CHISINAU, MOLDOVA — Last year, my French friend Claude told me there were wine caves you could drive through in Moldova that had extraordinary wine collections. I like wine. I like travel. I decided to see for myself. Why not? Change is good.
Few people, myself included, know much about Moldova, and fewer still have visited here. This former Soviet republic is sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine. Its two state-run wineries, Cricova and Milestii Mici, have almost 100 miles of underground winemaking and storage facilities in old limestone mines.
A few months later, I was riding in a Toyota 4Runner through those caves, one of the more surreal experiences in my life.
Moldova also has private wineries, many of which are working hard to produce vintages that appeal to Western consumers. They prefer lighter, fruitier wines over the sweet varieties favored by Russians, who are Moldova's biggest but sometimes most troublesome customers.
During a 10-day trip in the spring, I visited seven private wineries, plus the two state-run operations.
I flew into the capital city, Chisinau (Kee-shih-now), from Paris. If you are thinking of going to Romania to see Dracula's Castle or to Ukraine for those onion-domed churches, consider Moldova too. U.S. citizens don't need a visa.
Explore Chisinau, then head out to the countryside, which is filled with grapevines and green fields, lovely but very poor.
Chisinau, in the center of the country, is slowly recovering from six decades of Soviet rule. This was the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic until independence in 1991. Construction cranes dot the skyline. Billboards advertising Mercedes-Benz cars and Orange cellphones appear on streets filled with aging buses belching exhaust and sidewalks often in poor repair.
Some might find Chisinau depressing, with gray, crumbling buildings. I found it a fascinating study, modernity trying to take hold in a country still dealing with its past. I loved walking around downtown, checking out shop windows, trying to read the labels in grocery stores. (Moldovans speak Romanian -- or Russian -- or both.)
In the countryside, I saw ruddy-faced families and farmworkers driving small horse-drawn carts. Women tilled the rich Moldovan soil with hoes.
A village pension in Trebujeni served a lunch of yellow peppers stuffed with brinza, a white cheese; soup with vegetables and goat meat; cabbage leaves stuffed with rice and carrots; and mamaligia, much like my mother's Dixie corn bread, only denser. We drank the homemade wine that many Moldovans make.
Exploring the caves
The caves at Cricova and Milestii Mici are so big, 34 and 62 miles long, respectively, that you drive through in a car or ride a small electric train. With winemaker Sergeiu Galusca as our guide, my driver, translator and I took the Toyota through Milestii Mici, 12 miles southwest of Chisinau. At times, we were more than 200 feet underground.
During our tour, Galusca pushed a button and a hidden limestone door rolled open. Behind it the winery hid 10,000 bottles of the winery's best stock -- placed there during Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's anti-alcohol campaign in the mid-1980s. That effort led to the destruction of many Moldovan vineyards and threatened the winery's historic collection.
The next day, we drove to Cricova, nine miles north of the capital. Most tourists ride a little red train through the caves, but we drove the faithful Toyota with our guide.
After passing racks of sparkling wine in production, we saw Cricova's historic collection. Its oldest wine is a 1902 vintage, kept on its side under a bell jar so no one will disturb it. The collection also includes 1930s vintages that the Soviets confiscated from No. 2 Nazi Hermann Goering as World War II ended.
We toured five tasting rooms, each done in a different style. One is an opulent, official-looking room with a table seating 25 to a side. Here, our guide explained, many state documents are signed.
Use of Cricova for official events may explain why the roads leading to it are decent. Elsewhere, they are often wretched.
Tour operators say that fixing the roads, providing bathroom facilities along them and building more hotels and restaurants outside Chisinau are fundamental to encouraging visitors. (Unless you are especially adventurous or speak Romanian or Russian, use a tourist agency that can put together a complete package to Moldova.)
Wine is the country's biggest export and may be its best economic and tourism hope. "For many years, we thought our wines were the best," said Gheorghe Arpentin, president of the Union of Oenologists of Moldova and a professor at Moldova State University. "Then we got independence and we started to travel abroad. We found that our wines weren't the best." He's trying to change that.