This article was written by Charu Suri and published on 12 February 2018 by Architectural Digest (reproduced with permission)
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The least-visited nation in the continent is beginning to herald its untold treasures of a bygone era—and serious travelers are taking note
The landlocked Eastern European Republic of Moldova that was part of the Soviet Union for over five decades gives travelers that refreshing perspective that many seek: the feeling of a place lost in time. The romantic Russian playwright Alexander Pushkin, who was once exiled here, wrote, “The streets are narrow, there are a lot of side streets, and very few houses are built out of stone. The houses are too small.”
But a lot has changed since the 1800s. The country that is situated between Ukraine and Romania is often overlooked, but has recently made a push towards tourism in the hopes of rekindling its stage presence. The 143-room Radisson Blu which has all the frills of a luxury hotel, opened in 2015 in Chişinău, the country’s capital that was founded in 1436 as a monastery village. The hotel is a block away from Cathedral Park, a lush recreational plaza that attracts leisure visitors. It is a bucolic area: The park includes a neoclassical-style Nativity Cathedral built in the 1830s.
Tour operators including Intrepid, which offers a 13-day itinerary through Ukraine, Romania, and Moldova, say that 2018 trips have garnered much interest in part because of a visitor fascination with gold-domed cathedrals, a slower pace of life, and a signature architectural style.
Oenophiles will appreciate the world’s largest wine cellar, Milestii Mici, an underground labyrinth extending for 120 miles that is stacked with more than 1.5 million bottles. Elegant wineries like Château Vartely in the district of Orhei will make you feel you are in Western Europe, with their impressive tasting rooms and richly decorated cellars. Moldova’s pastoral landscape can be refreshing to weary eyes; the dascia (summer houses that were popular among the aristocracy) and charming Lada and Volga cars are a throwback to the 1950s and beyond.
The most beautiful place in Moldova may be the gold-domed monastery in Orheiul Vechi (“old Orhei”) that majestically looks over the winding Răut river; it is where monks have practiced meditation since the 13th century. The rolling countryside speckled with animals and wooden carts, essentially Moldovan “taxis,” makes you feel you have stepped into the era of Tolstoy.
Here, Soviet-era architecture sits next to beautiful churches and modern buildings. The most well-known war memorial in Chişinău, the Victory Memorial and Eternal Flame, comprised of five stylized rifles with a flame in its center, is dedicated to soldiers who perished in World War II. Other buildings, like the Piano House designed by Line Architects right outside the city, tell you that the country is slowly but surely modernizing.
If you’re particularly adventurous, you can venture into Transnistria, a self-proclaimed state between Ukraine and the river Dniester. It is considered a “country that does not exist” because it is not officially recognized by any United Nations member state. A world-class distillery called Kvint can be found in its capital, Tiraspol.
Expats like winemaker Igor Luchianov from Et cetera winery, a family-run vineyard southeast of Chişinău near the Ukrainian border, returned to Moldova from the United States to embrace the agrarian spirit for which the country is famous (roughly 25% of the country’s population gets into winemaking).
As the curtains for solo trips to Cuba start to close, Moldova could be what visitors seek in an authentic travel experience: a society that is defining itself. In Chişinău, there are only three wine bars, but “that number will grow,” says Neil Irwin, who recently opened a yet-unnamed bar in a historic building on Columna 51.
Irwin, who chose to bring his family to Moldova from the United States, says that the place reminds him of the original Europe. “I love the region, the ski mountains in Brasov, and the Mamaia beaches in Romania, which are half a day’s drive away,” he notes. The elections in 2018 are sure to prove transformative: “The mood is definitely changing here,” he says.