Five Tips for Traveling to Moldova

I have a few friends from Moldova here in Atlanta. But many others have never even heard about this tiny country in Eastern Europe. So the biggest question I get is: “Why would you want to go there?” My response – why not!

Moldova got a bad rep after Dutch sociologist Ruut Veenhoven named it “the least happy nation on the planet” and travel writer Eric Weiner recounted his miserable account to Moldova in his 2009 book – The Geography of Bliss. He said the post Soviet country was full of poor, sad people that never smiled. Yes, Moldova suffered during communism, still has a very low GDP and is the least visited country in Europe, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go visit.

Besides, I found the people in Moldova to be quite friendly and happy (not LOL or gregarious). They joked, laughed and enjoyed time with family and friends as people do in any part of the world. They also complained about the cold weather, job shortages, and political distrust as we do out here. I dined with several locals, went sightseeing with them, as well as stayed with a Moldovan host at his cozy apartment. Everyone was welcoming and eager to show me around their country.

However, being an informed traveler will make your experience richer and more enjoyable. Here are some things to know before you plan a trip to Moldova.

Don’t Touch and Go

Most people stay in the capital of Chișinău,and get disappointed because it’s not the most beautiful European city. There are a few museums, lakes and parks, but 1 day is enough to cover them. Moldova is a small country but many of the attractions are far from the capital and require all-day trips. Plan for at least 4-5 days in the country if you want to see it well. Some of the places to add to your list are Milestii Mici (largest underground winery in the world), Tipova monastary (oldest), Saharna (pilgrimage site), Orheiul Vechi (cave monastery), Monastirea Curchi (largest monastic complex), Codru Natural Reservation (forest with wildlife), and Transnistria (a breakaway unrecognized country).

The Food is Really Good

Moldovan cuisine has not surfaced on the global scale but you will definitely not be disappointed with the food, which has influences of Turkey, Georgia, Ukraine, Poland and Russia. Think grilled meats, rolled dolmas, roasted vegetables, creamy polenta, steamed dumplings, fresh salads. If you like pork, cheese and bread, you will be in heaven. The soil in Moldova is very fertile so produce is fresh and plentiful. I had the sweetest apples ever!

The national dish is Plăcintă, fried pastry stuffed with cheese, mushrooms, eggs or mashed pumpkins, eaten as appetizer, snack or side.

Locals typically eat a big lunch and small dinner of cold cuts, salad and bread. Sample to seasonal fruit compotes (homemade juices), divin (Moldovan brandy) and wine.

Search for Good Wine

The country is full of wineries and you may want to do a few wine tastings/ winery tours while you are there. In fact, Moldova is one of the largest wine producers in the world (ranked in top 20). But most of the wine they produced was for a discerning Russian market and was not the best quality. Things are improving now as Russia banned Moldovan wines (political play) and Moldovan wine makers upped their game to appeal internationally.

One of my favorites was Mimi Castle, a relatively high end producer of dry red, sparkling and sweet whites. Definitely have a wine paired dinner at their beautiful restaurant set inside a historic castle. Chateau Vartely also makes some nice ice wines.

Save Some Money

Compared to other cities in Europe, you will feel rich in Moldova. A nice dinner with wine will set you back $20-30 for 2 people. Wine bottles cost $2-3, and young wines even less than that. A wine tour runs about $8 and a top of the line exclusive tasting of 10 wines less than $60. Many of the wineries have hotels attached to them so look for a wine/ stay/ meal package.

Fall is Ideal for Festivals

My friends in Moldova told me summer is the most boring time of the year as nothing much is going on. Fall is the best season to visit Moldova because of the leaves changing colors and lots of events going on. The Moldova wine festival, officially named “National Wine Day“, takes place in Chisinau during the first weekend in October at the end of the grape harvest.

I attended Tulburel Young Wine Festival at Mold Expo where families gathered on a Sunday to eat, drink and dance. Exhibitors from all over Moldova and surrounding countries brought their unlabeled young wines for tasting (some of which were decent). There was also food, honey, candy and crafts.

Moldova is pretty easy for tourists to navigate. There is no visa required to enter Moldova (even though its not part of EU), rental cars are available at the small airport in the capital and roads are easy to drive on except for a few bumps and a short rush hour traffic. Most people speak English and are polite. They respect each other and expect you to show up at the appointed time (even at restaurants and wineries). It is also extremely safe and affordable.

Why Go on a Free Walking Tour in Bucharest

People often ask – Isn’t traveling abroad expensive? Seasoned travelers will tell you that traveling abroad can sometimes be cheaper than living in the US! With so many platforms such as discounted airlines, HomeExchange, AirBnB, work exchanges, etc. it is cheaper to travel now than it has ever been before.

One of the best ways to save money while traveling is my taking Free Walking Tours. These are great ways to explore the city on foot, with a local guide, while getting some exercise. And the best part is they are free, though I do advise you to tip your guide generously 🙂

During my recent visit to Bucharest, I took a walking tour of Old Town Bucharest with Unbelievable Bucharest Tours.

Enjoy free concerts at the open air atrium near University Square.

I met my guide, Catalana at the guitar statue near University Square. I was the only one on the tour that morning, so I had the guide all to myself.

We made our way through the main streets, crossing church into Old Town, while Catalana explained to me some of the history of the city as well as the Parisian style buildings we were looking at.

I find it fascinating when people tell me the “behind the scenes” story of unassuming buildings we would pass by, not realizing what they are truly used for.

This palatial looking building is used as a hospital!
Statue at the entrance of Old Town that represents the birth of Rome.
Biserica Sfantul Anton church used for coronations
Stavropoleos Monastery has beautiful Turkish architecture and a courtyard to take a break

You can easily get lost in historic Old Town Bucharest. With hundreds of bars, restaurants and souvenier shops, it may look very touristy but the locals also hang out here (you just need to know the right spots). Plus, there are interesting places to see that you will miss if you didn’t know where to look, such as the remains of an underground carvan sarai attached to a church or a Soviet era apartment building.

This building was the original stock market

When most people think of Romania, the first thing that comes to mind is Dracula. Catalana explained to me that the fiction novel Dracula is based on the emperor Vlad. He never drank blood, rather impaled his prisoners in public as was the tradition during Medieval times. Growing up, Catalana was told heroic tales of Vlad as he defeated the Romans against the Ottoman empire.

She also pointed out some good places to eat, which I returned to during the rest of my stay. Finding out where the locals go eat is another great tip to gather on the free walking tours.

Hanu Lui Manuc is one of the oldest restaurants serving traditional food in a beautiful courtyard and live folk dance performances.
Caruicubere is a Romanian brewery and restaurant designed to look like a palace.
Pasajul Mazza-Villacrosse is a Parisian style covered alley with the best hookah bars.
I had a great Lebanese lunch at Finikia in Old Town.

Catalana also pointed out that I could see bullet holes in the building across from my hotel from the Romanian revolution.

Sample free fruits, cheese, ham and honey at Piata Obor market.

Further, she gave me tips to where to spend the rest of my stay in Bucharest. Since I am most interested in food, I went to see the Piata Obor market where locals come to buy fresh vegetables, flowers, cheese and spices. Another money saving tip – you can always find cheap street food and free tastings at the fresh food markets. Just ask for a sample!

To learn more about Unbelievable Bucharest private and free tours click here.

Have you had a great Free Walking Tour experience? Do share in the comments section below…

Burmese Days

A country in the midst of a political transition and geographically placed along the Himalayas, sharing borders with India and Bangladesh and linking a “Golden Triangle” with Thailand and Laos, Burma, now Myanmar, is a fascinating country with the friendliest people in Asia.

Yangon

I stay near the Sule Paya, a golden pagoda set in the middle of a busy traffic intersection. The first thing I do upon landing is head to the bank to exchange my uncreased, unmarked US $100 bills that originated after 2006. Foreign credit cards are not accepted in the country and the banks and black market are extremely particular about foreign currencies. After this extraneous process, I wander Yangon, weaving my way through the activity on the sidewalk; the plastic stools where men drank tea, the noodle stands and the open aired markets. Men use wooden crates to make their “cheroot”, betel nut and chewing tobacco rolled in leaves. I continue on to the infamous Shwedogan Pagoda, said to house eight hairs of the Buddha. The Pagoda is breathtaking at sunset, as the tower turns crimson and the monks begin their chants. A group of monks came over to practice their English and one spread his arms and said, “I wanted to thank you for choosing to come to my country, and welcome to Myanmar!” That would be the beginning of many welcoming gestures from the Burmese people.

Two men coating the Mahamundi Buddha with gold

Bagan

We pull into Bagan at 4am just in time to see the monks, dressed in crimson robes, walk the town for the morning alms. We are greeted at the bus station in the pitch black with horse-carts. Sitting on a wooden crate on wheels being dragged around town by a horse, I feel as if I have found the wild wild west.  At 5am, we take bikes and flashlights and set out to the city of temples, finding one, in time to see the sky change from black to purple to a light blue, and then slowly a golden orange, as the sun began to seep through the valley, illuminating each temple as it went. It is calming, majestic, and even spiritual. After a day of biking through the temples, I hop on a bus to Inle Lake.

Bagun at sunrise
Bagun at sunrise

Inle Lake

Inle Lake thrives with communities of villages that use it as a life source. It serves as a transport hub, with wooden canoes lining the canals to enter the lake each day. Villagers go to work by the lake, boats take children to school each morning and businesses moving goods, ship their items over water. It’s a source of food, with floating gardens and farms, and fishermen who wake in the early dawn. Its a religious center, housing floating temples and pagodas. And it serves as a town center, with floating markets bringing the villagers together each day to buy food. Craftsmen’s stilted stores line the lake, preserving age old professions like blacksmiths, weavers, seamstresses and basket makers. Each day comes to a close in Inle with a boat full of monks floating by, doing their evening chants. I fall so in love with Inle that I choose to ignore the creeping influx of tourist offices and western restaurants.

Daily commuters on Inle Lake
Daily commuters on Inle Lake

Mandalay

North of Inle, lies the busy, noisy, congested, dusty city of Mandalay. The city’s grid system is set up around the Mandalay Palace, the last royal palace of the Burmese monarchy. I visit the Mahamundi Buddha, a large Buddha painted in gold every day, and the historic teakwood Shwenandaw Monastery. On the way, my taxi driver is eager to discuss the political situation in Myanmar. With the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the country is at a crossroads and, as the US lifts some economic sanctions, tourists continue to flow in. This transition is seen in Mandalay’s financial distract, as men go to work wearing a dress shirt and tie, with a longyi, the traditional cloth wrap, on the bottom.

Produce market in one of the villages on Inle Lake
Produce market in one of the villages on Inle Lake

Although the country is undergoing rapid changes, it’s essential to preserve the centuries old customs and traditions that make Myanmar such a unique cultural gem.

~ By guest blogger, Tess Murphy. Tess has traveled extensively through Europe, Asia and Australia, keeping a travel blog everywhere she went.