“Off the beaten track”. It’s a concept used so often, it almost contradicts itself, especially when it comes to travel (we’re guilty of using it too). But if there’s one destination truly deserving of the label, it’s the Republic of Moldova, a tiny country sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine. Voted number two on Lonely Planet’s ‘Off the Beaten Path’ list in 2013, and with less than 20,000 visitors each year (France has over 83 million, as a comparison), Moldova is Europe’s least-visited country and, in many ways, its last frontier. And because we’re suckers for adventure and need to be first at everything, for the first time ever, we’re heading east on a special 13-day expedition through Moldova, Romania and the Black Sea Coast of Ukraine, finishing in Kyiv with a visit to the exclusion zone of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
Few people could tell you much about Moldova, let alone pinpoint it on a map. Stefan Hellmuth, European Destination Manager with the Intrepid Group and pioneer of the expedition, attributes this to the country’s remote location and size (under 34,000km2), but also to its history. Moldova was part of short-lived Greater Romania until the end of the Second World War, when it was absorbed into the Soviet Union. Even since declaring independence in 1991, the republic shares a lot of similarities with Romania, especially when it comes to cuisine, language and folklore. Moldova is also Europe’s poorest nation.
In this globalised, hyper-connected world, there are few places left so unknown and unexplored, especially in the middle of Europe. And that’s exactly why we’re going. Moldovans aren’t used to seeing tourists at all, so you’re likely to have authentic interactions with curious locals everywhere you go. “It’s a real destination,” says Stefan. “Things aren’t pre-made for you as a tourist like in many destinations in Europe. Delivering on our promise to find real life experiences in a place like Italy, for example, can be tough. In Moldova, it’s easy.”
Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia
After visiting Bucharest and the Danube Delta in Romania, the expedition makes its first Moldovan stopover in Comrat, provincial capital of the former breakaway republic of Gagauzia. Jump on Google Maps and you’ll see that Gagauzia is really just Comrat and a few patchy fields and villages. In 1991, following the dissolution of the USSR, this tiny strip of land broke away from Moldova in order to uphold its Soviet values. But in 1994, Gagauzians realised their land was too small and isolated to survive independently, so they re-joined Moldova (with certain autonomous concessions).
Gagauzians speak Turkic. Nobody knows why for sure, but prevailing theory has it that Gagauzians are descendants of Seljuk Turks who migrated to the area in the 13th century. For Stefan, that’s one of the most fascinating things about Europe. “There are oddities all over the continent. You just have to turn a corner and there’ll be something that will startle you, something strange that’s come about because of complex cultural or historical reasons. There’s just so much diversity in such a small space.”
Next stop on the itinerary is Chisinau. Be warned: Moldova’s capital isn’t exactly a beauty. After being almost completely destroyed in WWII, the city was rebuilt with pre-manufactured concrete slabs, lending it a real communist, utilitarian feel. But what it lacks in architecture, it makes up for in spirit. Chock-full of lively bars and eateries, Chisinau is popping. The locals are big drinkers, and sharing a hearty meal and nip of homebrew vodka is considered an essential bonding experience.
While in Chisinau, we’ll head out to the medieval complex of Orheiul Vechi (or ‘Old Orhei’), which features a 14th-century monastery. From there, we plan to visit Milestii Mici, the largest winery in the world. And when we say large, we’re talking 200 kilometres of underground cellar tunnels, 55 of them lined with wine. The only way to get around these subterranean passages? Driving in a car. This is not a drill:
If there’s one thing Moldova’s famous for, it’s vino. Once a main supplier to the Soviet Union, the country now exports millions of bottles of red, white and sparkling every year.
Last, but certainly not least, is a fascinating three-day visit to the Soviet breakaway republic of Transnistria, where almost no other tour groups in the world go. Tucked between the River Dniester and the western border of Ukraine, this small separatist territory – like Gagauzia – has been fighting for independence since 1990. Unlike Gagauzia, however, the fight continues to this day. “It’s like a step back in time,” says Stefan. “You’ll feel like you’re back in the Soviet Union.” A statue of Lenin greets you outside Parliament, squat concrete buildings are adorned with soviet murals and the emblem of the hammer and sickle abounds.
As it stands, Transnistria is ‘de facto independent’, meaning that, while unrecognised by the UN and sovereign nations (including Russia), it basically operates autonomously, with its own government, parliament, currency, military, police force, national anthem and postal service. While still considered part of Moldova, Moldova has no jurisdiction here at all. In fact, Transnistria is only officially recognised as independent by other de facto independent republics, including Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, and Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan. Complicated, right? Basically, there are few places in the world like it, and there’s a whole lot to learn by visiting.
To get to Tiraspol, the territory’s capital, we’ll take the train, negotiating military checkpoints – in true expedition-style – along the way. Once in Tiraspol, you can check out the Kvint distillery on a guided tour and warm your insides with a taste of the local brandy. We’ll also have the chance to visit Tighina Fortress and a huge Russian-style market in the nearby town of Bender. You’ll need to get your charade game on though, because in this part of the world, the locals aren’t used to seeing tourists and no one speaks English (your leader will help you get by, don’t worry). After Transnistria, it’s on to the Black Sea-side gem of Odessa in the Ukraine, then to Chernobyl and Kyiv, where the trip comes to an end.
Feature image c/o Marco Fieber, Flickr.
Feeling adventurous? Join Intrepid’s one-off expedition through Moldova, Romania and the Ukraine.
Feature image c/o Marco Feber, Flickr