People

With about 3.4 million inhabitants, including Transdniestr, Moldova is the most densely populated region of the former Soviet Union and is a melting pot of Eastern European cultures.

Population Breakdown

Moldovans and Romanians make up about 82% of the total population, Ukrainians constitute 6.5%, Gagauz 4.5%, Russians 4%, Bulgarians 2%, and other nationalities such as Belarusians, Poles and Roma comprise the remainder.

In Transdniestr, Ukrainians and Russians make up about 60% of the region's population; Moldovans make up about 40%. It is one of the least urbanised entities in Europe.

Religion

Moldova stays on course with the region's religious leanings; the vast majority are Eastern Orthodox (90%), with 2.5% belonging to other Christian faiths.

Arts

For such a small country Moldova has a rich history of artistic excellence that reflects the many cultures that have had an influence in Bessarabia and Moldova over the years.

Visual & Folk Art

The biggest name in Moldovan painting is Mihai Grecu (1916–98), who cofounded the National School of Painting and was also a poet and free-love advocate. Look out for his paintings, including the striking Recruits (1945), at the National Art Museum. For something more contemporary, look out for the works of the Gagauz painter Dimitri Ayoglu, who also dabbles in bronze sculpture. The late Tudor Cataraga (1956–2010) was another sculptor renowned for highly original bronze works.

There is a wealth of traditional folk art in Moldova, with carpet-making, pottery, weaving and carving predominating.

Literature

The most beloved Moldovan writer is the poet Grigore Vieru (1935–2009), also known for his illustrated children's stories.

Playing the Moldovans at Tennis (2002) is British comedian Tony Hawks' dated but nevertheless hilarious account of his visit to a much bleaker Moldova in the mid-'90s to satisfy a drunken bet, challenging him to defeat the entire Moldovan football team at tennis. It was later made into a film in 2012. Moldova took a mild PR hit in The Geography of Bliss (2008) by American writer Eric Weiner, who recounts his visit to the alleged 'least happy nation on the planet'.

There are a few good reads centred on the problem of human trafficking in Moldova, the best and most recent of which is Bessarabian Nights (2014) by Stela Brinzeanu.

Music & Dance

Moldova's most prolific modern composers is Evgeny Doga (b 1937). He has scored films, as well as written songs, concertos, suites and symphonies, and is still active in his eighties.

For decades, Dimitri Gagauz (b 1946) has been the foremost composer of songs reflecting the folklore of the Turkic-influenced Gagauz population of southern Moldova.

Traditional dance in Moldova is similar to the dances of other Eastern European countries. Couples dance in a circle, a semicircle or a line to the sounds of bagpipes, flutes, panpipes and violins.

Feature: Make New Friends

What with their friendly, outgoing disposition, you shouldn't have any trouble winning acquaintances in Moldova. However, if you want to be instantly embraced, steer the conversation towards music, then casually drop the names of retro (but still popular) rockers Zdob şi Zdub and Gândul Mâţei.

Zdob şi Zdub (www.zdob-si-zdub.com) have been together since 1995, working Moldovan audiences into a lather with their Romanian-folk-meets-the-Red-Hot-Chilli-Peppers sound fusion. In 2005 the group achieved a stunning sixth-place finish in the Eurovision Song Contest (a later appearance, in 2011, was less successful, placing 12th overall). These days, the guys are still touring and driving their audiences, mainly women reliving their teeny-bopper days, into a veritable frenzy.

Gândul Mâţei nimbly run the gamut from lounge music to Coldplay-esque ballads to rocking hard. They've been less active in recent years, though they released a video in 2014 and are back on the touring scene.

Both bands still have a strong following in Moldova, and locals between the ages of 25 and 45 are guaranteed to become unwound with new-found respect for your apparent understanding of Moldovan pop culture. Moreover, their shows are fabulous and a highly recommended experience.

Environment

Tiny and landlocked, Moldova is a country of gently rolling steppes, with a gradual sloping towards the Black Sea. With one of the highest percentages of arable land in the world, Moldova is blessed with rich soil. Fields of grains, fruits and sunflowers are characteristic of the countryside.

Protected Areas

Never heavily industrial (outside of Transdniestr), Moldova faces more issues of protection and conservation than pollution.

There are five scientific reserves and 30 protected natural sites. The reserves protect areas of bird migration, old beech and oak forests, and wetland regions. Codru Reserve, Moldova's oldest, boasts about 1000 plant species, 145 species of bird and 45 mammals.

The majority of Moldova's 3600 rivers and rivulets have been drained, diverted or dammed, threatening ecosystems. However, environmental groups have succeeded in protecting wetland areas along the lower Prut and Dniestr rivers. In 2018, Unesco added the Lower Prut Natural Scientific Reserve, to its World Network of Biosphere Reserves.

Moldova's protected areas are not set up for tourism and lack basic facilities and hiking trails. Your best bet for visiting the Lower Prut or other reserves is to find a local or a guide who knows the park.

Food & Drink

Moldovan cuisine, not surprisingly, shares much in common with Romanian cooking across the border. Meals generally start with a soup, such as the popular chicken noodle soup called zeamă. Mains are built around meats, often grilled.

Traditional dishes include tocăniţă din carne de porc – hearty pork stew usually flavoured with tomatoes – and sarma, cabbage leaves stuffed with pork or sometimes beef.

The most common side dish is mămăligă, a kind of cornmeal mush that’s often called ‘polenta’ on menus. It’s usually served with a dollop of sour cream and a spoonful of a salty-sour ewe's milk cheese called brânză.

Though things have improved in recent years, vegetarians will find meals limited. Every restaurant, however, will have a full page of dinner salads to choose from, and Moldovans pride themselves on the freshness of their fruits and veg.

Russian influences are seen as well. Pickled vegetables and smoked fish are popular, as are Russian meals such as pelmeni (Russian-style dumplings stuffed with meat). Turkic influence has also been strong here; in the south you may find the delicious Gagauz sorpa, a spicy ram soup. In Transdniestr, look out for Ukrainian-style borshch, a thick, sourish soup incorporating red beets and chunks of beef.

Moldova's wines are growing in prestige internationally, and the country also produces excellent brandies. Reds are called negru and roşu, white is vin alb. For dry wines, look for sec. Dulce means sweet and spumos translates as sparkling. Common international varietals include chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and riesling (whites), and cabernet sauvignon, merlot and pinot noir (red). Look out too for wines made from local grapes, like fetească albă (white) and fetească neagră (red).

In Chişinău, you’ll be spoiled for choice when it comes to dining out. Expect restaurants to serve food until at least 10pm nightly (while some restaurants may continue to cook until 11pm). Outside of the capital, you'll be lucky to find a decent restaurant at all, and may be stuck with hotel dining rooms or pizza joints.

Essential Food & Drink

  • Muşchi de vacă/porc/miel A cutlet of beef/pork/lamb.
  • Piept de pui The ubiquitous chicken breast.
  • Mămăligă Cornmeal mush with a consistency between porridge and bread that accompanies many dishes.
  • Brânză Moldova's most common cheese is a slightly salty-sour sheep's milk product that often comes grated. Put it on mămăligă.
  • Sarma Cabbage-wrapped minced meat or pilau rice packages, similar to Turkish dolma or Russian goluptsy.
  • Wine Look for bottles from quality local wineries like Cricova, Chateau Vartely and Purcari, among many others.
  • Fresh produce Moldova is essentially one big, very rewarding farmers market.