Wednesday, October 06, 2010


I have been rather disparaging about Moldova's lack of touristic sights, which I plan to make for in this post. There are two things that any visitor to the country really must see: the historic complex at Orhei Vecchi and one of the giant wine cellars near the capital, Chisinau.

In the West France, Italy and Spain are seen as being archetypal wine countries, but that's only because Moldova was locked away behind the Iron Curtain. During Communist times this small triangle of land produced all the wine the USSR needed and then some. As I mentioned before, wine is a way of life here, and the biggest cultural event in the whole country is the wine festival. Unfortunately I will miss that (it's this coming weekend), but I made up for it by visiting the wine cellars at Milestii Mici. Situated on the outskirts of Chisinau among gently rolling limestone hills Milestii Mici isn't much to look at, but burrowed away in those hills are some 200km of tunnels that are home to over 2 million bottles of wine (and that doesn't count the numerous casks, barrels, cisterns and vats). Welcome to the largest wine collection in the world. (And just in case you were wondering, the second largest wine collection is 20km up the road at Cricova.) The conditions in the Milestii tunnels are said to be ideal for maturing wines and so the winery's business is not about growing grapes, but instead they buy grapes from all over the country and then mix, ferment, store and age them. Their creations are supposedly (as I'm no oenologue) among the best in the world and give any Chateauneuf du Pape or Margaux a run for their money. Unfortunately, most of it is shipped off to Japan so you'll have to scout around if you want to find any in your local Tesco, though there might be more if it around from now on as a few years back Russia, which was the biggest purchaser, in an effort to force the Transnistria issue, decided to ban the import of Moldovan wines thereby causing a crisis in the Moldovan economy (as wine is the main export). The wine tunnels are so extensive that you have to visit with your own car (with an extra seat for the guide) as you drive several kilometres into the bowels of the hillside. The tour finished with the obligatory wine-tasting and visit to the winery shop, but I didn't mind that much as it's not often I get to try 25 year-old booze (with nibbles thrown in for good measure). And to give an idea of how ridiculously cheap wine is in Moldova, a 1992 vintage Cabernet Sauvignon was a measly $3.

One of the myriad wine tunnels in Milestii Mici. Here grand crus are matured in ideal conditions so that they can then be sold on for ridiculous sums of money.

Some 50km north of Chisinau the Raut river slices a wildly meandering route through the limestone hills before reaching the Dniester. It is here at Orhei Vecchi, amongst these interlocking spurs, like entwined fingers, that some of the oldest archaeological remains have been found in Moldova. It is also among the sharp cliffs that ascetic monks retreated to during medieval times. At the village of Butuceni an unassuming door on the hillside leads down a flight of stairs to a tiny chapel where a wizened, old monk leads his hermetic life (though not sure how much alone time he gets living in Moldova's premier tourist attraction). He welcomed me with a nod and a reasonable mastery of English, shuffled over to a nearby door and indicated I should go through it. The experience was like stepping into the Matrix: from a cramped, dingy hole you step out onto a 1m-wide ledge 40m above the river with breathtaking views of the curving valley. Most of the historical cells are, however, uninhabited and so you can spend a day climbing the cliff walls and exploring them, wondering at the harsh life the monks must have led. As a geeky biologist I was also fascinated by the countless, immaculate, marine fossils that protrude from every surface and I wondered whether, whilst digging their cells or in their meditations on the bible, and the Creation Story in particular, the monks pondered what these seashells were doing so high up, in the middle of the hillside and 250km from the sea.

View of part of the meandering Orhei Vecchi landscape. Over centuries monks carved countless caves in the soft, sandstone cliffs lining the river.

Although not really a tourist hotspot, my last stop in the country, Soroca, in the north of the country on the Ukrainian border, was pretty memorable too. The town is known for its medieval castle lording over the right bank of the Dniester. It's OK as castles go, and the warden was a mine of humourous information, but the highlight was the neighbourhood on the hill above the centre of town. This is the Roma quarter. But unlike most places where the Roma live, this is the home of the Roma nobility (the gypsy kings, if you will) and here they are the richest people in town (money made, or so I was told, from smuggling) and so the houses are not just big, but indescribably ostentatious and more than a little vulgar in the architectural whistles and bells. No house is complete without Grecian columns, statues, gargoyles or caryatids. One house could even have been mistaken for an Orthodox church, with a massive golden dome visible from miles around. Unfortunately in their zeal to put up their houses they hadn't got around to paving the roads, which were, by contrast, dusty and potholed.

A gypsy palace in Soroca. The owner must have opened a book on the history of architecture and said "I want it all!"

No comments: