Cave monastery in the historical temple complex of old Orhei (Orheiul Vechi), Moldova, Europe

Getty Images/Robert Harding World Imagery

Orheiul Vechi

Top choice in 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 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. Further along the ridge you see the twin spires of an Orthodox church dedicated to the Ascension of St Mary, built in 1905 and recently restored. The church was shut down by the Soviets in 1944 and remained abandoned throughout the communist regime. From here a steep shortcut leads down to Vila Etníca in the village proper.

There are two museums in Butuceni. 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.

The exhibition centre has some basic rooms, but you are better off staying in Butuceni proper at one of several appealing guesthouses.

From Chişinău, marshrutky to Butuceni depart from a bus stand roughly opposite the Central Bus Station entrance (26 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 €40.

If you're taking private transport, consider combining Orheiul Vechi with a visit to Tipova, and/or the peaceful 19th-century Curchi Monastery, 15km west of Orhei city ('new Orhei').