For many of you who read my blog, I would guess that when Bob and I moved to Moldova, this small country and its capital city, Chişinau, had not yet gained a position on your bucket list of places to visit before you die. If you knew of Moldova at all, you likely knew it as Europe’s poorest country, a small former Soviet republic still struggling to recover from the collapse of the Soviet Union, and as such, you might not have expected it to have much to offer a tourist. But if that is the case you might want to reconsider. We recently enjoyed a visit from our son, Joel, who admittedly would not have visited Moldova had we not been here, but who found himself pleasantly surprised with the whole experience.
While Joel was here we introduced him to three versions of Chişinau: “Traditional Chişinau,” “Funky Chişinau,” and “Classy Chişinau.” None of these is the Chisinau he had imagined, having read typical descriptions of the city, which always mention that it was mostly destroyed by an earthquake and by bombing in WWII, and was then rebuilt by the Soviets, who erected many apartment buildings in the style they are known for: big, grey, plain and functional. While this is all true, it is not the whole story. The streets in the center of the city are in fact still flanked by many charming old buildings which survived the WWII period and the earthquake, and are now being restored. And Moldova’s capital is actually a very green city, with lots of trees and parks. In fact, Chişinau, compared to other European cities, has one of the largest proportions of natural spaces in relation to its size. Thus, the introduction that we gave Joel, as would any tour of Chisinau, included lots of walking in the parks.
If some of you, our friends, are thinking of making a visit to us here, -and we do hope that you will, we could give you a introduction to Chişinau, similar to that which we gave Joel. Here is what you might expect to see:
Our tour of Traditional Chişinau starts out with a walk around the lake at our neighborhood Park Morilor. There will be lots of old people out fishing, and young people out running on the paved path around the lake, under the shade of willows, cottonwoods and aspens.
From there we can walk to the town center, strolling on our way through Stephan cel Mare Park, (formerly known as Pushkin Park,) down the “Avenue of the Classics of Moldovan Literature,” flanked by busts of poets and authors and other social heroes of Moldovan and Romanian history.
At the far end of the park a giant statue of Stephan Cel Mare dominates the plaza.
We’ll cross the street, which also bears his name, and pass through Chişinau’s own Arche de Triumph, to enter Cathedral Park, where we will visit the interior of the Orthodox National Cathedral.
Afterwards we’ll stroll along the flower market that borders Cathedral Park, and pass by the school where I have been teaching English, Spiru Haret Lyceum.
This school is located just around the corner from the best placinte bakery in town where we will stop for lunch. At the bakery, you can watch the kitchen workers stretching out the dough, spreading it with fillings, rolling up the long coils of placinte, and placing them on trays to go into the oven, -while you enjoy a couple of your own placinte, filled with your choice of filling: brinza, (homemade cheese) pumpkin, apple, plum, cherry, or the Moldovans’ lunchtime favorite, potatoes and cabbage. (See previous blog about placinte and this bakery.)
After our placinte lunch we will head to the National Museum of Ethnography and Natural History, two museums housed together, in a building which looks, on the exterior, very reminiscent of an Islamic Mosque. Inside you will find exhibits about the customs, traditions and handcrafts of the people of the historical Bessarabia region, as well as exhibits on the flora and fauna, the geology, and paleontology of the region. At the end of the afternoon, if you like, we can visit a traditional embroidery shop, such as Casa Cristea, which is hidden away in a tiny room behind the Filarmonic Hall. Here you can purchase hand embroidered traditional clothing, and perhaps some embroidered and tatted table linens.
If there is an afternoon festival in town we will be sure to see some traditional Moldovan dance, and if not, in the early evening, we’ll take in a concert of traditional Moldovan choral music at the Filarmonic.
Afterwards we’ll have dinner at La Taifas Restaurant where we will be further serenaded by more traditional folk musicians on the violin, accordion and ţambal mare, (see a previous blog about the ţambal mare.) We’ll enjoy Moldova’s comfort food, mamaliga, (polenta) along with perhaps borscht (with or without duck,) or Moldovan meatballs, and roasted vegetables, and a celeriac or fennel salad. For dessert, we can share a round pie-shaped placinte made in a stovetop skillet and filled with apples or plums or cherries.
On a Funky Chişinau day, after the early morning walk around Lake Morilor, we will have coffee at Tucanos, where the ambiance might have you thinking you are back in Asheville, and where you can get a pastry that has cannabis among its ingredients; (I’ve not had it so I cannot testify to its taste, but the coffee and other pastries are quite good.)
We’ll then visit the open-air Art Market on strada Stephan cel Mare between stradas Pushkin and Pârcalab, where you can browse through displays of antique silverware, brass and silver candlesticks, old coins, and silver and amber jewelry, and other paraphernalia from old Russia, all mixed in with lots of kitsch tourist items like nesting Babushkas, and wooden Ukrainian eggs, as well as very nice traditional sheepskin Russian hats.
If you wish, we’ll visit the Pushkin Museum, which we’ll find tucked away in a remote corner and down a narrow alley. (See my report on this museum in a previous blog.)
Lunch would be at Mamico, a small restaurant on Strada Veronica Micle where diners can hide out in nooks and crannies on three levels of a rambling old house, or, if the weather is nice, enjoy dining al fresco on the sidewalk. In the afternoon, if it is a Sunday, we can take in a marionette show at the local children’s Puppet Theater. In the late afternoon we’ll return to Lake Morilor where everyone will be out enjoying a stroll, or biking, or roller-blading, or speeding along on scooters, or pedaling giant four seater tricycles in the late afternoon sun.
In the evening we will have dinner at the very funky Propaganda Restaurant, where the décor looks like a bookish and homey 1950’s Russian parlor, and the fried mamiliga is the absolute best.
Your Classy Chişinau tour will begin with coffee and the best sweet almond croissant you will ever eat, at the Crème de la Crème French bakery.
From there we will drive about a half hour north to Cricova Winery for a tour of their underground wine cellar and a wine tasting afterwards.
This underground wine cellar contains 120 km (or about 75 miles) of roads laid out in the tunnels that were left behind after mining the limestone that was used to build the city of Chisinau. Putin has a wine collection stored here, as does John Kerry. (There are many good wines brewed here in Moldova and you could fill up several days just touring wineries if you wanted to.)
For lunch we’ll take a picnic to Dendrariu Park and enjoy a stroll afterwards through its beautiful gardens and lawns. In the mid-afternoon we can visit the small National Art Museum on the sycamore-lined street named “Strada August 31,” (for the date of Moldova’s National Language day) and afterwards relax with afternoon tea on the patio at Delico d’Ange, another not-to-be-missed French café and bakery.
In the early evening, we can attend an opera or ballet at the Opera House, or a classical music concert at the Filarmonic,
and have dinner afterwards at the chic and sleek Gastro Bar, which specializes in Turkish fusion food as well as any food that can be grilled in a “Green Egg.”
If you can add one more day to your tour we will drive you out of Chisinau up to the Orhei region where you can visit Rustic Art, (Ecaterina Popescu’s traditional Moldovan kilim weaving studio and museum,) Tipova Cave Monastery, and Orheiul Vechi Cave Monastery. (See my previous blogs about Rustic Art and about Tipova and Orheiul Vechi Cave Monasteries.) After a morning visit to Rustic Art we will hike down into a river ravine to see Tipova Cave Monastery, where we can have a picnic lunch and then explore the caves in the cliffs overlooking the Dniester River, where the “Monks with a View,” as Joel called them, made their homes, or rather their sleeping cells.
Finally, in the late afternoon sun, we will visit Orheiul Vechi Cave Monastery and Church, which sit on a dramatic ridge above the otherwise flat plain of Moldova.
Before we return to Chisinau we will have a traditional Moldovan dinner on the outdoor patio at La Butuc Restaurant in the village of Bucuceni where your mamaliga will be served with brinza, eggs with green onions, and horseradish.
Ok, so it’s not Istanbul or Paris, but it is unique little Chisinau, with its own small pleasures, and we would love to introduce any of our friends who think they might be game for it, to our Moldovan hometown. A good visit can be accomplished in 3-4 days and can be easily combined with a tour of Romania, as cheap flights are usually available between Bucharest and Chisinau on Air Moldova as well as on other larger airlines. If you think you might be interested, let us know!