In the headlines for all the wrong reasons

Moldova On My Mind

A recent map of Moldova from the UK's Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office clearly shows the breakaway Transdniester region in red (advise against travel).
One of Moldova's prettiest sights in this remote cave monastery, pitched on a ridge high above the slow-moving Răut River. Photo by Mark Baker.
Moldova is a world-beater at underground wine cellars. This is the labyrinthine cellar below the Cricova winery, where the wine is stored along more than 120 kms (75 miles) of underground wine routes. Photo by Mark Baker.
A typical street scene from central Chișinău. The Moldovan capital is short on traditional tourist sights but filled with fun places to eat and drink. Photo by Mark Baker.

The Moldovan market is a surprisingly tough one to break into for travel writers. Relatively few foreign tourists make the trip (the number of visitors to the country is measured in the low hundreds of thousands each year; by contrast, a city like Prague attracts more than 10 million visitors annually). Consequently, not many guidebook publishers issue a Moldova guide (or even a dedicated chapter), and big, glossy articles on the country in leading travel magazines and websites are few and far between. I can’t remember ever seeing a cover story on Moldova.

A little more than a decade ago, after I started writing about travel full-time, one of my first pitches to a travel magazine – in this case “National Geographic Traveler” – was for a piece on Moldova. My editor was supportive and gamely offered to raise the idea at the next editorial meeting. In the end, though, nothing ever came of it.

The problem is not that Moldova is not an attractive country or worth visiting. It definitely is. The issue is more that the main sights are not of the “must-see” variety. There’s no defining natural wonder – no spectacular mountain peak or waterfall -- or an awe-inspiring, historic city that would necessarily pull in large numbers of visitors. The attractions are much more subtle (and all the better for it): unspoiled countryside, rustic villages, friendly people, an active folk culture and some of Europe’s very best wines.

Until recently, breakaway Transdniester (ironically) also figured prominently among Moldova’s main tourist sights. This thin strip of land along the eastern bank of the Dniester River gained its nominal independence after a war in the early ‘90s that pitted Moldova’s armed forces against Russian-backed separatists. That conflict ended in stalemate and for the past three decades, Transdniester has carried on life as a de facto time capsule of the former Soviet Union. Visitors to Moldova were invited to tour the region and take in the surviving images of hammers and sickles, still-standing statues of Lenin and other pieces of Soviet-era kitsch. (As the current war rages on, those statues suddenly don’t feel quite so benign.)

A bust of Lenin still adorns the front of the "House of the Soviet" in Tiraspol, the nominal capital of breakaway Transdniester. Photo by Mark Baker.
Another "Lenin" stands in front of the Transdniester government building in central Tiraspol. Moldova's breakaway region retains a distinctive Soviet time-warp vibe. Photo by Mark Baker.
A war memorial in central Tiraspol to fallen Soviet soldiers in the Afghanistan war. Photo by Mark Baker.
A T-34 Soviet tank from World War II still stands in downtown Tiraspol. Photo by Mark Baker.

One of the biggest challenges Moldova’s tourist authorities have had to overcome is the simple fact that the country is not very well known. To help boost Moldova’s tourism profile, leading international and Western aid organizations, like the American-funded USAID, have sponsored all-expenses-paid trips for foreign journalists to visit Moldova and then write about the country when they return home. That’s how I wangled my very first trip to Moldova, nine years ago in May 2013, when I and about 15 other travel writers motored around the country as part of a sponsored “fam” (familiarization) trip.

Needless to say, we had a great time. How could anything go wrong with all that wine? We started off in the capital, Chișinău (Kishinev), touring sights like the city’s former Jewish quarter and its little-known museum to the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. Pushkin was exiled here, Ovid-like, for three years in 1820 after running afoul of Tsar Alexander I.

After that, we took in the astounding, labyrinthine wine cellar at the Cricova winery, near Chișinău, where wine is stored along more than 120 kms (75 miles) of underground wine routes. Vladimir Putin himself celebrated his 50th birthday here and even – at least back then – maintained here his own personal collection of rare wines. On that trip, we also attended tastings at the celebrated Chateau Vartely and Purcari wineries. This latter winery is credited with putting Moldovan wines on the world vintners’ map back in 1878, when its signature red, Negru de Purcari, won a gold medal at the Paris World Expo.

Not far from Chateau Vartely, north of Chișinău at Orheiul Vechi, we visited a picturesque, isolated cave monastery along a ridge above the Răut river. The monastery dates from the 13th century, and after standing abandoned for many years is now again tended by a small colony of monks. We overnighted a short walk from here at Butuceni, a traditional village that’s been restored and reconceived as a high-end rural resort (the cover photo shows my "room"). For dinner that night, we feasted on traditional mămăligă (cornmeal polenta) cooked over an open fire and, of course, lots more wine.

During that fam trip, we also crossed over the “border” to Transdniester, where we snapped furtive photos of a triumphant Lenin standing in front of the Transdniester government building (photography was officially banned, though the guards didn’t enforce the rules too strictly). The Soviet iconography was interesting, but the highlight of Transdniester for me was the tour and multi-round tasting we enjoyed at the legendary Kvint distillery. Over the years, Kvint produced some of the Soviet Union’s most iconic brandies (and was a favorite of famed cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin).

The impressive Soviet-era facade of the Cosmos Hotel in downtown Chișinău. Photo by Mark Baker.
Another classic street scene photo from central Chișinău. Photo by Mark Baker.
One of my trips to Moldova coincided with the Easter holiday and a trip to the local cemetery to share a meal with the local priest. Photo by Mark Baker.
Flower-sellers on a busy street on a rainy day in central Chișinău. Photo by Mark Baker.

I figured the fam trip would probably be my first- and last-ever excursion to Moldova, but a couple years later, in April 2015, I received a surprise commission from an editor at “Foreign Policy” (FP) magazine. The Russian government at the time had recently imposed a punitive ban on imports of Moldovan wine (to keep Moldova’s then-leadership from moving too far “West”). Back then, Russia accounted for around a third of all of Moldova’s wine exports and the ban threatened to seriously damage the country’s economy. FP wanted me to fly out to Chișinău to write a story about U.S. government efforts to help Moldova evade the ban and find outlets for its wine.

I jumped at the chance to return to Moldova and carry out some serious journalism about wine and foreign affairs, but the story seemed cursed from the start. The editors at FP apparently envisioned I would uncover some kind of elaborate wine-smuggling operation, where covert operatives worked day and night to move crates of Moldovan wine out of the country – and past the ever-watchful gaze of the shady, KGB-infested offices of neighboring Transdniester. It was a fantastic notion. The only problem was I couldn’t ever find any evidence for it. To this day, I have no idea whether those kinds of illicit transfers ever took place. What I discovered instead was a more-mundane, relatively well-conceived USAID plan to help Moldovan winemakers improve the quality of their wines and develop new markets for them in Western Europe and the United States.

After undergoing several edits and iterations, the story ran in the magazine in July 2015 under the title “Drinking Games. For a story about booze, it’s a little on the dry side. Nevertheless, I think it holds up well as an illustration of all the weapons, including measures like import bans, that Russia has as its disposal to manipulate and control the countries of its near abroad. This pull quote from the article could have been written yesterday: “Wedged between Romania and Ukraine, Moldova finds itself much like its neighbors: caught in the cross-hairs of a struggle for influence in Eastern Europe that pits Russia against the West.”

Another war memorial to fallen Soviet soldiers in that country's war in Afghanistan. This one was located in the northern city of Soroca. Photo by Mark Baker.
In 2014, I traveled by car from Chișinău up to Soroca along an extremely bumpy highway that was being in repaired in part with funds from the U.S. government. I sincerely hope they've finished the road by now. Photo by Mark Baker.
Classic brandy bottles at Transdniester's Kvint distillery. They make some of the best brandy you'll ever taste. Yuri Gagarin, the first human in outer space, was a big fan. Photo by Mark Baker.
A horizontal photo board -- Soviet-era Kremlin style -- lines the front of the leadership offices in Transdniester's nominal capital of Tiraspol. Photo by Mark Baker.

In the years after, I returned to Moldova on a couple of occasions to visit friends and write about the country for Lonely Planet, but during the Covid-19 pandemic I mostly lost touch with it. My sense from afar, though, was that in spite of a string of scandals, including the continuing fallout from a stunning theft of $1 billion from three leading banks in 2014, the overall situation in the country was improving. I also noticed, through the travel-writing grapevine, that until very recently, those wine-soaked fam trips for travel writers were still taking place.

Now, of course, with Russia bearing down on Ukraine’s coastal areas and threatening to move westward, Moldova sadly finds itself in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. One of the first trips I plan to make once the fighting stops is to return to one of those wineries – maybe to Purcari for a glass of that award-winning red.

(Scroll past the map for more photos.)

One of the main attractions of a visit to Transdniester is the chance to take in surviving Soviet imagery, like this Tiraspol sign dotted with a hammer and sickle. Photo by Mark Baker.
A cemetery near the entryway to Transdniester sports crosses of the war dead who fell in the 1990-92 conflict with the Moldovan armed forces. Photo by Mark Baker.
Aside from the Soviet-era kitsch, Transdniester does offer one legitimate, fascinating tourist site: the 15th-century Bendery Fortress. The building dates from the time of Stephen the Great and was captured and rebuilt by conquering Ottoman Turks. Photo by Mark Baker.
The view across the Dniester River from the Soroca Fortress over to Ukraine in the distance. Photo by Mark Baker.
The impressive 15th-century fortress at Soroca, along the Dniester River in the north of the country. Photo by Mark Baker.
A wine fountain greets visitors to the world’s largest collection of wine. The underground tunnels at the Mileștii Mici winery stretch out for something like 150 miles. Photo by Mark Baker.

Comments

  1. Great, great story. My first wife was Moldovan, and we spent time there together with her entire family. What a beautiful country. Unfortunately, it was quite corrupt when I was there in 1996.

  2. Ciao Mark, what a Greta description of Moldova. My wife (She Is moldovan) , our son and I, will move to live in the south of this beautiful country, in next July (3 months, now) . We took this decision about 2 years ago, during the first lockdown in Italy. I lost my job, I am 58 and you must know that here in Italy, usually, after the age of 40, you are considered too “old” and It Is so hard top find a job. So, we are going to finish to build our house in Moldova and we are almost ready to leave Italy……here there Is no future! As I have more than 30years experience in the tourism and hotel business, we bought an old house (tipycal old style shape, with Thatcher roof) with close to our property, with lot of ground and we hope to find, throught USAID funds in order to renovate the old house (keeping the original shape and roof) and start an Agritourism with a cosy traditional restaurant. The village we will live in, Is called CARAHASANI a Village of about 3000 pop. in Stefan Voda district. I would be pleased to be in touch with you and if should be interested, send you updates regarding our project of New Life in Moldova. My email Is
    matsimo63@gmail.com
    Best regards
    Matteo Simone

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Photo of Mark Baker
About the author

Mark Baker

I’m an independent journalist, travel writer and author who’s lived in Central Europe for nearly three decades. I love the history, literature, culture and mystery of this often-overlooked corner of Europe, and I make my living writing articles and guidebooks about the region. Much of what I write eventually finds its way into commercial print or digital outlets, but a lot of it does not.

And that’s my aim with this website: to find a space for stories and experiences that fall outside the publishing mainstream.

My Book: ‘Čas Proměn’

In 2021, I published “Čas Proměn” (“Time of Changes”), my first book of historical nonfiction. The book, written in Czech, is a collection of stories about Central and Eastern Europe in the 1980s and early ‘90s, including memories of the thrilling anti-communist revolutions of 1989. The idea for the book and many of the tales I tell there were directly inspired by this blog. Czech readers, find a link to purchase the book here. I hope you enjoy.

Tales of Travel & Adventure in Central Europe
Mark Baker