Wine country: Moldova travel guide podcast
The first time I remember hearing about Moldova was the day after my wedding. I was in a second-hand store, buying books to take with me on honeymoon, and I picked up Tony Hawks’s Playing Tennis with the Moldovans. It looked amusing, and I bought it, but I wasn’t sure if the Moldova of the title was a real country or an invented one, like Krakozhia or Tazbekistan.
A small amount of research revealed that it was indeed real, and in eastern Europe, but that travelling there would involve a tedious amount of form filling and back-and-forth to get a visa. Unless, of course, we visited in early October for the annual wine festival, when getting a visa would be slightly easier (but still annoying).
Moldova sat at the back of our minds for years, always just slightly out of reach for one reason or another. Every year, we examined our calendar to see if this October could be the October we drank wine in Moldova, but it never happened — until this year. When once again researching travel options, I discovered that Moldova had changed its visa requirements, and that Kiwis no longer needed a visa. The decision was made; we’d go.
Sources disagreed as to when the wine festival would be and flights weren’t as cheap as we’d have liked, but we worked it out and finally arrived in Chișinău on October 1, 2015. Unfortunately, the wine festival we’d been wanting to attend for about ten years had been canceled. Well, modified. Instead of a large event in the centre of Chișinău, there were many smaller events, hosted by the wineries themselves; free transport was provided from the city centre and there would still be plenty of wine involved.
To listen, hit play below or find episode 309 in iTunes, Stitcher or Soundcloud:
In the end, we loved Moldova. The laid-back atmosphere of central Chișinău, the dilapidated grandeur of the government buildings, the ridiculous state of the pavements (apparently vastly improved from when Tony Hawks was there… no uncovered manholes now!). And, of course, the wine. We drank a fair bit of it under the guise of research, and it’s fantastic. In fact, it’s almost enough of a drawcard to convince us to spend considerably more time in this country.
Location: In eastern Europe, between Romania and Ukraine.
Population: 3.46 million.
Language: Romanian. Russian is widely spoken in Transnistria.
Known for: Wine.
Temperatures: Lows go below 0 in winter and highs in summer hover around 27-30. It’s mostly dry, with rainfalls in early summer and in October.
Airport: Chișinău International Airport (KIV), 13km from Chișinău. Takes about half an hour to get into the centre of town by public transport.
Currency: Moldovan lei. €1 = 22.4 lei, US$1 = 19.8 lei.
Price of a pint: 17-30 lei.
Price of a dorm bed: From €8/US$9.
Price of a double room: From €15/US$17.
Price of a public transport ticket: 2 or 3 lei
Tell me more about Moldova!
If you’re considering a trip to Moldova, do it! The old cliche of somewhere being unspoiled by tourism is true here, so we really felt like we were experiencing the country the way a local might. Many people speak English, especially in hotels, though you’ll need a few words of Romanian to buy bus tickets and in restaurants, though choosing food shouldn’t be a problem; many of the restaurants we went to had a picture menu as standard or included English translations.
The local currency is the lei, and it’s easy to change money in the many exchange bureaus. The booth at the airport gave a very fair rate, though we found a slightly better one at a bank in central Chișinău. That’s pronounced “KISH – ee – now” by the way; we’ve been saying it wrong for years!
Wine is an important part of the Moldovan economy, and has been since the country was part of the USSR. In fact, one in every two bottles of table wine, and one in three bottles of sparkling wine consumed in the Soviet Union was made here. Now it’s primarily produced for export, as many Moldovans make wine at home and don’t have any need for the fancy stuff made by the big names. We enjoyed stopping into the small shops to buy a one-litre plastic bottle or two of brandless local wine, but make sure to taste the good stuff too.
The easiest way to do that is to plan your visit to coincide with the annual wine festival in the first weekend of October. It’s usually held in the Great National Assembly Square in the centre of Chișinău; all of the wineries are represented and you can wander from stall to stall tasting as many wines as you like, for free. In 2015 protesters were occupying the square so the festival was modified — free transport was provided to many of the wineries, which each put on free or paid events. Our favourite was the event at Butuceni, which most closely resembled the ordinary festival: the small wineries got together to put on a mini-festival for the small charge of 40 lei.
If you can’t visit in October, many of the wineries run tours of their factories that end with a tasting. You’ll have to email the wineries directly for information about times and prices as their websites are all lacking in that regards, though almost all will organise a tour in English at a time that’s convenient for you. Asconi and Cricova are both an easy day trip from Chisinau, and we visited both Purcari and Et Cetera on our way to Odessa.
Getting to Moldova
Arriving by air means flying into Chișinău International Airport (KIV), about 13km to the southeast of Chișinău. You can catch a taxi into the city if you like, but the cheapest option is minibus number 165. Turn right out of the airport terminal and you’ll find a cluster of vans at the far end of the building. It costs 3 lei per person (with an extra charge for a large bag) and you’ll be dropped on Ismail Street, or earlier if you prefer.
You can also arrive by land from Ukraine and Romania. There’s a once-daily train to and from Odessa, but buses are more frequent. There are three bus terminals in Chișinău: Central, North and South-West. International buses tend to arrive at the North station, which is (confusingly) located on the east side of the city.
Get around Chișinău
Public transport is made up of mini-buses, buses and trolleybuses, and is easy to use if you’re going in a straight line; it’s not so great for connecting odd areas of the city. Mini buses cost 3 lei per journey, pay the driver as you enter. Trolley buses and regular buses cost 2 and 3 lei respectively. You can board from any door and a conductor will find you to take your money; make sure to have small change. You can also walk around the centre of Chișinău without too many problems, though the pavements are in a sorry state.
Get around Moldova
To really explore the country, hiring a car is probably your best option. You can get to many destinations by bus or minibus, but finding out where to catch them, how much they cost, and how long the journey is, can be challenge! Tour companies such as TatraBis provide fairly-priced day tours, which can take a lot of the hassle out of planning, or see below for some day trip ideas.
Accommodation in Moldova
There’s a wide range of accommodation options in Chișinău, from couchsurfing hosts to five-star hotels, and everything in between; since the country is so small, you can base yourself in Chișinău and do day trips to most destinations. We mostly used AirBnB for our stay and had a great experience. You’re more likely to find an English-speaking receptionist at a a hostel or a larger hotel; our one night in a tiny hotel was amusing for the lack of communication that went on.
If you want to explore more of the country, you could consider staying overnight in Soroca, at the Butuceni Eco-resort, or at one of the wineries that offer accommodation (like Purcari winery or Chateau Vartely; Asconi, Castel Mimi and Et Cetera are in the process of creating accommodation).
What to do in Chișinău
Pick up a “Hello Chișinău” map from the information desk at the airport, as well as a similarly branded country map. The Chișinău map has the key sights clearly marked, and there’s even a one-hour “city monument tour” marked on it. If you take a photo of each of the key sights, then visit a certain souvenir shop, you’ll be given a small gift — cheesy but fun! There are a range of museums to visit, dedicated to (among other things) ethnography, art, beer, and coffee; take your pick! You should also wander through the central market and shop like the locals for everything from fresh fruit and vegetables, to stationery, clothes and toys.
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Day trip to Transnistria
Transnistria is an unrecognised breakaway republic in Moldova, propped up by Russian separatists and, in the words of one person we met, “still living in the USSR”. We were warned it was dangerous, but — if anything — our two day trips were a little boring. Of course, one trip wasn’t quite planned.
Make sure to visit the Kvint cognac distillery while you’re in Transnistria: it was our highlight, both for the tour and the extremely high quality and value of the ‘divin’ (cognac) on offer. Other highlights in Tiraspol, the capital, are the soviet-style monuments to war heroes, randomly placed tanks and military installations, and the beautiful churches and Orthodox shrines.
To get to Transnistria you can catch a minibus towards Tiraspol from the Central bus station; tickets cost 37 lei and you can buy them from a small booth before you board the bus. Getting back can be a challenge as return buses to Chișinău don’t leave from the Tiraspol bus station but from a parallel street; we caught a local bus to Bender to see the fortress (bright yellow bus 19, 3 roubles) and then returned to Chișinău from the Bender bus station, which was pretty easy to find. Return tickets cost 30 roubles each.
We highly recommend a trip to Moldova, especially if you’re interested in wine — in which case, go in October for the wine festival. To us, it seems like one of those magical places that are almost untouched by tourism, it retains its charm while looking to the future. Of course, this may change now that it’s opening up, so go now! Or at least, next October — maybe we’ll see you there.
To listen to us talk about Moldova, hit play above or check in iTunes, Stitcher or Soundcloud.