The archaeological and ecclesiastical complex at Orheiul Vechi (Old Orhei), about 50km north of Chişinău, is the country’s most 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 baths, fortifications, and 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 complex is in the village of Butuceni, where a small bridge over the Răut takes you to the trailhead for a 15-minute hike up to the Cave Monastery. Built inside a cliff high above the gently meandering river, the monastery 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.
Further along the ridge you see the towers of an Orthodox church dedicated to the Ascension of St Mary, built in 1905 and currently under restoration. The church was shut down by the Soviets in 1944 and remained abandoned throughout the communist regime. Services resumed in 1996.
Back down in the valley are two museums. One is near the bridge inside the Orheiul Vechi Exhibition Centre. It contains objects recovered during archaeological digs, and also sells a handy English-language map and guide (40 lei) of the complex. The other museum is a small ethnographic museum at house no 15 in Butuceni village proper.
Ancillary attractions around here include remnants of a 15th-century defence wall surrounding the monastery complex and recently opened caves across the valley that you can hike to. All exploration is done on foot and it takes about half a day to see everything. Dress appropriately: long skirts or pants for women, long shorts or trousers for men, and no tank tops. Excursions in English (150 lei) are possible via the exhibition centre if you call ahead.
The exhibition centre has some basic rooms, but you are better off staying in Butuceni proper at Eco-Resort Butuceni, a rambling complex with fantastic cottage-style rooms and a swimming pool.
From Chişinău, marshrutky to Butuceni depart from Str Mitropolit Varlaam directly opposite the Central Bus Station entrance (27 lei, 1¼ hours, five or six daily). Placards will say 'Butuceni', 'Trebujeni' or 'Orheiul Vechi'. The last trip back is at 4.15pm (6.20pm in the summer). A taxi round-trip shouldn't cost more than €35.
If you're taking private transport, consider combining Orheiul Vechi with a visit to Tipova, and/or to the peaceful 19th-century Curchi Monastery, 15km west of Orhei city ('new Orhei').