Moldova, an unknown Eastern land
A country with a complex identity
The offspring of the break-up of the USSR, this country as big as Belgium is trying to invent itself a destiny. Torn between the East and the West, this nation displays the rural symbols of France in the 1950s. Its monasteries and wine cellars go together with the discovery of a separatist territory that will delight the nostalgics of the Soviet Union: Transnistria.
Except that the Russian-speaking minority (about 30%) has always looked toward Moscow. So much so that one region, Transnistria, has even seceded.
It is today a “stateless” territory, with borders, a currency and a government, not recognized by anyone.
If we add the Gagauz, a Russian-speaking minority from an old Turkish wave of emigration, we can see how complex the identity of the country is.
Chernozium, the “black lands”
But what does Moldova look like? It is a land of lowlands and hills, drained by rivers which converge towards the Dniester, the Prut and the Danube. A country without a seafront, although within range of the Black Sea.
The richness of its soil, the Chernozium, makes it one of the most fertile territories in Europe. Yet, the prosperous agriculture of Soviet times – fruit, vegetables, vines … – is today moderately productive.
Its capital, Chisinau, displays the usual images of “liberated” Soviet cities. The concrete architecture of ex-official buildings (former palace of the Presidency, palatul National, old circus …) rubs off the 19 century decatious buildings. dating back from the Russian Empire. The most beautiful ones are located in Telecentru, a district of embassies and noble residences.
The market economy has arrived without warning in Moldova. It gauges itself at the outbreak of trendy restaurants and boutiques. Avenue Stefan cel Mare, a sort of local “Champs-Elysees”, marked by signs, is a testimony of the sharp contrast between Western signs and the permanence of Slavic symbols.
We have to visit the food market, a huge agora with meat, fish and cheese halls. Clad in white aprons and ribbons embroidered on the head, vendors cut, weigh and coax the barges.
Orheiul Vechi: the Underground Monastery
Some may doubt the touristic interest of the country. But beyond the pleasure of visiting a little known nation with a singular history, a mere three hour flight away from Paris, Moldova conceals some spectacular sites. Head north, one hour drive from Chisinau. Here at Orheiul Vechi, a sort of Moldovan Navacelles circus, the river forming a loop around a rocky spur. On this eminence thrones a monastery, while a second hides … in subterranean. Walk a few steps down, and you find yourself in a dark chapel carved in stone, over a cliff. In the darkness, the monk Efimii reads a religious work, illuminating with a candle. Twelve years he has lived as a hermit, sleeping on a rough bed scalped in the rock. Vision of another age …Another hour and here is Soroca. On the way, we drive through villages.Emptied of the men who went to work in the West, the rustic houses with their colored walls are surrounded by henhouses and pig pens. The well still stands in the garden.
Transnistria, a “forbidden” country
A border town, Soroca is situated on the banks of the Dniester River. Protected by a medieval castle, the town is dominated by the Gypsy Hill. Roma families built megalos, copying great monuments: the White House, the Bolshoi, and so on.On the way back to Chisinau, stop at Cricova’s cellar. In this former underground quarry, 60 km of galleries are used as cellars.Moldova has long produced excellent wines, served at the table of Soviet tsars and apparatchiks. Not content with housing 1.3 million bottles in its collection, the Cricova cellar hosts tasting rooms worthy of a James Bond decor. An unforgettable visit to Moldova.It remains to experience the thrill of the “forbidden” in Transnistria. With a car, a Moldovan driver (obligatory) and a passport, one enters without concern in this zone not recognized by the UN. Excitement is only exceeded by disbelief while discovering the vestiges of a past Sovietism.
Quite unknown in the West, Moldova and its satellite are a tourist niche that will surely delight the fans of European exoticism.
This article is the English translation from an article written by Jean-François RUST -published on tourmag.com Tuesday 8 August 2017 (all rights reserved)