Wednesday, May 25, 2011


"Moldova?" "Where the hell is Moldova?" "What’s in Moldova?" "Why would you go to Moldova?"

Those were typical questions I got from friends back home upon telling them I was going to spend some of my spring break in Moldova. And it’s precisely because of such questions that I wanted to go. Getting someone to visit Turkey, Greece, Italy – the spring break destinations of many other volunteers – is easy. Moldova … not so much. So, I figured it was now or never if I ever wanted to see Moldova.

On paper, Moldova is the poorest country in Europe, something you’d never suspect visiting the country’s capital city, Chişinău. Interestingly though, everything in my hotel came in halves – the bars of soap and towels were cut in half; only half of the hallway was lit; and the chandelier-type light in my room had one working light, one burned out light, and one flickering light – so maybe the signs of poverty were there. But there were also plenty of top-of-the-line BMWs and Mercedes cruising the streets, along with lots of high-end shops and restaurants that seemed plenty busy. Beyond that, what I’ll remember most about Moldova is the popcorn and the women. Chişinău has more popcorn hawkers per capita than any place I’ve ever been, and popcorn always makes me happy. Even better, there were more beautiful women strolling the streets of Chişinău than I’ve seen anywhere else in the world (I realize beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I’ve been to more than sixty countries on five continents and, for me, of the places I’ve been only Sweden can compare). Unfortunately, apparently they all thought I was crazy for walking around in the cold and rain in a pair of Chacos with my tongue hanging out, so I never got anything more than a laugh from any of them.

If it wasn't for the popcorn and the women, I'd be hard-pressed to think of a reason to recommend visiting Chişinău. For the most part, it's a rather bleak and uninteresting place, and, apart from the city's many colorful churches and numerous parks, there isn't a whole lot to see.

A short drive from Chişinău is the historical and archeological complex of Old Orhei. Many interesting discoveries have been made here, but as a visitor all you really see is the cave monastery. While interesting, I'm not sure it's worth the hassle, especially considering we have many similar monasteries in Bulgaria.

On the way to the cliff monastery.

The entrance to the monastery.

Inside the monastery.

The current caretaker.

The old monks' quarters.

The view from the cliff ledge outside the monastery.

Moldova is known for producing excellent wine. I toured the country's two most famous wineries, Cricova and Mileştii Mici. Mileştii Mici is the largest winery in the world, with over 200 kilometers of underground cellars. Cricova is a bit smaller (120 kilometers of underground cellars), but also a bit snazzier. The two have similar histories but are different enough to both warrant a visit.

The entrance to Cricova's underground cellars.

The underground wine highway.

Because of the ideal and constant temperature and humidity, many rich and famous people store their wine collections at Cricova.

This is the personal stash of Vladimir Putin.

Just one of several of Cricova's elaborate tasting rooms.

Mileştii Mici is like Cricova's unaffected big brother. It's more of the same but without the facelift and vanity.

Purportedly, Mikhail Gorbachev thought Soviets drank too much, and he tried to destroy all the wine stored at Mileştii Mici. This secret passage way was built to save the best of it.

Some of Mileştii Mici's vineyards.


A little over a month ago, I spent a few days in Romania for spring break. It was my first time visiting one of Bulgaria’s neighboring countries, and, not surprisingly, many of my Bulgarian friends wanted to know how Romania compared to Bulgaria.

As I told them, Romania is significantly larger than Bulgaria, both in terms of population and land mass, and it’s difficult to draw any conclusions or make comparisons between a place where you’ve been living for two years and a place you only visited for a few days. That said, the infrastructure within Romania seemed more developed and advanced than Bulgaria’s infrastructure, and, from a tourist standpoint, Romania seemed like a much easier country to visit independently than Bulgaria. Granted, we only visited Bucharest and some quite touristy areas, but it sure was easy. With jagged, snow-capped peaks rising above the clouds and reaching into the blue skies, it was also rather beautiful. And with Austro-Hungarian influences combining with Turkish and Russian influences, Romanian culture is incredibly diverse. All things considered, the little taste of Romania we got left me longing to return for the full course.

Our exploration of Romania was limited in large part to the area around the city of Braşov. Braşov itself is an interesting destination and a pleasant place to hunker down for a while, but I couldn't help but thinking that the best Romania has to offer is in its mountains.

Here are some shots taken from the road or train on our way to or from Braşov.

And here are some shots of and from Braşov.

Using Braşov as a base, we took day trips to some of the surrounding tourist spots. Our first stop was the Sinaia Monastery, which wasn't unlike many of the Bulgarian monasteries I've visited.

We then made our way to Peleş Castle, a $120 million testament to greed and ostentatiousness.

Next, we made the obligatory stop at the Bran Castle, marketed as "Dracula's Castle." Not surprisingly, there were no vampires and there was very little of interest period, just overpriced touristy stuff.

The views from the Râşnov Fortress made the quick stop there worthwhile.

Of all the places we visited, Sighişoara was probably my favorite. Here are some photos of and from the old town.

Among other things, Bucharest is a strange combination of massive, communist-era eyesores and little, seemingly misplaced churches. And it's not nearly as bad as most guidebooks and Romanians tell you it is.

The Palace of Parliament (the world's second largest building after the Pentagon).

Some other shots taken around Bucharest.