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A Moldova travel guide: go off-the-beaten track to enjoy an East European gem

A Moldova travel guide: go off-the-beaten track to enjoy an East European gem

Tiraspol Tower


By Joseph Francis

Truly off-the-beaten track and off the radar for most all modern travelers making their way around the European continent, Moldova actually packs one hefty punch with its cocktail of culture and beautiful backcountry, sweet wines and one lively modern capital. Visitors heading here can expect to encounter a patchwork of wild forests ringed by vineyards, rustic Slavic towns and villages, the ubiquitous monasteries of the Orthodox faith and oodles of traces of the Soviet yoke that held sway in these parts for so long during the 20th century. However, Moldova also has a new and burgeoning side too, which pops up between the streets of happening Chisinau (constantly being connected to the West with more and more budget flight connections) and slowly modernising towns like Tiraspol alike.

This Moldova tour guide takes a look at all the top destinations and attractions travelers planning a trip to this Eastern gem can look forward to, from deep and murky forest parks to interesting cityscapes and crumbling medieval castles touched by the Ottomans and Russians alike. Enjoy!

Wonder at the delights of Chisinau

From the outside, the sprawling Moldovan capital of Chisinau may seem like a lesson in all things Soviet Brutalism – such was the extent of the vast rebuilding program that raised the city back into existence after the Second World War. However, delve into the downtown streets here and you’ll discover a metropolis of European dispositions, where parks rise ad hoc between the Stalinist tenements and pretty Orthodox buildings like the Nativity Cathedral spike the sky. The Pushkin museum comes highly recommended, as does a trip to the acclaimed Moldovan national ballet, while Chisinau tour guides love to take first-time visitors park hopping, from the regal gardens of Cathedral Park in the center of town to the lake-spotted grounds of Rose Valley and the deserted reaches of Riscani on the outskirts.

Chisinau Cathedral

Delve into the Soviet past in Tiraspol

A world away from the up-and-coming energy and artistry of the new Moldovan capital, the regional hub of the uncertain separatist area of Trans-Dniester (nestled between Ukraine and the eastern edge of Moldova) feels more like a museum piece of Eastern Europe’s soviet past. Rumbling jalopies and Trabants purr through the pot-holed streets, cookie cutter apartment blocks rise along perfectly aligned roadways and monuments to the Soviet age of industry and Russian imperial generals still dot the corners. Granted, this one may not be the most fulfilling and wanderlust-inducing of spots, but there’s no denying its raw, down-to-earth vibe, not to mention its surprisingly raucous nightlife, which erupts all year round in the super clubs of the center (expect plenty of Vodka!).

Tiraspol Tank in Tiraspol

See Moldova’s medieval past in Soroca

Soroca can be found clinging to the narrow meanders of the River Dniester in the extreme north of Moldova. A town famed for its wealth of well-preserved and restored medieval buildings, this one’s past goes all the way back to the High Middle Ages when it was founded as a Genoese trading post in the East and then fortified in later centuries by the revered princes of Moldavia. The jewel in the crown of Soroca is the mighty citadel that rises over the babbling river. Complete with formidable Transylvanian towers and keeps, crenulated bulwarks and portcullis gates, this fortress was instrumental in the defence of Europe and hosted the Polish king Jan Sobieski as he fought off the Ottomans in the late 17th century. Soroca tour guides in the town offer regular walking tours of the site, complete with valuable insights into the medieval history of Moldova to boot.

Soroca Castle

Sample Moldovan wines in and around Cahul

Hailing in as the world’s 22nd biggest wine producer, Moldova is a regional favourite on the viniculture front. In all, the country has four individually designated wine regions, while the best of these is generally considered to be the Cahul, which coalesces around the town of the same name in the south of Moldova. Visitors are invited to delve into the countryside here, which comes dressed in beautiful swathes of acacia and oak, linden and wormwood forests, trodden by wild deer and boar and dashed with verdant lines of vineyard. Top wineries include the Vina Belje and Asconi; the former with its famous green-yellow Grasevina of apple-like aromas, the latter with its sweet red table wines bursting with cherry and strawberry aromas.

Winery in Moldova

Go rustic and wild in the Codri National Park

The Codri National Park makes its home on the wooded and hilly heartlands of Moldova, just under an hour’s drive from the capital at Chisinau. A patchwork of leaf-strewn valleys and creeks that comes dressed in a thick covering of hornbeam, elm and fir trees, the region has resisted the change to vineyard and orchard that has overtaken much of the Moldovan backcountry. Eagles and foxes still take their place here, and oodles of trekking trails head into the park from the trio of villages on its periphery: Lozova, Capriana and Hincu. (Once you’re done exploring the wilds of Codri, be sure to retire to the rural streets of these towns, where monasteries and onion-domed churches rise above the timber homes).

Codri, the surroundings of Capriana

See monasteries in Saharna and Tipova

No journey through this distant region of Eastern Europe, where mysterious religious buildings and churches are known for peppering the wilds unexpectedly, could possibly be complete without at least a detour to Moldova’s iconic monasteries. The best of these can be found in the closely connected sites of Saharna and Tipova, which lurch above the meanders of the Nistru River just a stone’s throw from the border with Ukraine. The Saharna Monastery is hailed as one of the most important religious pilgrimage destinations in the country; home of the Saint Cuvios Macarie Alexandrinul relics and a site steeped in Moldovan monkish legends. Meanwhile, the Tipova monastery is found carved deep into the rocky hillsides around Rezina town. This one’s famed as the wedding venue of revered Stephen the Great, and is considered to be Europe’s largest carved cave monastery besides!

Saharna - the rock monastery

Joseph ‘Rich’ Francis is a freelance travel writer who has travelled extensively in Asia and Europe. He particularly enjoys the jazz bars of Poland, the ski slopes of Austria and the beaches and cities of India.

Image Details and Licences: (Timon91, CC BY-NC 2.0), (Dylan C. Robertson, CC BY-SA 2.0), (Groundhopping Merseburg, CC BY-NC 2.0), (Em and Ernie, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), (Ion Chibzii, CC BY-SA 2.0), (Kamen Tabakov, CC BY-SA 2.0)