With Transnistria behind us, I and my friend and work colleague in crime Michele plodded forth in my twelve-year-old tank of a Peugeot back to Denmark. We had three days ahead of us to get back to Denmark before work on Monday and didn’t want to lose a second of adventure going back.
While Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, may have given me a bad taste, I felt that Moldova deserved a second chance. Maybe the countryside would be better. Bucolic hills, cows grazing in pastures, and rolling vineyards with rosy-cheeked mustached men sipping wine. So we drove North about two hours from Tiraspol, towards Orhei: the wine capital of Moldova.
Haven’t heard of Moldovan wine? That’s alright — they get guzzled up by the Russians and Poles with only the occasional barrel making it past Berlin. Yet wine has been enjoyed here for millennia. Moldova is the 11th largest wine producer in Europe by volume and at one point 12th in the world, which is pretty impressive for a country its size. Flavor-wise, they are similar to other Romanian and Eastern European wines, coming mainly in sweet varieties but also offering fairly delicious bolder flavored red varieties and contrasting fruity whites. That’s about all I can pretend to know about wine.
But the Moldovans know an awful lot about the burgundy sipping syrup. They even market it as one of the main reasons to visit Moldova. They want to be the next unknown wine destination, the next Georgia. But we would soon learn that there is work to be done in this ambitious undertaking.
Orhei, the cheery-eyed wine capital of Moldova, was unbelievably dreary. Dead trees lined grey streets, the sky grey from smog of the fumes of countless depressed souls and factory plumes. Our stay, a winery cum fancy hotel that we got a room for half off in low-season, was located just a quick drive up the hill. To get there, we had to weave through local neighborhoods with shivering shaded faces eyeing our Danish licence plate probably thinking “what are these idiots doing out here?”
Indeed, I’m not sure either. We pulled into our wine stay, in a parking lot filled with several expensive Russian plated Mercedes’ of local oligarchs and my rusty Peugeot. Even the attendant at check-in seemed confused by our arrival. Maybe she thought we would have cancelled, having seen the village. Am I being too harsh? I don’t know, you go to Moldova and let me know.
“Checking in?” The nice attendent said, looking at us behind large plastic frame glasses. “So that will be two rooms, and you still need to pay $120.”
“No, I only booked one room.” I said back, thinking she was trying to grift me.
“No… our reservation says two rooms. You are four people, correct?”
“Just us two. I booked a room with two beds.” I showed her my email confirming the reservation.
“You two…” her confused eyes peered through her glasses at the two traveling gentlemen of ambiguous sexual orientation in front of her. “You want to share a room? Together?” The concept was absolutely foreign to her. I suppose she thought our girlfriends were outside taking selfies, waiting for their men to get the hotel room keys. Homosexuality is still pretty taboo out here, but when two gentlemen appear at your romantic vineyard getaway at the beginning of winter, I can understand her suspicions.
After clearing up the misunderstanding, she gave us the room I had booked online. She took us out to see it, the bottom floor of a nice two-story log cabin hut. Across the way were the wine facility (more like a factory) and restaurant, the plume of industry looming over our cute little hut. “Are you sure this will be okay?” She wanted to give us one more opportunity to escape before calling the cops to report that two men had a serious case of gays.
What we did next was the straightest thing two men could do together: take baths, sit in our bathrobes, and drink two bottles of red wine gossiping and watching Moldovan soap operas before going to dinner together.
So is Moldovan wine good? Yes. It does its job, and in a way that doesn’t suck. The wine is actually pretty tasty, and I’m no wine expert but I could definitely find some notes of blackberry and bouginess. But is it worth a trip to Moldova? If you’re in the area, may as well pop in for a class of Fetească neagră on your way out.
The wine is fantastic, but it feels as if this establishment is trying to hard to be like wine tours in France or Northern California. The rock-hewn architecture of the place looked like something straight out of Napa or Margaret Valley. When I drunkenly rode a rented bicycle up the highway during a Mendoza wine vineyard hop with a rocket scientist, I felt like I was in Argentina. When I went into the basements to shoot back clay cups of sweet red wine in Georgia, I felt like I was in Georgia. But when I sat in this gigantic modern building eating coq au vin served by a waiter in a bow tie, I didn’t feel like I was in Moldova. The quality of the wine is there, but perhaps they just need to embrace their Moldovaness to really make the wine stand out. If I had a babushka serve me wine in a barn covered in hay, or have wine drunk straight from the bottle with a cigarette smoking farmer with the constant fear of being mugged, I would have probably had a much more unique experience. Filling up a plastic bottle with cheap wine at the grocery store in Romania felt like a Romanian experience, so all I want is for Moldova to really take this beautiful wine to the next level. I hope they can do it.
Michele and I, once again having gotten a bit too drunk, had to sleep off the alcohol for a long drive ahead. The next day would be another beast, driving up to the Polish-Ukrainian border. A nine-hour journey on good roads, but as I’ve said before, Ukrainian roads are some of the worst I’ve seen. As we crossed back over into Ukraine, I felt a bit of weight come off my shoulders. I was unable to connect with Moldova at all. Transnistria was a different story, with locals showing us nothing but warmth and curiosity. Moldova felt oppressed and unhappy. The happiest person in the country was me, as I was leaving.
Usually, I can find redeeming qualities in countries I don’t enjoy. Of the 70+ countries I’ve had the amazing privilege to visit, only a few stand out as countries I would not return to. Brunei, Azerbaijan, and the UAE jump out at me immediately. Yet they all have a redeeming quality, and while they wouldn’t be my first destination to return to, there are still reasons to go back. Brunei, while I can not agree with their ruling party, has some of the warmest people I’ve met. Azerbaijan is stunningly gorgeous, and the UAE is just an interesting example of what people can do when they have way too much money. But I regret to report that I can not find a redeeming quality to return to Moldova. There are no stones I feel I left unturned, no remaining questions. And as an inquisitive traveler, this worries me. Have I become jaded, or is there really nothing to redeem Moldova? I suppose the wine was pretty delicious, and if you really want to go as far off the beaten path as possible, then Moldova is the place for you.
Western Ukraine is not particularly attractive either, but the cute towns with forested hills and lovely Ukrainian locals make it worth the drive. Towns seem to have a bit of charm, even if they are dreary and un-updated since the collapse of the iron curtain. In the dark, driving is another story. I had to drive my absolute slowest, not able to see the gargantuan potholes in the un-lit streets. I definitely gave my car, Sasquatch, a bit more bumps and bruises than it was used to on the flat roads of Denmark. But we made it to our destination, on the border with Poland and Ukraine in a mountain resort town. The air was brisk, and we got into the hotel restaurant just before closing. Some Kyiv residents, also spending the night, asked us what on Earth could have possibly brought us here. They were in town on a friend reunion, and could not see why two foreigners would come this far out. My answer was it was cheap and close-ish to the highway. I hope they are well.
Our second to last leg of the journey was to be a bit more relaxed. We only had to cross Poland to get to the German border. We pushed forward, stopping briefly in Tarnow for me to go to the climbing gym and grab some lunch of grandma-cooked bland food from an iconic Milk Bar. After pushing on, we finally made it to the Western Polish town of Bolesławiec.
The town, like all Polish towns I’ve been to, was absolutely adorable. A small square lined with ornately decorated and reconstructed buildings, cute restaurants, and a surprisingly lively vibe. We were walking around, and all of a sudden I realized that everyone was speaking English with American accents. Why were there so many Americans here? Certainly, this town was not on the tourist map.
Yet as we walked, I was getting visibly irritated having to listen to contrite conversations by Americans going out to get drunk in a Polish city (I was there for the same reason, so I know I can’t say much). We sat at a restaurant to eat some goulash, and I noticed an older man, an American, eating alone at the table next to us. He ordered an entire duck, polished it in the amount of time I ate my small bowl of goulash, and when the waiter came to ask if he wanted anything more the only word he uttered was a gruff: “Dessert.”
Where were we? Why is this cute Polish town swarming with single American men? I got my answer from the bartender at a bar next door. “Why are there so many goddamn Americans?!” I pleaded for her to give me a reasonable answer.
With a smile, she said “The military!” Lo and behold, on the map just south of town was an American military base just about the same size as the entire town itself. Now it made sense, all of these young buff American men running around with money to burn in their pockets and a desire to let off some steam. As we walked home, I noticed the still-sober Polish locals shaking their heads in disgust at two American soldiers pissing on the street, completely inebriated beyond saving at 10 PM. I couldn’t help but feel a bit ashamed to watch my tax dollars literally being pissed onto the streets of Poland, but I suppose those who work hard also need to play hard.
The next day we woke bright and early for the final leg of our journey, across Germany and back to Aarhus, Denmark. It felt as though we had fit a month’s worth of experiences and travel into one week, but I suppose that’s exactly what happens when you force your way through half a continent in just 3 days.
What I didn’t know at the time was that this would be my final European roadtrip for the foreseable future, and certainly the last fortunate view of a peaceful Ukraine for now. I can only hope that this story will be a testament to the transformative force of being able to travel across Europe, and the tremendous value this undertaking has on those who take it. One of the greatest parts about an open Europe is that people of different backgrounds, languages, and cultures can easily pass over their neighbors borders and have the ability to see and learn from a different way of life. If we keep partitioning off our little invisible lines in the sand, we just become xenophobic and fearful of the people that act and talk in a similar but slightly different fashion just over the hills. While Moldova and I did not connect, I thank them and the people of Transnistria, Ukraine, Poland, and Germany for safe passage through and for sharing all that they have to offer with me. I only hope that those who quest for freedom will have what they fight so hard for soon.
Hello darlings! Thank you so much for taking the time to read my rambles. I’ve made some life changes, and have recently moved back to the United States from Denmark after eight years.
This, however, will not stop the rambling!
Currently I’ve been taking a break from the road to cook up more good content for you all. If you can do me a favor and like or share if you enjoyed the article, it will really help me to grow the platform and get these stories to more folks.
Thanks and stay curious!