Bid farewell to tourist traps and selfie sticks. Even for intrepid travellers, one European nation remains an enigma: the Republic of Moldova.
Wedged between Romania and Ukraine, Moldova is a country of unspoilt pastures, buttercup-yellow monasteries, and record-breaking wineries. Its capital city, Chişinău, is a collage of leafy, Paris-style boulevards and stark Brutalist buildings. Beyond here, breakaway nation Transnistria broods in the country’s east.
Despite these intriguing highlights, Moldova has the dubious honour of being the least visited country in Europe. It’s time to buck the trend, starting with these eight reasons to explore Moldova.
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.
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.
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.
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).
Prefer gritty to pretty? Intriguing Brutalist architecture is scattered between Chişinău’s grassy squares and crumbling nineteenth-century townhouses. Most interesting is the Circul, an abandoned circus building northeast of central Chişinău. This spiky crown of concrete is adorned with a now-headless metal clown.
For a less sinister way to immerse yourself in the past, dine in Propaganda Cafe, where wry nostalgia resounds from every 1950s photograph and Soviet-era TV screen.
Sauntering past the Arc de Triomphe, down tree-lined boulevards where chic locals dunk croissants into café au lait… surprisingly, there’s more than a whiff of Paris about Chişinău. Boulevards are fringed by weeping willows, green spaces like Parcul Catedralei breathe life into the city centre, and the Arcul de Triumf is a dead ringer for France’s famous monument.
Best of all, the city has wholeheartedly embraced French patisserie and coffee: try Creme de la Creme for gateaux and caramel lattes, or Panna Cotta for macarons and florentines.
Walking down elegant Strada 31 August in Chişinău, it’s impossible to miss the garden packed with rocket launchers and dark green tanks. Behind this graveyard of defused weapons and aeroplanes lies the city’s Military Museum, one of Chişinău’s most impressive sights.
Weaponry from thirteenth-century sabres to AK-47s illustrates the turbulent history of this young nation. Blood-curdling dioramas and WWII footage give an unflinching account of the hardships that preceded the birth of the Republic of Moldova in 1990.
Fancy bunking down in a creaky farmhouse, and awaking to a chorus of cockerels and gurgling turkeys? The countryside around Orhei has a smattering of agrotourism outfits, where half-board includes a feast of home-cooked Moldovan food.
Thick slabs of mămăligă (polenta) jostle for table space with grilled lamb, salads sprinkled with salty sheep’s cheese, and jugs of local wine; Casa din Lunca in Trebujeny serves up a particularly impressive spread. Gulping the last drop of plummy Codru wine, while another horse and cart rattles past, you can truly embrace life in Moldova’s slow lane.
Top image © Jukov studio/Shutterstock