After completing our 2-day itinerary through Moldova on the right side of the Prut River, we arrived on a pleasant autumn evening on the left bank of the river, crossing the border at Albița / Leușeni Customs Office. After just one night of rest in Hîncești, the next day at down we resumed our Moldova road-trip to explore new parts of Bessarabia.
Orheiul Vechi (Old Orhei)
55 km away from the capital Chișinău is one of the most interesting tourist attractions in Moldova: the Orheiul Vechi Museum Complex, crossed by the river Răut and surrounded by the magnificence of nature. Historical vestiges from various periods are found here, mixed and chaotically spread, marking the passage of time over this eastern end of European civilization.
The ancient ruins are almost destroyed, there are only a few stones left of the old Geto-Dacian fortress Petrodava. Its remains were covered with earth by archaeologists after superficial research, in order to protect them from the locals who were tempted to carry the stone to their own households.
The construction of the medieval settlement started in the 12th century, with wooden and earth houses. Two centuries later, during the Tatar-Mongol invasion, a stone fortification was built, which reportedly was the residence of the Golden Horde leader, according to some sources. From the place where the old city once dwelt, there is an extraordinary view of the picturesque surroundings.
During the time of Stephen the Great, the fortress was restored and strengthened, becoming part of the defense system of medieval Moldavia. At the end of the 1500s, the fortress was destroyed, and the inhabitants moved to the area where today the new city of Orhei is.
There are few traces left of the Middle Age fortresses that can be seen today. Instead, the houses dug in the rock of Butuceni are really interesting – in fact, they are caves at big heights, hard to reach, where people found shelter in agitated times of foreign invasions. Also, some of them served as a hermitages for the monks who wanted to break the connection with the worldly.
The church in the cave and the neighboring caverns, as well as the monastery are beautiful and worth visiting. However, it must be mentioned that, unfortunately, they too fell victims to the old habits in the area – construction of new edifices over the old vestiges, irreparably wiping out the traces of the past.
The whole area is fascinating, both geographically, due to harmonious complementation of the green hills, valleys and cliffs and culturally, from the perspective of the mélange of civilizations, ethnicities and religions that have lived here over time.
15 km further, north-east, is the new town of Orhei. At first impression, it looks pretty good, the center being renovated and arranged, with clean streets and lots of greenery. We didn’t spend a very long time here, but what we did saw has exceeded our expectations.
Perhaps the best place for visitors is Orhei Land, a newly opened park for relaxation and entertainment that can be compared to similar spaces in Europe. Located on the shore of Lake Orhei, the park stretches over several hectares and includes children’s playgrounds, terraces, kiosks, an event amphitheater, a walk-in green park, and a pontoon with water bikes for those who wish to sail.
After a traditional lunch with the funny name “meaty bowl” at one of the town’s restaurants, we continued our journey towards the next destination.
Less than 20 km from Orhei is the Curchi Monastery, founded in 1773 and recently renovated. Like most of the monasteries, this one too is set in a very beautiful place surrounded by nature, on the shores of a lake, at the edge of the forest.
The cobblestone alleys, clean and flower-lined, guarded by tall trees, are inviting visitors to meditative walks, and the clean air makes you feel refreshed and strong, as if all the luggage with negative residue has been miraculously cleared, and the only thing left is the purity of the sun that caresses the green leaves and grass.
Although the Mileștii Mici Wine Cellar is the largest in the world, however, the cellars of Cricova are better known, being placed on the outskirts of the capital and thus much more accessible to foreigners for visitation. Besides, here everything is organized for tourists and official delegations, with good quality endowments for this purpose.
We went in with the first touristic group of the day because at morning hours the prices are lower. Those who want to get into the underground galleries do it by riding an electric train, which traverses a small part of the 80 km of tunnels. The underground labyrinth has an area of 53 hectares and houses more than 1 million bottles of wine, some of which have a great historical value.
Numerous famous personalities are keeping their private wine collections here, including some from Romania, such as the current president, but also from Europe and the rest of the world, from Angela Merkel to Vladimir Putin. The Russian president celebrated his birthday here a few years ago, in a protocol salon inside the winery.
Visitors can see here the entire process of wine production and storage, can taste several types of traditional Moldovan wines and dishes, watch a documentary about the history of the wine cellar, and buy bottles for their own collection or as gifts, at prices lower than in Romanian supermarkets.
The atmosphere in the galleries is unique, somehow resembling that of a salt mine. The temperature is almost constant inside, for wines to have the best conditions for preservation and maturation. Aged bottles, covered in dust and cobwebs, some over a century old, resisted the passing of tumultuous times from above the ground…
Less than an hour drive away, there is another spiritual place: Capriana Monastery. It was erected 600 years ago by the free peasants in the area during the reign of Alexander the Good and is the only monument of medieval cult preserved from that period on the territory of the Republic of Moldova.
The monastic complex includes churches, hermitages for monks and accommodation and meeting spaces for metropolitan officials. There are few traces left from the medieval period, the monastery has gone through several periods of decline and restoration, but it is currently in a very good condition. The neighboring area is superb, being surrounded by majestic forests.
25 km to the west is another monastery: Hîncu. It was founded in 1677 by the boyar with the same name. Situated in a wonderful area, in the middle of the forest, with a pond at the entrance, many flowers and paths shaded by towering trees, this place of worship is one of the most spectacular we have visited so far.
We recommend this place for a walk in the open air, in a quiet and serene surrounding, where you can restore your powers, feel in communion with nature and return to your natural human state in a strong relation to earth, plants and animals, seasons cycles and the profound simplicity of life on Earth.
Unlike Milestii Mici and Cricova, this is a smaller and newer wine cellar founded after the collapse of the Soviet Union by a passionate wine-maker who has devoted his life to this purpose. Chateau Cojusna is located 20 km away from Chisinau and is also called the “Migdal-P” winery.
Established in 1995, the wine factory has modern equipment and exports beverages all over the world, from Europe and Russia to China. However, this vinicultural area is very old, the vineyards on the hills next to the winery being mentioned in the early writings of the chroniclers as places where good wine is produced.
The tour a visitor makes here is shorter, but equally interesting. Even if it doesn’t have a huge collection of bottles or long underground galleries, the winery gives you the chance to see in detail how a wine is produced and you won’t find here the characteristic crowds of the more famous wine cellars. There are also various events held here and there is a high tower from where you can see the entire surrounding valley.
Back to Romania
After this road trip through Bessarabia, we returned to our mother country and made a short stop in Iași, about which we will tell you in the next episode of this road trip.
Perhaps the Republic of Moldova is not so famous as a tourist destination like other European countries, but we still advise you to take a tour around here as well. The prices are affordable, the landscapes are beautiful, the food is good, and if you don’t want to visit wine cellars and churches, go at least to Soroca Fortress so you can tell everyone that you have reached the bank of the Dniester. 🙂