Travel diary: Moldova
Moldova has been on our dream destination list since before we even left New Zealand in 2006. In fact, we read “Playing the Moldovans at Tennis” while on honeymoon in 2002, and since then it’s inspired a strange fascination in us. And when we heard that they have an annual wine festival, we were convinced.
It took several years and a change of visa regulations to get us here, but 2015 was our year. We booked tickets, turned down housesits, and prepared to fly east to attend the wine festival, which is held during the first weekend in October.
Then, it was cancelled.
We were gutted, but Moldova was still worth a visit, festival or no festival. We farewelled my brother and his fiancée, who we’d been staying with, and started the journey from London to Chisinau. Direct flights were pricy so we spent a night in a wobbly B&B in Bergamo, Italy, and arrived in Moldova‘s capital 24 hours after we’d left Simon’s flat — to the sound of music.
On the far side of security a folk band were playing enthusiastically while staff handed out small bottles of local wine to arriving tourists. We were interviewed twice by TV crews and given brochures and advice about how to celebrate the festival, which hadn’t been cancelled after all, just modified. Rather than a big event in the city center, many wineries were holding small events, and free transport was provided.
I’d found it difficult to find good information about Moldova; sources even disagreed about the dates of the wine festival. However, I’d managed to make contact with a woman called Natalia, who worked for Moldova Holiday (which, incidentally, is the best source of online information about the country) and we arranged to meet for a coffee. She’d organized a press trip for Moldovan and Romanian bloggers, and she invited us to join them for a day, and then for all three of the remaining days in their itinerary. We said yes.
Our three days with the group were a fantastic introduction to Moldova. On the first day, we visited Asconi and Castel Mimi wineries for tours and tastings, and tried Gitana wines at an evening event in the central city. The second day was Saturday, and we headed to Butuceni, where the small wine producers were holding a mini festival with stalls for wine tasting; after trying a few we walked along to Butuceni Eco-resort to try our hand at preparing local dishes like placinte and cherry dumplings; we then stopped in at the nearby monastery.
Day three involved another winery visit, this time to Cricova and their 120km of underground cellars. It was sad to say goodbye to the other bloggers after lunch, but at least we got to meet up with them for a drink later in our stay, along with Katiusha, the woman who’d interviewed us at the airport. It’s a small country, this one.
In fact, it’s so small that it’s easy to base yourself in Chisinau and just do day trips to the other places of interest. We booked an AirBnB for another week and planned trips to Transnistria and Soroca, as well as scheduling in a couple of solid work days.
Transnistria is a breakaway republic with a heavy military presence; we’d heard it was dangerous and weren’t planning to visit, but changed our minds after arriving. The mini bus from Chisinau to the capital, Tiraspol, took about 90 minutes, and we spent an hour or so wandering around, changing money and visiting the markets and monuments. We had lunch at Andy’s Pizza, a Moldovan chain restaurant that had become our go-to, and took our coffees to go. The highlight of our time in Tiraspol was the visit to the Kvint cognac distillery; we were guided around the museum, the bottling room, and the storage areas before a tasting of five delicious cognacs, or “divins” as they are called here.
Our Soroca trip a couple of days later involved a spectacularly uncomfortable three-hour mini bus trip (and correspondingly uncomfortable return journey later in the day). In an attempt to try all the Andy’s Pizzas in the country, we lunched at the Soroca branch before heading to the fortress. It was built in 1499 and sits on the banks of the Dniester River, looking across to Ukraine on the other side. It was smaller than we’d expected, but still interesting, and full of wedding parties having photos taken. We saw other brides and grooms at the Candle of Gratitude monument, which we walked to the long way around, taking the detour through Gypsy Hill; this area of Soroca is filled with unfinished over-the-top mansions and principally populated by Roma, hence the name.
Day trip to Ukraine
After a cold, wet Sunday, we caught an Odessa-bound train early on a freezing Monday morning. Just before we crossed the border, I decided to check that I really didn’t need a visa for Ukraine — and found that actually, I did. What followed was a long, cold, uncomfortable backtrack to Chisinau, where we checked into new accommodation and started the process of getting me a visa.
The Ukraine embassy was closed for two days because Wednesday was Chisinau City Day, but I finally got my visa on Thursday afternoon after spending all morning waiting in lines and filling in forms. I was pleasantly surprised by the same-day service; not so much by the price!
At least we got to take part in the City Day celebrations: the main street was closed to vehicles and packed with stalls, stages and spectators. We joined the throng and had a delicious lunch of barbecued ribs and locally brewed beers, while listening to folk music being played on a nearby stage.
Back to Ukraine
We didn’t want to rush the visa process, so we ended up spending a couple of extra nights in Chisinau before heading back to Ukraine. And since it was on the way, we decided to stop at Purcari winery for a night — definitely a good choice!
The mini-bus dropped us right by the gate and we checked into our room before being taken on a fantastic tour of the estate, which included trying out an ingenious well mechanism shaped like a stork. Back at the main house, we embarked on a full tasting of their 16 wines, which flowed naturally on to dinner with our tasting companions, three friendly Polish guys.
The next morning we caught a taxi the 15km or so to Et Cetera, where we met Katiusha (the woman who welcomed us into the country) who was there with an American editor called Abbie. The owner, Igor, showed us around his winery with understandable pride, gave us tastings direct from the vat, and served home-made placinte prepared by his mother.
Then, it was finally on to Ukraine! Igor drove us down to the main road and waited with us for a bus to arrive. This time, there were no problems crossing the border (for me, anyway, the Russian guy I was sitting next to was left behind), and we arrived in Odessa in the late afternoon.
We were sad to leave Moldova, we definitely enjoyed our stay. The people were friendly, the food was good, and the wine will without doubt draw us back again.