1. For a lesser-known wine culture
Moldovan wine is quietly rising to global acclaim, but so far only a few discerning oenophiles are in on the secret. Start at the most impressive winery, Milestii Mici, just 30 minutes’ drive south of Chişinău.
The wine cellars here have a Guinness World Records listing as the largest in the world, with 1.5 million bottles stocked in a 55km labyrinth beneath ground. Accompanied by a guide, you’ll drive among shadowy avenues crammed with well-rounded Rieslings and crisp Chardonnays, before sipping a few varieties in a grand subterranean banquet hall (book ahead).
If you aren’t roaming further than Moldova’s capital, settle in for an evening at Carpe Diem wine bar, a trove of excellent local drops.
Image by World Bank Photo Collection on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
2. To road trip between stunning monasteries
Transnistria isn’t the only place with remarkable Orthodox architecture. Monastic life thrives across Moldova, meaning that church frescoes are wonderfully maintained, tulip gardens thoroughly manicured, and silvery domes polished to a shine.
Among the most beautiful is Saharna Monastery, in a little-touristed corner of northeastern Moldova. Its periwinkle-blue buildings surround a gleaming white church where pilgrims file through, paying respects to icons of local saints.
A road trip to Saharna is easily teamed with other monasteries like rock-carved Tipova, also by the banks of the Dniester River.
3. To roam sacred cliffs
After driving across Moldova's tapestry of wildflower meadows and cornfields, Orheiul Vechi is a riveting contrast. A monastery with golden domes and white bell-towers sparkles across a valley, with forbidding, ashen cliffs rising behind.
Traces of human life dating back to Paleolithic times have been unearthed at this archaeological complex, 60km north of Chişinău. From the fourteenth century, hermit monks came to seek solitude in its karst caves.
While the monastery is the region’s prime attraction, a hike is the best way to steep yourself in Orheiul Vechi’s history and natural beauty. Villages like quiet Ivancea and folksy Brăneşti are connected by fairly level terrain. Walkers will pass powder-blue farmhouses and squabbling hens, with splendid views over the cliff-top monastery.
4. To visit a country that doesn't exist
Unrecognised by other countries, yet fiercely distinct from the rest of Moldova, the breakaway nation of Transnistria is the strangest day-trip from Chişinău. Tucked between Moldova and Ukraine, this contested strip of land has its own border control and currency, though the overwhelmingly pro-independence (and pro-Russian) results of its 2006 referendum have stranded it in political limbo.
A 12-hour stay in Transnistria requires no advance paperwork: simply bring your passport and register at the border offices. In a single day, you can easily visit the imposing fifteenth-century fortress at Bender, stroll among Lenin statues and grand war memorials in capital Tiraspol, and buy a jar of honey from gorgeous Noul Neamţ (a working all-male monastery).
Image by Marco Fieber on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)