Friday, September 12, 2008
Moldova wine is among the best in Europe. Within a stone’s throw of Chisinau are some of the finest and largest wineries in the world. There seem to be two major factors contributing to the exceptional size of the industry here. First, the climate is ideally suited for the grape growing as is the soil. Second, since the 15th C Moldovans have been quarrying limestone beneath the surrounding hills. The limestone was used to construct the city. These quarries have resulted in the creation of vast network of tunnels over the centuries.
In the 1950’s someone realized that the relatively constant temperature and humidity in the tunnel was ideally suited to wine aging, bottling and storage.
The rest is history. There are now several hundred kilometers of tunnels where wine is aged in 20,000 liter oak cases, plus, there are hundreds of niches about 3 feet deep, 4 feet tall and 3 feet where bottles are stored on their sides.
I was not fully prepared for the scope of these enterprises. Valery took me to the Milestii Mici winery, which the Guinness Book of World Records has certified as the biggest in the world. When touring MM, you don’t walk; you drive your own car right into the tunnel system. The tunnels descend up to 300 feet in places. The tunnel roadways are smooth and easily wide enough for two cars to pass. The monumental casks line the road or extend down spur tunnels. The hundreds of niches are carved into the walls along the roadways.
There are artistic touches at various points along the way and a complex of exquisitely decorated testing rooms not too far from the tunnel exit. There are over 2 million bottles stored in Milestii Masi alone.
We then headed north past other wineries and vineyards, villages and rolling farmland to the Orheiul Vechi Monastery that it is carved into a crescent shaped limestone cliff with the narrow but picturesque Rund River winding along the base of the cliff.
As you enter the are the entire valley and cliff face unfolds in front of you making it perhaps the most impressive landscape I’ve seen in Ukraine, Moldova or, most certainly, Transdniester. Carefully tended crop fields line the river banks; two villages lie deep in the valley on opposite ends of the U-shaped bend in the river; cave entrances dot the limestone cliff face some from the efforts 13th C Orthodox Monks and others by pagans pre-dating the Christian era.
There is sizable fortress from the 14th C that was only rediscovered after WWII by Soviet archeologists. The Mongolian Tartars eventually subdued and destroyed the area in the Late Middle Ages. Most of the caves are inaccessible to all but rock climbers with permits but you can visit the main cave church and a dingy cellblock for 13 monks that are under the supervision of an old bearded Orthodox monk; he, along with a handful of others, is bringing the place back to life after it was closed for years by the Soviets.
The Monks had a long conversation with my guide, not a word of which I understood. Valery explained later that the old Monk was questioning him about the exchange rate ofthe Lei for Euros. UNESCO is coming next year to evaluate the site for inclusion on the World Heritage list; the monk wanted to see how much he could afford to spruce up the place from his donation till.
We returned to the city stopping at a memorial to Moldavians who died in the Afghan war. The Soviets gave the Moldavians no clue about how bad the situation was there. The young men who needlessly gave their lives there are revered as national heroes.