Cricova, Chișinău and a lot of cheese: A day trip to Moldova (and a self-declared republic along the way.)
On a warm midsummer day, three Australians and an Odessan made the day trip to Moldova to do a little sightseeing and wine tasting. This little landlocked country, wedged between Romania and Ukraine, has known many masters in its history and is today one of the poorest and least visited countries in Europe.
The day we spent there has stayed in my memory for its brooding realist architecture in the capital, the lonely expanse of a patchwork of farms, the fruit trees lining the main roads and a resonating sense of loneliness- there were no bustling crowds or vibrant street life here. We did however enjoy a vast array of fresh and delicious foods and sampled some wine.
We left just after 8 am from Odessa, and even though it was not far in kilometres, it took three hours as we needed to exit Ukraine, then enter the strange little republic of Transdniester. This self-declared republic is a narrow area of land on the eastern side of the Dniester River; unrecognised as independent in all other countries, it apparently has its own currency and police force and as we discovered its own army and borders. After exiting, we could then drive into Moldova.
The landscape was mainly flat until we got to Moldova, with sunflower crops and fields of wheat or wheat stubble and corn. The roads were narrow and lined with trees, many of them fruit trees. The roads were really bad- big grooves made by trucks made for a bumpy ride, even in Alex’s very nice Mercedes Benz AWD. He had to slow down from his preferred speed of 140 kph at times.
A large portion of present-day Moldovan territory became a province of the Russian Empire in 1812 and then unified with Romania in 1918 in the aftermath of World War I. This territory was then incorporated into the Soviet Union at the close of World War II. Although Moldova has been independent of the Soviet Union since 1991, Russian forces have remained on Moldovan territory east of the Nistru River in the breakaway region of Transnistria (Transdnieste), whose population is roughly equally composed of ethnic Ukrainians, Russians, and Moldovans.
Though small (Moldova is about the size of Belgium with a population of 4 million, with 700,000 residing in the capital), Moldova is among the world’s top 20 wine-producing countries and has the highest density of vineyards to arable land of any country in the world.
The cellars at the Cricova winery, 15km north of Chişinău, have around 60km of labyrinthine limestone tunnels dating from the 15th century and are many are lined wall-to-wall with bottles. It is one of Europe’s biggest underground wineries. Part of the tour took us to a wineglass-shaped cellar of collectable bottles, including 19 bottles of pre-WWII Mosel wine that once belonged to Nazi party leader Hermann Göring, a 1902 bottle of Becherovka from the Czech Republic, a 1902 bottle of Passover wine from Jerusalem, and a number of pre-WWII French reds.
We then hopped on a little golf cart thing with about 20 others on the English-speaking tour. We were shown the champagne section and the little bottling line, then the barrel section and finally the wine cellars.
The winery itself was state-owned and a very slick PR operation. We had lunch first- another lovely meal of traditional Moldovan chicken soup, and shared potato pastries, a plate of fresh tasty salad of cucumber, tomato and feta and yet another cheese platter served with honey and walnuts.
Legend has it that in 1966 Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin entered the cellars and only re-emerged (with help) two days later. Russian President Vladimir Putin celebrated his 50th birthday here. Both these assertions are entirely unverifiable- much like most events in soviet history- however, it sounds plausible enough to colour my story a little, don’t you think?
We were then taken into a little theatre with a glass of sparkling rose and shown what could be interpreted as either a promotional video, a piece of propaganda, a very strange piece of art-house cinema or an educational piece about the history of Moldovan wine. We were asked rhetorically- What is wine? What is life? I noticed that J and Alex had a little snooze during that bit. We were then taken to a cavernous tasting room where we sat and sampled 2 sparkling, 2 whites, a rose and 2 reds with a plate of cheese, walnuts and macarons to nibble on. Miss E was served wine and was disgusted by its nose. She kept saying ‘Don’t they know I’m only 11?’
The wine was lovely and the tour was certainly memorable on so many levels. We were 100 meters underground and it has a constant temperature of 12-13 degrees Celsius and 90 percent humidity. It is the same temperature year-round. Alex lent me a bright blue pullover to keep me warm as there was a very cold wind chill factor whist on the golf cart.
After the winery tour we ‘popped in’ to the Moldovan capital city of Chișinău (pronounced similar to “Kish-i-now) to grab some Moldovan souvenirs. We found an official-looking shop which was very Soviet throwback style of everything being behind the counter and the assistant showing us things we pointed at. The architecture was very utilitarian with big public spaces and tree-lined streets. There were people milling about and we passed some more modern looking shops and cafes. We parked near the Great National Assembly Square. It was a sunny Sunday and the streets were very lonely- only a handful of people were milling about.
Chișinău was founded in 1420 but mostly destroyed in WW2 and then also struck by an earthquake in 1940. It was rebuilt in the Soviet style- think Stalinist era apartment blocks; a few lovely old buildings remain.
As we drove out of the city it got colder and rainier and the skyline was dominated by big apartment blocks. Then back on the bumpy roads and all the passport checks.
Perhaps a little unfairly, I was very relieved to be back in the Ukraine and Odessa, as it felt like being back in civilisation- a vibrant, busy and quirky place, full of people meeting and chatting with events and activities. Being July, the sun went down at ten and then all the fairy lights appear and people keep wandering the busy streets. We are right in the centre of town but too tired after our busy days to fire up again after dark!
Other notable observations today were the most disgusting toilet we have ever seen/smelled at the roadside stop ( E baulked at it and refused to go in- I had a quick look and it was a squat long drop- so disgusting that groups of people were just peeing behind the toilet block) and Transnistrians wandering across to Moldova ( or the other way around- I’m not too sure) to take advantage of duty-free goods and the markets.
A thousand thanks to Alex for being our chauffeur and fellow wine taster that day!
Molvania and Moldovan Tennis players: a brief (un)cultural history
Being a tiny former Soviet State wedged between Romania and Ukraine, there is a fairly good chance many people have never heard of Moldova, let alone be able to locate it on a map. We often confused this real place with the hilarious parody of travel books called Molvania: the land that modern dentistry forgot. My husband often interchanged the names accidentally, and luckily we did not offend anyone as Molvania was written by Australians for the Australian sense of humour- plus even people who speak English as a first language find it difficult to follow his thick Australian accent and all the cultural baggage that goes with it.
The guide says Molvania is the birthplace of whooping cough, one of the world’s biggest parsnip producers and owner of Europe’s oldest nuclear reactor.
Before the Molvania guide was published, was a gorgeous travelogue written by an English comedian, and through this book I can honestly say that in the 1990s I knew where Moldova was. I got to know English comedian Tony Hawks (He is frequently confused with American professional skateboarder Tony Hawk) with his 1980s top ten hit with Morris Minor and the Majors, “Stutter Rap (No Sleep Til Bedtime)”. In the YouTube video clip, Tony is the one in the black tracksuit. Then in 1997, I heard him on BBC radio promoting his travelogue Round Ireland with a Fridge. This, his first book, was an account of his attempt to hitchhike around Ireland with a fridge to win a bar bet.
Here is a little bit about my first encounter with Moldova:
Playing the Moldovans at Tennis, his second book and also the result of a drunken bet, involved an attempt to beat each member of the Moldova national football team in a game of tennis, based on the theory that people good at one sport are not necessarily good at others.
Here is an excerpt from his book about why he went to Moldova-
‘And so I went about my business, having successfully attached enormous gravitas to a manifestly pointless pursuit. Why did there always have to be a point? Why couldn’t you just get stuck in and do things? What was the point of anything anyway? What was the point in football? What was the point in working, retiring, saving money, raising a family, going to church or standing for election? The only thing I could feel sure had a point was the sharp bit at the very end of a dart, and even that was useless unless it got stuck into things.’
Tony won his bet – thanks to the bewilderment and kindness of a Moldovan family and the bemusement of every player on the Moldovan national football team- after an unsuccessfully executed comic subterfuge on the part of his friend Arthur, who upon losing the bet had to sing the Moldovan National Anthem stark naked on Balham High Road. Hawks donated half of the royalties from his book Playing the Moldovans at Tennis to a trust fund for Moldova, which was used to open a medical centre that provides rehabilitative therapy for disabled children from socially vulnerable families. He was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the 2017 Birthday Honours “for services to disadvantaged children in Moldova”.
There was a point to his trip after all.
And for us, there was also a point to our trip. We still talk about it today- it was all so far out of our comfort zone and a very indulgent adventure. As the old saying goes, ‘Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.’