RUM Explorer travel blog

If you look closely, you can see the bell tower and the...

The old monk maintaining the cave monastery chapel

Elenora explaining the orthodox cross on the ridge.

View from the top of the cliff

The group hiking between the cave monastery and the church

The house of a shepherd, identified by the painting.

The fake "good luck" storks in the village of Butuceni.

Our master class in making Romanian cookies and the results!

The cool "wine" fountains at the entrance to Milestii Mici winery.

Map of the underground storage; reserve storage; millions of bottles of wine

Party in Tommy & Bjorn's room where Margaret tried to cool us...

Happy Birthday, elise!

After a totally sleepless night in our sweltering room, we stumbled down for breakfast. Here again, the soviet influence was obvious. We had to stop at the reception desk to choose 1 of the 3 breakfast options and get a card with that # on it. The we had to take the card to the breakfast room and give it to a person who would get it for us. And we could only eat between 8-9am. A couple of our group tried to get in earlier but were sent back until "our time".

I have no idea what it's about but the breakfast room is a cave. You go down some stairs, down a long skinny hallway and into a room that's made to look like a cave. As we came to the end of the hallway, before entering the breakfast area, there was a very small chapel where, since it was Saturday morning, there was a service going on. That was awkward as we had to file thru the service to get to breakfast.

We'd both chosen breakfast #2: 2 fried eggs, "sausages" (2 cold hot dogs), a crepe and toast with jam. It wasn't bad.

We began the day by meeting Elenora outside by the bus. She will give us a hiking tour of the Orhei Monastery, a bit of the Butuceni village and take us to a local home for lunch. A 1 hour bus drive out of Chisinau brought us to the village. Orhei Vechi is the country's most important historical site, awaiting World Heritage designation, in a pretty remote area. The Raut River has carved a valley with high Ricky ridges that served as an easily defendable site to settle. Archaeological excavations had uncovered remains of ruins and fortifications dating back to the 6th century BCE. Atop one of the hills is the church of the Ascension of St. Mary as well as a cave monastery.

We parked in the village and began the hike up the steep hill to the Orheiul Vechi Cave Monastery, overlooking the Răut River. It was carved into the massive limestone cliff in the 13th century by Orthodox monks; it remained inhabited until the 18th century, when up to 13 monks lived there for decades at a time. It was abandoned, but in 1996 a handful of monks returned and began restoring it.

It took half an hour to reach it. There is a black door that opens to steep steps leading down into caves still used by monks 700 years after the site was dug into the cliff. There's a small chapel which 1 old monk still maintains. He was there, lighting candles and paid us little attention. Elenora took us down more steep steps to the monk's cells--just small areas with low overhead. She said they were purposely low so the monks would have to stoop over and be that much closer to bowing before the alter. It certainly wouldn't be a comfortable assignment for a monk!

Leaving the monastery, we hiked along the ridge of the hill to the church. The church dedicated to the Ascension of St Mary, was built by villagers from neighboring Butuceni in 1905 on the cliff. This church was shut down by the Soviets in 1944 and remained abandoned throughout the Communist regime. Services resumed in 1996.

We had a chance to look around the interior before leaving and hiking down the hill to the village of Butuceni.

Here, Elenora showed us a traditional home (set up as an open air museum) and farm. She and Dris dropped a bucket down a well and brought up a bucket of water for us to try. It wasn't too bad, but you could taste some iron in it.

The old houses used to have a painted picture of the occupation of the owner on them. She showed us an example of a shepherd's. As we walked through the village, we saw old houses mixed in with new. She told us the area is popular now with Moldovans to get a small house to use as a weekend getaway.

And as we reached the bus, we saw the village stork nest--apparently no real storks were attracted to the nest so they put fake ones in it for good luck!

We drove a short distance to our lunch stop where we had signed up to take a "master baking class" in making a traditional Romanian cookie: Cornulete Fragede. They are filled crescent cookies. The dough had already been made for us as it has to be refrigerated; it's made of yogurt, lard and egg. We were each given a small ball to roll out, cut into pie shapes, fill with either tart cherries or a homemade jam made from rose hips, roll and then put on a cookie sheet. We made a lot of them!

Then we were invited to a special room set up for us for lunch. We were served a very nice chicken soup with homemade noodles; lots of fresh veggies and homemade bread. One thing we don't see on any of the tables is butter; I guess it's something they don't use for bread! The next course was pork cubes with boiled potatoes and polenta. Finally, we went out to the garden for coffee and our cookies. Of course, they were very tasty!

Now it was time to head back toward Chisinau to drop Elenora off and then on to our winery tour.

Milestii Mici is the largest underground wine cellar in the world. It has more than 200 km of limestone tunnels, 55 km of which are used for storing wine. The tunnels’ depth varies from 30 to 85 meters below ground. The tunnels are drivable by car; a guide hopped on our small bus and told us some history while we drove into the tunnels.

The tunnels were created by excavating limestone blocks to build Chisinau. It was converted into an underground wine cellar in 1969. The natural limestone helps to maintain a constant temperature of 54-57 F and humidity of 97-98%, creating optimal conditions for storing wine. Most of the wine is stored in huge oak casks – made with Crimean or Krasnodar oak – that vary in size from 600 to 2,000 dal. The largest are big enough to hold a small car. The tunnels are named after the wines kept there.

We made a couple of stops where we got out to see the huge areas of wine storage. There's a special reserve section where the billionaires buy a spot to store their wines; each small enclave is gated and sealed with a wax seal so they know no one has been in their wine.

In August 2005, Mileștii Mici was registered in the Guinness World Records as the biggest wine collection in the world. Overall, the complex holds nearly 2 million bottles. More than 70% of the stored wines are red, 20% are white and about 10% are dessert wines. The most valuable items of this collection, worth €480 a bottle, were produced in 1973–74; they are now exported only to Japan.

In the center of the cellar is a restaurant and the tasting room. We had a nice table set up for us to taste 3 wines: a wine, red and dessert wine. There was a nice selection of appetizers too. We made Dris proud by finishing all the wine!

The whole tour and tasting took about 2 hours and we all enjoyed it. We did have an opportunity to visit their store and quite a few of us bought a bottle or two of wine. I got a Sauvignon for 29 Lei ($1.75!!).

So it was a happy group that headed back to our soviet hell hole hotel.

There were no specific dinner plans; everyone did their own thing. We walked down to a supermarket (by taking a "tunnel of death" under the busy road--it was an old, nasty, deteriorating tunnel) where we bought some snacks and munchies. On the way back, we decided to risk running across the busy road instead of taking the tunnel of death again. As we were heading down the hallway to our room, we passed Tommy and Bjorn's room--the door was open and a small group was having a wine drinking party. We were invited in so I got my wine and we joined in. That's when we found out that SOME people had a fan at least...although the oscillating fan was broken in the middle and Margaret had to hold it to cool us down. We decided that, since nothing worked properly, it must have been a comrade's job to oscillate in the soviet days... yep, with all the various wines flowing, it did get a bit silly but we had lots of laughs. Paddy had 2 gigantic (like 3 liters each) bottles of beer that he put away--that man can drink! Then, we found out the next morning, when the party broke up around midnight, Paddy got a cab to a pub and stayed out until 3am doing vodka shots with Moldovans! I'm pretty sure he has a drinking problem!

At least this was the last night in the sweltering room but there was little sleep. Tomorrow--on to another country.

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