Riding Rutieras

Image result for rutiera moldova sprinter
A typical, newer rutiera in Moldova (source)

Have you ever wondered what transportation is like in Moldova? As I approach the “finish line” of my Peace Corps service, I finally got some photos (albeit grainy cell phone photos) of the primary form of transportation in Moldova and especially for Peace Corps volunteers: the rutiera. I’ve probably mentioned rutieras once or twice before, since they are the transportation, besides walking, that I use the most.

Rutieras are “mini-buses” more commonly known in the United States as commercial sized vans. Most of them are Sprinter or Mercedes vans, which are then customized and outfitted per the drivers’ or owners’ preferences. While there are some fancy ones (one time I even got on one that had brand new leather seats, air conditioning!, and seat belts at every seat) most are well-used and not necessarily comfortable. Most rutieras have about 20 narrow seats packed pretty closely together, plus there’s extra standing room in the aisle. While they’re meant to hold around 20 individuals, I’ve been on ones with 30-40 people. In the middle of the summer. Without air conditioning. With the vents closed (Moldovans believe the “current”, or any moving air circulation, will make you sick). Let’s just say those situations are highly uncomfortable, sticky, and hot.

The interior of a rutiera, facing the front- you can note the signs, which are sometimes in Romanian and sometimes in Russian

While not necessarily comfortable, especially in the summer or when they’re very comfortable, they do have some positive attributes. Nearly every village in the entire country is connected to the capital with at the very least one trip there and back each day, though most villages and all larger towns have multiple trips per day. It’s also typical for there to be a rutiera trip to and from the raion (district) center each day. The rutieras usually are very regular and have specific departure times, plus you can wave them down along the route (you don’t have to board at the first stop in most cases). They’re also fairly reasonably priced, especially in comparison to American public transportation. Taking a rutiera in the capital to any other place within the city is only 3 lei or $0.18 USD. The rutiera from my village to the capital, 100 km away costs 47 lei or $2.79 for about a 2-hour one-way trip.

A fairly typical interior, facing towards the back, in an older rutiera- on the right side there are usually two seats side-by-side, and on the left there is usually one seat. The aisle is narrow but can fit a surprising number of people crowded together, and the last row consists of four tightly-packed seats.

My village has two rutieras that go directly to the capital each day. One leaves my village at 5:40 in the morning and leaves Chisinau (the capital) to return to the village at 1:40 in the afternoon. The other leaves my village at 5:50 in the morning and departs Chisinau at 2:50 in the afternoon. While not ideal as every trip to the capital means getting up by 5:00 in the morning and then a 4-hour round trip, I’m lucky that there are almost always seats available. Because my village’s rutiera routes are limited, I’ve gotten to know most of the drivers. When I returned home from the USA at Christmas, my host family was able to call the driver and tell him to be sure to pick me up at the airport (since it’s along our route) to bring me back to the village.

While I’m not sure I can honestly say I will miss travelling via rutiera, I will miss having the option of public transportation. It’s something the United States, outside of large cities, is lacking. And I do enjoy the naps that are really the only way to survive long rutiera rides!

Et Cetera Winery

The day before school started, we had an official day off of both school and Peace Corps duties, so it seemed like a perfect time to take a mini-vacation and do something fun and relaxing before getting back into the swing of school.  My sister was also visiting and I knew we’d be spending most of the week in my village, so it sounded like a good time to get a bit of a break and do something different.  I’d heard really good things from other volunteers about a winery located less than an hour from my village in my raion (district) called Et Cetera Winery and we decided to give it a try, even though no Moldovans in my area seemed to have heard of it.

After walking through the fields to get from my village to the main road, we waited with my host mom, host sister, and host niece (they accompanied us on our walk) along the side of the road for the bus to come which would take us to the end of the road the winery was on.  We didn’t know exactly what time it would reach us and we weren’t at a set station, so we kept an eye out so we could wave it down when it passed.  Unfortunately for us, our location wasn’t ideal, as we were looking directly into a lowering sun while trying to make out small signs on rutieras and buses in order to know which one to signal to stop.  So, after a long walk and waiting for nearly an hour, we were pretty disappointed (upset?) when we waved the rutiera down too late (we didn’t see the sign quickly enough) and it slowed down but didn’t stop for us.  At that point, we were already half way there, we’d made reservations, it was too late in the evening to catch a different rutiera, and we were pretty dead set on actually going to the winery, so we shelled out some extra lei (Moldova’s currency) and called the taxi driver from my village to take us the rest of the way.

The restaurant on the left and the guest house on the right

I’m so glad we did!  The winery was beautiful and peaceful and mostly empty.  We arrived pretty late and had eaten with my host family, so we had some tea and a glass of wine in the restaurant before turning in to our rooms in the gorgeous guest house.  The rooms were super nice with good bathrooms.  When living in Moldova and bucket bathing or taking showers in teeny-tiny showers with water that cuts from freezing cold to burning hot, a nice bathroom with a spacious, hot shower is pretty heavenly.  We took long, wonderful showers (the best I’ve had in a year!) and went to bed pretty early, tired from our evening’s escapades.

The following morning, we ate a delicious breakfast outside on the restaurant’s porch that overlooks the rows of grapes.  The food was delicious and the porch is so pretty!  After, the owner showed us a bit of the manufacturing and processing rooms and then encouraged us to explore the vineyards on our own.  Finally, before heading out, we did a tasting and tried five or six of the wines they make on the property, ranging from whites to roses to reds.  Then we headed out and successfully (this time!) flagged down a rutiera to take us back to our respective homes.

Some of the things we especially liked about our visit:

  • The guest house is really quite stunning.  The beds are very comfortable, the decorations are gorgeous, and each room has huge floor-to-ceiling windows looking out.  The bathrooms were very nice as well and I am serious when I say it was the best shower I’ve had in a year.
  • The owners speak excellent English and were very friendly.  Alex spoke to us over our tea when we arrived and we found out he lived in America for many years and fairly recently came back to live in Moldova.  The winery is on the edge of the village he grew up in as a child.
  • The winery would love volunteers who want to learn more about grapes and the wine-making process!  Anyone is welcome to volunteer to harvest the grapes in the fall, help care for the grapes the rest of the year, and help with making the wines.
  • Everything was really gorgeous.
  • The food was excellent!  We only ate breakfast there and had crepes with grape jam, but another volunteer told me their claim of having the best placinta is true!

Note: I’ve been told my sister and I look a lot a like, so for clarification, all the photos above are her!  I didn’t getting any pictures on my camera with me in them.  

Travel in Moldova: Chisinau

The “Gates” of Chisinau
Cathedral Park
My parents in Cathedral Park

If you’ve been following my adventures here in Moldova, I’m sure you’ve heard me mention Chisinau a fair amount of times.  Chisinau is the capital of Moldova and, though I’ve seen travel bloggers call it “The Most Boring Capital in the World” and other similar titles, I actually really like Chisinau.  It’s a pretty small city, which I prefer (no huge crowds are impossible-to-cross streets).  It’s also a very green city, with lots of tree-lined streets and small parks scattered throughout the city as well as several larger parks.

Cathedral Park
Cathedral Park from the Arc de Triumf
Cathedral Park

There is a good and cheap public transportation city, though if you’re in the center of the city, pretty much everything is walk-able.  There are some great restaurants, an excellent (I’ve been told) opera, ballet, and symphony.  In short, although it’s often-Soviet-style architecture can look run-down at times, some of the streets are sans-sidewalks, and it’s an incredibly small capital, I really like it quite a bit.

Arc de Triumf
My parents under the Arc de Triumf
Arc de Triumf

We spent parts of a couple of days in Chisinau when my parents visited and managed to fit in a number of sights.  We visited Cathedral Park (with the cathedral, bell tower, and “Arc de Triumf”), Stefan cel Mare Park (with the statue of Stefan cel Mare and Alley of Poets), and the Muzeul National de Arheologie si Istorie (National Museum of Archaeology and History).

Monument of Stefan cel Mare
Stefan cel Mare
Stefan cel Mare Park

I showed them the Piata Centrala (Central Market) and Gara Centrala (Central Bus Station), as well as our Peace Corps headquarters.  We walked along Stefan cel Mare Street as well as down the pedestrian-only cobblestone street behind the cathedral.

Alley of Poets in Stefan cel Mare Park
Alley of Poets in Stefan cel Mare Park
Bust of Mihai Eminescu, one of the most beloved poets in Romania and Moldova

We rode a trolley bus out to visit my host sister and her husband, where we also got a peek at one of Moldova’s universities.  We also visited a grocery store and Bucurie, Moldova’s candy company, to buy some treats to take home.

National Theater of Opera and Balet Maria Biesu
The Presidential “Palace”

Notes and tips about visiting Chisinau:

  • From the airport, you can catch a taxi, mini-bus, or trolley bus (new!) to get into Chisinau.  A taxi should cost around 70-100 lei, a mini-bus will be 3 lei, and a trolley-bus will be 2 lei.
  • I would recommend staying directly in the center of the city if you can- look on Airbnb and Booking.com for apartments and hotels.  There are a few hostels that are cheap options as well.
  • Once you’re in the center of the city, you can get around by walking, taking a taxi (if you’re going to travel further out of the center or it’s night-time), or using the system of public transportation which includes rutieras (mini-buses) and trolley-buses.  You can find out which trolleys go where and where the stations are by downloading the E-Way app on your phone.
  • One of the great things about visiting Chisinau is that if you are American, the prices are very low in comparison to the US!  You can easily get a meal and drinks for under $10 USD.  There are a number of traditional Moldovan restaurants, but if you’re looking for something different, some favorite restaurants among volunteers include Opa (Greek), Tbilisi (Georgian), JoJo’s (Georgian), El Paso (Mexican-ish), Smokehouse (American BBQ), and Caravan (Uzbek).
  • There is a nice outdoor art and souvenir market on Stefan cel Mare street.  The Central Market is a bit crazy and can get very crowded, but is also interesting to see.

Travel in Moldova: Cricova Winery

On the last full day my parents were in Moldova, we visited Cricova Winery.  Moldova is known for its wine because it’s good wine, but it’s also known for being the country in which the top two largest underground wine cellars in the world are found.  Milesti Mici is the largest at 200 kilometers of tunnels and almost 200 million bottles of wine, while Cricova is the second largest at 120 kilometers of tunnels and 1.2 million bottles of wine.  Cricova was founded in 1952 and around that time also began to house the wine collection of various famous and rich individuals.

We joined a tour of the underground tunnels, which was on a trolley-like bus.  The tunnels are colder than we expected, though we had been warned!  Our guide told us about the various processes they use.  We also watched a movie in a small cinema, where we got our first taste of Cricova sparkling wine (champagne).  After our tour ended, we had a tasting with the large group we had toured with.  We got to try several different kinds of wine and sparkling wines.

Notes and tips about visiting Cricova Winery:

  • The tour and tasting takes about an hour and a half total.
  • It is cold in the tunnels!! I wish I had dressed a bit more warmly.
  • Our tour was in English, but we had a very hard time understanding the guide.
  • Although the tasting was good, with some food, it felt very, very rushed.  I really would have preferred more time in the tasting room, as it was a large amount of wine to consume in a very short amount of time.

Travel in Moldova: Comrat

One of the short trips we did within Moldova was a trip to Comrat.  Comrat is the capital of the semi-autonomous region Gagauzia.  This means that while still a part of Moldova, the Moldovan government has granted the region certain freedoms and more control over certain aspects of their governance.  The reason behind this is that the region is distinctly unique in terms of culture, traditions, food, and even language.

Gagauzia was settled by Ottoman Turks during one of the times Moldova was ruled by the Ottoman Empire.  These settlers brought with them their language, culture, and traditions, which still can be observed there today.  Although most Gagauzians speak primarily Russian in modern times, their traditional language of Gagauz is still sometimes used, mostly by the older generations.

Because I don’t speak any Russian and most people living in Comrat do not speak Romanian, my host dad accompanied my family to Comrat and a fellow volunteer was our tour guide around the town.  Compared to most other parts of Moldova, Comrat has not removed all Soviet-era monuments.  For example, there is a statue of Lenin in the town, as well as other monuments memorializing Gagauz, Moldovan, and Russian writers and other famous individuals.

We walked around the town, taking the sights in, and then ate at a local restaurant.  I had steak for the first time in over a year, and it was incredibly delicious (this is one of the few places in Moldova to get it!).  It was interesting to see what my host dad thought about the town, as it was also his first visit.  He felt that there weren’t enough mature trees and said that must be because they had cut all the trees down at some point, which he found disappointing.  For me, and for my parents, it was interesting to visit an area of Moldova I had heard a lot about but hadn’t seen yet.

Notes and tips about visiting Comrat:

  • As I mentioned above, Russian is the main language spoken and very few people speak English.  You can get around the city pretty easily regardless of whether you speak the language or not, but you should be aware of this.
  • There is a beautiful church with a park flanking both sides in the center of the town.  There is a large parking space behind this if you are coming by car.