Moldova during a sunset on a hill

Moldova: Exploring Europe’s Most Underrated Country

When one hears the word “Europe”, usually what comes to mind are images of the most important European landmarks: the Eiffel Tower in France, the London Eye in England, the tulip fields of the Netherlands, even the sunny beaches and islands of the Mediterranean. What people usually do not consider, however, are the smaller countries of the former Eastern Bloc. While places such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Russia make the news frequently, one Eastern European country that is consistently overlooked is the tiny nation of Moldova.

Sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania, Moldova is a young country with a small population (roughly equivalent to the population of the state of Kansas, though a bit smaller), with a stunning countryside and wonderful cities. This country also happens to be the poorest of all European nations, and is one of the least visited destinations on the continent as well, despite having a rich history and interesting attractions. So why is Moldova so criminally under-appreciated?  Let’s dive in and learn a little bit more about one of Europe’s hidden gems.

Tracing timelines: Ancient history for the young Moldova

Ancient times

Though not especially well known, Moldova’s history goes back millennia, stretching back to the Paleolithic era. Excavations have revealed early tools at sites in the country from up to 1.2 million years ago. The first people officially known to populate the area lived there during the Neolithic Stone Age. They were part of the Cucuteni-Trypillia, a civilization spanning around 3000 years, from approximately 5500 BC to 2750 BC. The Cucuteni-Trypillia people spread out from Ukraine to the Carpathian Mountains, but largely centered their base on what would become Moldova.

During the first few centuries AD,  the Goths, the Tatars, and the Huns largely occupied Moldova who continued to reside till the early middle ages. 

Medieval times

In the 1350s, a Romanian military leader named Dragos established The Principality of Moldavia between the Carpathian Mountains and the Dniester River as a vassal of Hungary. Once he established the principality, the Ottomans, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the Tatars deemed the territory as a much sought-after prize. In 1621, the Ottomans officially took over Moldavia.

Modern times

In 1812, the Ottomans ceded the principality to the Russian Empire, who assimilated the area and banished the use of the common tongue: Romanian. A century later, World War One conscription practices brought about a renewed sense of nationalism and ethnic awareness in the region, and a sense of Moldovan national consciousness came into play. During World War Two, the Soviet army heavily conscripted Moldovans, and deported many of them to Siberia and Kazakhstan for political dissent.

After World War Two, the Soviets attempted to build up Moldova and differentiate it from Romanian, instituting the Cyrillic alphabet and investing millions of rubles into building the Moldovan capital of Chisinau. In 1990, after a period of revolt against Romania and Russia in the 1980s, Moldova held its very first democratic elections, where the country established a parliament. The country continues to follow a similar system, and is currently a unitary parliamentary constitutional secular republic. Though there was an attempt of a coup by remaining Soviet sympathizers in early 1991, Moldova officially declared independence and ratified their first constitution in August of the same year.

Modern unrest: Transnistria and the political state

While the majority of the Moldovan population can trace its roots to Romanian ethnic groups, Moldova has a large subpopulation of Ukrainian and Russian descent. This population largely occupies the eastern region of the country, past the Dniester river. In 1990, members of this population broke away from Moldova and formed a territory called Transnistria, an autonomous zone that has since been flagged by the United Nations as a “danger zone”. 

Though the situation is way better now, Russian oligarchs and the Russian military have continued to support Transnistria through funding. Transnistria has become a hub for all sorts of illegal trafficking, including weapons, cigarettes, alcohol, and even humans. The Moldovan government and Transnistria engaged in a brief war from 1990 to 1992 where Moldova tried to quell the separatist movement and re-assimilate the state into their control. 

Finally, operatives from Moldova, Transnistria, Ukraine, and Russia worked together to ratify a treaty that allowed for Transnistria to remain separate and established a security zone. While the zone has mostly worked, the death of a Moldovan citizen by the hands of a Russian security zone guard caused renewed tension between the nations in 2012. Though Moldova keeps a watchful eye on their separatist neighbors, conflict with Transnistria is not the only struggle Moldova has faced in recent years.

Politico-economic situation in Moldova

Since its beginnings as a fully-fledged country, Moldova has faced several economic and political downturns that have prevented it from becoming more successful and well known on the world stage. For example, Moldova’s economy relies heavily on remittances from citizens working abroad. Because of relatively low opportunities for work and for job growth, many Moldovans choose to travel to the United States and to other European nations to find work to support their families. Remittances form a major share of the Moldovan economy, accounting for forty percent share in the GDP. However, the number of Moldovans emigrating for work purposes has also contributed to issues of national identity and social service organization intervention.

More recently, Moldova has been dealing with issues of corruption in their government, concerning citizens and politicians alike. They believe this is under the influence of oligarchs, most specifically a man named Vladimir Plahotnuic. Concerns about Plahotnuic’s influence in the government were first raised in 2016, but finally came to a head in the summer of 2019, in a moment called the Moldova constitutional crisis. The democratic party of Moldova removed the president, Igor Dodon from his position due to his unwillingness or inability to call for new parliamentary elections. People protested across the country, especially in the capital city of Chisinau. The government deployed the police forces  in great numbers to protect government buildings. However, this crisis ended quickly when the Moldovan populist and socialist parties reached an agreement which established a new prime minister Maia Sandu (who went on to become president of the country last year).

Palatial white stone building with gold windows
The Presidential Palace, located in downtown Chisinau (photo by author)

People and culture of Moldova

Moldova is truly a reflection of the people who occupy it. As the country has had much influence from outside nations since its beginnings, Moldova is a melting pot of smaller european ethnicities. Everywhere in Moldova you can see the influences of its people’s backgrounds: Romanians, Ukrainians, Turks, Bulgarians, Poles, Romanis, and Jewish people. Moldovans are united in their rich cultural traditions as well, such as their gorgeous hand-embroidered cultural clothing. On weekends in the capital, one can often find public performances of Moldovan music and dances, which are wonderful (and free!) glimpses into their beautiful and varied culture.

Moldovan culture

Marred by continuous conflicts and political unrest, Moldova’s incredible and fascinating culture has been long overlooked. For example, because of the multiethnic influence on the country, and because its population is mainly condensed in the country’s main sixty-six cities, almost everyone in Moldova is multilingual. While most Moldovans’ first language is Romanian, they also speak Russian as a second language. Many Moldovans also speak at least an additional language. The country also officially recognizes Bulgarian and Ukrainian, as well as Gagauz, a dying Turkic language native to Moldova, Ukraine, Russia, and Turkey with only around 300,000 native speakers worldwide. Because of the number of Moldovans who travel abroad for work, other commonly spoken European languages such as French, English, Italian, and Spanish are growing in popularity and fluency.

Moldova’s culture is also heavily influenced by their wine production industry. The Moldovan countryside is striped with flower farms, but more importantly, vineyards., Moldova is the one of the largest wine producers on earth, even though they are such a small country. Moldovans take immense pride in their wine production, and many people grow their own grapes and process their own wine at home. Moldovans also consistently top world lists of alcohol consumers. On average, Moldovans drink an astounding 16.8 liters of alcohol a year each.

Why visit Moldova?

The wineries

Moldovan wine production is also an important way to bring in tourists. In fact, two of Moldova’s main tourist attractions are wine related: the Cricova and Milestii Mici wineries. Both wineries boast impressive and immense collections. Cricova, around ten miles north of Chisinau, has seventy-five miles of underground wine cellars and production areas, including multiple rentable entertaining spaces. The Cricova tunnels have existed for six centuries, and are currently home to a huge collection of antique wines, and the private wine collections of many world figure heads, including former US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Milestii Mici, located next to Chisinau, is even more impressive, and is the largest wine cellar in the world, containing one hundred and twenty miles of underground wine storage.

Bottles of wine with plaque baring name of Vladimir Putin
Bottles of wine in Cricova wine cellar belonging to Vladimir Putin (photo by author)

A puzzle of architecture

Moldova is also home to some stunning architecture. The capital is home to a fascinating mix of early period structures, modern buildings, and Soviet style buildings, all contrasting each other but providing a walking tour of the country’s rich and varied history. From the squared off apartment buildings to the palatial government offices, Moldova’s architecture is beautiful. Another important piece of architecture in Moldova is the Cetatea Soroca, or Soroca Fortress, located on the north east border town of the same name. Stefan cel Mare, Moldova’s most famed and beloved historical figure, built the fortress in 1499. A popular tourist attraction today, Cetatea Soroca is a gorgeous example of early Moldovan history.

Castle-like stone fortress
Inside of Cetatea Soroca. Hillside in the background is Ukraine (photo by author)

Stunning monasteries 

Moldova is also the home of a multitude of stunning monasteries. Historically and today, Moldova’s population is overwhelmingly Orthodox Christian. Even today, over ninety-three percent of Moldovans identify with this religion. Because of the influence of the church, nearly every district in the country has its own cathedral or monastery. These monasteries have not only become tourist attractions, but remain important places of worship for Moldovan citizens themselves. Two of the most important monasteries in Moldova are the monastery at Old Orhei and Saharna Monastery. Old Orhei is a centuries old religious and archaeological site, which is located in the countryside of Moldova on the Raut River, and is built into the caves in the geologic formations in the sites. 

Today, Old Orhei is more popular as a visitors’ site, but it is still the home to a handful of monks. Saharna, located in the Rezina district of Moldova, is also built onto the side of a mountain, but is a much more popular site for tourists and religious pilgrims alike, as it boasts both an incredible collection of relics and a legend of a resident monk seeing the apparition of Mary on the mountain top.

Blue orthodox chapel in front of sky background
Chapel at summit of Saharna Monastery. There is a rumour that it contains a footprint of the Virgin Mary (photo by author)
Old Orhei Monastery built into side of cliff
Monastery built into the side of Old Orhei (photo by author)

What else is there to do in Moldova?

Moldova also hosts numerous cultural events and festivals every year, as well as national sporting events, especially soccer, museums, and musical exhibitions, especially operatic performances, all of which make up important facets of the country’s wonderful culture.

Is Moldova truly Europe’s poorest country? We think not!

The fact that Moldova has had its fair share of hardships is undeniable. Since the moment the region was occupied centuries ago, generations of conflict and cycles of rebuilding have soiled the country’s history. These conflicts have made a long-lasting impact on its culture and demographic make-up. While Moldova continues to face issues of corruption in its government and economic disruptions, the beautiful people of this small country are incredibly resilient, and work hard to better their country in any way they can. The country has had humble beginnings and remains much the same—though severely under-visited and under-valued.

From the beginning, however, Moldova has been unique in that it is truly a mod-podge of cultures and influences that have made it what it is today: a beautiful country with hundreds of hidden attractions and heritage sites. Though Moldova may be the poorest country in Europe economically, it is truly one of the richest in history, culture, and heart. Though often misunderstood, Moldova should get a spot on the must-travel list of any cultural connoisseur or anybody that longs to take the road less traveled.

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