You finally escaped the crowds in Europe. Moldova isn’t just off the beaten path, it isn’t even on the path yet. The landlocked country, wedged between Romania and Ukraine, is the least visited country on the entire continent. You arrived in Chişinău, the small capital, to find Soviet-style buildings, beautiful parks, and few tourists. Nearby wineries, which have recently started receiving worldwide acclaim, are even quieter. So as you head north, toward Moldova’s most important historic site, you start to wonder if you’ll have it all to yourself.
Orhei was first settled more than 2,000 years ago. The city along the Răut River has been invaded and annexed, destroyed and rebuilt many times over by everyone from the Dacians and the Crimean Tatars to the Bessarabians and the Russians. It only became part of newly independent Moldova in 1991. The modern city is centered around the tobacco and wine industries. Orheiul Vechi, the old city, is ten miles to the north.
Orheiul Vechi is part open-air museum, part archaeological complex, and part ecclesiastical compound. Ruins, fortifications, and monasteries cover the site. Caves continue to be discovered underground. Plus UNESCO is considering giving it designated status. It sounds daunting and overcrowded. In reality, it’s neither.
Begin your tour at the Orheiul Vechi Exhibition Center, a small museum that houses pottery fragments, old weapons, and, most importantly, maps of the extensive site. Pass a World War II memorial on your way to the cave monastery. Orthodox monks built the impressive monastery inside a cliff in the 13th century, while a small bell tower and a single cross are the only indications of what’s below. Further along the ridge, you find the whitewashed Orthodox Church that was dedicated to the Ascension of St. Mary upon completion in 1905. The Soviets shut down both the monastery and the church in the 1940s. Daily services are now held at both.
After exploring the remnants of a 15th-century defensive wall, the relics of the Tatar baths, and some of the recently opened caves, it’s time for a glass of wine. Drive through the vineyards to find Château Vartely, a hillside winery where stone walls surround the property and dark wood fills the gorgeous tasting room. The tour is detailed and extensive. Tastings of citrusy Sauvignon Blanc, spiced Fetească Neagră, and an intense blend of Malbec, Syrah, and Rară Neagră follow it. Take your favorite wine, an elegant Merlot-Cabernet Sauvignon blend, out on the terrace to enjoy the views of Orhei and the river. It’s gorgeous, peaceful, and completely devoid of crowds. For now.