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A Plunge into the Past at Historic Old Orhei, Moldova

  • Iana Malikovskaya and Ethan Gelber
  • 23 November 2009

Moldova doesn’t quite have the prominent profile of the big and magnificent European republics. However, despite its more modest stature and reputation, it is well known for its calm, nature, hospitability and the preserved ancient traditions kept in nearly every home.

Moldova's Old Orhei is dominated by impressive limestone promontories chiselled into place by a sweeping S-curve of the Răut River

Moldova's Old Orhei is dominated by impressive limestone promontories chiselled into place by a sweeping S-curve of the Răut River

Visiting the Past

Moldova’s very rich history is perhaps best reflected in its historical places, foremost of which is the archaeological and open-air museum complex of Old Orhei – a collection of historical monuments set in a stunning natural space – located approximately 60 kilometres northeast of Chisinau, the capital of Moldova. Also known as Orheiul Vechi (in Moldovan) or Staryi Orhei (in Russian), Old Orhei is dominated by impressive limestone promontories chiselled into place by a sweeping S-curve of the Răut River.

More than just eye-catching natural features, they are also the focus of most visitors as they are riddled with hand-carved caves and small natural grottoes, some of which were turned into monasteries by early Christians who enlarged those originally shaped by prehistoric tribes. Although these cave monasteries can be visited at any time of year, they are most interesting during Christian holidays.

The oldest cave monasteries of Old Orhei, Moldova, are believed first to have been used in the 4th century

The oldest cave monasteries of Old Orhei, Moldova, are believed first to have been used in the 4th century

Old Orhei is also home to the ruins of several large manmade structures. The oldest of these began as a Gaetic fortress in the third century BC. More impressive are the remains of the medieval fortress that surmounted what was once the main entrance of Old Orhei. This stone bastion replaced a wooden one after the Golden Horde of Mongol Tatars conquered the original Orhei and renamed the town Shehr-al-Djeid, meaning ‘new city’. Although some vestiges of these Tartar times are on display in the history museum of Old Orhei, the most impressive reminders of this period are the ruins of their feredeus (Oriental baths) and the khan.

Old Orhei takes its name from new town established after the Mongol occupation ended. When, in the 16th century, a new Orhei (which still exists today) was established 18km to the north, the old Orhei fell into ruin, but was bestowed its original medieval name by archaeologists.

Very near Old Orhei is a small Moldovan village of small houses, tidy gardens and big families. Visitors are welcomed into the casa mare (the biggest and best room) of any house, where they are introduced to Moldovan hospitability and an ancient way of life. Busy modern pressures are set aside when Moldovan food is served here, accompanied by homemade wine. Meals are usually taken in the open air and often followed by a folk concert with Moldovan national songs and dances.

The placid pace of Moldovan village life, the respect and love for age-old traditions, the unmeasured hospitability and of course the preservation of a rich past combine to make discovery of Old Orhei a highlight of any visit to Moldova.

Casa din Luncais is a rural boarding house located on a farm in Trebujeni village, right on the Răut River

Casa din Lunca is a rural boarding house located on a farm in Trebujeni village, right on the Răut River

A Good Night Sleep

Although the majority of visitors to Old Orhei chooses accommodation in Chisinau and visits the museum complex as a day trip, two overnight options are located very nearby and represent superb rural alternative lodging.

Casa din Lunca is a boarding house located in Trebujeni village on a farm owned and managed by the Benzin family, and set along the Răut River just 18km from Old Orhei. A one-day overnight stay includes opportunities to go horseback riding, help with the farming and beekeeping, and join cooks in the kitchen preparing tradition Moldavian dishes.

A step up in luxury is the ‘Chateau Vartely’ tourist complex. Located at the top of Orhei hill, its four residential structures provide the latest in hotel comfort against the picturesque backdrop of the views over Old Orhei and the valley of the Răut River. The name ‘Vartely’ (from the Hungarian word ‘var’, meaning ‘castle’) was chosen because it is believed to be the name of one of the oldest towns of Orhei. While the Chateau is known primarily for its production of premium-class wines grown from some of Europe’s best vineyards, it also focuses on providing top-quality experiences for visitors interested in learning about Moldovan traditions.

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Iana Malikovskaya is a Moldavian certified guide who works as a part-time leader for the whl.travel local connection in Moldova. She is also a teacher at Moldavian State University.

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For more information about Moldova, including accommodations, tours, activities and lots of insider tips, contact the team from Uniglobe Slavion Travel at www.travel-chisinau.com.

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architecture & landmarks, caves, holy sites, human interests, local knowledge, Moldova,

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