Moldova – Unlocking the Mystery Gosia Juchniewicz
Old Orhei (Orheiul Vechi), Moldova

Often quoted as one of the least visited countries in the world the Republic of Moldova is a small landlocked country, situated in the south-eastern part of Europe, bordered on the west by Romania and on the north, south, and east by Ukraine. Most of its territory lies between the region’s two main rivers, the Dniester and the Prut.

I had a unique opportunity to live in this often forgotten country on the periphery of Europe for 5 months in 2012 whilst doing my European Voluntary Scheme (EVS) project in a small charitable organisation. I must admit I have completely fallen in love with the people, culture and food and decided through this article to share some of my experience to encourage other travellers to explore Moldova’s natural beauty, but also its very complex history.

There is a legend proudly told by the locals that explains the origins of the country of Moldova. At the beginning, when God was creating the world and he was giving land to different people, he forgot about Moldovans. In order to compensate for that, God decided to give them paradise to live in. This story has a lot of truth and it can be confirmed by everyone, who has ever visited Moldova. The nature is calm: there are no sharp mountain tops, rough sea, dense forests or sun-burnt plateaus. Colours are limited to the light blue of the sky, darker blue of the slowly flowing rivers and countless variations of juicy green of pastures, fields, forests and vineyards.

When you look at the map, Moldova, in accordance to the shape of its frontiers, looks like a bunch of grapes. Its population is estimated to be around 4mln people, however as much as a third of the nation is believed to have emigrated in search for better working and living opportunities to other European countries. Remittances from Moldovan living abroad account for almost 25% of the country’s GDP, the fifth largest percentage in the world.

According to the 1989 Soviet census[1], the Moldovans, speakers of a Romance language, essentially identical to Romanian, comprise 64% of population of the whole country. The Ukrainians, the Russians and the Bulgarians constitute for 14%, 13% and 2% of the population, respectively. The last ethnic group of 4% is formed by Gagauz people, who speak a unique Turkic language, share the Orthodox Christian culture of their neighbours, and mostly speak Russian as well. In terms of religious affiliation, all of Moldova’s main ethnic groups are traditionally Orthodox Christian.[2]

The capital city of Moldova, Chisinau with slightly more than 700.000 inhabitants, is often referred to as the greenest city in Europe, due to the large number of green areas, such as parks and squares. One thing that amazed me personally was the fact that free Wi-Fi is available throughout the city in most public spaces and there are even plugs in the main city park to charge your laptops or other devices! The second biggest city, the “capital” of the self-proclaimed separatist republic of Transnistria is Tiraspol (nearly 150.000 inhabitants). Other major cities include Balţi in the north part of the country, Bender on the right bank of the Dniester River and Ribniţa on the left bank of the Dniester River. Moldova is divided into thirty-two districts, three municipalities and two autonomous regions (Gagauzia with the capital – Comrat and Transnistria - Tiraspol). The political status of Transnistria is disputed, as the central government does not control that territory. The unresolved conflict with Transnistria is too broad and complex to analyse in such a short article (it took me an entire Masters dissertation to analyse its roots and reasons why it has remained stalled for such a long time now), but may be perhaps a topic for another article.

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Typical Moldovan rural landscape with the river Dniester in the background

Moldovan culture represents a mix of ethnicities and is very rich in century-old traditions. Some of its most interesting aspects for travellers are festivals and national holidays that happen throughout the year. Apart from the more well-known to most of us, such as Christmas, New Year’s or Easter, Moldovans are also celebrating more unique traditions, which are characteristic for this part of Eastern Europe. One of them is 1st March – spring holiday when people give their family, relatives, friends and other people they know small mărţişors - red and white talisman objects worn on the lapel and symbolising spring and the revival of nature. 9th May is celebrated as Victory Day. That is the day when Moldovans show deep respect and gratitude to all soldiers and military officers, who fought against the Nazis during the World War II. On 9th May, the residents of Chisinau come to the War Memorial to put flowers on the grave of the Unknown Soldier. Whilst undoubtedly smaller than the Russia’s Victory Day it was very impressive to see the numbers of people involved in these celebrations.

Moldova’s Independence Day is also an official holiday. It has been celebrated on 27th August since 1991. Concerts, fairs and other festive public events take place in Chisinau and other cities and towns on that day. Another important celebration is Our Language (Limba Noastră) holiday on 31st August. It is the day Moldovans commemorate their national writers and poets. Concerts are held typically in the central part of Chisinau with participation of folk dance ensembles, as well as Moldovan pop stars and invited guests.

These local festivities described above are a fantastic way of getting to know the Moldovan people and their customs. Moldova has a rich cultural heritage, which may be of great interest to travellers. There are over 140 cultural heritage sites across this small country. The earliest visible remains of the built heritage are Geto-Dacian sites and Roman fortifications. The remains of medieval fortresses, archaeological complexes, such as Orheiul Vechi, cave monasteries, nobles’ mansions and peasants’ houses offer a diversity of attractions for visitors. Chisinau, the capital city, features a good number of cultural heritage monuments, fine examples of domestic architecture from XIX and XX centuries, orthodox churches and monuments (such as the one of Ştefan cel Mare, the biggest national hero of Moldova). Other cities worth visiting for their unique history and cultural value include Soroca (the city in the north-east part of the country, on the border with Ukraine, famous for its rich and spectacular Roma residences on the hill), Balţi (home to the Polish community and the third biggest city of Moldova, if Tiraspol is counted), Comrat (the capital city of the autonomous region of Gagauzia), Tiraspol (capital city of the self-proclaimed Transnistria) and Vadul lui Voda (resort town, 18km east from Chisinau at the Dniester River, where I worked in 2012).

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Traditional rural architecture

Another un-missable attraction of Moldova are of course its famous vineyards. Over centuries Moldova has gained rich traditions of growing grapes and wine production. There are 142 wineries in Moldova, out of which 23 can be visited. Here travellers can experience and learn about the complex production processes, see bottling and, of course, sample the final product. The two most famous wineries are: Cricova and Mileştii Mici. I had a chance to visit the latter and it was definitely an unforgettable experience. Mileştii Mici, situated about 18km from the capital city, holds the largest wine collection in the world, recognised in the Guinness World Record Book. The total length of underground corridors is around 200km and they stretch nearly to the borders of Chisinau.

Moldova is also famous for its unique architecture, especially in relation to Orthodox Christian monasteries and churches. The oldest, Capriana Monastery, 40km north-west of Chisinau dates back to 15th century and is situated by the oldest natural reserve in the country, Codrii Lapuşnei. Other famous, worth a visit monasteries include Hincu, Rudi, Saharna, Ţipova, Curchi and Japca. Constructed mostly in wood and painted in beautiful shades of blue and green, they often overlook small towns and villages from a hill or a high cliff. They typically also house complexes for monks living nearby, gardens and orchards and play an important role in the life of the local community. What I found absolutely charming about Moldovan villages as well was the architecture of ordinary rural houses, often painted in blue or green with beautiful flower or plant ornaments.

Finally, when visiting Moldova every traveller has to try the traditional cuisine. Moldovan dishes are very diverse in terms of flavours and methods of preparation due to the fact that they have been influenced by cultures of many peoples, who have lived on this territory for centuries: Ukrainians, Russians, Greeks, Jews, Germans and others. Moldova is considered to be a country of grapes, fruits and plentiful vegetables, sheep breeding and poultry farming. Some of my favourite dishes I tried were brynza (a cheese-like dairy product), mamaliga (a mash from corn flour) and the famous placinta (traditional pastry with various fillings, such as cheese, cabbage or even apples).

I hope that my personal account and things that charmed me whilst living in Moldova has encouraged a few more travellers to unlock the mystery of this ever so welcoming Eastern European country. I hope you’ll enjoy as much as I did its peaceful landscapes, natural scenery, interesting geological forms and very hospitable people!

[1] No official population count has been made since then.

[2] Bruno Coppieters, Michael Emerson, Michel Huysseune, et al., “Europeanization and Conflict Resolution.” [Accessed on 14.6.2015]