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of monks, massages, and wine-makers

While D was away in Tbilisi, taking advantage of his work trip to see the Georgian countryside, S did a bit of traveling of her own, albeit closer to home. A good friend from our Kenya days whom S has known since grad school was flying from Nairobi to Chicago and asked if she could visit for a couple of days, instantly doubling the number of friends who have made it out to Chisinau to see us.

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At first blush, Moldova may seem like an unlikely and inconvenient stopover for someone transiting Europe en route from Africa to the United States, but in fact it is anything but. Turkish Airlines offers one of the most affordable routes between Kenya and the United States, and Chisinau is a convenient one-hour flight from Istanbul. Though we never figured on Moldova being a stopover destination, S’s friend was able to kill two birds with one stone, breaking up her long-haul flight pattern and taking advantage of the break to catch up with S.

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With our time in Chisinau rapidly ticking down, S planned an agenda full of quintessential Moldovan experiences, both to give her friend a good taste for this quietly wonderful country and to check a few items off her own must-do list. First up was a Moldovan spa, which in addition to multiple pools of different temperatures and a Jacuzzi, also featured a Turkish hammam, a mini-Russian bath, a Finnish sauna, and massage rooms. This was the first time S had tried a traditional Russian bath, which begins with a steam in a hot sauna before a vigorous whipping with birch branches and a dip in icy-cold water at the end.

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The following morning S took her friend to the central market and a local flea market for some authentic shopping. Another friend brought her young daughter, and S took Munchkin, strapping him into a back carrier, which garnered quite a few stares. Moreover, nearly every babushka commented that he must be cold and admonished S for not dressing him properly. There were gasps that he was not wearing a hat and offers to sell S one. One woman even came over to pull Munchkin’s socks up and over the bottom of his pants. Moldovans love children and the women in the dairy hall of the market could not get enough of the kids and kept offering them cheese samples to taste. In addition to a few decorative cloth napkins, chocolate butter, and salty sheep’s cheese, S also purchased a traditional broom for Munchkin. It is bigger than he is, but is is an improvement on the cleaning supplies that currently occupy so much of his attention.

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After dropping off Munchkin at home with the nanny so he could nap, Marisa and S headed back downtown for lunch, followed by a guided walking/driving tour. It was nice to go inside places that we drive by over and over, and get a better sense for the city that we’ve been calling home for over a year and a half. The tour ended just in time to find the new – but not yet open – American BBQ restaurant our friends are building. There was a surprise birthday party under way, so S got a sneak peek at the restaurant and enjoyed some classic BBQ dishes.

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The next morning S drove to Orhei to visit the Curchi monastery. According to legend, Stephen the Great founded this, Moldova’s most beautiful Eastern Orthodox monastery. The grounds include five churches, though only two appeared to be open to the public. When S asked one of the monks if it was ok to take pictures, he vehemently shook his head but then quickly reconsidered. He pointed to the donation box and put his hands over his eyes. S obliged and snapped a quick shot before leaving.

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S had planned a lunch stop at the Chateau Vartely winery to give her friend a chance to sample local wines and cuisine before taking her on a tour of Cricova’s wine tunnels. The brief lunch stop was anything but, and S and Marisa almost missed the tour. S had visited Cricova with her mom almost a year ago, and she did not want her friend to miss out on this uniquely Moldovan experience. Cricova boasts more than one million bottles of wine in its vintage collection, all of it stored in underground tunnels. After some pleading, S and her friend were allowed to enter the underground passage to catch up with the tour group, which had already left without them.  

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The last day of the visit, S drove out to Tipova monastery, which is carved into the stones on the bank of the Nistru River some 2 hours north of Chisinau. It is one of Moldova’s oldest monasteries. After a nice, leisurely walk along the river, S and her friend ducked and clambered through the caves before retreating out of the fierce wind and into the car for a picnic lunch. It snowed the next day, an unexpected mid-March surprise that accompanied Marisa’s departure.

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We have just about five months left in Moldova, so it’s not too late to plan a visit, especially if you enjoy wine, ancient monasteries, and the best hospitality Eastern Europe has to offer.

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