Moldova. What do you know about this country?
It’s a small territory wedged between Romania and Ukraine, which used to be part of the Soviet Union until its independence in 1991. Before that, it was part of Romania. With a size slightly smaller than South Korea, Moldova has seen a lot of wars and conflicts, and the problem with the self-proclaimed country of Transnistria continues.
Moldova’s land is rich and fertile, the climate is mild, and it used to be called the Garden of the Soviet Union. Moldova and Romania share the same language and cultural roots. But what is it really like in Moldova?
Moldova is the least happy nation on the planet according to data from the World Database of Happiness. That’s the first time I learned about Moldova. The author of the Geography of Bliss, Eric Weiner, narrates his experience that supports this data. On his yearlong travel in search of the true meaning of happiness, he visited some of the happiest nations on earth, like Bhutan, but he also kept his interests on a batch of nations stuck at the bottom of the happiness spectrum: the former Soviet Republics of Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, and others.
The author heads to the former Soviet republic to see if happiness exists there or not. The Moldova chapter of the book for certain won’t encourage you to travel to the seemingly depressed country. It’s heart-wrenching. He expected to see misery, so he saw misery everywhere. He interviewed different people in different professions about happiness and their quality of life. He drew a particular conclusion, that the unhappiness of Moldova is because of lack of hope. The unhappiness in Moldova is planted in their culture.
Weiner’s trip took place nearly a decade ago. So, what is it really like to be in Moldova today? I went to find the answer myself.
“Moldovan wine doesn’t rise to the level of feevty-feevty. The sad truth is that nobody has the heart to tell the Moldovans that their wine, their national treasure, stinks.”
Sunny plateaus, plains, and plentiful streams make this fertile land a perfect place for growing grapes. Moldova is even shaped like a bunch of grapes if you squint your eyes a little. The history of winemaking goes back to 3000 BCE while the first vines are thought to start here in 7000 BCE. As a national product, wine is what put Moldova on the global map.
During the Soviet era, Moldova produced most of the wine for the USSR. The wine people drank back then was “cheap and drinkable”, which means sweet. After the republic’s independence and privatization of the wine industry in the mid-90s started to push winemakers to produce a more delicate taste for the global market. A 2006 blessing in disguise, Russia banned wines from Moldova (and Georgia) which crushed Moldova’s economy. Many small producers had to close up shop but the hardship pushed the market further into the next step. The new style of wine industry might not have been ready when Weiner visited but right now, in 2017, the quality of Moldovan wine competes on the global market.
Moldovan wines are getting recognized in the international wine industry. One California man even searched for a region in France is called ‘Moldova’ after drinking Moldovan wine for the first time. The biggest wine collection in the world with over 1.5 million bottles, recorded in the Guinness Book in 2005, belongs to Moldova. Underground galleries of Cricova and Milestii Mici are national landmarks. The dry red sparkling Pinot Noir from Cricova was one of the most memorable wines I’ve ever tasted. Et Cetera, founded by two brothers Alexandru and Igor Luchianov, produces some of the finest wines Moldova offers. Together with their own mother, who is a great chef, and complete with a guesthouse in the property, Et Cetera is a full package for a weekend getaway. Château Purcari, producing fine wine since 1827, is considered one of the best wineries in the country. The wine festival in October is attracting more wine enthusiasts from around the world. It’s not too long before we’ll see a selection of Moldovan wine in our local wine shops.
Former Soviet Culture and History
Moldova is a great country to visit If you are interested in experiencing the culture of the Soviet Union. It’s easy to get to from most of Europe by plane or train, and most countries can enter without a visa.
When we arrived in Chisinau by train from Bucharest, after traveling for 15 hours without a good night sleep, all I wanted was to take a shower and sleep for 8 hours. We booked at the Hotel Cosmos because it was near the train station. I was stunned when I entered the room. The carpet, the bedding, the broken lock on the door, the flickering florescent light, the atmosphere, and everything else, it was from another era. The next day when I recovered from the trip, I understood that it was the Soviet style interior that hasn’t gone away. Along with Hotel Chisinau close by, the Hotel Cosmos is popular for travelers who are looking for feeling Soviet nostalgia (or just need a cheap bed).
The Flea Market in front of the train station also takes you back in time. With a broad collection of Soviet memorabilia along with hand-knitted wool clothes, and everything else under the sun, the market stretches all around the block. The main central market of Chisinau is still in the Soviet style and you’ll see Russian signs everywhere as well as Russian restaurants.
If you are really interested in the Soviet Union, you can’t miss Transnistria. Officially the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR), Transnistria is a self-proclaimed republic on the border with Ukraine. It’s formally recognized only by three non-UN states which are post-Soviet frozen conflict zones. However, the PMR controls the border between Moldova, has its own currency (ruble), flag, constitution, national anthem, coat of arms, and president. After the fall of communism and USSR, Moldova and Transnistria went through the War of Transnistria from 1990 to 1992. The Moldovan government stopped influencing Transnistrian authorities and the area still remains as the biggest problem of stability in Moldova.
We drove about 1.5 hours from Chisinau to Bender, a border town of Transnistria. Entering Transnistria is indeed like going to another country. The first thing I saw were the Russian soldiers standing between the Moldovan and Transnistrian border. Shortly after we passed the Russian tank, we went out to the customs and immigration control with our passports. We got a small paper that says we had to be out of the country by 7 pm. From then on, Russian was the only working language.
We then drove to Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria. Our afternoon in Tiraspol was surreal. Surrounded by the Russian and Transnistrian flags, Soviet coat of arms, Russian language, and Russian-speaking people, I felt like I was visiting Russia rather than Moldova. We had to be careful with our cameras (we were advised not to show our camera in front of the police). I could feel that the atmosphere here was more rigid. A couple people came up to us to asking for money, people that didn’t look like conventional beggars.
Possibilities in Tourism
I enjoyed Moldova a lot more than I expected. After learning about Moldova from Eric Weiner’s book, I had very low expectations. But surprise, surprise, I actually loved Moldova. The culture, food, and wine were great, but more so, I was happy to see the possibilities in tourism. Moldova is largely an agricultural country but tourism is getting bigger thanks to the fast-growing wine industry, rich culture, and entrepreneurial spirit of some creative locals.
The Castle Mimi, currently listed among the most beautiful architectural masterpieces in the wine industry, has prepared something very exciting. Not only can you tour and taste their excellent wine, the large property has turned into a resort. The big garden in the backyard of the castle is where they grow their own vegetables and herbs for the in-house restaurant. The new glass building near the front gate is used as a showroom for a variety of events. They are currently building 5-star bungalows as well as a wine spa.
If you are curious how people used to live back in the Stone Age, wait no more. Branesti Winery is currently building the first underground hotel in the former Branesti limestone mine, called Stone Age. The hotel has rooms, a restaurant, a dining room, a bar, recreation rooms, wine spa, and of course, wine cellars. There are even areas for various activities like art shows and concerts.
There are places like Old Orhei and Soroca that are already established in tourism. New roads are getting built which makes driving much easier. Because the country is small, 5 days is enough to experience the highlights and a week is enough to tour the entire country. Things are starting to move. I felt like Moldova was like what people say about Myanmar ‘You have to visit now before it changes’. It’s going to be a while for Moldova to change completely but I definitely see the possibilities.
I kept expecting people to be unhappy, especially in places that are very much Soviet. In Hotel Cosmos, I was doubting the quality of breakfast considering the first impression I got from the room. Two ladies in uniform greeted us. No smile. There was a simple buffet, like what you see in an old Chinese hotel. I was looking for a place to fill up my hot water bottle and one of the ladies came up and took the bottle. She came back with it full of hot water and said ‘The tea smells good’ and went back to her TV show. They were like Korean grandmothers, who wouldn’t show their emotions but they cared, deeply. Same as in Polish milk bars.
When we visited a Romani family near Soroca, we were offered a table full of food, whiskey, home-made bread, and even candy. Mr. Robert said ‘This is Moldovan hospitality’. Whoever comes through your door, it’s common to bring out all the good food no matter what time of the day it is. Very similar to Korea in that sense. He kept insisting that I should bring my dad here because I said the way he offers food and drink are similar to my dad. Maybe someday I will.
This is Moldovan hospitality.
Moldova. Should you go?
There was certainly several moments that reminded me of the unhappiness of Eric Weiner in Moldova. After traveling to 10 countries for his book, he said he enjoyed visiting all those countries except Moldova. For me, the rigid atmosphere in some places was hard to get used to. A Moldovan train conductor just stood and watched me when I was struggling with my bags like he wasn’t allowed to engage with a passenger. People don’t hold doors for each other. I don’t hear back ‘You’re welcome’. Looks like smile and laughter aren’t part of the common language.
Cultural differences and understanding foreign culture are why we travel and why travel is so important to grow. Witnessing other culture allows you to reflect your own knowledge of the world. In that way, Moldova was certainly an interesting country.
Moldova. Should you go? I say yes. This small country, a mix of Romanian and Soviet history is going to be the next big thing, I can feel it.