Finally! We had a visitor in Chișinău! It turns out that Chișinău is not actually that easy to get to. And believe it or not, it doesn’t show up on most people’s lists of “Top 10 Places to Visit.” Good thing we have a friend who happens to be living in Dubai, and who also happens to be the most world travelling person we know. In fact, some might even say that we did Colin a favor by giving him a new country to visit.
There are a couple of cool things about having a visitor. One is that it helps us see the country through new eyes. It was interesting to ask Colin at the end of his trip about which things he liked, didn’t like, and found surprising. The other cool thing is finally checking some Moldova experiences off our own list.
Item #1 – Orhei Vechi
If any of you remember, Daniel and I went to Orhei Vechi for an anniversary trip just 1 month ago. Surprisingly, we didn’t exhaust everything in that first visit. That trip was all about hiking and exploring the general area.
With Colin, however, we did a little more in-depth exploring. And there are actually things to explore! As it turns out, Orhei Vechi has submitted a proposal to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site (whether or not that will actually work out for them.) The area has ruins of of a Turkish Bath, as well as a large complex of caves carved from the steep natural walls of the river valley.
The Caves and The Ruins
I think that one of the best and the worst things about Moldovan history is the lack of oversight. It’s amazing because you can literally walk all over anything you want. The bad part, though, is that there is little-to-no information and no protection. So although we got to explore the caves and ruins to our hearts’ desire, we also noticed extensive littering and graffiti. (And a dead dog in one of the caves….that was a rough discovery.)
We also left pretty confused about all we had seen. For example, various websites say that pre-historic tribes initially carved the caves, and then religious people expanded them during the 15th centuries and onward. Walking through the caves, I had no idea what was original and what was an extension. I also was clueless as to whether the caves were strictly for religious purposes, or whether they had been defensive, utilitarian, etc at certain points in time.
The monk in his monastery
Another thing that we experienced for the first time with Colin was the cave monk (for lack of a better term.) It turns out that a functioning cave monastery still exists! It is located about a mile from the caves you can see in the picture above. (Yes – there are a lot of caves at Orhei Vechi.)
If you go to our previous post about Orhei Vechi you will see a close-up picture of a stone cross with the Orthodox church shining in the background. The sanctuary of the monastery is located directly below that stone cross.
I wish I had taken pictures while in the monastery, but I refrained out of respect. Certainly “no photographs” was listed somewhere on the 2 separate pages of rules greeting visitors at the door. I knew enough of Orthodox culture to have brought a scarf to cover my head; thankfully they also provided a floor length skirt for me to borrow. (The 80 degree day warranted shorts even if the monastery did not.)
What I learned is that the current monk has been living in the monastery continuously for the past 15 years. Being underground, apparently the temperature remains constant even in winter. There was a sanctuary, several windows, and even an outdoor patio. (By outdoor patio, I mean cliff ledge that you could access through a door.) As with all things Orthodox, the area was gilded and ornamented in a way that you almost forgot you were in a cave underground.
How to behave in front of monk in his cave monastery?
This is a question I never considered asking before. My inclination is to be overly reverent in an almost awkward way. Imagine me being the elephant in the room rather than the archaic and esoteric practices of religion. On this occasion, we were tiptoeing around the monastery as I repeatedly “shuussssshed” at Daniel for whispering something.
And did I mention that the monk himself was right there?? Literally five feet away from us, trying to read as we traipsed around the place that is both his home and his place of worship. As Daniel was off whispering at something else, I saw a staircase leading to another section of the cave. I stopped, eyed it, and then realized there was no way I was going to walk right by the austere religious man to figure out where it led! What if I accidentally trespassed into his secret man cave and found his plasma t.v. and gaming console?
It was only when he beckoned me – repeatedly – that I tiptoed by him, not sure if is acceptable to smile at an Orthodox/priest/monk man. I think I ended up doing some awkward namaste-type head bow. Maybe he thought I was a dumb American; I like to think he was just a nice guy doing his monk thing. In any case, I found it reassuring and incredibly kind. And it turns out he had ushered me over to the sleeping quarters of the monks – literally cubbies carved out of stone. The ceilings must have been only 4 feet tall. Here we overhead someone saying that the ceilings were purposefully made low so as to remind the monks to remain humbled before God.
Item #2 – Traditional Food
Okay, enough of monks. Or rather, in direct contrast to the ascetic monastic life is indulging in good food. We did our best to share Moldovan cuisine with Colin. One time was at a traditional restaurant in Orhei Vechi. There we ordered mamaligă (polenta), brânză (sheep or goat cheese), friptura (prepared meat), mujdei (garlic sauce), and compote (homemade fruit juice) along with other veggies, meats, and cheeses.
As you can see, our food came on traditional dishes. And we ate in a room with thrones and furs and axes on the walls. Colin was a super fun guest in that he was willing to try anything we ordered. This means that we ate modern Moldovan food in addition to more traditional fare. As far as I can tell, modern Moldovan food means kebabs. A Moldovan kebab must include sweet pickled carrots, mayonnaise, pickles, french fries, and meat. It’s a surprisingly tasty combination. Go figure.
Item #3 – Cricova Wine Cellar
And last but not least, we finally made it to a wine cellar. Around Chișinău there are a couple of wineries that have extensive underground wine cellars. And by extensive I really mean extensive. The wikipedia page states that Cricova has 75 miles (!!!!!) of underground roads. Obviously we did not walk this particular tour; hence the red golf-cart thing you see in the picture below.
As I understand it, the wine cellars came into being as a result of limestone mining that started in the 15th century. What else does one do with miles and miles of dark tunnels that are naturally temperature-controlled? Make and store wine of course! Although I do find it interesting that the wine part has only been around since the 1950s. Perhaps part of the reason Moldovan is less known as a wine producer is because the industry here is relatively nascent.
And in fact, the cellars at this time may be more renowned for storage than for production. Cricova dedicates a section of tunnels to “case” (houses) of wine. In the picture below, each of the casă are numbered. It seems that Cricova stores certain exceptional batches of wine, waiting for them to appreciate in value and then selling them to high bidders.
It’s like the Moldova UN for wine-o’s
One of my favorite parts was seeing the different “case” that are privately owned. Just as Cricova stores wines and allows them to appreciate in value before selling, so also do private collectors store wine here. I found the private collection funny in a little bit of a sad way. Moldova isn’t much of a player on the global stage. Although it is a member of the UN (for example), I can’t imagine the Moldovan flag is flown in very many places outside of Moldova itself. But here at Cricova winery, there is a showing of miniature flags representing different wealthy politicians that have invested money in a casa. Here, many meters underground, Moldova declares that other countries do in fact care about them.
Thank you Colin!
I know we must have already told him a half dozen times (or is that a bakers dozen of one and 17 of another??), but we are so thankful Colin came to visit us. As with all the friends we have seen in the past seven months, we talked his ear off. But he patiently listened and willingly let us cart him around to all the things we deemed “noteworthy.” Whether or not he go the true Moldovan experience (or just some Wilson family hybrid), we enjoyed ourselves immensely. And perhaps we will be asking for a role-reversing experience in Dubai….who knows?