Whenever I have an opportunity to visit a different locale, I am usually impressed with the hidden gems I find. In many cases these are a complete surprise to me, and this was certainly the case with a recent visit to Moldova.
Located between Romania and the Ukraine, I quickly realized how stressed the economy was. Traditions and customs have remained unchanged over the years.
Most of the Moldovan territory was a part of the Principality of Moldavia until 1812, when the Ottomans ceded it to the Russian Empire. In the 1850s, it became part of Romania, but Russian rule was restored over the whole of the region in 1878.
During the Russian Revolution of 1917, Moldavia became a state within the Russian Republic, and in 1940, the area became the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic, as it was fully integrated into the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union fell, in 1991, the Moldavian SSR claimed Independence, and renamed itself the Republic of Moldova
In 2014 Moldova suffered greatly during a banking crisis, when the central bank took over three private banks, and discovered immense fraud totalling over a billion dollars.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a grave concern to Moldova, and in March of 2022, Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilita stated that Moldova should rapidly move to become a member of the European Union. A formal application for EU membership was submitted that very same month.
I travelled to Moldova through Romania and arrived in Chișinău, which is located on the beautiful River Bac. With its population of just over half a million, it is both the industrial and cultural centre of the country.
I was surprised at how beautiful the parks were for anyone who enjoys strolling through beautiful gardens filled with flowers and foliage. It is a chance to admire wonderful rose gardens, enjoy ice cream or watch the birds around a lake. This is a great place to enjoy nature in the heart of the city, and dogs are not allowed so you do not have to watch where you step.
If you would like a little more adventure during your walks, a visit to Valea Morilor provides an opportunity to rent a boat or make your way to a beautiful waterfall staircase, that lights up at night. There is even a small beach for those who want to take advantage of the sun.
Located in the central square of Chișinău is the beautiful Nativity Cathedral, a slice of the city's religious heritage and history. Although modest on the outside, the inside will reveal intricate and colourful ornaments, traditional icons and a great wall in shining gold.
There is no charge to enter, but being an Orthodox cathedral, men should not wear shorts and women must wear a headscarf, as well as modest clothing.
The cathedral, which dates back to the 1830s, suffered extensive damage during World War II, and was used as a convention centre in the Soviet era. It was rebuilt in 1997 to its original splendour.
I left the capital and made my way to Old Orhei, a Moldovan historical and archaeological complex, located approximately 60 kilometres northeast of Chișinău.
The Orthodox monastery is still inhabited by a handful of monks, who maintain the caves underneath, which contain an array of historical artefacts. Slavonic inscriptions dating from the 1690s, indicate the locals hid in the monastery in an effort to evade the Ottomans in the 1600s.
I had an opportunity to visit the Milestii Mici winery, one of the finest wineries in the world. Moldova is one of the world’s most well-known wine region, however, as most of the products are shipped to Russia and Asian countries, it is not well known in North America.
Milestii Mici winery is literally an underground wine city, and is one of the most important tourist elements in Moldova. It attracts more than 20,000 visitors annually. In 2005, The Golden Collection of the Milestii Mici winery, was registered in the Guinness Book of Records, as the largest wine collection in the world.
I was stunned at the sheer size of the winery. There are more than two million bottles of wine, highly appreciated by winemakers from all over the globe. The wines stored here are made from crops of various years, and are made according to old Moldavian traditions. You can feel the sunshine and the power of the earth, in every drop you taste.
I was extremely fortunate to be able to wander through some of the dark underground avenues and streets, where row upon row of large barrels and precious bottles have been carefully laid down. The bottles, covered with spider webs and sealed with wax, give you the feeling you have been transported into a strange and beautiful world, in another era.
The giant cellars are 80 metres below the ground, and this microclimate is what makes the wines so uniquely flavourful. I had no idea of the full scope of the size of this winery until I was asked to step into a car, and drive around the cellars. It turns out there are 200 km of tunnels, all filled with wine.
I opted to walk part of the route because the quaintness of the small laneways with such names as Cabernet, Merlot and so forth, made me feel like I was strolling through a mediaeval city.
Of course, there is an opportunity to sample wines in typical Moldovan tradition. Many different types of wine accompanied a table laid out with charcuterie boards filled with local meats and cheeses. The highlight of the evening came when several musicians began to entertain our table, and I learned several new songs as well as a few old ones, from my newfound comrades.
Moldova is one of those countries seldom in the news, and even less often talked about, but if you have an opportunity to visit and sample some of its history, as well as wine, you will not be disappointed.
Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel TV show can be watched on RogersTV and YouTube. To follow Jonathan’s travel adventures visit photosNtravel.com