Bowled over by Moldova: Exploring the former Soviet state’s capital that is a mix of trendy bars and Stalinst architecture
- Moldova is a small former Soviet state wedged between Romania and Ukraine
- The capital city Chisinau has Orthodox churches and Art Nouveau buildings
- Nearby there’s an underground wine city with over 1.5 million bottles inside
Originally it was Poland, then Estonia, and now we — that’s my sister and me — are smitten by Moldova. You could put it down to our Yorkshire upbringing: give us dark, curious buildings and heavy stews and we’re happy.
Moldova, a small former Soviet state in south-east Europe, was a surprise. All I knew was that it has a fantastic reputation for wine and that the capital, Chisinau, is more cosmopolitan than you might imagine.
It features trendy bars and restaurants which blend into a beautiful mix of Orthodox churches, parks, 19th-century Art Nouveau buildings and Stalinist architecture.
Orthodox sight: The Nativity Cathedral in Chisinau, Moldova’s cosmopolitan capital
Wedged between Romania and Ukraine, Moldova obtained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1992. The main language is Romanian (in the interwar period, much of the country was part of Romania), but nearly everyone we met spoke perfect English. ‘We learned it from watching Dallas,’ one young woman told us.
Diana Isac, of wine and travel website Winerist, was our guide for the weekend, showing us the best of Moldovan art, fashion and food.
Chisinau was founded in 1436 as a monastery village. We spent a day exploring its sights, including the Triumphal Arch, the 19th-century Nativity Cathedral and the house of the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin.
As a fan of Brutalist architecture, I also marvelled at the Soviet-era Government House, National Opera and Ballet Theatre and the President’s House (patrolled by scary guards).
Non-carnivores can get short shrift in Eastern Europe, but the Moldovan diet tends to be vegetable-based as, in past centuries, they had to pickle and preserve everything from the fields. Puff pastry is king here, so pack loose clothing.
We loved the loft-style Black Rabbit (blackrabbit.md), all light wood and greenery (reminiscent of the early days of Shoreditch), with its hearty mushroom cappuccino soup and black ravioli.
Trendy Parol (facebook.com/parolrestaurant), run by a couple — one of whom happens to be a Moldovan pop star — has an extensive cocktail collection. The Black Widow, featuring gin, amaro, lemon juice and squid ink, nearly finished us off.
Chisinau, pictured, was founded in 1436 as a monastery village. Its sights include the Triumphal Arch and the house of the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin
With its rich soil and climate tempered by the Black Sea, Moldova has more agricultural land dedicated to vineyards than anywhere else in the world.
Grapes have been grown on family farms for centuries. Diana began our wineries tour at the 19th-century chateau Castel Mimi (castelmimi.md). If you accidentally overindulge, you can stay over in one of the boutique ‘pods’ in the grounds. These have private bathrooms and flat-screen TVs, and there’s an outdoor pool you can use.
The next day we set off for the Cricova, an underground wine city 15 minutes outside Chisinau. There are more than 1.5 million bottles in this former limestone mine, which is the second-largest subterranean wine cellar in the world. We later discover that the excavated limestone was used to build Chisinau.
Cricova, an underground wine city 15 minutes outside Chisinau. There are more than 1.5 million bottles in this former limestone mine
We are driven by train around the streets, which bear names such as Dionysus and are lined with bottles and barrels. Here we witness the wine-making process, and gain an insight into the techniques used for fermentation and ageing. In the final cellar there’s an extraordinary collection of wines held for Presidents from Obama to Putin.
The many parks, food markets and street festivals make Chisinau a vibrant city. But it has also known dark times. It was badly bombed in World War II, and has been invaded numerous times.
Russia’s wine embargoes in 2006 and 2013 nearly destroyed Moldova, and many women were forced to go abroad to work to feed their families.
Our home for the trip was the Berd’s Design Hotel, Chisinau’s first boutique B&B. Its Italian architect Luca Scacchetti has combined clean modernist lines with Moldovan furniture, ceramics and carpets.
There’s a spa and hammam, and I booked a Balinese massage, where warm oil infused with lemongrass and ginger was pounded into my skin. What bliss after all that wine.
Berd’s Hotel offers B&B from £85 (berdshotel.com). Winerist offers wine tours around Moldova (winerist.com). Air Moldova (airmoldova.md) flies from London to Chisinau from £137 return.
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