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 for 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 organized 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).
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 favorite 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.
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
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?
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 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.