Had you asked me, six months ago, where Moldova was, I would have answered, “Some small Duchy in Europe, or something”, but after doing a little research, I discovered this to be one of the forgotten gems of the former Soviet Union.
Surrounded mostly by the Ukraine, with a small border on Romania, this land-locked country was once part of Romania. It was a small Principality until 1812 when the Ottomans handed it over to the Russians. In 1918 it was reassigned to the Romanians (who have a province with the same name, which is quite confusing). In 1940, it was returned to the Soviet Union, where it remained a state until 1991, when it declared independence.
Tucked away into obscurity, Moldova is the poorest country in Europe and has the lowest tourism numbers (11,000 annually) of all European countries. It is desperately trying to join the European Union, but is quite a way down the list.
One has to wonder why anyone would visit the country, but like so many other places on the planet, there is a great deal of beauty to be found, along with some interesting places to see. The one that captured my curiosity was the Milestii Mici winery.
No one I have ever spoken with has heard of the winery. Yet, when you enter the lobby, the first thing you see is a giant ‘Guinness Book of Records’ sign, naming it the largest winery in the world. Now that says a lot, with wineries like Gallo, which certainly makes more money than anyone else (over $4 Billion a year in revenue), or new upcoming cyber wineries, such as wineonline.ca.
What makes the Milestii Mici winery so unknown? When I arrived, through two massive gates, I was quite impressed with the gardens. Lush trees (and this was in mid-September) are dotted against huge, brownish stone walls. My driver led me to a small patio, where I sipped a glass of wine, while waiting for the winery’s official guide.
A few minutes later, we were asked to return to our car and line up with five other vehicles. The convoy began to move through an iron gate, into what appeared to be a cave. After a few minutes, the lead car containing the winery guide, came to a halt and we all stepped out of our vehicles. She began to explain the winery had over 200 km of underground corridors, dug into the limestone, with depths between 35 and 85 metres (115 to 275 feet).
The air was chilly and a jacket was definitely required. The roads were lengthy and cross-ways were everywhere. We continued by car for a few more km. and when we stopped and wandered around, it became evident how large this place was. There were wine bottles everywhere the eye could see. They were stacked in openings, carved in the rock, each containing 90 bottles. The bins were arranged three high, and the entire cellar holds just over 2 million bottles of wine. It is truly an unbelievable site.
The natural temperature underground remains between 12 and 14 degrees and the humidity is 85–95%, ideal conditions for maturing wine. Again, why had I never heard of this place? When was the last time you ordered a bottle of Moldovan wine? The answer was simply that Moldova is a trading partner with Russia, and most of the wine is exported there.
After the tour we were taken to a large room in the cellar, which had a table and eight chairs around it. On the table were several Charcuterie boards, each stacked with meats, cheeses, fruit and much more. Eight of us sat around the table, and it quickly became evident that everyone else was Russian.
Someone from the winery explained three different wines to us, and left us with huge decanters. We had no sooner poured the nectar, when a violinist and accordion player began to serenade us with local tunes. It seemed the Russians knew the songs, and it wasn’t long before the decanters were refilled… a few times.
Singing, a little dancing, and a lot of laughter made for an amazing excursion, which lasted the better part of a day. The entire visit, food and wine included, was $35. I shudder to think what it would cost in North America, and yes, I purchased a few bottles and brought them home.
I spent a day visiting the capital city of Chisinau, and was impressed with the Bernardazzi, architecture (named after the famous Russian Architect, who designed most of the older city), as well as churches and government buildings. A great deal of the city can be walked in a day, but there are some spectacular monasteries, well worth seeing on the outskirts.
Moldova would not be a destination for tourists, but it is an amazing place to spend three or four days enroute to somewhere else. I was hesitant about going at first, but no doubt would have regretted missing it.
Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel TV show can be watched on RogersTV and YouTube. To follow Jonathan’s travel adventures visit photosNtravel.com