48 hours in Moldova
After visiting us in Nairobi, a friend jokingly suggested that we should print concert-style t-shirts featuring the places we have served as a memento for those of our friends and family members who visit us at every one of our postings. In Kenya, we had hosted visitors nearly every month. Moldova, though easier to reach from the United States, has proved a much quieter assignment, and the potential pool of t-shirt recipients has dwindled from several dozen to just two for now. In addition to S’s mom, thus far only our friend Cam has visited us in both Nairobi and Chisinau.
Cam’s visit was a product of a happy coincidence that enabled him to tack a visit to Moldova onto another itinerary. This also made his stopover in Chisinau very brief. We had only two days to work with, and we planned to spend one of them in Tiraspol, on the other side of the Nistru River. We tried to cram as many uniquely Moldovan experiences into Cam’s short visit as we could. For dinner, some local friends suggested a restaurant that features not only traditional Moldovan cuisine, but also the country’s folk dress and music.
Naturally, no visit to Moldova is complete without a tour of one of the country’s several notable wineries. We chose to take Cam to Mileștii Mici not so much for the quality of the wine, which is mediocre compared to a number of other Moldovan wines, but for the uniqueness of the experience. Opened in the late 1960’s to preserve and mature the Soviet Union’s high-quality wines, Mileștii Mici is located entirely underground in what was once a limestone quarry.
We waited just outside the cavernous entrance until an English-speaking guide could be located. She sat in the car with us and recounted the history of Mileștii Mici in rapid-fire, clipped English, pausing her narrative to give directions as we drove through the maze of underground tunnels. More than 200 kilometers of passageways comprise the subterranean Mileștii Mici complex. “Only” 55 kilometers are used for wine production and storage, but that is still more than enough to earn the winery a double citation in the Guinness Book of World Records for largest underground winery with the most extensive wine collection in the world.
After driving past innumerable mammoth casks, we disembarked and walked around the wine cellar housing the so-called golden collection. Here we learned about one of the more peculiar chapters in the winery’s history. When Gorbachev rose to power in 1985, one of the first reforms he implemented was an anti-alcohol campaign that sought to curb rampant alcoholism in the USSR. The initiative mainly succeeded in driving alcohol production to the black market and was quickly abandoned after putting a dent in the government budget while failing to diminish consumption.
The campaign may have been a failure, but it was pursued vigorously during its initial rollout. In Moldova, which produced the bulk of the Soviet Union’s quality wines, vineyards were razed and existing stocks of wine, vodka, and cognac destroyed by state inspectors in Prohibition-esque raids. The workers at Mileștii Mici endeavored to preserve their most prized wines and built a false stone wall into one of the underground cellar rooms, thus saving about 50,000 of the highest-quality bottles while smashing the rest to show their compliance with the Politburo’s directives.
We ended Cam’s first night at a pool hall, playing Russian billiards. If ever a game embodied a people’s psyche, then this is it. As in traditional pocket billiards, the object of Russian pool is to sink the balls into one of six table pockets. The twist is that while the table and balls are both considerably larger than in the American version of the game, the pockets are actually smaller. In fact, the corner pockets are only 4-5 millimeters wider than the balls. It is a soul-crushing game for all but the most skilled.