the creation of the breakaway pro-Russian regions of Transnistria (now independent) and Gaugauzia (now autonomous but still in Moldova) in the 90s. Even in Moldova proper you will frequently hear Russian being spoken.

Ethnic Moldovans speak a dialect of Romanian and many of them have family there and carry Romanian passports. People are leaving in droves due to the weak economy so these are all the more useful now as they allow admission to the EU, unlike a Moldovan passport.

Although Romanian is a Romance language, my limited Spanish and Italian were of little use in helping me understand what the locals are saying beyond the odd similar word.

Romanians see Moldova as effectively a region of their country but Moldovans are keen to point out that they had a historically important king, Ștefan cel Mare  whose prowess at warcraft kept Moldova independent during his lifetime. His reign is seen as a golden era as he oversaw the rapid cultural development of the country .

For most of the time I was working in the capital Chișinău (pronounced kish-i-now), a city of about half a million located in the geographical centre of the country.

It’s a pleasant enough town with some nice, but occasionally derelict, 19th century architecture and a couple of nice parks. Although very plain on the outside, the Orthodox cathedral in Parcul Catadrelei has a beautiful interior but unfortunately you’re not allowed to take photos inside. These official pictures will give you a good idea of just how stunning it is. Notices require anyone entering to be dressed modestly and local women allcover their hair when they go inside.

20140519_191833There are a couple of nice churches, such as Sfânta Teodora de la Sihla at 20 Strada Pușkin.

20140519_191530Not sure what this one is called as it’s not marked on any maps. I think it’s on the corner of Strada 31 August 1989 and Strada Mihai Eminescu.

I really wanted to go to the Piata Centrala, the outdoor market on Strada Ismail, but I never got the chance due to work getting in the way. Next time.

I stayed at the comfortable Jazz Hotel on Strada Vlaicu Pârcălab 72 www.jazz-hotel.md The hotel has a small gym and the breakfast is very good. All the staff were very helpful.

20140531_012147If you turn left out of the hotel and walk up the hill, there is a small bar on the left which became our after-work drinking hole. It’s run by two brothers, the youngest of whom is a mean chess player! I spent most of my evenings being thrashed by him.

Chess is very popular and you’ll see games on the street everywhere you go. There’s even a life size board and pieces in the Cathedral Park nearby.

Another nice activity would be to go wine-tasting. All the main wineries such as Cricova and Milesti Mici have their own shops in town. I went to a small independent instead; Carpe Diem Wine Shop at Strada Columna 136, www.wineshop.md where I got excellent service in English. You can buy wines here that you won’t find in restaurants.

As Moldova isn’t in the EU, you are only allowed to take one litre of spirits (above 22%) and two litres of fortified wine (below 22%) into the UK,  or half a litre of spirits, a litre of fortified wine and four litres of normal still wine.

There’s an excellent deli called Pegas at 20 Strada Pușkin pegas.md. They sell lots of goodies but I particularly recommend the big jars of runny cherry jam (gem de cireșe) made with whole cherries, yum.

There is some culture to be had. The National Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology at 121 Strada 31 August 1989, www.nationalmuseum.md has some beautiful religious artefacts and a few other bits and pieces besides.

Please click on the photos below to go to the full screen slideshow for maximum appreciation.

You can also find out about the history of Bessarabia, the predecessor state to Moldova, and its travails through the first world war and the Russian revolution.

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