Chișinău (pronounced “kee-shee-now”), the capital of Moldova, is one of the least aesthetically pleasing European capitals. Years of war and two devastating earthquakes have left it a mix of ramshackled buildings, potholed roads and soviet apartment blocks.
For all you who are thinking "Moldwhere?"...It's a former Soviet state, landlocked on the far eastern edge of Europe, wedged between Romania and Ukraine. It is renowned for being the second-least visited country in the world and one of the poorest countries in Europe, by pretty much every measure. Last decade it was also famously named the least happy place in the world, in the New York Times bestseller, The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World.
After that list of accolades, you probably haven't immediately started researching flights, and I don't blame you, but, but going to Chișinău shouldn't be ruled out entirely. it does have some redeeming qualities. For one it's cheap! I mean £0.58 for a pint cheap. Visiting is also a bit like entering a strange time warp. It hasn't fully moved on yet from its Soviet past, but trendy bars and restaurants are springing up. It's a combination of old-world charm, brutalist architecture, a fascinating history and world-class wine.
Speaking of wine...Although few people know where Moldova is, even fewer are aware that Moldova is significant player in the wine industry - the 11th largest producer in Europe, to be precise, with the highest per capita number of vineyards in the world. 25% of Moldova's working population are employed within the viticulture and winemaking industry. But the country is dependent on alcohol more than just economically. According to the World Health Organisation, Moldova has the highest levels of alcohol consumption, with each person, over the age of 15, consuming 15.2 litres a year (equivalent to about 167 bottles of wine)!
A winery tour/tasting should be top of your list of things to do, should you choose to visit Moldova. I went to Cricova Winery, located in the small town of Cricova, 15km from the capital. After Milestii Mici, another Moldovan winery, Cricova is the second-largest wine cellar on the planet. It's most famous for producing sparkling, utilising methods made famous by French monk Dom Pérignon.
The underground wine city is 250 feet below sea level and consists of a labyrinth of tunnels, stretching 120km.
It's so vast that there are traffic lights and many of the underground passages have street names (such as Cabernet Street and Sauvignon Street). The “streets” and “avenues” that make up the underground booze-storage metropolis are named for the wines they store, helping tour guides navigate visitors through the network by mini-train.
Among the dignitaries and world leaders who store their private wine collections at Cricova are German Chancellor Angela Merkel, US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
After the tour, we sampled an array of wines in one of the facility’s extravagant tasting rooms. Ours was called “The Sea Bottom".
Whilst in Moldova, don't just sample wine at the wineries though. Expand your booze horizons at the following Instagram-worthy bars:
Nobil Luxury Boutique Hotel: Visit the rooftop for panoramic city views and to enjoy a lunch or an evening cocktail under the stars. I also stayed at this hotel (five-starred, by Moldovan standards, but probably more like 4* anywhere else).
Zaxi Rooftop at the Radisson Blu Leogrand Hotel: Whether you go for a daytime cocktail and cityscapes or at night for bougie bottle service with sparklers and live DJ performances, you're guaranteed some good people watching.
Oliva Verde: On a hot summer's day, sit in the garden and enjoy the overhead misters as you sip wine and snack on antipasto.
La Sarkis: Every fancy, luxury car that I saw in Chișinău was parked in the lot at La Sarkis. The restaurant was beautifully decorated indoors and out. I didn't eat here, but the wine sure was refreshing.
PIERS: This outdoor seafood restaurant, adjacent to Chișinău's manmade beach, felt less like being in landlocked Moldova and a little more like being on the coast in Spain.
Eli-Pili: This bar was strange and eclectic. I wouldn't actually recommend sampling their wine, but do have a sugary cocktail and enjoy the weird decor.
EscoBar: See what they did there with the name of this underground Mexican cocktail den? Also clever was Pablo hidden within their QR code drinks menu.
Marlène: This cocktail bar was closing as I entered, so I wasn't able to get a drink, but it looked really cute and had an intimate Parisian atmosphere that I would have liked to have enjoyed.
In between sips, I managed to do a little sightseeing walking tour. Below are the highlights.
Chișinău Water Tower: Formerly the main part of Chișinău's water system, this architectural monument is now a museum dedicated to the evolution of the water supply system. Riveting stuff!
Valea Morilor Park: This tranquil, leafy park has a lake with walking paths surrounding it, a beach, a theater, a playground and even a small amusement park. There are four entrances, but the waterfall staircase, consisting of 218 steps, was the most impressive.
Inside the park, if you look hard enough, you can find the smallest public monument in all of Moldova - the Little Prince (the hero of a novella written by Antoine de Saint-Exupery). The statue stands only 11 centimeters/4 inches tall and can be found replacing one of the spheres on the metal fencepost surrounding the lake. touch the little bronzed prince for good luck.
After you locate Little Prince, I recommend renting a paddle boat, for 130 Leu (~£6), and pedaling around the lake for 30 minutes.
The Moldovan Parliament: Formerly the headquarters of the Central Committee of Moldova’s Communist Party, is today home to the country’s democratic parliament.
Monument to Stephen The Great: This statue, on the edge of Ștefan cel Mare Park, commemorates Stephen III (Stephen the Great) of Moldova, who ruled for 47 years in the 15th century and was reputed to be one of the most astute rulers of Europe at that time.
Triumphal Arch: Chișinău’s very own Arc de Triomphe next to the Cathedral of the Nativity, was completed in 1831 to commemorate the Russian Empire’s victory over the Ottoman Empire in the Russo-Turkish war.
This compact city is edging towards real democracy and a truly European standard of living but still has an untouched charm that appeals to the few visitors who venture this far east. Enjoy it whilst it's still cheap, quirky, off the beaten track and unpoiled by bachelor parties and the budget airline brigade.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO:
Visas are no longer required to enter if you plan on staying less than 90 days.
Have your hotel book you an airport transfer for your arrival. Despite what the Internet says, Bolt does not operate in Moldova. Nor does Uber. They do have Yandex, but it's Russian and you won't be able to download the app if you're phone is UK or US based. There's also iTaxi, but you need a local number to complete the set up.
Taxis can be hard to find and drivers don’t speak much English. Be on the lookout for overcharging as well. Always agree on fare before getting in the car and don't prepay.
Many younger Moldovans spoke good English, but this was not always the case, so be prepared with a phrasebook if necessary.
The official language of the Republic of Moldova is Romanian. However, most people living in the country also speak fluent Russian.
The currency in Moldova is the Leu (or Lei when plural). One GBP is currently equivalent to £23 MDL and one USD to about £19 MDL.
People eat dinner around 8pm.
I did not rate the food very highly in Moldova, but for a traditional feast, go to La Taifas, below Vatra Neamului.
Beef, pork and cabbage are staples of Moldovan cuisine.
Organised crime, textiles and wine are the biggest industries in Moldova. However, many people have left to find work elsewhere.
What makes the caves perfect for wine storage is a year-round temperature of about 54 degrees Fahrenheit. Dress accordingly.
There was a queue to enter the airport that took about 40 minutes. And the airport does not have the capability to accept mobile boarding passes, so you will need to check-in on premise. Allow for enough time when departing to accomodate both these things.