MOLDOVA, FAMOUS FOR…?

Posted September 16, 2016 by David McGuinness

I was sat on the runway in London waiting to take off, thinking about how Ireland shared a number of things with Moldova – both sat at the periphery of Europe, with a similar size population and landmass (give or take), a capital of about 1 million people and a history of being dominated by powerful neighbours, when my brothers contacted me on Whatsapp and discovered I was going somewhere. I told them I was flying to Chisinau, and set them the challenge of telling me where exactly I was going (no internet allowed for this challenge naturally, on gentlemen’s honour). The guesses came flying in, a host of Stans, Hungary, Slovakia. I gave some clues, someone hit on Romania, getting warmer, eventually they got there, but if it was 20 questions the guesses would have been up. And that’s the point; whereas Ireland has managed to make its mark on Western culture and consciousness through a mix of literature, music and booze, Moldova has not even gotten started. Most people have no idea where it is, nor know a single fact about it. Chisinau doesn’t exactly roll of the tongue when you think of capital cities.

When I arrived into my apartment, I turned on the television and flicked through the channels – mostly Russian language, or Romanian channels ruled the waves. No BBC World, no English channels, instead a crude Russian spy movie with Romanian subtitles. On another, Dara O Briain bounded around the stage pestering the audience in thick Russian. I was almost certainly in an alternate universe.

The next morning, I met my guide Natalia, and Mihaela, from a local tour company. I was surprised to hear them speaking in Russian. Natalia explained that as she was the eldest and a native Russian speaker, this was their first choice language. We drove North towards Transnistria, a quirky wannabe state, where everyone speaks Russian. See my Transnistria blog here.

Next on the visit list was Cricova, the state run winery. Putin celebrated his 50th birthday here, but it has seen many other famous guests whose pictures adorn the walls – Angela Merkel, John Kerry, Joe Biden, Manuel Barroso, Donald Tusk, John McCain, Erdogan, Jiang, China’s former president, Yuri Gagarin (of first-man-in-space fame), Sepp Blatter (ahem), as well as sitting presidents from Poland, Ukraine, and beyond. The cellars are impressive, and stretch for 80km, with a small collection of private cellars for some of the rich and famous, as well as a wine Jerusalem from 1902. Moldovan wine is available in much of the world these days and Cricova leads the way.

Our next stop was the cave monastery of Orheiul Vechi. Built into a cliff by 11 monks in the 15th century, it has been inhabited ever since. It is set in what is probably the most beautiful landscapes in all of Moldova with sweeping escarpments, sheer rock faces with rolling green hills and a river that cuts its way through the land. The monastery is austere and living there must be a real sacrifice, especially in winter. The current and solitary monk who lives in the monastery looks every bit the part. Natalia explained to me that he has lived there now for 12 years. In a previous existence he was an engineer and had flirted with Buddhism before deciding Orthodoxy was where his soul belonged.

We continued on to Curchi monastery, which was founded in the 18th century by a bandit, Curchi, who during his lawless days had accidentally killed his own parents during a hold up. Repenting of his wicked ways, he decided to live a contemplative life and do good work. He set up the monastery here, where an active monastery thrives today. A wedding party in full regalia looked a little out of place, but didn’t seem too bothered.

On the drive back to Chisinau Natalia explained that despite its small size, Moldova has an impressive diversity – as well as Russian and Moldovan/Romanian speakers, in Gaguazia in the South was a Turkic people who spoke Turkic (and usually Russian too). While ethically and culturally similar to Turks, they are Orthodox Christians. In terms of religion, Orthodoxy rules Moldova but it comes in many flavours – Russian Orthodox, Romanian Orthodox, Old Believers. There are some places where Russian Orthodox masses will be given in Romanian or even Old Slavic. Wedged in the middle of Gaguazia near the Ukrainian border is a community of Bulgarian speakers (in the Taraclia district). In the Northwest of the country are the main Roma communities, who speak a language of Indian origin, which has no script. My head was beginning to spin. “Do svidania”, I said goodnight to Natalia.

I was really taken with the area around Orheiul Vechi, so I decided to go back and spend a couple of days to relax and take some walks in the area rich with apple trees, apricots and vines. It was the perfect place for a bit of quiet and relaxation. Before I left Moldova I discussed the country’s lack of fame with Natalia and Mihaela and we explored if there was anything we could hook onto, perhaps any famous people I thought out loud. “Stefan the Great”, they both looked at me expectantly. Yes, I have heard of him, but I hadn’t last week. “Alexander the Good” was another name offered rather hopelessly. Not sure he was going to cut the mustard as a famous historical figure, having been outgunned in the name stakes by a Macedonian. “What is the most common reason people give for coming to Moldova?”, I asked them. “Because they had been everywhere else”, Natalia sighed.

We tried to think up some “famous” facts about Moldova. Below is the best we could manage:
  • Russia’s national poet Pushkin was exiled here for 3 years.
  • Cricova is Putin’s favourite winery, where he celebrated his 50th birthday.
  • On the Cricova theme, Yuri Gagarin, Soviet space hero, got lost and spent the night in the cellars, barely able to walk when he left, claiming it was harder to come out of there than back from space.
  • Moldova is Europe’s poorest country.
  • Moldova is rated in the top 10 in the world for high speed internet.
  • Moldova ranked in top 20 least-visited countries in the world.
  • The wine cellars of Mileștii Mici are the largest in the world, holding almost 2 billion bottles and stretching almost 200km.
  • Cricova is second in the world with 1.2 billion bottles and 70km of cellars.

Ok, so Moldova doesn’t have any “iconic sites” so to speak, but it is a safe, friendly and fascinating place, and certainly worth a few more visitors I think.

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