Along the roads of Chişinău, lorries roar and motorcycles dance across four lanes. Surveying this rough-and-tumble traffic, my travel companions bicker over who has the steely nerves to drive us out of Moldova’s capital city. But as soon as our car crawls beyond the centre, the scenery flips from choked roads to horses dragging wooden carts.
In an instant, modern civilisation seems to fall away. Cow-speckled grasslands unfurl across Moldova’s low hills, and farm-hands draw water from roadside wells. As for the horse-drawn hay carts, they rattle along at a surprisingly brisk pace – and I have a sneaking suspicion they are sturdier than our little rental car...
Exploring the country time forgot
Despite budget flights from western Europe to Chişinău, travellers aren’t yet descending in droves on this little country squeezed between Romania and Ukraine. Starting from WWII, Moldova was part of the Soviet Union for five decades; the country continues to be dismissed as a gloomy throwback to that period. Certainly, modern Chişinău has its Soviet-era stalwarts – like the crumbling state circus building (Strada Circului 33) and the tanks assembled outside the Army Museum – though the city is freshened by fountain-filled parks and tree-fringed boulevards.
But if Chişinău feels anchored in the 1970s, the rest of Moldova froze in time centuries earlier. On our northbound drive, women in headscarves are stepping out into the road and waving hand-picked bouquets. They’re selling wildflowers to passing motorists, but for a moment it seems as though they are beckoning us towards Moldova’s time-trapped countryside.
Hiking the lonely roads of Old Orhei
Our destination is Orhei, a district of pastures and forests, around 45km north of Chişinău. The car nudges cautiously through quiet villages like Ivancea and Brăneşti, and before long we can see chalk cliffs rising into view.
Like a pair of cupped hands, these cliffs encircle Moldova’s holiest sight, Orheiul Vechi (‘Old Orhei’). From the 13th century, monks consigned themselves to silent contemplation within caves in the rock face, a practice that endured for some 500 years. Anchoring this sacred place is the Ascension of St Mary Church (1905), whose glinting dome catches the sunlight from far across the Răut River.
Cave-dwelling monks have largely cleared out, but Orheiul Vechi remains a site for contemplation: you can walk for miles without seeing a soul. As I trace the Ivancea–Orheiul Vechi road, not a single car interrupts my path; an occasional rider, hauling several farm-hands in a horse-pulled wagon, clatters past and gives me a startled stare.
In the villages, houses are painted powder-blue and green, backed by spectacular salt-and-pepper cliffs. Garden trellises are loaded with vines, and gargling turkeys loll in their shade. Faced with this scene plucked from a pastoral fairytale, it’s impossible not to slow down to the pace of village life in Moldova.
Tasting farm life in Trebujeni
Trebujeni, just southeast of Orheiul Vechi, is accessed by potholed, dust-and-dirt roads. The overwhelming majority of locals in this trio of villages are farming stock, and the trickle of pilgrims and visitors doesn’t create much of a tourist industry. Nevertheless, there is a scattering of places to stay, signalled by decoratively carved pensiunea (guesthouse) signs swinging in front yards.
As we drive tentatively into Trebujeni, geese scatter from our path and we’re blindsided by the odd surprise horse. Somewhere along the pitted roads, one of our car’s hubcaps wobbles straight off its wheel.
Our guesthouse here, Casa din Lunca (+373 794 55 100, Trebujeni), has a rustic air that matches its setting, from creaking gate to grandmotherly embroidery – but it’s an unpolished sort of place. I sling a rucksack onto my bedspread and dust puffs up from the sheets. We survey a backyard prowled by yowling cats, rugs as threadbare as the wi-fi signal, and a forlorn, empty swimming pool.
‘I’ll be in my room,’ sighs my travel companion Jane, ‘with my book.’
Our spirits are raised when the hostess of the house lays platefuls of country cooking across an outdoor dining table. There are wooden platters of smoke-scented meat, and voluptuous pitchers of tart red wine are finding space between salads and sour cream. We carve mămăligă, a cake of polenta, into cushiony wedges.
As we feast, rural Moldova is slowly working its magic. In the shade of a vine-covered awning, to the sounds of bleating farm animals, the atmosphere seems like a fair swap for our car’s lost hubcap.
Tiptoeing through secretive monasteries
North of Trebujeni, a different kind of wonder fills the air. Some 93% of Moldovans belong to the Orthodox church and the country’s monasteries act as lightning rods for intense spirituality.
Some of the loveliest monasteries are perched beside the Dniester River, a slate-coloured seam between Moldova and the breakaway republic of Transdniestr. Thirty kilometres north of Trebujeni lies Tipova, Moldova’s largest and one of its oldest cave monasteries. As in Orheiul Vechi, the area is scored with grottoes that were once hideaways for monks. But the site has other myths, too. According to local lore, Orpheus ventured to Tipova; other stories embellish further, declaring that this Greek poet of legend found his portal to the underworld through one of Tipova’s caves.
Another 12km north, snug among fuzzily forested hills, are the golden domes of Saharna Monastery. As we stroll through its gardens, groundsmen with their hands in the soil lift their heads curiously from tulip beds. Even our whispers seem loud.
But once a week, Saharna is deafening. This location has risen to notoriety as the site of exorcism masses: during weekly midnight gatherings, believers from across Moldova arrive to purge themselves of malign spirits in ceremonies where hysterical shrieks interrupt monotone priestly chanting.
Walking in the shade of Saharna’s dainty church tower, between manicured flowerbeds, it’s difficult to picture such cacophony unfolding right here. But between whispered legends and spiritual caves, it’s clear that mystery is Moldova’s strong suit. This unvarnished corner of Europe steals your heart, your hubcaps, and your desire to return to modern life.