Travel in Moldova: Ţîpova & Orhei Vechi

We spent part of a day exploring two amazing cave monasteries in the north-eastern part of Moldova, Ţîpova and Orhei Vechi.  I’ve visited both before (see my previous post about Orhei Vechi here, and my previous post about Ţîpova here).

We began with Ţîpova, located between Soroca and Orhei Vechi.  This cave monastery consists of three complexes.  The first was built between the 11th and 15th centuries.  The second was built between the 14th and 15th centuries and includes the Church of St. Nicholas.  The third was built between the 16th and 18th centuries and is a row of 18 separate rooms linked by an interior passage.  In additional to being a monastery, the location was also used for defense due to its easily-protected location.  According to legend, the great leader Ştefan cel Mare married one of his wives there and she is also buried in the monastery.  Today, a long set up steep steps leads down to the monastery, which is currently being restored.  There is a small exhibit showing past photos of the complex as well as plans for restoration.  We visited the cave church as well as the caves where monks once lived.

Orhei Vechi is a historic site that encompasses one of the earliest-settled parts of Moldova.  The main attraction, however, is the cave monastery that overlooks the Răut River.  The monastery was built into a series of small caves by Orthodox monks in the 13th century.  The monastery was inhabited until the 18th century, and then restored in 1996 after Moldova gained its independence.  The location was ideal for early Christian monks, as it was isolated from the outside world.

Each of these cave monasteries offer sweeping views of one of two river valleys (the Răut and the Nistru) in the area.

Notes and tips about visiting Ţîpova and Orhei Vechi:

  • There is limited (and difficult to navigate) public transportation to both locations, so it’s best to have private transportation.
  • Ţîpova in particular has rather steep steps that are a fairly difficult climb.  We had no problem getting up and down them, but you should be aware of that.
  • Each location charges for admission, which was between 10 and 20 MDL per person.
  • The first time I visited Ţîpova there was a man there who could do guided tours, but this time there was not.  On my first visit, there was a 50 MDL charge for the group tour (in total, not per person).
  • At Ţîpova there is parking space outside the main  gate.  At Orhei Vechi, you’ll need to stop at the large building that houses the small museum to purchase your ticket.  You can also generally park there.


Travel in Moldova: Soroca

Soroca is a small city in the far north of Moldova.  While it’s pretty far from Chisinau, Moldova’s capital, the roads are pretty decent (at least for Moldova) and it is easy to see the main sights within a fairly short period of time.  We spent a very, very hot afternoon exploring Soroca, visiting the Soroca Fortress, Thanksgiving Candle Monument, and “Gypsy” Hill.

Soroca Fortress is a medieval defensive fortress built originally in 1499 in wood then rebuilt completely in stone in 1543.  The original fortress was built on the orders of Stefan cel Mare, known as the best ruler in the history of Moldova.  The fortress was built in the shape of a perfect circle with five bastions spaced at exactly equal distances.  The design was based on the supreme law of harmony or “the golden section”, making it a unique example of medieval defensive structures in Europe.  We walked around the fortress, enjoying the various views of the Nistru River.

Next, we drove through “Gypsy” Hill, which is a street along which the Roma population of Soroca has built huge, ornate houses (Note: the term gypsy is generally considered a derogatory term by most Romas.  The correct terminology is Roma, but in all tourist information, the road is called Gypsy Hill).  Some of the houses are based off of famous architecture from around the world, including the United States Capitol Building.  While many of the houses are unfinished, the architecture and details are very unique and interesting.

Our final destination was the Thanksgiving Candle Monument.  I had heard there were 600 steps involved, but for some reason I thought the steps were to go to the top of the monument, not up to the monument.  In hindsight that really doesn’t make sense as that would be an incredibly tall tower.  We also made the mistake of using Google Maps to find the monument, which led us to a series of very narrow, obviously less-traveled roads.  Long story short, the stairs lead up to the monument (there are no stairs inside), starting at the Nistru River and you probably should not drive the roads that connect to it, thereby missing all the steps.  Oh well, we tried.  The monument was inaugurated in 2004 and was built in the memory of all of the cultural monuments that once stood in Moldova but were destroyed over the years, primarily by the Soviets.  The views overlook the Nistru River and are really quite stunning.

Notes and tips about visiting Soroca:

  • Soroca is located about three hours from Chisinau.  There is public transportation, but it would be difficult to do a day trip if using public transportation.
  • Soroca Fortress is quite impressive and worth a visit.  I think the cost of entrance for one adult ticket was 10 MDL (Moldovan lei).  There are some signs in English and you can explore at your own pace.
  • If you visit “Gypsy” Hill, please be mindful that the houses are private residences and while some of the owners are open to photos and such, others are not.  Be respectful.
  • There is a parking lot below the Thanksgiving Candle Monument (it’ll be along the Nistru River), then 600 steps up to the monument.  There is a cost of 20 MDL per person to visit the monument.
  • Lodging is quite limited in the northern part of Moldova, so be aware of that.  There is a hotel in Soroca but if you are used to Western-style hotels, it may not be for you.  There are also some Airbnb listings in the area, but all that I found were outside of Soroca.

Travel in Moldova: My Village

My host family with my parents
My host family, my parents, and me

After flying to Moldova, my parents drove their rented car to my village, where we spent the next three days.  This was one of the best parts of our trip, not because of all the cool sites we saw (although there were visits to our public library, my school, and walks to some sunflower fields) but because my American parents were able to meet and spend time with my Moldovan family and see the place that has been my home for a year.

My dad with one of my host nieces
My mom with another host niece

They got to see what my daily life is like, see firsthand how lucky I was to be placed with my host family, and visit the places in town I see every week.  They got to experience the joy of no running water (I usually do have running water and since living here, my host family has even installed an indoor toilet and shower, but there was a problem with our village’s water system while my parents were visiting, so it was all outhouse and bucket bathing for us!), eat the food my host mom prepares, play with my host nieces, and drink house wine.

Sunflowers on a drive through my village the first day
A dinner toast

Three of my young host nieces (ages 2, 4, and 7) were staying with my host parents when my parents were here, and we spent a lot of time playing with them and coloring.  Each night at dinner, I could barely get a bite to eat because I was so busy translating all of the conversations from English to Romanian and Romanian to English.  There were exchanges of gifts: my host parents gave my actual parents bottles of wine to take home and some little trinkets, my actual parents gave my host mom some oven mitts and an apron and my host dad a multi-tool.

My parents with the librarian and an assistant in the public library
My parents with the public librarian and an assistant, in the Casa de Cultura

We visited the public library, where my parents were treated like honored guests.  The librarian and an assistant presented them with the customary loaf of bread with salt, welcoming them and wishing them health and happiness.  We also toured the entire casa de cultura (cultural house), including the auditorium, music and dance school, and wedding hall, as well as the library.  After, we shared tea and cookies with the library staff.  Later, we visited my school and I got to show them where I spent a large chunk of time each day during the school year.

Our walk to the sunflower fields
Our walk to the sunflower fields
Overlooking my village

We walked through my village, and I showed them where the stores are, as well as the mayor’s office, preschool, sports fields, post office, church, and cemetery.  On our last evening, we walked to some fields at the outskirts of town to see the views of the village and the never-ending fields of sunflowers and wheat.  As we returned, we ran into one of the women who cleans my school and we chatted for a short while.

My mom, host mom, and the girls before saying goodbye

Though it was wonderful to see my parents interact with my host family, it was also a bit bittersweet.  When it was time to say goodbye, there were plenty of teary eyes.  We all knew that this is likely the only time my real parents and my Moldovan parents will ever meet.  I’ve been so incredibly lucky to have a host family that truly treats me as if I am their daughter.  As we said goodbye, my host mother thanked my parents for raising me in the way that they did, and my real parents thanked my host parents for welcoming me into their family and treating me so well.  And then we went on our way.

Travel in Moldova: Overview

Our trip to Romania was book ended by time spent in Moldova, where I live and work.  Because our time in Moldova was split into two parts, the posts will not be in any particular order.  When my parents arrived, they first came to my village for a few days to spend some time with my host family and get to know my community.

During the rest of our time in Moldova we saw a lot and traveled quite a bit: visiting Soroca, Orhei Vechi and Ţîpova Monastery in the north of the country, Purcari Winery and Comrat in the south-east and south of the country, and Chisinau and Cricova Winery in the center.  Thankfully, Moldova is a very small country, so you can see a lot in a short amount of time.

Although I had been to several of the places we visited, there were a few that I experienced for the first time, including Soroca, both wineries, and Comrat.  And although it was wonderful to travel to Romania, our time in Moldova was particularly special to me.  After living here for a year, I really enjoyed the opportunity to show my parents around the community and country that have become home for me.  As cheesy as it may sound, I’ve fallen in love with this place and these people, and to be able to share that with my parents was really special.

Travel in Romania: Breb Home Stay and the Return to Moldova

After spending our afternoon visiting some of the wooden churches, we headed to Breb, a small town further north.  Here, we had booked a home stay at a small farm.  The room was simple but clean and pretty, and the location was quiet and peaceful.  I loved that the little “cabin” we stayed in had bright blue and green accents!

When we arrived, the older woman that runs the place with her husband was very happy to learn that I spoke Romanian, as neither of them speak English.  She welcomed us and showed us to the cabin, telling us along the way about the other visitors also staying in the cabin (we had a room with two beds and bathroom to ourselves): an Italian family currently living in France and a Romanian couple.

Once we settled into our room we went outside to meet the other guests.  We were happy to discover that everyone spoke English, allowing us all to communicate despite otherwise speaking other languages (there were 4 languages spoken between us: French, Italian, English, and Romanian).  We spoke about where we were from and our families for a bit.  The Italian family had two kids- a boy around 9 and a girl around 5.  The boy understood English very well but was shy about speaking with us.

After talking for a short while, we were invited to dinner, which was served outside.  Dinner was absolutely delicious!  First there was ciorba, a traditional Romanian soup, which had meatballs in it, and bread.  Then there was mamaliga (a cornmeal dish similar to polenta).  After that there were sausages.  And finally there was a dessert, which I sadly don’t remember as I was so stuffed by that point.  Throughout the meal, there were also several toasts over horinca, a homemade vodka.  Our hosts offered us three different kinds of horinca: apple, plum, and blueberry.

Over dinner and for a while after, we spoke with the other guests about a wide range of topics, including politics, families, living and visiting various countries, the school systems in various countries, etc.  At the table, there was a dentist, a medical student, a film photographer, a linguist, two kids, a teacher (my mom), a realtor (my dad), and a TEFL teacher (me).  It was a fun night getting to know other people.

The following morning, we ate breakfast all together at the same table.  This time, we had toast with homemade butter and jam, pancakes (stuffed with brinza, a homemade cow’s cheese, and plain), tea, coffee, and vegetables.  Our hosts offered us horinca once again, but we all declined.  Following breakfast, we packed up and headed on our way.

Our drive from Breb to Suceava, our next destination, was a long one.  We wanted to do one of the mountain passes and had chosen to do the Prislop Pass.  We were unaware, however, that there was construction on the road the entire duration of the Prislop Pass.  This meant that every 400 meters or so, the road would turn from two narrow lanes with a drop off on one side to just one narrow lane.  The pass, while gorgeous, took a very long time to get through and was a bit harrowing due to the road work.  We had hoped to make it to see the painted monasteries around Suceava, but we got in too late to see any.  This was definitely disappointing and we also felt like we lost an entire day of our trip just travelling.

We stayed in Suceava for the night, then began our return to Moldova early the following morning.  Thankfully, it wasn’t too long of a trip, though we did have a bit of a hassle getting through at the border.  In the end, though, we made it back to Moldova safe and sound, which is what is important.

Where we stayed: Casa Opris (Airbnb) in Breb ||  Apartment in Villa (Airbnb) in Suceava

Notes and tips about visiting Breb:

  • We really enjoyed our stay at Casa Opris.  The hosts were generous and kind, the other guests friendly, and the food delicious!  One thing to note is that the hosts do not speak English.
  • The Breb area is very beautiful and reminded us a lot of Switzerland.
  • If you’re hoping to go from Breb area to the painted monasteries, you’ll want to give yourself more time than we did.  We had thought the distance was shorter and also didn’t anticipate the road work we encountered.
  • Prislop Pass is pretty but quite difficult to drive due to all of the switchbacks.  I wouldn’t recommend driving it until the road work is finished.
  • There are very few places to get food between Breb and Suceava, so pack some food!