Huh?” says the young woman at Heathrow airport currency exchange. “You want what?” I repeat my request. “Never heard of it. We’ve definitely not got any of them.” To be honest, I would have been disappointed if they did have a wad of Moldovian leu behind the counter. It’s not every day you need some dough in the currency used by Europe’s least-visited country, and I’m savouring the moment.
I’m still ridiculously excited at the thought that Europe has a genuinely secret corner left to explore. Of course this 59-country continent, swarming with 742 million busy people and bubbling with myriad languages, cultures and customs, will never be short of surprises. I’m not going to pretend I’ve done anything other than scrape the surface during previous forays, but to discover an entire nation I know nothing about is nothing short of brilliant.
As the plane skims over the Transylvanian Alps, I contemplate the figures. Apparently Moldova gets just 9000 visitors a year – some semi-professional football clubs do better than that on a good Saturday afternoon – and half of those come from Romania, next door.
Ostensibly I’m here to check out Moldova’s National Wine Day festivities. But I intend to look a lot deeper into the glass than that – to try and discover how a country in the midst of one of the busiest, most travelled-to and written-about continents on the planet manages to keep its head so far below the parapet.
Does this anonymity occur by accident or design? Maybe Moldova is deliberately keeping quiet having seen the fate of fellow former Eastern Bloc countries like Bulgaria, which now has the dubious distinction of being Europe’s bucks-party mecca. Or perhaps it simply isn’t interesting enough to lure visitors.
Approaching Chişinău in a taxi, I begin to worry it might be the latter. The entrance to the capital is between two big, brutal, Soviet-style apartment blocks forming a rather grim giant gateway. The city that greets you on the other side is, at first glance, 50 shades of concrete grey.
Within 24 hours, however, my view has been turned inside out. I find myself in the Cricova wine cellar, deep beneath the hills outside Chişinău, in an extraordinary limestone labyrinth that extends for somewhere between 60 and 120 kilometres, depending on who you listen to. In my slightly shaky hands is a bottle of wine from Vladimir Putin’s personal stash, and I’m getting an insight into what really makes Moldova tick.
No one seems entirely certain how far these state-controlled vaults really go, and the cynic in me suspects they’re a little too elaborate and well finished for simply storing wine. The tunnels are so extensive and wide we’re exploring them in a van. As we speed along subterranean streets named after various varietals, and whizz past thousands of mysterious shut doors, my mind boggles. What’s behind them all? Secret weapons of mass liver destruction? An elite army of winemaking Oompa Loompas?
Effervescent oceans of sparkling white wine are made in this underground city, with workers turning each bottle by hand, using Dom Pierre Perignon’s genius méthode champenoise. Just about every other kind of varietal is present too, including local specialities such as Feteasca.
Bulgaria might attract the beer-drenched bucks’ bashes, but Europe’s rich and powerful come to party in Chişinău, it seems. Putin celebrated his fiftieth birthday in this very cellar, and next to his stash of valuable vino I spy a collection with German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s name on it. When Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin came on a sampling tour here, he emerged bleary-eyed a whole two days later.
I’m treated to a tasting session and soon see why Gagarin was so reluctant to return to Earth. I’m sipping the elixir of the gods. How have I never heard of this place or its plonk before? The quality of Moldovan wine never used to be such a secret – Queen Victoria always had a bottle of Negru de Purcari at the royal table – but these days, I’m told, all the good stuff gets gulped down by the Russians.
Emerging into the arms of the day, I head back to downtown Chişinău, which looks far more colourful now the wine festival is in full flow. While politicians, plutocrats and celebrity spacemen like to sip fine wine in the privacy of an underground cellar, this vino-soaked shindig is a proper proletarian affair.
Moldova’s larger labels are here, but much of the wine being drunk in the streets has arrived almost straight from the vine, via old-school presses. It’s cloudy and delicious – organic grape juice with a punch. In parks and on corners, traditionally dressed folk musicians gather in groups and play, while the crowd wriggles and jiggles and couples spin off to spontaneously dance a reel or two.
If there are any tourists here, I can’t spot them. I certainly seem to be the only person taking photos. Everyone else is just enjoying themselves. It’s the least commercial festival I’ve ever been to, but if Chişinău is short on visitors – even during one of its signature events – they’re virtually unheard of in the rest of the country, especially at my next destination.
Technically, Transnistria is part of Moldova, but the Transnistrians do their best to ignore this fact. They have their own currency, their own army and police force, and to get into the little breakaway state I have to go through a humourless mock border crossing, where an outrageously officious uniformed guard wants to know my father’s middle name. My dad doesn’t have a middle name, but sensing this might cause issues, I make up one.
More arrive on a donkey, and then a group of folk musicians rocks up and performs an impromptu session. One guy teases out a tune on something resembling a cushion.
If all the posturing at the border seems surreal, things soon get even more Monty Pythonesque when I stop at the Tighina Fortress in Bender, on the banks of the Dniester River, and meet Baron Münchhausen.
Münchhausen – a German nobleman and a captain in the Russian army in real life – was famous for his tall tales long before Terry Gilliam got hold of him. He once claimed to have flown over this very fortress riding a cannonball during a battle with the Turks, and to honour his overactive imagination, a statue of the Baron stands proudly outside Tighina’s walls, next to a giant cannonball fitted with a saddle.
The fortress is far more sinister on the inside, where a guide in murderous-looking high heels shows me around a terrible torture chamber featuring iron maidens and a horrific hobbyhorse with a sharpened back, designed to slowly split a person in half when weights were placed on their legs.
A mental image like that can only be erased by a drink, but thankfully it’s seldom far to the next winery in this neck of the woods. We drive through the bucolic countryside that sprawls across Moldova and Transnistria – where people still travel by donkey and cart and live the kind of rural existence that’s almost entirely extinct elsewhere in Europe – to Noul Neamţ.
This is a monastery, not a vineyard, but the tour of the grounds inevitably ends in the cellar, where my charismatic monk-cum-guide Alexi pours mugs of red straight from the barrel. Between slurps, he tells me how the Soviets turfed the monks out in 1962 and turned the monastery into a TB clinic. The holy men in black moved back in when Moldova gained independence in 1990.
While most people in Moldova speak Romanian and identify with their western neighbours, Transnistria looks east, across Ukraine towards Russia. Most people converse in Russian and there has been widespread speculation that Putin might one day pocket the want-away state in the same way he collected Crimea.
If he does decide to move in, he won’t have to do much in the way of redecorating. Hitting the streets of Tiraspol – Transnistria’s de facto capital – is like being transported straight back to Soviet-era Russia. Statues of Lenin stand proudly outside government buildings, where uniformed guards are quick to wag disapproving fingers at anyone trying to take photos. In the absence of a park, children climb all over a decommissioned Russian battle tank that sits in the main square.
Judging from the bottle collection I saw back in the bowels of Cricova, Putin doesn’t mind a drink, and Tiraspol is famous for producing a fabulous cognac-style brandy called Kvint. No one leaves Transnistria without carrying a bottle with these letters on it, and I don’t intend to break the tradition, especially when I see the price tag (about US$1.50 a litre).
After surviving a minor panic attack while waiting to get back into mainland Moldova – I forgot my old man’s made-up middle name and the grim-faced guard looked as though he’d send me for a ride on the horrible hobbyhorse if he found out I fibbed – my nerves are settled by yet another tasting session at the excellent Purcari winery. This is where Queen Vic’s favourite drop comes from, and the old girl clearly had taste.
My final day in this hidden and enigmatic corner of Europe is spent in one of its most fascinating areas. About 60 kilometres from Chişinău, the commune of Trebujeni is perched on the serpentine banks of the Răut River. As we drive through the ubiquitous fields of vines towards the village, the steep hillside that curls dramatically around the river appears to be honeycombed with holes. When we arrive I discover an incredible hilltop cave monastery, full of holy relics and solemn monks.
Being Moldova, there’s no one else here, but by the time we descend into the village, word has got around and the house we’re staying in is suddenly surrounded by children. More arrive on a donkey, and then a group of folk musicians rocks up and performs an impromptu session. One guy teases out a tune on something resembling a cushion.
Everyone is dancing, singing and swigging cups of wine poured straight from a garden grape press. No one tries to sell me anything. They seem as excited and surprised to have me here as I am to be here. It’s a magical moment. This is what travelling must have been like decades ago. If tourism actually takes off in Moldova, scenes like this might become mere memories. You shouldn’t come you know – you wouldn’t like it.
The Jazz Hotel is a charismatic option for overnight stays in central Chişinău. A room will cost about US$100 per night. The Best Western Flowers Hotel is another good four-star option, with rooms for around US$92 per night. In Trebujeni, the Butuceni Rural Pension offers excellent accommodation in a friendly, traditional household setting right underneath the cave monastery,
with rooms starting from about US$55 per night.
Australian passport holders no longer require a visa or a letter of invitation to enter Moldova. For more information visit Moldova’s tourism website.