Meet Moldova and Transnistria - the country that doesn't quite exist
Could one of Europe's least-visited countries be your next adventure? Harriet Line reports...
"Drink up," the jovial abbot demands through our translator.
I've already lost count of how many different wines I've tasted today, and we're just sitting down to dinner. "He wants you to try another of the monastery's bottles," our guide explains.
It's not quite the way I imagined I'd spend the evening in Moldova, but then I had very few preconceptions before I arrived. It's one of the least-visited countries in Europe - and aside from what I've learnt through Eurovision, I am woefully unaware of what to expect.
Landlocked by Romania to the west and Ukraine to the north and east, it's a small state with a breakaway republic - Transnistria - running along its eastern edge. It's in this country that doesn't quite exist that I find myself sitting down to supper with an abbot.
We arrived that morning - driving from the Moldovan capital of Chisinau about an hour away - into Tiraspol, the main city in Transnistria. The region split from Moldova in 1992 after the dissolution of the USSR and has only gained recognition from three other largely unrecognised states. But that, it seems, is irrelevant to the Transnistrians.
They have their own government, parliament, military and currency - with coins intriguingly made from plastic. The only giveaway that Transnistria doesn't cut the mustard elsewhere is that its stamps aren't recognised outside the country. Our passports are checked as we cross the Russian-guarded border, and we're given slips in place of visas.
It's like a step back in time once we're in; a world of Lenin statues and grey Soviet architecture. The streets are wide and empty. There are no tourists anywhere to be seen. But there's a charm to its brutalist beauty, and the glints of gold church roofs - many newly built following the end of Soviet rule - brighten the horizon.
Our first sight on the whistle-stop tour of the region is the impressive 16th century Ottoman fort at Bendery. Built on a kink of the Dniester River, which roughly divides Moldova and Transnistria, it has borne witness to several battles between Turkish and Russian forces, but finally fell to the imperial Russian military in the early 1800s.
While troops can still be seen wandering around what's left of the base here, the military tensions between Chisinau and Tiraspol have thawed since the Nineties.
Russians make up around 70pc of the population in Transnistria, but Moldovans coexist peacefully, and for lunch we head to Casa Karaman, the humble home of Anjela (above), where tourists can call in for a meal. She serves a delicious spread of traditional Moldovan treats - with noodle soup, polenta and meats, surrounded by old family portraits.
Overfed and overwined, our next stop along the bumpy roads is Tiraspol, where we set off on foot to see the many war memorials commemorating the last conflict 26 years ago. There's an ever present sense of Russia, no doubt heightened by the monument of a Soviet T-34 tank in the central square. A statue of the Russian military commander Alexander Suvorov and a stern bust of Lenin nearby leave little room for confusion about where Transnistria aligns itself. Indeed, almost the entire population backed independence and potential future integration into Russia in a referendum in 2006. But as yet, it has not been acted on.
The following morning, having spent the night at the aptly named Hotel Russia, we head to the city centre for the Victory Day parade. Marking the end of the Great Patriotic War in 1945, local families walk through the streets with flowers and photographs of loved ones lost in battle. It's a moving moment, and in contrast to the both stern and amusing display of might that follows from the military.
Goose-stepping troops perform an impressive routine, but there's something about the twizzling of their rifles which reminds me of Morris dancing at a country fair. The pompous speeches and barking from the general are, however, a little more serious. And the uniforms - colourful and numerous - with the beat of a marching band blaring through the crowds - make the parade a feast for the eyes and ears.
Lest our taste buds be disappointed, we also sample fine brandies at the Kvint Factory nearby, and ogle at enormous sturgeon fish reared for their caviar in the Aquatir farm. Dinner at the Noul Neamt Monastery, with the superfluous wine, is both fascinating and fun. The abbot, who performs his dinner party trick of singing in dozens of languages at the chink of each glass, says his vino is a cut above the rest. "Our wine is special because it is blessed," he explains, smiling.
It's a common theme, it seems, as we cross back into Moldova proper, that every winery has something which makes it better than the others. Moldova was the "garden of the Soviet Union", but has since reduced and refined its production - and no longer exports to Russia, after it slapped an embargo on wines when Chisinau declared its intention to join the European Union.
A labyrinth of tunnels stretching for 120 kilometres sets Cricova winery apart. We take an electric buggy through the boulevards named after different grapes to sample crisp rose, and see the private collections of the likes of Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel. Mimi Castle, another winery, is majestic in its scale and beauty, and the wonderful guide Edward is the only other Westerner we meet all week. While us tourists are still a rarity, the locals are all very charming and welcoming. I make a note to buy the feteasca alba and rosu de bulboaca bottles in duty free, and pledge to return to try wine bathing at the spa.
In the country's only national park, Orhei, famed for its birdlife including the long-legged buzzard, we stop for lunch at another family home, where teenagers from the village sing in old-fashioned dress of long skirts and embroidered blouses. The Moldovan courting tradition of boys stealing and hiding a girl's front gate to indicate they want to marry them is still alive and kicking here, our local guide Victoria explains. A real nuisance, I suspect, for the families of popular girls. Across the valley, carved into pancaked limestone rocks is the Orhei Vechi Monastery - where the resident monk is praying as we explore.
The next day we take a walking tour around Chisinau, having spent the night at the Best Western Plus Flowers Hotel, where jelly, peculiarly, is served among the breakfast offerings. It's a surprisingly quiet city given it's home to 650,000 people - but has plenty to offer.
The parks are beautiful. One, named after an early sixteenth century Moldovan prince, Stephen the Great, boasts an alley of sculptures of classical writers - and for modern day scribes, free Wi-Fi. While 80pc of the city was rebuilt in the Soviet style, there are rare examples of old architecture in grand buildings, such as a the national library and museum of history. The ethnographic museum is home to an impressive reconstructed skeleton of a dinothere - an enormous elephant-like mammal that lived seven million years ago. Nativity Cathedral has a stunning gold iconostasis, and an oversized bell tower thanks to a mix-up by a Russian bureaucrat when ordering the gong.
Local restaurants, especially Gok-Oguz serving Gagauz food from the region of Turkic people in southern Moldova, offer the best of the country on a plate - with tender lamb and marinated vegetables.
As we depart for the airport, Victoria urges me to spread the word about her country. Hesitantly, I agree. Moldova's best asset is that tourism is yet to really tap into it. But there's time to catch it before it changes.
How to get there
Explore (explore.co.uk) offer a five-day 'Moldova Short Break' small-group tour from €631pp including B&B accommodation, three dinners, transfers and an Explore Leader. Flights extra. Various departures May-October, 2019.