Having added Moldova to my Romania trip itinerary , Chisinau (pronounced KISH-now), its capital, had to be central to the visit as it is the main town in this country of approximately 3.6 million people (Chisinau itself has around 750,000 inhabitants).
Welcome to Chisinau
Street scene near central Chisinau (and darkening skies!)
Bus stop scene in Chisinau
The city, which was founded in the 1430s, has a complex history since it was at the crossroads of various empires. It is said that it had the largest proportion of Jewish population in Europe in 1900 at 43% of the city’s population. The city was nearly destroyed in 1940 when the Soviets took over and the city was hit by an earthquake, and, later by Nazi attacks and occupation. I saw old structures but not many that pre-date this period (to my untrained eye). The Jewish population, as in other places, was wiped out to a good extent during the Nazi occupation.
Perhaps one of the older structures around??!!
Example of older architecture in Chisinau, Moldova
City Hall, finished in 1901 but re-built after WW II due to the damage it sustained, is one of the best architectural pieces in town, built in Italian Gothic style.
Chisinau City Hall
Of course, a lot of buildings I saw are post-WW II. Many of the big style government buildings, apartment bloc buildings, and hotels were built in that post-war period, with the implications to architecture that that entails…
Apartment blocs, many in different states of repair
Parliament Building was damaged during demonstrations in 2009 and is under repair. It used to house the Central Committee of the Communist Party during Soviet times.
The now-abandoned National Hotel
Hotel Chisinau (open)
Underground tunnel for pedestrians – great artwork
Ministry of Agriculture
I enjoy looking at the architecture in a city to get a mental image of the place and how it evolved. Clearly, history has been wiped out a good bit by war, earthquakes, and the Soviet regime. But I also like to see what people do. Unfortunately, a countryside-heavy itinerary kept me mostly out of Chisinau. Also, I didn’t find any cafés in the central part of the city as I walked around so it was harder to sit back and watch life go by (well, I could have sat on a sidewalk but not the same!). Still, I saw life go by in its own way.
Old lady crossing Stefan cel Mare Boulevard
Man crossing street
I did visit the main park in the city center, named after the national hero Stefan cel Mare (Stephen the Great), which definitely seems to be popular with locals with its trees, lawn areas, fountains and the Alley of the Classics (with sculptures of literature and political greats for Moldovans).
Stefan cel Mare Central Park
Ever-present Stefan cel Mare near the same-named park
My guide asked me asked me when we met “why Moldova?”. I answered because “it’s there and I wanted to see what it was like.” Yet, I fully realize that to really get to know a country and its people, it takes a lot more than a short visit and the sightseeing. I was fortunate to have a great guide, Dumitru, (whom I’d recommend for anyone traveling there!) for 3 days who shared a lot with me about Moldova and Moldovans, about the times before and after the fall of the USSR, about the country’s current challenges, about the business environment, and about the hidden treasures this small country has to offer for those willing to take the extra steps to get to see it.
When I decided earlier this year on doing the trek in Romania, little did I know how a one week trek was going to become a 16-day trip – but I am talented that way: plan a vacation and then add more than originally intended to practically double its duration and scope! Let me share with you how that happens to me using this trip as an example. I will also use this post to lay out the overall trip to Moldova and Romania so that, as I write about it, readers can see how it all comes together…
Note: I hope you subscribe to the blog (if you have not already done so) so you can keep up with the writings and read as you have the time. The trip was incredibly different for me and I hope what I share helps give a better glimpse into these countries!!
First Things First: What Led Me to Take a Trip Now and to Romania?
Fine questions! As I announced in a prior post, the main purpose of this trip was to go on trek with Trekking for Kids to help an orphanage in Romania by raising funds for projects to improve the orphanage and also to just be with the kids and bring them something different from their day to day. More about the orphanage part of the trip later but I will say now that if you want to help children around the world and tackle some great mountains (Everest base camp, Kilimanjaro, Machu Picchu, etc.), you should look into Trekking for Kids.
An Itinerary Takes Shape, with Some Randomness
On to how I planned my itinerary…. The trek was about a week so I knew I had to take advantage of getting to that part of Europe to see something more. Can’t waste a good and dear trans-Atlantic crossing…
Among the choices was a return trip to the Greek islands (for R&R after the hike; something I would have really enjoyed), or visiting any of the countries that surround Romania. Of those countries, I had already gone to Bulgaria so that left the Ukraine, Moldova, Hungary and Serbia – none of which I had visited. I eliminated the last 2 as I felt those are easier to get to from places like Austria, Croatia, etc. so I w0uld be more likely to see them in the future. That left the Ukraine and Moldova. Moldova started peeking my curiosity as it is so much less known to me and, likely, to my compatriots. As I researched the country, it sounded like it had some interesting things so that became the destination.
My plans then were to land in Bucharest and go to Moldova ahead of the hike part of the trip. I proceeded to research hotels in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova (pronounced KISH-now). I had not yet figured out how I was going to see the country and what it had to offer. As I read reviews in Trip Advisor for hotels, I ran into a comment that a reviewer from the UK had made about a guide he hired for a one-on-one tour of Moldova. I sent the reviewer a few questions and with his strong endorsement of this guide, I proceeded to contact the guide, Dumitru, to see what itinerary he would recommend for a 2-3 day visit and what the costs would be. Dumitru offered several options and mentioned, in passing, that he could pick me up in Iasi, Romania if I wanted. Immediately curiosity kicked in as I wondered why he would think I would go to Iasi. There had to be a reason…
So off I went to research Iasi. Turns out it is considered to be the cultural capital of Romania and that it had a hotel designed by Monsieur Eiffel himself. That was all I needed to hear but now I had more logistics to research and more time on my vacation calendar to slice off. (I will say here and likely repeat in a future blog how great Dumitru was! Should you need a guide in eastern Romania or Moldova, hit me up for his email.)
Researching Trips Rocks
If you are thinking to yourself “this guy must love researching stuff”, you would be correct. Doing research for me is the beginning of the trip: I started learning the moment I started studying the maps of Moldova and Romania, or when I read some bloggers’ writings about these places, or when I chatted with a fellow Twitter friend about his trip through the Transniestra…
Figuring out the Logistics…
In any case, I decided due to my arrival date in Romania and the start of the hike that I could not afford taking the train from Bucharest to Iasi. While distances are not long some times in Eastern Europe, what I consistently found out or heard was how artificially long the train rides are; case in point, a 6-7 hour drive from Chisinau to Bucharest could take twice that by train! So I decided to fly to Iasi the morning after arriving in Bucharest foregoing looking at the landscape as I traveled. Once in Iasi, I would have that afternoon and evening to explore it (almost enough time). The next morning, I would be picked by my Moldovan guide, and then fly back to Bucharest from Chisinau, Moldova 2 days later.
My 3 days in Moldova would mostly be centered in the middle region of the country given where most of the key sites are but a trip north was planned to visit an important fortress in the town of Soroca on the Ukrainian border.
Once in back in Romania, the situation required less planning as most of it was handled by the trek organizers. I only needed to take care of my hotel after returning from Moldova and plan my sightseeing the day after. The trekkers would spend one night together in Bucharest before heading to Transylvania (the town of Brasov – prounounced BRAH-shov) where our trek and orphanage work would be “headquartered” for the next week.
The Travels I Did – A Map
I find a map helps visualize things so I quickly marked on this Romania/Moldova map the key travel routes and the method of transport I ended up using. Clearly, I did not see all that Romania has to offer. I hear Sibiu, Timisoara and Cluj-Napoca are well worth seeing too.
By the way, as a footnote, there is some kinship between Romania and Moldova. In fact, the languages are practically the same and there are many cross-border family ties as, at some point in history, they were both one country. Apparently, it is still a topic today (reunification or not), but I do not know enough to explain the situation here… Suffice it to say that Moldova has, itself, a region in the east that wants to separate from Moldova (it’s called the Transniestra and it was in the news in the 1990s due to civil war-like clashes with the Moldovan government)!
Final Itinerary and Key Activities in Romania and Moldova
To sum it all up and serve as a guide to writings I will create (I will add links here as the writings are published), here is a detailed itinerary of the trip…
Day 1 – Depart Atlanta, connect in Amsterdam, and land in Bucharest at midnight local time.
Day 2 – Depart Bucharest in the morning and land in Iasi in the morning.
Day 3 – Be picked up by my Moldova tour guide in Iasi and cross the border into Moldova. Visit the Frumoasa and Curchi monasteries. Brief stop in Orhei. Visit Chateau Vartely, have lunch, and sample the wines.
Day 4 – Tour Chisinau, and travel to Soroca.
Day 5 – Visit the Milestii Mici winery and the Capriana Monastery. Fly to Bucharest.
Day 6 – Sightsee in Bucharest, including its Palace of Parliament, and meet the hike group.
Day 7 – Travel by road to Brasov (3-4 hrs). Explore Brasov and visit the orphanage.
Day 8 – Begin the hike on the Wallachian side of the Carpathian Mountains.
Day 9 – Second day of the hike into Transylvania via the Strunga Pass.
Day 10 – Third day of the hike.
Day 11 – Final day of the hike and night out in Brasov.
Day 12 – Explore more of Brasov. Afternoon and evening at the orphanage with football (soccer) match included.
Day 13 – Hike with the kids. Return to Bucharest.
Day 14 – Depart for Paris.
Day 15 – Hang out with nothing seriously planned in Paris.
Day 16 – Fly back home!
If you can relate to this approach to trip planning and/or have stories of your own, I’d love to hear them!
I had no idea when I first thought of going to Moldova that I would see a treasure trove of church and monastery architecture but as I researched a possible visit to Moldova, I learned that was exactly what I was going to see.
Moldova, as a Soviet Socialist Republic, was a place where the system tried to take man’s humanity out of the equation – and part of that was removing the strength and hope that faith can provide. Churches and monasteries were either destroyed or severely damaged; those that were not totally destroyed were re-purposed as mental hospitals, children’s institutions, etc. and the religious communities were broken up.
It is evident that Moldova is trying to shed its Soviet past in the ways that are possible for a small economy that is not in the EU and that is talked about as one of the poorest, if not the poorest, in Europe. For example, roads are being re-built in and around the capital, Chisinau. The airport is modern. But what I noticed was how churches and monasteries have been worked on to restore them to their greatness, even if not all buildings in the complexes are completely restored yet.
Visiting monasteries does not require an appointment nor are there entrance fees. Simply walk in. Do remember to dress appropriately!
But after showing you these monasteries below, I have a conclusion I would like to share.
This small and beautiful monastery, which reminded me of the Greek isles due to its sharp blue and white colors, was the focus of my photo of the week post earlier this week but it is worthy of including here as it was such a gem. The monastery is about 14 km from Calarasi town which in turn is about 50 km from Chisinau. It is also a convenient monastery to see if visiting the Curchi monastery.
This monastery (pronounced COOR-key) is considered one of the most beautiful and famous monastery complex in Moldova with 2 large churches (and other small ones I did not get to see) and many other spaces and buildings in its footprint. It was founded around the 1770s. Between the 1950s and the early 2000s it did not operate as a monastery though now it has again become a monastery for men. Lots of visitors/pilgrims the day I went though it was a weekday. And strict rules as no photography was allowed within the churches.
The main church, painted in bright red, is the Church of the Mother of God and was built in the late 19th century. It is a beautiful building up close but even more impressive as one approaches the monastery by road.
This monastery, one of the oldest in Moldova dating to the 1420s, is just 40 km away from Chisinau. It is one of the most important ones because rulers, including the most important one, Stefan cel Mare, helped build it. The two main churches, St. George and St. Nicholas, were built in the 1840s and 1900s, respectively.
Image of Stefan cel Mare (Stephen the Great)
Chisinau Center Churches/Cathedrals
Chisinau as a city has a good number of churches (for views of Chisinau itself, check my post on it here). Right in the city center there are a few worth checking out.
1. Near the Hotel National lies the St. Great Martyr Tiron Cathedral, quite a beautiful structure built in the 1850s.
2. The Transfiguration Cathedral (or the Church of Schimbarea La Fata in Moldovan) sits next to the Ministry of Agriculture. It has been beautifully restored inside. It’d be easy to pass it up given the size of nearby Cathedral of Christ’s Nativity but don’t miss visiting it.
3. The Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ’s Nativity, however, is the most imposing of the churches I saw in Chisinau. It is a Russian Orthodox Church built around the 1830s. It, and its front tower and outdoor baptistry, sit in a large square facing the Triumphal Arch and, beyond, the imposing (though unimaginatevely architected) Government House building.
The outdoor baptistry
Small Churches in Orhei
The predominant religion in Moldova is Orthodox Christianity. In Orhei, a town north of Chisinau with about 25,000 inhabitants, I visited the small Catholic Church. We asked the attendant what percent of the town’s people were Catholic and she replied: ”4% - but working on it.” What a spirit!
The town had small Orthodox churches but because of our itinerary/schedule, I could not explore except from the car. But they were definitely colorful!
My Conclusion: It’s about More than Architecture
So the renewal I witnessed in Moldova was impressive but even more impressive was seeing the faithful visit these religious places so openly, something that I am sure was impossible (or close to it?) during the decades of Soviet communism. Those images are the ones that really stay with me…
You can find more information about monasteries in Moldova here.
So my trek to Romania is fast approaching. I shared here about the hike in Romania in support of a local orphanage (donations welcome at www.trekkingforkids.org; mark me as the trekker!). I have been preparing and planning to visit the Alps in Transylvania, made famous (or better known) by the story of Dracula…
The hike will take place over 4 days where among other places we will stop at the castle that inspired the story of Dracula (Bran’s Castle). We will staying in chalets or other accommodations in the area and we will visit other castles in the area. We will be hiking for 5-6 hours every day and ascending to upwards of 9,000ft above sea level. I have done 3-4 hr hikes in Kennesaw Mountain, about 20 minutes north of Atlanta, along trails they have up and around the mountain. I have also been relying on the treadmill doing hour-long walks at 10% incline or more. I sure hope this and my overall general fitness level help make this hike something less than a painful experience!
Pre-Hike Visit to Moldova
I don’t generally miss an opportunity to see a new place so I thought to myself that if I am going to Romania, I needed to do something in addition to Romania in this trip. In terms of Romania, I get to see Bucharest, Brasov and the Transylvanian Alps so I was leaning to go somewhere outside of Romania.
The Greek Isles definitely beckoned but the lack of direct flights to the islands (taking into account all the stuff I will be lugging around for the hike) made me -sadly- kill that option. A strong contender was neighboring Serbia. But as I looked at the map more, there was one obvious candidate destination that I may otherwise not get to… the ex-Soviet Socialist Republic of Moldova. I hear it still feels somewhat Soviet but I have also heard great things about fortresses, monasteries and wineries so it makes sense for me to explore it. I decided to make it there before the hike.
Through a recommendation from someone in TripAdvisor, I contacted a local guide who will take me around for the 3 days I will be in Moldova to explore this -to me- mysterious country. The local guide recommended I see Romania’s cultural capital, Iasi (population ~350K, inhabited since 400BC!), very close to Moldova on the west and that he could pick me up there. So Iasi got added to the itinerary though I will spend less than a half a day there unfortunately.
Iasi (photo courtesy of: RomanianMonasteries.org)
Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, will be my base those three days. I have decided to stay at the Best Western Flowers which seemed well located and got good reviews in TripAdvisor (one of my preferred sources).
Map showing the areas I will explore on the three day visit
I am excited to get to explore one of the smallest and lesser known European countries and enjoy its charms before I do the hike.
Getting to Romania
I wanted to use frequent flyer miles to get to Bucharest but, as everyone has heard, airline miles keep losing value. I had hoped to make the trip business class as I never get to do that on international flights. However, what used to be a 90,000 mile business class seat can be now over 200,000 miles! Inflation of awards outpaces any normal inflation metric… Clearly a mental note has been made to earn points where possible outside of frequent flyer accounts (Marriott, for example, has a great and valuable rewards program).
Sure enough, I couldn’t get anything under 200,000 miles. I had more miles than that to use but I refused to spend that many miles. I tweeted in frustration, promising I would diversify my airline choices in the future. A direct message came in from the airline asking if there was anything they could do to help. I replied, rather skeptically, explaining further and adding “if you can get me there on business class for much less, I’d take it”. Long story short, that person contacted me 2 hrs later (after various exchanges clarifying date flexibility, etc.) with an itinerary that was 150,000 via Amsterdam (trans-Atlantic leg with KLM! but 8-hr layover…) BUT it could not get me out of Bucharest to the gateway city (Paris) – I’d be on my own for that. I was quite pleased. I realize 90,000 was a dream especially in peak summer season so I understood that I got as good a deal as possible. My itinerary though does require 2 stops going over and 2 coming back BUT on the return I have to overnight in Paris anyway so I will make it a 2 night/1 day visit (I lived in Paris for 6 months many years ago so getting to stop there is like going home for me).
Getting to Moldova
Now, the only item left was getting to Moldova. Trains are a great way to see more of a country but I was trying to maximize time in Moldova and the train ride was not a short one. Since Iasi, Romania seemed worthseeing, I was going to fly there from Bucharest and then just return to Bucharest to join the hike group by flying out of Chisinau. I land in Bucharest from the US at around midnight on the night of the 15th of July and catch my flight to Iasi at 11AM the next day. Clearly I will not have time to unpack and repack for this 4 day trip so I will have to pack my bags in the US so it is a matter of leaving my hike luggage at the hotel in Bucharest and take one smaller bag for the Moldova trip. (I am scoring a room at the JW Marriott for practically nothing! I will stay there again the night I come back from Moldova.)
But heaven help me if the Romanian airline’s (TAROM) website wasn’t a royal pain the rear! After many attempts, I ended up just going to good ole Expedia to book my flight and end the non-sense. I hope the experience with TAROM is not a sign of things to come!
Sadly, I will only have one good day to see Bucharest so I will book some sort of tour to be efficient about seeing the key sights. I hate not getting to spend more time and get a feel for the city but checking Iasi and Moldova out seemed more off the beaten path and that will always trump other options!
So with less than 2 weeks to go, I am slightly daunted by the logistics of packing up all the right things for a hike in the mountains: do I have all the things I need (they gave us a gear list but still trying to decide what to buy, what to borrow, and whether to buy cheap alternatives or the real things…), which bags are the ideal bags (my huge backpacker backpack, a duffel bag, etc. considering the multiple plane changes and the darn hiking poles), and how to strategically pack my bags.
However, any anxiety or eagerness to resolve all these pales in comparison with the excitement about the hike, the orphanage we are working with, and the sights and sounds I am about to experience in this corner of Eastern Europe!