An Unplanned Stop in a Rural Cemetery in Moldova

Moldova, cemetery, blue cross, cross, dark sky, white cross, unique cemetery, travel, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

Cemeteries always have a draw.  Not quite sure if it is purely the inclination to the morbid or something else but, when I drove past this cemetery in Moldova (on my way back to Chisinau after visiting Soroca in the north) and noticed the colorful and unique crosses, I went back to get a quick walk around and snap a few pictures.  I love how the dark skies helped make a nice contrast to the color of the crosses.

(Click on the photos to enlarge and step through them.)

A Border Town in Moldova: Soroca

Cetatea Soroca

When planning my trip to Moldova last year, I really did not have a good idea of what there was to see or do.  I went with the recommendations proposed by a person I hired to show me around.  I wrote about the very unique wineries I explored, about the churches and monasteries I visited, and about the country’s capital, Chisinau.  What I have not written about yet is the trip to the northeast corner of the country to visit Soroca, a town on the border with the Ukraine with less than 30,000 inhabitants but lots of history.

The history of the town seems to go to the Middle Ages (it was Genoese post – who knew those Genoese got that far!) and it has been at the crossroads of many military campaigns.  It also has a large gypsy (Romani) population and it is known as the capital of the Romani in Moldova (more on them later).

I really enjoyed my visit to this town for three reasons:

1.  The old fort

2.  The houses on the hill overlooking the town

3.  Viewing Moldova and the Ukraine with the Dniester in between.

Off-the-beaten path twice over (Moldova by itself is already off-the-beaten path and within it, this town is off-the-beaten path even for Moldova!), this town is well worth checking out.

The old fort (or is it a fortress?)

Cetatea Soroca, fort, Soroca, Soroki, fortress, Dniester, Nistru, Moldova, Olympus

The Soroca Fort, or Cetatea Soroca, facing the Dniester

As far as forts go, this one is not monumental but I enjoyed the views from it and, even more, seeing its construction which seemed semi-rustic (which makes sense considering its age).  Seeing the details of the stonework, clearly no one needed all the stones to be perfectly aligned or anything like that.  The details on the windows and the stones on the inner walls all show really interesting detail of how it was built.

Cetatea Soroca, fort, Soroca, Soroki, fortress, Dniester, Nistru, Moldova, Olympus

Interesting detail on a fort wall, and how the stones were set

Cetatea Soroca, fort, Soroca, Soroki, fortress, Dniester, Nistru, Moldova

Details of the windows’ construction

Cetatea Soroca, fort, Soroca, Soroki, fortress, Dniester, Nistru, Moldova, Olympus

The inner courtyard of the fort

You can go up and see the city, or the houses on the hills of Soroca, or look at the fields of rural Ukraine across the Dniester but more on the latter later (ooh, that just came out like that – he he).

Cetatea Soroca, fort, Soroca, Soroki, fortress, Dniester, Nistru, Moldova, Canon EOS Rebel

That’s the Ukraine over yonder

 The houses on the hills

The town is known as the Romani capital of Moldova for a reason.  The hills overlooking the town are home to most of them.  And boy, do they live it up up there!  Their houses are small mansions, most of them seem to be a never-ending work-in-progress.  The guy showing me around Moldova wondered out loud:  how could they afford building these houses since most of them did not work.  I am not sure what he was implying or had in mind but can only guess.  All I can say is that the houses were some of the best I saw in Moldova in terms of “solidity” and the architectural grandeur they seem to aim for.

Soroca, Soroki, gypsy, Romani, architecture, Moldova, Canon EOS Rebel

Big ole houses in Soroca’s uphill

Soroca, Soroki, gypsy, Romani, architecture, Moldova, Canon EOS Rebel     Big ole houses in Soroca's uphill

Grand staircase!

Soroca, Soroki, gypsy, Romani, architecture, Moldova, Canon EOS Rebel     Big ole houses in Soroca's uphill

Another grand house!

Soroca, Soroki, gypsy, Romani, architecture, Moldova, Canon EOS Rebel     Big ole houses in Soroca's uphill

A house with a view from the back: the center of town below and the Dniester and the Ukraine beyond.  I’d take that house if I lived in Soroca!

Soroca, Soroki, Moldova, architecture, gypsy, Romani, Canon EOS Rebel

Detail of the roof of a mansion. This type of metal roof is common in Moldova in general

A river and two countries

There was something interesting about being in Soroca, a town on the Moldovan side of the river, and then pastoral-looking Ukraine on the opposite bank of the river.  I was tempted to ask for a little boat to the make the crossing but there was no time.  Plus no telling what sort of border problems I would find – if there was any border police to begin with.  I always have wondered who minds every meter of a border…  But I digress.  In any case, before reaching Soroca we went to a lookout with a tall religious tower atop it.  It is when I first saw the Ukraine and where the final two photos were taken.

Soroca, Soroki, Moldova, Dniester, Nistru, Ukraine, Canon EOS Rebel

Two boys and the Ukraine

Soroca, Soroki, Moldova, Ukraine, Dniester, Nistru, Canon EOS Rebel

Moldova and I to the left. The Ukraine to the right.  Any questions?

Soroca was the sort of unexpected that I so enjoy in my travels, be it to a new part of my own hometown, or halfway around the world!

The Highlights of Food and Wine in 2012. Mostly Food.

Papanași papanash from Romania

2012 will be remembered by me for many reasons.  Certainly the travel I did in 2012 ranks up there as do the many fun memories with family and friends.  But another memorable aspect of 2012 will be the food and wine!  Here is a small tour of the most memorable ones… mostly food…

BBQ anyone?

At Salt Lick, outside of Austin, Texas, the year started with some phenomenal BBQ!

Salt Lick BBQ in Texas

Wine, wine, wine

A few wine tastings with friends and some touring allowed me to cover a lot of ground here!  Virginia and Moldova stand out as unexpected wine places for me.  While I was not able to bring a lot of wine from Moldova, Virginia was a different story!

WIne from Virginia's wineries: Pollock, Cardinal Point, Barboursville, King, Veritas

All but one of the bottles I bought in VA!  The state can thank me later.

Deliciousness from Moldavia

As far as I understand, northeastern Romania and Moldova are known as Moldavia.  The region was an independent/autonomous state between the 14th century and the 19th.  I could see quite a few similarities between the two modern areas when I visited Iasi (Romania) and Moldova.  One of the similarities I saw was in the food.  My favorite dish was pork and mamaliga (a sort of polenta).  And my favorite dessert papanași (papanash; a fried pastry stuffed with jam and soft cheese).  I could eat these every day (an almost did!).

Mamaliga (polenta) and pork - typical food dish from Moldavia, Moldova, Romania

Mamaliga (polenta) and pork – typical food dish

Papanași papanash from Romania

Papanași (papanash)

A homestyle wine tasting

One of my favorite events is the quarterly wine tasting with friends.  Our Frog’s Leap wine tasting (normally, we do not focus on one winery in these tastings) was outstanding and the food was a large part of that.  After looking at the following pictures, could you disagree?

Cheese and crackers always good for a wine tasting

Cheese and crackers couldn’t be absent!

Lobster dip from Costco served in cucumbers

Lobster dip served in cucumbers

Chocolate bomb anyone?

I got to try one mean chocolate dessert at The Oval Room, across Lafayette Square from the White House (which I also got to tour this year!).  This picture  -no- no picture, can ever do this magnificent monument to desserts justice…

Chocolate S'more Bomb from The OVal Room in Washington, D.C. smore

Chocolate S’more Bomb with cookie crumble and salted caramel

Mofongo from Puerto Rico – in Tampa!

I have written about having great Cuban food in Tampa but over Thanksgiving weekend, I went for my favorite Puerto Rican dish:  mofongo with fried pork chunks!!  MMM!!!

Mofongo from Puerto Rico in Tampa, Florida

Paris, oh, Paris

Forget the fancy restaurants and all that frou-frou stuff.  Paris has awesome small “mere-et-pere” type of places with deliciousness galore.  I am lucky to be an eternal Paris visitor and past resident.  This allows me and my friends to enjoy these little-known places whenever I visit.  However, I still enjoy discovering a new unpolished jewel, like the place in Montmartre where I had this delicious potato-and-egg-topped salad (along with a mini carafe of red wine!).

Potato and egg salad in Montmartre

Of course, Paris’ chocolate houses are a must – and a tour of them should be de rigeur unless you are allergic to the stuff!  I always stop by to enjoy some of Paris’ finest chocolate crafts.

Chocolates and macarons from Paris' finest Jean-Paul Hevin

Italy.  What can I say?

No words are needed when it comes to Italy and food.  Here are some of the images from my visit there in April (discovering new and re-visiting old places).

Suppli fried rice ball from Rome, Italy

Suppli fried rice ball – mmm!!

White wine from Italy with Campo de Fiore reflected

I love how the Campo de Fiore is reflected in this glass of wine

Bucatini all'Amatriciana in Rome, Italy

Bucatini all’Amatriciana

Carbonara and red wine in Rome, Italy

Carbonara rocks!!

Coffee in Rome, Italy

Coffee the AM I arrived… dropped our luggage at the apt and went out for breakfast. SO. GOOD.

Rome, Italy food:  artichoke, buffalo cheese, tomato, basil

My plate full of our appetizers on our first night in Roma

Sweets from Rome, Italy

Sweets!

Gelato in Rome, Italy

Sublime gelato

Year end:  always a time for food!

For Christmas eve (Nochebuena), I cook the traditional Cuban meal.  Instead of showing a beautiful serving plate or bowl with the end result, I decided to leave the end result to the imagination and show you the work in progress.  I love making my black beans and Cuban pernil!

Cooking Cuban black beans

Cooking Cuban pernil for Christmas eve (Nochebuena)

Now good food didn’t end on Nochebuena.  On our day trip to the charming southern towns of Newnan and Senoia, we had some really good southern food (always comfort food!) right at the square in Newnan.  Those sweet potatoes were outstanding!

Country fried steak, green beens and sweet potatoes - great southern food

The year ends

The year went away like the dessert from this plate – it leaves me wanting more.  What a year it was!

Empty dessert plate

A Year (or the World?) Ends… Either Way, I Travel

Photo of people reflected in the fender of a car

Well, today is the day the apocalypse was to happen.  I guess a few hours are still left so maybe I shouldn’t count my eggs just yet.  BUT, if the end did happen, guess what?  I can still blog from purgatory and you KNOW that would be an incredible travel story.  Just hope it is not one of being stuck there forever, like when I was stuck in Europe because of the Icelandic volcano (which did turn out well) or someone else’s horrible travel story.  Also, if the world did end, purgatory looks a lot like my house (and if the world did NOT end, I need to make some minor changes at home…).

So the end of anything usually calls for some reflection and be it the end of the world or the end of the year, I feel like reflecting on my very busy 2012…

A Texas tweetup in January

January saw me taking what felt like a bold step – to travel somewhere to meet people I met online.  At first that has an almost dirty sound to it, doesn’t it?  But I had been talking on Twitter with these three folks for many months and they were clearly people I would enjoy meeting in person and exploring with.  So off to awesome Austin, Texas for the Texas tweetup!  There I met in person @kirkcole, @L_e_a_h, and @LolaDiMarco.  Unfortunately, a severe cold hit me on the day I traveled so I was not able to partake in all the activities but enjoyed a good day’s worth of laughing and eating in Austin!

Photo of people reflected in the fender of a car

Can you find the Austin tweetup fab 5 in the picture?

Normal in February – and other months

Traveling to DC for work permeates every month this year so my normal continued in February.  Recovered from the Austin tweetup and post-Christmas parties in January, February was time to relax and be home (or in DC). Over the year, I got to check new things in DC that I had not explored yet in the last year.  Doing the White House tour was a long-time bucket list item that I finally made happen.  I continued exploring and enjoying many of the DC’s finest hotels like The Mayflower, the Sofitel Lafayette, and the Renaissance on 9th St.  DC is a wonderful town if you get out and explore.  Its many beautiful brownstones and local eateries are a joy to explore.

March Madness:  Mile High Skiing

The traveling continued in March – this time a great ski trip with dear friends to Vail and Breckendridge, two places I had been dying to try for many years.  The trip did not disappoint and neither did my skiing, not having skied since Valle Nevado, Chile in the Andes in 2010.  Vail and Breck WILL be in a future ski trip for me, I can tell.  The bowls of Vail where incredible:  one bowl, then another one behind it, then another.  It seemed to never end!

Statue of skier in Vail, Colorado

How thoughtful! Vail had a statue of me at the base of one of the slopes!

Amicci en Italia and diving into eastern Europe in April

April finally brought about the “long”-planned trip to Italy with two sets of great friends.  Though mainly focused on Rome (a city I love re-visiting), a side trip to finally see Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast was built into the itinerary.  It did not disappoint, especially our guide in Pompeii, one of the preeminent experts on Pompeii!.

But I took advantage of being on the other side of the pond to add another iconic destination I had never explored:  Dubrovnik, Croatia.  Its tiled roofs and architecture combined with the natural setting of its location made it a magical place for me.  Of course, ever eager to see more, I decided to get further into eastern Europe while in Dubrovnik by doing day trips into Bosnia & Herzegovina (Mostar) and into the beautiful mountains and bays of Montenegro!  These day trips were short, obviously, but they definitely opened the appetite to see more of these countries and this part of Europe.

View from up high of Kotor Bay in Montenegro

One of the ridges that divides Kotor Bay into 2 bays in Montenegro

Re-charging, re-connecting, and exploring Chicago

May saw a second tweetup, this time in the Windy City since we were eager to connect with other travel bloggers we had been chatting with for awhile.  The Windy City tweetup had a little bit of everything:  from French goodness (courtesy of the Sofitel Water Tower), Charlie’s Angels, boat tour, fallen traffic lights (not our fault!), doughnuts, cold coffee, good food, drinks (repeat), and the mob.  It was a very fun weekend indeed meeting @workmomtravels, @travelingted, @jettingaround, and @elatlboy in person.

Posing in front of the Bean in Chicago at Millenium Park

Being tourists at The Bean

More fun with fellow travelers and good learnings

In June, TBEX, a travel bloggers conference, held its North America conference in Keystone, Colorado (very close to Breckenridge where I’d just been 3 months before; who knew I would be returning to the area so soon!).  Besides the interesting learnings, the reception at the mountaintop on Friday night and the ensuing party at the pub at base (free!) really made the weekend a lot of fun and a good time to meet others who share the travel bug and re-connect with others.  Among the great folks I met (too many to list all!):  @BlBrtravel, @stayadventurous, @captainandclark, @lazytravelers, @budgettravelsac, and @travelrinserept.

A trek with a purpose in Romania and a true relic of the USSR

Romania had been a mysterious place that I had always dreamed of seeing.  Not because I knew I would love it but it just called to me.  A wonderful opportunity came my way to do a hike in the Transylvanian Alps with Trekking for Kids, a non-profit seeking to bring improved lives to orphaned/at-risk children around the world.  We worked with the orphanage and just “were” with the kids before and after a hike through some beautiful landscapes around Brasov – we even saw castles other than Dracula’s!  An experience I will never forget every which way, including it was my first multi-day hike ever!

Sphinx-like rock in the Bucegi Mountains near Omu Peak, Romania

Who knew there was a Sphinx atop the Transylvanian Alps (near Omu Peak)??

Since I was headed that way, I decided Romania (more precisely, the town of Iasi, Romania’s cultural capital) would be a great springboard to explore Moldova.  So with my great guide, I explored churches, monasteries, towns (including the capital, Chisinau), and wineries in this little known former Soviet socialist republic still working to undo decades of horrible communist dictatorship.  I am SO glad I made the time for this unpolished gem at the edge of eastern Europe!

The trip ended with a one-day, two-night in awesome Paris, my home away from home in Europe.  Always love re-visiting my favorite areas and still finding new things to enjoy!

Time with Family in Tampa on my sister’s birthday in August

August also included a trip to Tampa where my family lives – always good to be with them, and enjoy good Cuban food and TLC!  I had just been there in June (when I visited the impressively set-up Dali museum) but my Mom turned 70 while I was in Romania and my sister was hitting a milestone birthday of her own in August so I just HAD to go and celebrate with them!

Rest in September

In September, I took a break from travel.  Well, non-business travel… But read on, the year of travel is not over!

Architecture and Wine:  Tuscany or Bordeaux, you say?  No, Virginia in October!

I finally succumbed to friends’ suggestion that I explore Virginia wine country with them.  I had been wanting to do this for a long time but other travel got in the way.  I took advantage of being in the DC area for work to go ahead and spend a weekend with them in wine country.  And got out RIGHT BEFORE Sandy passed by!  As you can read in my writings about this central part of Virginia, Monticello, Charlottesville and the countryside are filled with early colonial history and architecture as well as delicious wines.  And there are close to 200 other wineries in the state to be found and explored!  I was glad to have this opportunity to see more of my own country and other places will be in my sights in 2013 (like Michigan and Wisconsin thanks to friends from Chicago who write about these places!).

Cemetery where Thomas Jefferson is buried in Monticello on a fall day

Cemetery where Thomas Jefferson is buried in Monticello on a fall day

OK, now I rest ‘xcept for Thanksgiving in November

So, my fun travels wrap up for the year save for visiting family again in Tampa where I discover yet another new place for good Cuban food!  Someone STOP the madness! 🙂

I reflect back on the year and I am amazed at how much I have been able to see of places I have always wanted to see.  And this is setting aside the twenty-something weeks of work travel to DC!   The bucket list shrinks and yet I add new places I learn about.  I consider THAT my most important key performance indicator – a never-ending travel bucket list!

Merry Christmas, happy holidays, and the best in 2013 for you and yours!

Sampling Wines in Moldova – and a One-of-a-Kind Wine Cellar

In deciding to go to Moldova, the last thing that occurred to me was that I could go and do wine tastings of the local wines – because I had NO idea Moldova made any amount of wine!  A month before the idea was in my head, I would have laughed – blessed (or cursed) ignorance!  I was to re-learn the lesson to look for the un-expected such as olive oil ice cream or wine from Michigan.

As I e-mailed with the guide I had found on what could be an itinerary for a 2-3 day visit, he mentioned visiting wineries.  As I talked about the possibility of this trip, a fellow travel blogger mentioned that her husband had been to Moldova and had enjoyed the wineries he visited.  Huh.  Well, maybe I should check them out…  In doing some research, Moldova ranked 22nd in the list of wine producing countries but its production is mainly for export since the Middle Ages!!  Moldova was the largest wine producing region in the Russian empire.  I guess as the Ukraine was the breadbasket of the Soviet Union, Moldova was the wine barrel of Russia!  (Who knew, right??)  Sadly, the two World Wars, among all the destruction, destroyed the wine industry which only got re-started during the 1950s.

Moldova grows grape varietals that are local or from the region as well as varietals introduced from France around the 19th century (Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, etc.).

Chateau Vartely – Excellent Setting, Great Food and Good Wine

Chateau Vartely was on my first day’s schedule.  It was going to also be where we would have lunch.  Besides the building with the restaurant & rooms for events, and besides the winemaking & storage buildings, Chateau Vartely also has accommodations on offer, both rooms and VIP apartments with all the amenities of a hotel/resort – probably a great idea if one is planning to sample lots of wines!  Vartely is located on a hillside which offers a great view of the land around.  It was a real treat to take in the views!

Chateau Vartely, a winery in Moldova

We were rather hungry so we proceeded first to eat.  We chose to sit outside on a large balcony that overlooked some of the property.  A very pleasant place to sit down for a leisurely lunch.

Chateau Vartely winery - balcony area

This meal was my first in Moldova but it would not differ much from my meal the night before in Iasi, Romania.  That makes sense as both countries are very similar in culture and history.  My meal started with a delicious broth – just right to open up the appetite!

Then, for my main course, I took the advice of Dumitru, my guide (and a super guy!), and went with the mamaliga along with pork (nothing better for a Cuban!).  Mamaliga is polenta and, as you can see in the picture below, it is accompanied by sour cream and sheep cheese (a bit salty).  Here it was also accompanied by a small serving of eggs. The whole thing was simply delicious!

Mamaliga (polenta) and pork - typical food dish from Moldova

After the lunch, we toured the winemaking facility.  Nothing new to me  in the tour itself.  We moved to the wine tasting rooms.  They had one with bottles of wines from all over the world for those interested in comparing the Chateau’s wines with comparables from other parts of the world (the World Collection Room).  I was not there to do that as I wanted to maximize tasting Moldovan wines so we moved to the other room.

Chateau Vartely wine tasting room

In this tasting, I was introduced to the Feteasca Alba grape that yields a nice dry white wine that is quite fruity and fresh – a white wine I can drink!  The Feteasca Regala and the Merlot also merit a mention as I enjoyed them too – especially because I took the leftover from the tasting with me <grin>…

Chateau Vartely was a very pleasant experience from the food to the wine, though I have to say that the food was simply superb.  It is a newer winery that combines the wine experiencing with tourism but done well and in a beautiful setting.

Milestii Mici – Great Wine and an Amazing Wine Cellar

Milestii Mici is in a category of its own when it comes to wineries – anywhere that I’ve been (Stellenbosch, Bordeaux, Hunter Valley, Sonoma, Tuscany, Mendoza, …).  I do not know where to being but let me begin with what I saw first:  I saw entrances at the bottom of the hill to my right that looked like small tunnels…  More on that as this writeup progresses…

Tunnels in Milestii Mici winery in Moldova

The Garden and Fountains

My first stop out of the car was the amazing little garden area near the store and offices.  Besides the pretty flower and all that stuff relevant to a well-designed garden, what caught my eye were the two fountains in the midst of the flowers… One for red and one for white…

Fountains in Milestii Mici winery in Moldova

Milestii Mici winery garden in Moldova - large wine glasses

Is anyone else having heart palpitations looking at this ungodly scene???

Fountain in the gardens of Milestii Mici winery in Moldova

There ARE more sober pictures of me from this trip.  Somewhere.  OK, let me get past the garden, I have quenched my thirst…

On to the store, which is built into a tunnel itself.  It not only sells the wine, but also shows a few of the tools used in older times to make the wine.

Store at Milestii Mici winery in Moldova

The Tunnels and Cellars

So on we go and we get back in the car to begin our tour.   Yes, back in the car so we can enter the tunnels of this incredible winery.  You see, this winery is using the tunnels dug up when limestone was being mined here to build all those “lovely” Sovietish buildings and other structures with better looks and uses.

To be more precise, this winery has 160 miles (250 km) worth of tunnels out of which 75 miles (120 km) are currently being used to store over 2 million bottles of wine, making Milestii Mici the world’s biggest wine cellar.  (My basement cellar pales a little.)  These limestone tunnels keep a constant humidity and temperature throughout the year.  Bottles are cellared here for DECADES before they are sold.  And many an important collector actually pay to store their wines here (not just their Milestii Mici wines).

Dusty wine botles in Milestii Mici winery in Moldova

Dust on bottles CANNOT be faked!

Wine cellar wall in the tunnels of Milestii Mici winery in Moldova

“99 bottles of wine in the wall, 99 bottles of wine.  Take one down, and pass it around…  98 bottles of wine in the wall…”” (never mind, I WON’T pass it around – it’s mine to keep!)

Wine cellar in Milestii Mici winery in Moldova

Private wine collection stored in Milestii Mici's tunnels in Moldova

Private wine stored in the wine cellars

We drove along the road (another tunnel) and got off at different points to see the different areas of the wine cellars.  One of these had a false wall that looks like the ones above built in the 1980s.  See, Gorbachev decided then that alcohol was a problem in the good ole Soviet Union and banned alcohol <the reader gasps>.  The folks in this winery held a treasure trove of good wine so they built this fake wall so they could hide all these bottles which otherwise would have been destroyed.

Finally, the great moment:  the wine tasting!!  I could have done a lunch paired with the different wines but, alas, my time was short that afternoon as I had a plane to catch to return to Bucharest.

Entrance to wine tasting area at Milestii Mici winery in Moldova

Entrance to wine tasting area

So, a simple wine tasting was it for me.  My favorite:  the dessert wineMargaritar.

Milestii Mici's dessert wine (Moldova)

Nectar of the gods. Or this god, at least.

I love dessert wines and this one delivered!  I waited until I was in duty free at the airport to buy some as I was not clear  on security requirements/constraints at the airport so I did not feel like risking buy a bottle to lose it at the airport…

———————————————————————————————————————————————-

When I decide to open that dessert wine from Milestii Mici, I will remember that amazing winery with one of the most unique wine cellars I have ever seen!  If you make it to Moldova, do NOT miss Milestii Mici and make sure you also check out Chateau Vartely and other wineries in Moldova!

 

 

 

Photo Essay of the Center of Moldova’s Capital: Chisinau

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).

Chisinau road sign, Moldova

Welcome to Chisinau

Street scene near central Chisinau, Moldova

Street scene near central Chisinau (and darkening skies!)

Street scene in Chisinau, Moldova

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.

Booth in Chisinau, Moldova

Perhaps one of the older structures around??!!

Some of the older architecture in Chisinau, Moldova

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.

City Hall of Moldova's capital city, Chisinau

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 in Chisinau. Moldova

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.

Parliament Building in Chisinau, Moldova

Parliament Building

The now-abandoned National Hotel in Chisinau, Moldova

The now-abandoned National Hotel

Hotel Chisinau (open) in Moldova

Hotel Chisinau (open)

Telecom company building in Chisinau, Moldova

Office building

Presidential Palace in Chisinau, Moldova

Presidential Palace

Underground tunnel in Chisinau, Moldova

Underground tunnel for pedestrians – great artwork

Ministry of Agriculture in Chisinau, Moldova

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 in Chisinau, Moldova

Old lady crossing Stefan cel Mare Boulevard

Man crossing street in Chisinau, Moldova

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 in Chisinau, Moldova

Stefan cel Mare Central Park

Ever-present Stefan cel Mare near the same-named park in Chisinau, Moldova

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.

 

How to Plan a Trip – and then Increase Scope: The Desire to Travel!

Map of Romania and Moldova

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.

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.

Romania

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)!

Romania Moldova Map

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!

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If you can relate to this approach to trip planning and/or have stories of your own, I’d love to hear them!

The Land of Re-Born Churches and Monasteries

Frumoasa Monastery in Moldova

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.

Frumoasa Monastery

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.

Frumoasa Monastery in Moldova

Frumoasa Monastery altar in Moldova

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.

Church of the Mother of God in the Curchi Monastery in Moldova

St. Dumitru Church in the Curchi Monastery

Capriana Monastery

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.

Capriana Monastery in Moldova

Capriana Monastery in Moldova

Capriana Monastery in Moldova - Image of Stefan cel Mare (Stephen the Great)

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.

Stanful Teodor Tiron Church in Moldova

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.

Church in Chisinau, Moldova

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.

Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ's Nativity in Chisinau, Moldova

Baptistry at the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ's Nativity in Chisinau, Moldova

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!

Church in Moldova

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…

Person praying at the Metropolitan Cathedral in Chisinau, Moldova

Candles at the Metropolitan Cathedral in Chisinau, Moldova

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You can find more information about monasteries in Moldova here.

Photo of the Week – Into Moldova: The Frumoasa Monastery

Frumoasa Monastery and Church in Moldova

As I prepare to write the story of my visit to the Republic of Moldova, a former Soviet socialist republic, I thought this week’s Photo of the Week could be a good initial way to share one of the things that the country has to offer:  its monasteries and churches.

The Frumoasa Monastery (which was on our way to the better known and more significant Curchi Monastery) was my first stop after entering Moldova from Romania near Iasi.  It is a nun monastery today, as it was for a few years pre-World War II and Soviet communism.

As many monasteries in Moldova, they were severely damaged either intentionally and/or by fire and restored after the fall of communism.  Also, as most former monasteries during Soviet communism in Moldova, this one was used for non-religious purposes during that era having served as an orphanage, a school for deaf children, a colony for girls, and even a dancing club for children.  Different buildings in the complex were used for different purposes.

While communism severely damaged the original buildings and likely destroyed original architecture, artwork, and documents, the dedication shown post-communism to restore these jewels of Moldova speaks a lot about the Moldovan people, and humans in general:  no political system can really remove a people’s faith.  Most monasteries I visited had a lot of the faithful -young and old- coming in for prayers.

Frumoasa Monastery and Church in Moldova

Frumoasa Monastery and Church

 

Into the Land of the Dracula Legend (Or Is It?) and Moldova

Brașov, Romania, Black Church, White Tower, Black Tower, Transylvania

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

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, Romania

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 my tour of Moldova (based in Chisinau)

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!

Bucharest

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!

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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!

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