Moldova is kind of unusual. It’s a little bit this and a little bit that. Generally, I found the Moldovans to be quite reserved. Not really friendly or unfriendly, just sort of minding their own business. Though on two separate occasions, when we wandered into villages off the beaten track, crazy-eyed men shouted at us and gestured at us to go away. I didn’t take it personally. On the other hand, we also met some of the loveliest people we’ve met anywhere.
One of these especially lovely people is George, who said he would help us get our car fixed because ‘god is good’. I was understandably sceptical but he turned out to be as good as his word. €240 later (bargain!) the clutch was replaced and a bunch of other stuff done and the racing Ford Maverick is moving and grooving like a new one. We tried to give him money for his time and trouble but he wouldn’t take anything. He just smiled, wished us well and disappeared into the sunset. Many blessings upon George. His god is indeed good.
Moldova is a small country of just under three million people, tucked in between Romania and the Ukraine. It’s a melting pot of the many different cultures that have migrated here over the centuries but it has a predominantly Romanian and Russian flavour with a synthesis that’s distinctly Moldovan. The official language is Romanian. This area was already under Russian control long before it became one of the ‘autonomous republics’ of the USSR. It’s traditionally agricultural and the gently rolling hills are covered in crops, interspersed with small streams.
When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, Moldova became an independent democracy. It had never been a self-governing nation before, so they basically had to start from scratch to set up systems of government and institutions, all while transitioning from collective ownership to a market based economy. I think they’re doing an amazing job under the circumstances but like many ex Soviet countries (and a lot of the world), it has experienced shocking corruption over the last few decades. In the ‘heist of the century’, between 2012-2014, the country’s entrepreneurs, bankers and politicians stole the equivalent of 1/8 of Moldova’s GDP – at least $1 billion of the EU’s money and many more billions in a Russian money laundering scheme. These factors combine to make Moldova the poorest country in Europe, causing poverty and hardship for many, but like all of this region people grow food.
Chisinau (the capital) is almost ‘modern European’ with shops, cafes, supermarkets and nightclubs. Outside the city, the roads deteriorate into dirt tracks and it’s hard to find somewhere to eat. Cafes and restaurants seem to be almost nonexistent. If you go out for the day, you need to take a packed lunch. We never seemed to manage that, so we were always really hungry. Apart from farmland and roadside stalls, the countryside is dotted with rural villages. The village houses are simple and quite pretty, with comparatively elaborate wrought iron gates and fences. Shockingly, I would say that at least half of the houses in Moldova have asbestos roofs. Everywhere, in every tiny village and on roadsides in the middle of nowhere, there are three things: a bus stop, a water well and Jesus on a cross. All three are used as vehicles for artistic expression.
The GPS device in our car is very funny. While driving around on this road trip we get much amusement from her mangled attempts to pronounce the names of unpronounceable Eastern European places in her BBC accent, “turn right on shabakovadagobbledygook street”. Hilarious. Sometimes, she doesn’t even attempt it and just says “continue on (pause) the road”. Quite often, she completely leads us astray – into rivers without bridges, along dead-end roads, to places that no longer exist, and across farmer’s fields.
One of the most astounding places I saw in Moldova is the Milestii Mici Winery. It has the largest collection of wine in the world, over two million bottles stored in 55km (of a total 250km) of underground tunnels. The tunnels have street names based on types of wine, like ‘Chardonnay Street’ and ‘Cabernet Avenue’. You travel around the underground streets on little electric trains. Such fun! In the Soviet era this winery was the main producer of wine for the entire Soviet Union. During Perestroika the winery collected a few bottles of every Moldovan wine variety and hid them in sealed tunnels for posterity. They’re still there.
In contrast to the rest of the country, Milestii Mici is over-the-top opulent with wine fountains, temperature-controlled underground wine tasting for wine connoisseurs, and some private ‘niches’ where fancy rich people pay to store their wine investments. We bought a few bottles of wine to take back to Bulgaria for our hypothetical wine collection. As everyone keeps giving us wine it’s now starting to get a bit ridiculous and I’m nervous that at some border soon they’re going to think we’re wine smugglers and confiscate it all.
Old Orhei (Orheiul Vechi), on the preliminary UNESCO list, is an archaeological complex considered one of Moldova’s main tourist attractions. It has cave monasteries that predate christianity and artefacts and ruins from various cultures throughout the ages, beginning with the Dacian culture of 2000 years ago. The orthodox church section is visible from afar and shimmers mystically on top of a rocky gorge above the Răut River. You have to leave your car on the other side of the river, then cross a bridge and hike up to it on foot. We visited on a perfect summer’s day that made the hike almost enjoyable.
The other main tourist attraction in Moldova is the Tipova Monastery, a series of monastic cave cells carved into the steep stone riverbank 200m above the Dniester (Nistru) river. The oldest part is from the 11th century and the most recent from the 15th century. It’s quite a steep and difficult climb to get to it, which (along with missing breakfast) put me in a bad mood. Consequently, I found the monastery a bit underwhelming. Or maybe I’m just sick and tired of monasteries.
The river views from the Tipova Monastery were magnificent though and it was very interesting to see the breakaway republic of Transnistria on the other side. I randomly saw a video about Transnistria on YouTube and have been wanting to go there but the official government advice (from Australia and the UK) is that it’s a ‘no go’ zone. In one of those strange and wonderful coincidences we met a group of really lovely young people at Tipova who took us under their wings, showed us the way to the monastery, translated for us and even paid our entrance fee. When I mentioned that we’d love to visit Transnistria, they said “Actually, we’re from Transnistria and we can take you there”. Thank you universe.
The Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR), or ‘Transnistria’ for short, is the region of Moldova east of the Dniester river. It’s historically and culturally distinct from the rest of Moldova but as a result of a series of historical border manoeuvring, it has ended up as part of Moldova. Whereas the rest of Moldova leans more towards Romania and the EU, Transnistria leans more towards Russia. Transnistria has three official languages to reflect the largest ethnic groups – Russian, Ukrainian and a unique version of Romanian that uses the Cyrillic script instead of the usual Latin. Transnistria declared independence (from everyone) in 1990 and has its own government, parliament, constitution, military, police, postal system, currency, flag, and national anthem.
Moldova (and the rest of the world) do not recognise Transnistria as an independent country, so ‘officially’ it’s part of Moldova. Conflict erupted into full blown civil war between Transnistria and Moldova in 1992 which was never resolved and is still in a state of ‘ceasefire’. So, Transnistria remains a frozen conflict zone with Russian and other ‘peacekeeping’ forces maintaining a hard military border.
The very lovely Alexandra and Nick met us at the border and took us across to Transnistria as their guests. We met up with Alexandra’s sister Masha and their friend (another Nick) and had one of the best days ever. I loved the capital Tiraspol, a time capsule of the Soviet era with its socialist-realist architecture and murals, military memorials and giant Lenin statues.
While in Transnistria we visited the beautiful stone 16th century Bender (Tighina) Fortress. With its eight towers, crenellated walls, inner courtyards, and deep (but empty) moat, it’s like something out of a fairytale. It’s so well preserved that you could move right in. The current fortress was built on the site of earlier fortresses, possibly as far back as at least the 12th century. Those who’ve either been here, had some connection to it, or laid siege to it, reads like a who’s who of military history.
On the way back to the border at the end of the day, Nick’s car broke down which led to the real highlight of our trip to Transnistria. While waiting for alternative transport to be arranged, we got to visit Alexandra’s parents in Grigoriopol. Like Alexandra herself, her parents are so warm, kind, friendly and generous. We loved them immediately. When we arrived they were preserving food they’d grown. The level of self-sufficiency is seriously impressive. I wish I had more time here. I could learn a lot.
We were given a huge feast with all kinds of interesting food to try. The big pot of Zakuska (vegetable stew) was so delicious that I can still taste it. We left weighed down with gifts of homegrown, homemade food and wine, and a lovely warm fuzzy feeling.
Our last stop in Moldova was in the town of Soroca, known as the ‘Gypsy capital’ in the far north. It has a really different vibe up here, that kind of ‘frontier town’ feeling that I love. Architecturally, it’s a medieval town with a Soviet overlay. It’s kind of dilapidated but there’s great music playing all over town – from cafes and shops but also from houses and cars. It makes you want to dance. There’s no Airbnb or holiday apartments up here, so we had to stay in a hotel. This meant we couldn’t cook, so our biggest challenge was trying to find food. The shops didn’t seem to sell anything much except meat and ice cream. We spent a few hungry days until we found a restaurant with edible food.
The main reason to visit Soroca was to see ‘Gypsy Hill’ that I’d read was covered in unfinished mansions built by the Roma. I’m not sure what the real story is as I read a number of different things. Some accounts say that they leave the buildings unfinished so that they don’t have to pay taxes. Other stories say that they’ve moved on to other places but will return. Not everyone has left though and there is still a thriving community on the hill. It sounded fascinating but the reality totally blew my mind. The entire hill is indeed covered in mostly unfinished mansions. I hadn’t expected there would be so many or that they would be so beautiful. I love them all. Each one is an eclectic mishmash of flamboyant architectural styles and outrageous bling. Totally awesome.
Soroca sits on the Dniester river which forms the border to the Ukraine. We wanted to cross the border here, and usually there’s a ferry crossing, but due to that pesky Covid many border crossings are closed. We drove along the top of Moldova and followed the river west until we found an open border crossing. I have no idea where that was because our GPS lost satellite reception and Google went blank. I love it when we fall off the edge of Google maps. Along the way we drove on dirt tracks and saw pretty train stations, shoebox churches, gorgeous cottages and endless apple orchards. Once we (painlessly) crossed the border into the Ukraine it continued on the same, until eventually we regained satellite reception and could navigate to the beginning of our adventures in the Ukraine.