Magnificent wines and extraordinary cultures make pocket-sized Moldova a superpower of a different sort. The little-known, fabulously fertile strip squeezed between Romania and Ukraine on Europe’s eastern flank is naturally full of good things and plenty of stranger ones too. One definitely for visitors to wonder over is the self-declared republic of Transnistria, a Soviet-style time warp that has broken away although officially still part of Moldova. Just as unforgettable though are the country’s sweet spots – its wines, monumental wineries and their epic tasting sessions.
All this is explorer gold for visitors who in places find a pastoral idyll of wide skies and boundless green hills scattered with medieval fortresses and picture-postcard villages.
Festooned with flowers and fruits, the cottages and their lush gardens often double as small restaurants, their home-cooked dishes paired with fine reds, sparkling whites and the melodious sounds of folk bands.
But glimpses of rusting, deserted factories and half-finished buildings are a telling reality check too, a reminder that this country is seriously hard up, struggling with migration and a turbulent past that hugs it close.
Moldova’s map, with its jagged borders, reveals much about those phenomenal fluctuations in fortunes.
Situated at a porous crossroads between east and west the land is a plunderer’s dream.
From antiquity onwards powerful warmongers here have battled it out in a frenzy of alliances and annexations.
Ottoman Turks, Romanians, Germans, Tsarist Russians and Soviets have all been part of the trading places mix.
Once part of the USSR, before the collapse of communism and independence in 1991, Moldova was the great bear’s wine cellar and kitchen garden.
Today, after some seismic referendums, it is split along an identity fault line.
For the official republic that means aligning with western Europe and Romania, whose language it shares, while rebel off-spring Transnistria favours unity with Russia.
A stoical truce now reigns, testimony perhaps to people who know more than most the value of peace.
WHERE THE ONLY WAY IS WINE
If you aren’t a wine buff when you arrive in Moldova, you’ll definitely leave a full-bodied fan with delicious memories of a tipsy haze or two.
For centuries it has been the nation’s life blood. These days 67 million bottles a year are exported and a spree here will bag you a superlative red or white for under £6.
Even so Moldova is still a secret for more mainstream tipplers, until they see for themselves what a temple to the humble grape it really is.
In the capital Chisinau locals’ hangout, the boutique bar and winery Carpe Diem has become the flagship for a flourishing new breed of craft-style makers.
Seizing the moment for my first tasting in Moldova, Carpe took me right to the heart of the country’s new wine revolution.
Guidance from its expert crew about how glass size affects taste and flavour (hold the stem and the more space or oxygen the better to reduce bitter tannins) made all the difference too.
After working a row of gleaming glasses charged with the likes of delicate white Femme Fatale and a plummy Bad Boys, swaggeringly poured from a swan necked decanter, I was on top of the native grape varieties, the Feteascas aka ‘the maidens’ – pale Alba, smoky Neagra and tropical fruity Regala.
At other end of the scale just north of Chisinau lies mighty Cricova, a wine city 300-feet deep underground that’s revered as one of the world’s sparkling wine supernovas.
Hewn in Soviet times from limestone rocks that have blessed it with an ideal constant atmosphere of 12°C with 98 percent humidity, the scale of it stuns.
Our buggy passed along ‘streets’ stretching nine miles and arching caverns storing 30 million litres and 1.5 million bottles.
Barrels marked with names of famous guests including Russian president Vladimir Putin and Germany’s Angela Merkel line one section.
The National Vinotheque collection of European wines is also housed here and includes bottles confiscated from Nazi party chief Hermann Goering.
But no one yet has topped the visit in 1966 of the first man in outer space, Russian astronaut Yuri Gagarin.
Perhaps been used to a spaceship’s confined conditions helped, but seriously seduced by Cricova’s subterranean charms he remains the only guest to spend more than 24 hours there.
As he left he told staff: “It’s easier to go into space than leave your wine cellar.”
For more wow factor above ground, there is the majestic Castel Mimi, also close to Chisinau and rated as one of the world’s most beautiful wineries.
Built in the late 19th century by Constantin Mimi, a wine pioneer and governor of the region once known as Bessarabia, a recent five-year restoration of the Castel has created a spa resort too with hot off the press grapeseed oil massages for those who have the bottle.
Barely visible from the road, once inside Mimi’s perimeter visitors are treated to the big reveal of a French-style palace bordered by manicured, lavender-lined terraces and a Versailles-like courtyard sparkling with fountains and sometimes a rosé-tinted light show.
The unique microclimate of the winery’s Codru area is said to be the reason why its wines, like the award-winning Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé, have such intense flavours and aromas.
Sinking those pinks in such a spectacular setting too I wasn’t surprised see what looked like an engagement party celebrating in the restaurant. The happy pair’s embrace, cheered on by guests, did seem super long however.
“What are they drinking?” I asked keen to try a glass myself. “That’s tradition, not wine,” my guide replied. “In Moldova a wedding kiss has to last more than 10 seconds for good luck so they need to practise. We may not always seem it, but we are a passionate people.”
CAPITAL TIMES IN CHISINAU
Who needs fancy decor to pull in diners when the prices are rock bottom and the food sublime?
Not Galbenus, the popular workers’ café in the capital’s centre where the counter service is brisk with an serious old-school Communist vibe, and at £2.50 a head, the home-cooked menu offers unbeatable value.
After a cup of velvety beetroot soup, you can load your tray with regional classics such as mamaliga, a fluffy mound of creamy cornmeal served with a spicy stew, or savoury sarmale, cabbage rolls filled with ground pork, rice, tomatoes and dill.
It’s an over-looked treasure in calm, compact Chisinau, a capital city made for strolling, its elegant parks, museums and cafes mostly within 20 minutes of each other.
Dating from the 15th century, World War Two fighting along with a devastating earthquake in 1940 took a terrible toll, flattening most of it. Soviets then got to work afterwards blanketing it with their utilitarian blocks.
The Train of Pain, a heart-wrenching sculpture outside the railway station captures another aspect of those times with a line of dark, cowed figures. A memorial to 35,000, many of them children, they disappeared during mass deportations carried out under political purges.
Today new shoots in the shape of shiny high rises and shopping centres are appearing in the city however, interspersed with majestic survivors such as Chisinau’s neo classical City Hall.
The Lada car, that emblem of old eastern Europe is commonplace, but familiar western fashion brand names are notably few making the sight of British high street stalwart Clarks stand out as a kind of plucky outpost, apparently the result of an enterprising franchise.
My stay in the freshly decorated and very comfortable art deco style Best Western Flowers Hotel lived up to its superlative with a spacious bed, choice of pillows and roomy bathroom crammed with posh toiletries.
Two adjacent parks frame the city’s main sights and a leisurely two-hour walking tour took me along the main Boulevard Stefan cel Mare first to Cathedral Park dominated by the 19th century onion-domed Orthodox Cathedral of Christ’s Nativity with its stately bell-tower.
Facing it across the main square are the Holy Gates, dubbed Moldova’s Arc de Triomphe, a gift from Russia after the Ottomans got a thrashing, while just beyond is the National Opera Ballet where tickets costs a mere £13.
On an opposite corner standing guard over the park that bears his name is the statue of Stefan cel Mare (aka Stefan the Great), medieval knight and national defender whose plinth is always sprinkled with bouquets from newly-weds seeking good fortune.
A favourite for romantic encounters and family outings, the park’s best-stroll spot is the Avenue of Classics of Moldovan Literature where, shaded by lime and acacia trees, busts of the famous include romantic star gazer and poet Mihai Eminescu and Russian great Alexander Pushkin whose passionate affair with a gypsy lover helped him pass years in exile here.
Nearby the Guguta Café, once famed for its ice cream, presents a sorry but compelling spectacle. Trapped these days in a derelict limbo, the architectural grace of this modernist façade, a striking medley of looped arches and recesses, still astonishes.
So too does the National Museum of Ethnography and Natural History, where a towering Tree of Life sculpture and a life-sized, eight tonne skeleton of a dinothere, an elephant-like creature that roamed the land some two million years ago, are among the showpieces.
Illuminated by a geometrically patterned stained glass ceiling, the 19th century building’s Islamic styling was designed to demonstrate an openness to different cultures.
Moldova’s carpet weaving and embroidery crafts get a terrific showing now, and fantasy-style murals in one room memorably portray the region as a fragile biosphere with rich bird and plant life threatened by hunting and waterways pollution. But don’t miss the tiny daisy icon on one wall though symbolising hope.
The shouty stag and hen do scene, so much a part of other east European capitals’ night life, is not evident in Chisinau. Going out seems to be a more placid affair, centred around bars and eateries, sometimes cosy like Black Rabbit Gastro Burrow or European luxury such as Crème de la Creme.
At decorative Gok-Oguz restaurant, a series of intimate rooms and a courtyard, you get a rare chance to sample the cuisine of Gagauzia (I hadn’t heard of it either), an autonomous enclave in southern Moldova composed of Turkic speaking Orthodox Christians.
Strong on spices, the Turkish, Romanian and Russian influenced menu has tender lamb stews, buttery pastries and chilli and herb dips that team well Moldovan reds. It was a feast and a setting that left me amazed, not for the first time in Moldova, at the array of cultures here.
ANCIENT ROOTS AND FESTIVE FOLKLORE
Just an hour’s drive from Chisinau, ancient monuments and a 13th century cave monastery hacked from the rocks huddle on rugged limestone outcrops overlooking the Raut river gorge.
Only the sounds of a wandering cuckoo accompanied our steep climb up the cliff and along a goat path to Old Orheiul (Orheiul Vechi), Moldova’s most important historical site.
Now part of a national park it was first inhabited by prehistoric tribes before early Christian monks literally holed up here hidden from the world.
And what hardy souls they were judging by stone steps and narrow tunnel I navigated that opened out into candle-lit cavern hung with icons. Beyond lay a stuffy chamber with their beds – rough stone ledges chiselled out of the wall.
As I made my way back along the escarpment ridge, the enclosed gloom did make the sun-lit panoramic views of the river below curling its way to the Black Sea seem especially uplifting, perhaps those monks were on to something after all.
Midway I passed a stone cross set in a clearing beside the cliff edge. Legend has it two star-crossed lovers ended their days here and it has now become kind of shrine for travellers where many often pause, hug or circle it then make a wish. I did and live in hope.
In contrast to its stark beauty, Orheuil is surrounded by picturesque villages, the reed-thatched cottages’ facades elaborately carved in wood and stone, and their window frames painted a deep sky blue (to ward off mosquitos).
Everywhere there are walnut trees, their nuts the essential ingredient in Moldova’s classic green walnut jam and in the past grown to make up for iodine deficiencies in people’s diets.
As I sipped a fragrant infusion of mint, lemon verbena and raspberry leaves after lunch in the garden of the Casa Verde restaurant, a group of young folk singers appeared backed by a rousing string band.
My strictly local moment had arrived. Suddenly I was on my feet and in a circle country dancing until the sun set, a magic Moldovan memento.
TRANSNISTRIA FACT AND FICTION
“No photographs and get your passport stamped otherwise you won’t be able to leave,” was the firm instruction our group received as we sped east down through woods towards the breakaway republic of Transnistria, a country that does not exist – at least not officially in the eyes of the outside world.
A border crossing emblazoned with the red, green and red national colours was manned by intense-looking armed soldiers and, although everything went smoothly, you could feel tension in the air.
Transnistria, or to give it is chosen name the Pridnestrovian Moldovian Republic, is a sliver of territory bordering the Dniester river with many of the trappings of a fully-fledged independent state.
Along with its own government, army, police, currency and passport (although how useful that is is questionable), it also has national emblems like its stamps and flag, the only one featuring a Hammer and Sickle, the old Communist symbol of working people’s solidarity.
For money you have to exchange your Moldovan lei for its rubles and the coins are extraordinary toy-like plastic discs picturing Russian generals and Catherine the Great.
Transnistria was born in the chaotic aftermath of the USSR’s collapse and a referendum where the region’s predominantly Russian-speaking people chose not to be part of a newly independent, Romanian-speaking Moldova.
Conflicts broke out as both sides tried to impose their will culminating in a nasty civil war where several thousand lost their lives. With a heavy Russian presence nearby Moldova conceded territory and a ceasefire, but no settlement, was agreed.
Today that’s how it stands, one of several ‘frozen conflict zones’ resulting from those times, rife with surreal contradictions.
On the one hand Transnistria celebrates communism to the point of showboating, yet clearly it has privately owned businesses and trades with the world beyond its borders despite its ‘unofficial’ status.
Touring the sights I sometimes felt I was in a parallel reality Soviet theme park, part Cold War spy thriller part The Truman Show.
But before that, just after the border however overlooking the Dniester river, it’s more Game of Thrones meets War and Peace in Transnistria’s top history spot, the 16th century Ottoman-built Bendery Fortress and museum.
With red pyramid roofs and imposing ramparts rammed with gun positions, the citadel has been a battle ground for centuries. Its dry moat repelled attackers and the nine-feet thick walls were made of limestone mixed with egg yolk for extra strength.
Caviar is one of the powerhouses of today’s Transnistria, and its Aquatir sturgeon breeding fish farm part of the fight back as stocks face extinction from over-fishing and pollution in the Black and Caspian seas.
During the excellent tour I peered into great indoor pools of recycled water where the huge fish like long dark shadows lazily circled, their eggs, ‘milked’ or squeezed to make four types of the luxury delicacy: beluga, the hybrid sterlet, bester and silvery, nutty Russian sturgeon.
The lighter caviar the better the quality, I learned with rare albino the most expensive of all. Gleaming jars of the pearly bounty filled the gift section, going rate 10 grams for £16.50, a price that’s on a par with Fortnum and Mason.
Fine spirits followed the fine fish with a grand tasting at Kvint distillery, a national icon founded in 1897 whose brandy, locally called divins, was developed using French know-how.
Seventy different labels including 30 brandy types aged up to 50 years in Limousin oak barrels are produced here, along with vodka and wine, and Kvint’s tasting was another corker.
After a trip round the enormous cellars and vintage bottle collection, the wood panelled dining room was a sight to behold with trays of crystal ‘snifters’ (brandy glasses), pastry nibbles and choice of five divins each with its own tale waiting to be embraced.
Chocolatey Kvint 6 year old is often drunk with lemon, a habit started by a Russian Tsar said to have found it a touch sugary, while the Kvint 8 was created by a woman for women believing they preferred sweeter tots.
The ones that slipped down best for me were the super soft Doina, named after a Romanian folk tune style, and best of all the dark amber 10 year XO Surprise, smoother than a silk sheet and fruity flavoured with a honey finish.
From signs along the roads it soon becomes obvious one name in particular monopolises the billboards, shops, and fuel stations – Sheriff, a corporation that at one time at least enjoyed close links to power and also owns a TV channel, mobile phone network and FC Tiraspol.
A stop off at one typical supermarket underlined too how different everyday life is here. Not just those coins and rubles, but when I went to the clothing section the styles were more 1960s with a lot of nylon and prices on the food shelves surely subsidised with a bottle of wine for just over £1 and less than 50p for a packet of tea.
Meeting the rural dwellers turned out to be extra special with lunch served deep in the countryside in Casa Karaman, a traditional country cottage full of embroidered cushions and a tiled stove in the corner and outside its own well and cherry orchard.
The home of Anjela and her family, they are among the many Moldovans, 30 percent of Transnistria’s population, who live harmoniously here.
We washed down her home-cooked spread of vegetable soup, grilled meats, and bowls of potatoes and sour cream with a fresh white wine made from Moldova’s native Lidia grape, then listened to her account of a sustainable life far from the madding crowd where making jam and playing in an all women’s accordion band lead her to declare: “I’ve no time for wrinkles”.
Abundant hospitality too was the order of the evening at the Eastern Orthodox Noul-Neamt Monastery, a group of bright blue and coral painted churches with a ice white tiered bell tower rising 210 feet above the Dniester’s shore at Chitcani.
In one church beneath the cupola’s frescoes, golden icons gleamed and incense swirled as young monks padded about in the nave sharing the odd hushed word with worshippers.
Presiding over all is The Voice in these parts, Abbot Paisie. A leader in a faith renowned for its musical chanting as well its veneration of wine, the very sociable host of our supper was on fine form when he treated us to a melodious recital in 30 different languages, the monastery’s white washed stone walls providing the perfect acoustic backdrop.
And then it was time for a ‘head of the horse’, Moldovan for ‘one for road’ and deriving from the days when departing travellers had a final tot before climbing into their saddles.
In one of the monastery’s cellars, we downed glasses of tangy homemade orange wine (fermented with the grapes’ skins), their punch heightened by crunchy salted radishes before heading to Transnistria’s capital, Tiraspol.
Our stay in its snug Hotel Russia with all mod cons was just a step away from House of Soviets (aka City Hall), its front dominated by a spruce statue of Lenin striking a typically resolute pose.
Intact sculptures of the world-changing revolutionary are a rarer sight in today’s eastern Europe and with Tiraspol’s big bare roads and anonymous grey blocks – one especially secretive looking one dubbed the Black Windows Building – the city is a unique chance to witness how life looked in back in the old USSR.
Peaceful and safe now past battles and struggles figure large here with stern monuments to military heroes, a wall of names paying tribute to the fallen and on the edge of the central square stands a Soviet T-34 tank, commemorating victory in World War Two.
History buffs be warned though, climbing in to take a closer look although tempting is definitely off limits.
I passed a shop bedecked with flags from other breakaway enclaves – Abkhazia and Nagorno Karabakh in the Caucasus – but whether they were fluttering bravely or forlornly it was hard to tell.
De Volan park and beach on the banks of Dniestra river which winds its slow wide way through the centre are city’s playground for families and fisher folk, many blaming the lower water levels they are now seeing on siphoning off upstream by neighbouring Ukraine.
Our group visit coincided with one of biggest dates in Transnistria’s calendar, May 9, marking victory over Germany in World War Two and is celebrated like a big patriotic street party and Remembrance Sunday rolled into one.
Bunting in shades of red formed garlands high above the main avenue, the Red Flag anthem boomed from crackly loudspeakers, stalls served kebabs and children played catch among the enormous hammer and sickle displays spread across the main avenue.
It seemed most of Tiraspol and beyond had turned out for the occasion.
Most striking were the courteous old heroes, some well into their 90s their jackets jingling with a host of medals, and most moving the families, many with toddlers, who paraded alongside uniformed soldiers holding photos, lots of them old and sepia tinted, of lost loved ones.
Strong generational ties keep memories here razor sharp. And although the posturing speeches and parading tanks could be seen to hint at deeper anxieties and manipulations, after being among the very pleasant crowds it is also possible to understand why such displays matter so much to a people in a place where limbo is the norm.
All of Moldova is a mosaic you can barely credit until you witness it for yourself. A popular saying there is “you never leave a home hungry”, but I’m certainly up for a second helping. In the meantime mine’s a large glass of Femme Fatale.
HOW TO DISCOVER MOLDOVA
Explore’s five-day ‘Moldova Short Break’ small-group trip costs from £819pp including flights, B&B accommodation, three dinners, transfers and an Explore Leader. Various departures to October 2019. Explore: 01252 884 709, explore.co.uk
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