The world is finally waking up to the charms of this little nation wedged between Romania and Ukraine. Moldova was famously dubbed the world's least happy place in a bestselling book in 2008, but today it's better known for its unspoiled countryside and superb wine tours. As one of Europe’s least visited countries, Moldova retains a measure of roads-less-travelled charm. But that’s changing quickly as budget flights from Western Europe take off.
Moldova may be entering the consciousness of the global traveller, but those seeking the remote and obscure still have their Shangri-La in the form of the breakaway republic of Transdniestr, where the Soviet Union reigns supreme. As for the unhappy thing, well that's a thing of the past. According to the most recent UN survey, today's Moldova is the world’s 67th happiest country.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Moldova.
The archaeological and ecclesiastical complex at Orheiul Vechi (Old Orhei), about 50km north of Chişinău, is an important historical site and a place of stark natural beauty. Occupying a remote, rocky ridge over the Răut River, the complex is known for its Cave Monastery, but also includes ruins ranging from the earliest days of the Dacian tribes more than 2000 years ago through the Mongol and Tatar invasions of the early Middle Ages and the time of Ştefan cel Mare.
The fantastic Tipova Cave Monastery is built into cliffs that tower some 200m above the Dniestr River's right (west) bank, in the tiny village of Tipova some 95km northeast of Chişinău. The monastery consists of three religious chambers and monastic cells linked by precarious steps built into the rock face. The oldest of the three chambers, the Elevation of the Holy Cross cave church, is thought to date from the 11th century. Dress appropriately to enter any religious areas.
This impressive Ottoman fortress, outside the centre near the Bendery–Tiraspol bridge, was built in the 16th century and saw keen fighting between Turkish and Russian forces before falling to Tsarist Russia permanently in the early 19th century. You can walk along the ramparts taking in the fine views of the Dniestr River, have a picnic on the grounds, and visit several museums on-site that document the fort's long and rich history.
This gloriously solid behemoth on the Dniestr dates to the late 15th century and the reign of Moldavian Prince Ştefan cel Mare. It was built on the remains of a wooden fortress in the shape of a circle, with five bastions. Today those bastions contain medieval-themed exhibits, with a few English placards posted about that shed light on the history of the fortress.
The most impressive sight at Orheiul Vechi is the Cave Monastery, built inside a cliff high above the gently meandering Răut river. It is marked by a small bell tower and a cross standing on the rocks. It was dug by Orthodox monks in the 13th century and remained inhabited until the 18th century. In 1996 a handful of monks returned to this secluded place of worship and restored it to its current state.
The main highlight of the Parcul Catedralei is the city's main Moldovan Orthodox church, dating from the 1830s, with rich interior frescoes. The bell tower was originally built in 1836, but was destroyed after WWII and rebuilt in 1997.
The highlight of this massive and wonderful exhibition is a life-sized reconstruction of the skeleton of a dinothere – an 8-tonne elephant-like mammal that lived during the Pliocene epoch – 5.3 million to 1.8 million years ago – discovered in the Rezine region in 1966. Sweeping dioramas depict national customs and dress, while other exhibits cover geology, botany and zoology (including bizarre deformed animals in jars).
Occupying one end of the Centre of Culture and Military History, this once-musty museum now hosts a moving exhibit on Soviet-era repression. Stories of Red Terror, forced famines, mass deportations and gulag slave labour are told through photographs, videos, newspaper clippings and dioramas. While little is in English, the museum nevertheless gives you a good sense of the horrific scale of the crimes perpetrated by Lenin and Stalin.
This impressive museum contains artefacts from the region of Orheiul Vechi, including Golden Horde coins and 14th-century ceramics; a rare, 2000-year-old Sarmatian fired-clay urn in the shape of a curly-coated ram; a beautiful amorpha (Greek jar) painted with anthropomorphic deities; and weapons dating from ancient times to the present. A huge late-Soviet-era diorama on the 1st floor depicts a battle near the village of Leuşeni on the Prut River during the pivotal WWII Iaşi-Chişinău Offensive.