The steely nerves to drive us out of Moldova

Despite budget flights from western Europe to Chişinău, travellers aren’t yet descending in droves on this little country squeezed between Romania and Ukraine.  Starting from WWII, Moldova was part of the Soviet Union for five decades; the country continues to be dismissed as a gloomy throwback to that period. Certainly, modern Chişinău has its Soviet-era stalwarts – like the crumbling state circus building (Strada Circului 33) and the tanks assembled outside the Army Museum – though the city is freshened by fountain-filled parks and tree-fringed boulevards.

But if Chişinău feels anchored in the 1970s, the rest of Moldova froze in time centuries earlier. On our northbound drive, women in headscarves are stepping out into the road and waving hand-picked bouquets. They’re selling wildflowers to passing motorists, but for a moment it seems as though they are beckoning us towards Moldova’s time-trapped countryside.

 

Hiking the lonely roads of Old Orhei

Our destination is Orhei, a district of pastures and forests, around 45km north of Chişinău. The car nudges cautiously through quiet villages like Ivancea and Brăneşti, and before long we can see chalk cliffs rising into view.

Like a pair of cupped hands, these cliffs encircle Moldova’s holiest sight, Orheiul Vechi (‘Old Orhei’). From the 13th century, monks consigned themselves to silent contemplation within caves in the rock face, a practice that endured for some 500 years. Anchoring this sacred place is the Ascension of St Mary Church (1905), whose glinting dome catches the sunlight from far across the Răut River.

Cave-dwelling monks have largely cleared out, but Orheiul Vechi remains a site for contemplation: you can walk for miles without seeing a soul. As I trace the Ivancea–Orheiul Vechi road, not a single car interrupts my path; an occasional rider, hauling several farm-hands in a horse-pulled wagon, clatters past and gives me a startled stare.

In the villages, houses are painted powder-blue and green, backed by spectacular salt-and-pepper cliffs. Garden trellises are loaded with vines, and gargling turkeys loll in their shade. Faced with this scene plucked from a pastoral fairytale, it’s impossible not to slow down to the pace of village life in Moldova.

 

Tasting farm life in Trebujeni

Trebujeni, just southeast of Orheiul Vechi, is accessed by potholed, dust-and-dirt roads. The overwhelming majority of locals in this trio of villages are farming stock, and the trickle of pilgrims and visitors doesn’t create much of a tourist industry. Nevertheless, there is a scattering of places to stay, signalled by decoratively carved pensiunea (guesthouse) signs swinging in front yards.

As we drive tentatively into Trebujeni, geese scatter from our path and we’re blindsided by the odd surprise horse. Somewhere along the pitted roads, one of our car’s hubcaps wobbles straight off its wheel.

Our guesthouse here, Casa din Lunca (+373 794 55 100, Trebujeni), has a rustic air that matches its setting, from creaking gate to grandmotherly embroidery – but it’s an unpolished sort of place. I sling a rucksack onto my bedspread and dust puffs up from the sheets. We survey a backyard prowled by yowling cats, rugs as threadbare as the wi-fi signal, and a forlorn, empty swimming pool.

‘I’ll be in my room,’ sighs my travel companion Jane, ‘with my book.’

Our spirits are raised when the hostess of the house lays platefuls of country cooking across an outdoor dining table. There are wooden platters of smoke-scented meat, and voluptuous pitchers of tart red wine are finding space between salads and sour cream. We carve mămăligă, a cake of polenta, into cushiony wedges.

As we feast, rural Moldova is slowly working its magic. In the shade of a vine-covered awning, to the sounds of bleating farm animals, the atmosphere seems like a fair swap for our car’s lost hubcap.