The online travel magazine Traveler’s Digest has ranked the 10 least visited countries in the world. With only 11 000 visitors a year Moldova is on the list. I visited the country in 2010. Here is my tale.
The visit however was not my idea. I was dragged along by my better half who had a work assignment there. But I do not regret going although some of the hours there were among my worst.
According to Traveler’s Digest there are no tourist attractions in Moldova. Moldova certainly does not have famous attractions the way we flock to New York to see the Statue of Liberty or go to Paris to gaze at the Eiffel Tower. Moldova does not have places and attractions you have longed for in your dreams and always wanted to see. But to me the fact that it is so little known turns the whole country into a tourist attraction. Everything in Moldova becomes something I yearn to see like a blind person who has regained his view.
For a tourist Moldova is like a black nothing. We were going to the capital, and because I was geography nerd at Primary School I know quite a few capitals of the world. But say the word Chisinau and I am clueless. It is the first time I have travelled to a city without knowing anything about it.
So I wanted to seek information in travel literature, but found little. In Lonely Planet’s travel guides Moldova was lumped together with Romania, and with only one small chapter. The little I discovered about the country was unnerving. Human trafficking. The poorest country in Europe. According to the official travel advice from the Norwegian government (landsider.no) and British Embassy (gov.uk) Moldova is relative safe but with low standard of health care and you were advised to ”Take out comprehensive travel and medical insurance before you travel”. I will come back to this later.
We travelled to Moldova from Latvia in the Baltic with a small Fokker 50 plane. The way you are greeted at the airport reveals something about the country you have arrived in. Would it be like the airport in Minsk, Belarus, where we were interrogated by personnel in military uniforms and personally locked into the airport (the airport was closed)? In contrast Moldova has ditched some of its former communism. This is exactly what had happened the year before when the communist government were ousted in elections. (Moldova was the first former Soviet republic to elect a communist party in 2001). We were greeted with smiles and civic personnel. Still the police were waiting as we embarked the plane.
This was at the time of the Swine flu pandemic and on the plane we had to fill out a form asking if you were coughing or having a runny nose. I suffered from both and pictured myself being deported the minute I set foot on Moldovan soil.
Chisinau without colours
We were driven to the hotel situated at what is called the Gates of Chisinau, two buildings looking like enormous lego bricks. The real journey could start. The capital Chisinau is a city of 800 000 inhabitants. An outsider has a look devoid of certain emotions, one only sees the houses’ shapes and colours without noticing they are also someone’s home. I could only see grey and worn apartments in a grey and dismal landscape. The weather only made it worse. It was February and one of the coldest winters in Europe this year with the temperature for a long period between 10 and 20 minus (14 to -4 Fahrenheit). There were no leaves to colour the landscape green. Only dull apartments blocks and traffic.
Wine and communism
Moldova lies sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine. It has no coastline and has a population of only 4 million. It has been part of Romania and has strong cultural and linguistic ties with its neighbouring country. About 2/3 of all Moldovans speak a Romanian dialect, but most people also speak Russian due to the fact it was part of the Soviet Union from 1940 to 1991.
Moldova is a fertile country and one of the world’s top exporters of wine. According to Lonely Planet there is no other place on earth where you can sample the same quality of wine at such low price. The country has close economic ties to Russia, but recently Moldova has signed a trade deal with the EU as a first step towards a possible EU membership. The courtship however led to Russian boycott of Moldovan wine and fruit as a punishment for looking to the West.
Those who live outside
Our hotel was a small building surrounded by big apartment buildings. From the hotel window I saw a street dog lying in the nearby bus shed. He was one of several street dogs and cats we encountered. Outside a church lived a dog with a puppy. In a central park lived two dogs under a shed of paper boxes. The first evening in Moldova I stood there in the window thinking about their life out there in the harsh cold. At last I went out to buy pet food to keep in my rucksack. How were they treated? I saw an ongoing campaign telling people not to beat their pet, but I also witnessed kind-hearted souls who fed the animals and gave them shelter.
Another group who live outside are the guest workers. 25 percent of the Moldovan population work abroad. Many of these are parents, leaving their kids back home where many of them end up at an orphanage. We met two of the guest workers in a village an hour drive from Chisinau. A couple that had worked in Norway and hoped to do it again. She was one of the foreign strawberry pickers in my country.
Sasha and his wife greeted us with tea, cookies and pancakes filled with cottage cheese. It was freezing cold, but only their living room was heated. The villagers had to fetch water from wells and their roads were dark as most roads in the Moldovan countryside. Sasha told us how we in Norway live, but here in Moldova they try to keep our life. You survive in the countryside by growing, keeping livestock and sending at least one (adult) child to work abroad. Sasha and his wife were educated people, still they could not find work and a future here.
The Moldovan writer Vladimir Lorchenkov who has written the book “The good life is elsewhere” where he describes the quest to get out of the country, tells in an interview that Moldovans do whatever it takes to survive, even selling your body or selling your organs.
There are two autonomous regions in Moldova, Transnistria and Gagauzia. Transnistria is a breakaway state with its own army, president, flag and a secret service still called the KGB. Here communism is alive as if the Berlin wall was still standing.
Gagauzia lies is Southern Moldova. The Gagauz is a Turkish Christian minority who fled the Russian-Turkish war in the 18th century. Their capital is Comrat, 92 kilometres south of Chisinau. Comrat has not much to offer besides the university (which was the purpose of our trip), a statue of Lenin and a museum. Thanks to few visitors we received a very private tour at the Ethnographic Museum with the address Lenin Street 162. The guides had a lot of history to tell, the only problem was the heat, or lack of. Although it was winter the museum was unheated and in the end our feet and hands were so numb we had to start to waddle to endure.
Sights in the city
One of the first days in Chisinau we went on the obligatory sightseeing tour. The main attraction – and source of great pride – was the statue of Ștefan cel Mare (Stephen the great). He managed to expand the Moldovan territory in a serious of battles in the 15th century. A national hero, the main street in Chisinau bears his name. Far more interesting was the Victory Memorial and Eternal Flame to commemorate soldiers who died during WW2. During WW2 Moldova was occupied by Romania, at that time allied to Nazi-Germany, and the Jews suffered severely. According to an article in Der Spiegel the “Romanian holocaust” was a taboo in the Soviet era and largely swept under the carpet.
Our guide compared the city’s hills to the Seven hills of Rome, which I found hard to comprehend. It was difficult to see the beauty of the city. The beauty was in the people we came across.
Dinner with Steven Seagal
The highlight during the sightseeing was a visit to the restaurant Roata Vremii (Time wheel). The restaurant was an eclectic mix of folk museum, restaurant and stuffed animal exhibition. Some of the rooms pictured traditional farm life and how the harvest was pickled while other rooms were filled with stuffed animals with plastic squint eyes. And in the midst of it all, a picture of Steven Seagal proudly shown to us.
The food was excellent though, and during dinner I was asked about my marital status whereupon I answered I was unmarried. I rapidly added that it was totally normal to be 35 + and still single in Norway. When my wife returned from the rest room I nudged her and told her we were both unmarried. And this is how I managed to push us and our marriage inside the closet.
Kindness in grey landscape
In the dull winter landscape there was always kindness. We were taken great care of and people were curious about how we perceived Moldova. Human trafficking, poverty, orphans and stray animals were politely replaced with wine, fertile land and warmth.
The last days in Moldova took a different turn. My wife got sick and when we called our travel insurance agent it turned out they had made a mistake – they had no recommended doctor in Moldova but advised us to get a car for the neighbouring country, Ukraine. This was not possible. We had to face our worst fear and call the local ambulance. We spent the last days in a hospital in Chisinau where I had to retrieve the little I remembered of German: Vielen Schmerzen, vielen Schmerzen, Medizin, Medizin?
During our hospital stay friends came by with lots of food and one of the old ladies staying at the same room borrowed me her pillow. I slept sitting beside my wife’s bed with my head on her bead. Where I belonged. The marital status I had inflicted on myself – how we were only friends – could have turned ugly. Putting myself in the closet also excluded me as her relative.
The food in Moldova
We had a lot of good food in Moldova. I particularly remember the creamy milk and all the varieties of pickled food ranging from watermelons to pumpkins. The food has a lot in common with the food of Romania. In both countries mamaliga is the national dish. Mamaliga is similar to Italian polenta and is eaten as a side order with a salty cheese called branza.
What I remember the most is the cherry pie, placinte su visine, we had for dessert. In contrast to other pies, the Moldovan or Romanian pie (placinte) is made without a tart tin, it has a thin crust, is often pan or deep-fried and is dusted with powdered sugar. The savoury version is filled with cheese (branza), kale (varza) or potatoes (cartofi).
I have searched the Internet for a recipe akin to what I ate in Moldova, and it seems the pie dough is strudel dough. Because I want a dough just as easy to succeed with in a gluten-free version, I make a more traditional dough, except there is no water, just eggs. Although this recipe is not the most authentic recipe for placinte, it is truly inspired by the pie I ate there, a memory from Moldova.
Cherry pie / Placinte su visine (makes 6)
I use half and half sweet cherries and tart cherries, but do use what you want. Just adjust the amount of sugar a bit. It is definitely an advantage having a cherry pitter. A food stylist in Jamie Magazine once said that pies are always beautiful, not matter what you do. And I could not agree more. Pies are always irresistible. Also, the cherry filling is wonderful with wine and cheese.
125 g flour (or gluten-free flour)
1 tbsp sugar
a pinch of salt
60 g cold butter in cubes
1 organic egg
200 g sour cherries
200 g sweet cherries
60 g sugar
zest of ½ organic lemon
1 tsp maizena + 1 tbsp water
1. Mix the flour, sugar and salt in a bowl. Crumble the butter into the flour. Whisk the egg and add it to the flour – but leave a spoon of egg for the finish. Mix quickly into a dough with your hands. Wrap in cling film and let rest in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
2. Wash the berries, remove the twigs and pit them. Place in a pan with the sugar and lemon zest. Boil on medium heat for 20 minutes, until thickened and the berries have partly collapsed. Mix the maizena with the water and add gradually while stirring. Allow to cool.
3. Divide the dough into 4 pieces. Place each piece between two parchment papers, and roll out the pastry with a rolling pin until thin. Let rest once more in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
4. Preheat oven to 175C/350F/Gas 4. Remove the top parchment paper and place about 3 spoons with cherry filling in the middle. Place the other pastry on top while you carefully tear off the parchment paper. Crimp the edges to seal. Use a fluted pastry wheel (or knife) to cut off excess pastry and make a nice circle. Repeat with the last pair of pastry.
Note: If you have a lot of leftover pastry, make mini galettes (free-form tarts). Just roll out the pastry, place the filling in the centre and fold the border over the filling – the centre should be open, not closed by pastry.
5. Glaze with the egg and bake in the oven for about 15 minutes until golden. Serve with icing sugar, and if you like, a doll-up of sour cream.