I’ve been to most of Eastern Europe and I’ve always enjoyed the food and the culture tremendously. But last month I came across an interesting discovery when looking at a map and trying to pick my next holiday destination in Eastern Europe. What is this tiny country nestled between Romania and Ukraine? It’s the Republic of Moldova, a former USSR territory that has only been independent since 1991.
If you do a quick Google image search for Moldova, you’ll come across pictures of rolling hills, isolated mountain villages, and Eastern Orthodox architecture. And wait a second…are those vineyards in the pictures? Yes, they are. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Moldova has one of the most well-established wine producing industries in the region. Need I say more? I was sold on visiting Moldova in a matter of minutes.
Moldova: the fast facts
-Moldova’s total area is just over 13,000 square miles. This means that the whole country is only slightly bigger than Wales
-Moldova’s population is 3.5 million, just one million bigger than the population in the Greater Manchester area
-Population density is 316 people per square mile. To bring this into perspective, you should consider that London’s population density is 13,000 people per square mile
-Moldova’s currency is the leu. One British pound gives you 23 leu
-The official language is Moldovan, which is pretty much the same as Romanian – but you should NEVER mention this when talking to locals, who are very proud of their language and don’t appreciate being lumped together with anything Romanian. In practice, I was a bit lost anyway because English was only spoken in the capital city, so you may want to consider taking a dictionary with you if you visit the country
Getting to Moldova from the UK
Is getting there half the fun? That depends on how much time you have. I only had 2 weeks available, so I opted for flying. I wanted a direct flight, so my only option was Air Moldova, which flies to Chisinau (the capital) from Heathrow, Gatwick, and Stansted. As my closest airport is Heathrow International, I booked an airport transfer to get myself and my rather large suitcase there. It’s easy to find a return flight for £100 if you book in advance, but my last-minute decision meant that I ended up paying considerably more. In hindsight, a cheaper option would have been flying to Bucharest with a low-cost airline and then jumping on a train or bus. You could also book an organised trip if you prefer that option.
In theory and if you’re a hardcore train enthusiast, you could travel by train all the way from London to Chisinau in 50-something hours. A more reasonable option is the overnight train that runs daily between Bucharest and Chisinau. A first-class sleeper will only set you back £40.
There are several buses a day between Bucharest and Chisinau, but according to the locals I spoke with, the ride is a bit of a nightmare (think grumpy customs officials, never-ending border crossings, and smelly toilets on the bus).
I simply loved Moldova’s capital. Sure, there is some ugly Soviet architecture, but for the most part Chisinau is a gorgeous city chock-a-block with elegant Art Deco and classic buildings, parks, boulevards, and a fantastic cultural scene. Some of my favourite places were:
The Botanical Gardens, where locals go to eat out or to enjoy the summer weather. I was a bit jet-lagged and took a glorious nap under a tree and facing the lake.
The Bazaar, an open-air artisan and souvenir market where I spent half a day browsing through all kinds of stuff and talking to the vendors.
Tucano Cafe. I could live in this lovely coffee shop-restaurant-meeting point. The décor and the staff are simply impeccable and you feel right at home. There was live music too when I visited.
For dinner and for a taste of Moldovan cuisine, head to La Placinte and try the scrumptious desserts for just over £1.
As for accommodation, Chisinau’s hotels offer great value for your money. This must be one of the few European capitals where you can book a great hotel room for under £30. Wanna treat yourself to a stay in a boutique hotel? That’ll be £60.
Must-see destinations in Moldova
I rented a car in Chisinau and headed straight for Moldova’s wine county. Did you know that the world’s biggest wine cellar is in Moldova? I used this article as a guide.
Moldova might be landlocked, but there are fantastic river beaches everywhere, and I surely appreciated them when I visited in the middle of August. I recommend Vadu lui Voda beach.
I then drove north to explore the real, rural, and sparsely populated Moldova. I fell in love with the spectacular mountain landscapes at Orheuil Vechi. I suggest you stay in the area for at least 3 days. There are guesthouses in the charming village of Ivancea, where hospitality is second-to-none.
Overall, I give Moldova a 9/10 and strongly encourage you to visit this great little country.