Adventures in Moldova, Eastern Europe’s hidden gem

Chișinău is an often-overlooked city in Eastern Europe. Achterberg took a weekend trip to Chișinău, the capital of Moldova, during her time studying abroad. - Staff Writer / Adelaide Achterberg

Generally, when travelers decide to visit eastern Europe — which they don’t do very often — they think of bustling cities like Prague, Krakow and Budapest. Even the most serious travelers often overlook the tiny country of Moldova, and the general population outside Europe barely registers its existence.

There isn’t a lot of information online about tourism in Moldova, so if it weren’t for my friend Matt, who moved to its capital Chișinău to study Russian for a year, I never would have thought of it as a possible destination, either. 

I landed in Chișinău at 11:30 Wednesday night, and since public transport options were more limited that late, I knew I should just take a taxi. The first cab driver who offered me a ride led me to an unmarked car and opened the door for the front seat; of course, as a somewhat experienced solo female traveler this gave me bad vibes right away, so I came up with an excuse about not having the right currency and ran off to find a real taxi. There may have been nothing actually sketchy about this beyond him trying to rip me off by not having a meter and charging too much arbitrarily, but it’s always best to follow your instincts and stay on the safe side.

The next morning I was meeting Matt for lunch after his classes, and I decided to walk to his university instead of taking a bus to see more of the city. I passed by a little market of jewelry and art, which you should always be wary of. Not because they’re dangerous, but because if you’re not an experienced shopper and haggler, like myself, you will always be talked into buying things you definitely don’t need, which is exactly what happened.

I left the market with a small backpack and a traditional Moldovan scarf that I had no idea what to do with, although to be fair, they only cost me about 6 USD each. Moldova is the poorest country in Europe, so if you come from a rich country, the prices are so low, you will have a hard time believing you’re reading them correctly.

Finally, I reached Matt’s university campus and we went to lunch at a lovely restaurant called Rozmarin, where I drank blue tea with honey and ginger, ate delicious vegetable lo mein that barely made a dent in my wallet and got to catch up with my fellow globe-trotting friend.

Matt and I have been friends since high school marching band and, in his sophomore year, he had decided that his goal in life was to be the first man on Mars. So first, he dedicated his free time and money to training for his pilot’s license, in fact, last year he picked me up in a small plane at my college two hours away from our hometown.

Now, for his first year after graduating high school, he is living with a host family in Chișinău on a fully U.S. government-sponsored program called the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (or NSLI-Y) to learn Russian, so he can be a fluent Russian translator for the U.S. Air Force as the first step on his multilayered plan to become an astronaut, which I have no doubt he will succeed in someday.

Most of my first two days in Moldova were spent eating at restaurants and talking. We visited an abandoned observatory near his school, where I was excited to take lots of photos of the graffiti, and climbed all the way to the old observatory tower to see the city from above.

Achterberg sits in the tower of an abandoned observatory near her friend Matt’s school. The observatory was covered with graffiti. – Staff Writer / Adelaide Achterberg

On Saturday, Matt went on an excursion with his school program, and I took my own excursion to the Cricova Winery just outside Chișinău. Cricova is famous for its sparkling wines and for the literal underground city of wine and I was able to tour a little bit. The underground cellars are where the wine is made and stored at a cool 12 degrees Celsius (54 degrees Fahrenheit), and they total a length of 120 km, or 75 miles.

Yes, you read that correctly, 75 miles of wine storage. 

Cricova is the second largest underground winery in the world — the largest is also in Moldova, it’s called Milestii Mici with 200 km (125 miles) of storage and to tour it, you need to have your own car to drive through the catacombs. Moldova may be small, but it is also within the 25 biggest wine exporters in the world.

My tour of Cricova included seeing the sparkling wine-making process, more specifically the Champenoise method, where just six women have to turn the thousands of bottles eight degrees clockwise every two days. According to our guide, no one is officially trained to do this, these women pass down the knowledge of making sparkling wine to their children, who become the next generation of workers.

We also walked through the wine museum, which houses Vladimir Putin’s and Angela Merkel’s, among other world leaders’, personal collections of antique wines, and even Cricova’s oldest bottle, made in Jerusalem in 1902 and still aging on a shelf behind glass.

This is Cricova Winery’s oldest bottle of wine, made in Jerusalem in 1902. Achterberg visited Cricova, which is the second largest wine cellar in the world, while in Moldova. – Staff Writer / Adelaide Achterberg

Afterward was a tasting of six different wines, complete with cheeses, nuts and sweets to accompany them. This was my first tasting ever and I wanted to consume all the fine wine I was given, so it’s safe to say I was drunk before we had even gotten to the reds.

As always, using public transportation to return to the city was full of issues and I barely made it on time to my next appointment of the day — dinner at Matt’s house, which his host mother Varya* had invited me to.

Matt had advised me to make sure I eat everything on my plate, because if I left anything then it would look like I didn’t like it. Fortunately, I had no problem finishing all of it, because Varya’s cooking was delicious; chicken schnitzel topped with mushrooms, tomatoes and cheese as the main course, alongside sliced potatoes and Moldovan sarmale, which is cooked cabbage leaves stuffed with minced meat, made for a delightful home-cooked Moldovan meal.

During dinner, I also got to know Varya’s son and daughter-in-law, Dmitri* and Amalia*, and their newborn baby. While Varya only speaks Russian, Dmitri knows a good amount of English too and Amalia is fluent in both languages, so it made for very interesting multilingual conversation.

After dinner and dessert (thin crepe-like pancakes with a variety of toppings), Matt and I put on a little impromptu concert for his family; I sang and he played the piano on “Fly Me To The Moon” and “Autumn Leaves,” and finally we dueted Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” It was an odd deja vu feeling, since the last time Matt and I played music together was on the piano in my parents’ kitchen back home, and here we both were across the ocean singing again.

My final day was Sunday and we got an early start at a waffle restaurant downtown. I learned that while pancakes and waffles are standard breakfast food in the states, in Europe they are considered more like dessert, always stuffed with Nutella or ice cream or anything of your choosing.

I felt like I hadn’t done the normal tourist things yet, so that’s what we did. We shopped at the big central market, which was much easier now that Matt was there to translate for me, went to the art museum and history museum, and ended the day at York Pub, a British-themed restaurant downtown.

While in Chișinău, Achterberg got to eat waffles stuffed with things like Nutella and fruit. Waffles and pancakes, from Achterberg’s observation, are considered more of a dessert in Moldova than a breakfast food. – Staff Writer / Adelaide Achterberg

I had written down that my flight was at 9:00 tonight, so at 5:45 p.m. I got back to my hostel and picked up my bags, then stood outside talking with Matt and some other travelers while I rearranged my backpack and put on another layer of clothing for the plane (I have to pack very light on these budget airlines).

Better check into my flight now, since I forgot to do that this morning at the waffle restaurant, I thought. I opened the airline’s app to do their easy online check-in, and that’s when my heart stopped — because I saw my flight was not at 9 p.m., my flight was at 6:45 p.m., as in, an hour away.

We ordered a cab and got there a half hour later. I ran to the information desk but they told me that since I hadn’t checked in online, there was no way to get on the plane because the airport check-in was closed.

The airline didn’t have any more flights to Athens until Wednesday night, and I couldn’t miss that many classes, so I trudged away to sit outside the airport and wait for the bus while browsing Skyscanner for other possible flights tomorrow.

Meanwhile, Matt called Varya to tell her what happened, and her first question after hearing about the missed flight was, “What are you going to do for dinner?” Like a true Russian mother, her main concern was that her “children” were being fed.

The answer, it turned out, was that Dmitri was going to pick us up at the airport and take us back to his and Amalia’s apartment to eat. He also immediately offered their spare room for me to stay in overnight — Matt’s host family isn’t allowed to take in his guests for the night as per program guidelines, but since Dmitri and Amalia aren’t technically his actual host family, they have their own place, it was perfectly fine.

So, one hour after having a complete meltdown in front of dozens of strangers in the airport lobby (which is not a foreign experience for me, to be honest), I was in a grocery store with Matt and Dmitri picking out food for dinner that night. Back at their apartment, Amalia offered me a glass of wine so I could relax a little bit while I purchased a flight for tomorrow morning, leaving at 9 a.m. to stop in Romania, then after a 6-hour layover, landing in Athens at 6:00 that evening, which all ended up costing me twice the amount I paid for my initial roundtrip flight.

We ate chicken schnitzel, fries, tomatoes, soft cheeses and another dessert of pancakes while I stayed on hold with the booking company who had sent me some very confusing emails about canceling my flight purchase, because of course, after the day I’d had, dealing with a Chinese booking company over the phone was exactly what I needed.

Again and again, Dmitri and Amalia proved themselves to be the most welcoming and accommodating hosts that anyone could dream of. Amalia set up the futon with clean sheets and towels laid out for me and asked what time I needed to be up tomorrow, so she could have breakfast and coffee ready and Dmitri could drive me back to the airport. 

I tried to insist it was too early and I could take a taxi and eat while I waited for my departure, but she assured me they’d be awake anyway since they have a newborn baby to take care of. And sure enough, she knocked on my door at 6:20 a.m., ready with fresh coffee, more pancakes with Nutella and bananas and a breakfast pizza of some sort.

Dmitri took me to the airport and parked his car so he could wait with me until I went through security, to make sure everything was going to be okay. I felt bad that he had to pay to park at the airport, but I’ve had flights go wrong at check-in before when I booked them last minute, so having someone to wait with me until all was sorted out did wonders to calm my nerves.

The first flight was delayed, but with such a long layover it really didn’t matter, and I made it back to Athens in one piece 12 hours later. All was well in the end.

If there’s anything I’ve learned from travel, it’s that Murphy’s Law rules: everything that can go wrong, will go wrong. If you don’t check into your flight online the day before and double-confirm the departure time, you’re opening yourself up to much bigger problems.

The trick is to expect everything to go wrong — that you have the flight time wrong, that you packed too big a suitcase, that your debit card will be empty, all the travel problems that always happen when it’s most inconvenient — so you’re prepared and can make sure there’s no possible way for that to really happen.

But, if you make mistakes like I did, knowing such wonderful locals can save your entire trip. As upsetting as my failure as a traveler was at first, I wasn’t very concerned by the time I left Amalia and Dmitri’s apartment the next morning. As is often the case, the kindness of virtual strangers made what would’ve been a highly distressing experience of dumb choices and wasted money into a unique memory that I will always look back at and smile.

This is a view of Chișinău, the capital of Moldova. Achterberg visited the city on a weekend trip to see a friend from home who was living there. – Staff Writer / Adelaide Achterberg

*Names have been changed for privacy reasons.

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