Visiting Moldova, one of the least-visited and unhappy countries in the world
Vicki Kirker and Paul Heath love nothing more than venturing into far-flung corners of the earth, but they recently found themselves 17,000 kilometres from home in an obscure part of Eastern Europe that most of us have never heard of.
"We experienced things you couldn't make up if you tried," laughs Paul, aged 65. "And that is exactly why we love travelling."
The Wellington couple is back home after an awe-inspiring trip to Gagauzia, a sliver of land three towns long that is so remote tourism has yet to gain a foothold.
It's an autonomous region of Moldova, a landlocked country between Romania and Ukraine that is renowned for being the second-least visited country in the world (behind Kiribati, nation of 33 coral atolls surrounded by thousands of nautical miles of Pacific Ocean).
Forget "off the beaten track", Moldova, which has a population roughly the size of New Zealand, doesn't even know the track exits. It's an enigma of a country, where most of its residents are tri-lingual – speaking Russian, Romanian and a critically endangered tongue, Gagauz.
Flanking it one side is the self-proclaimed state of Transnistria, another forgotten kingdom, which has its own government, army and colourful plastic currency - but isn't recognised by the United Nations.
"We love visiting places unspoilt by tourism, and seeing how the other half live," says Paul.
SHARED LOVE OF INTREPID TRAVEL
Travel cemented Vicki and Paul's relationship when they met online in 2006. "I saw his profile online and he said he loved travelling and I was like, 'yep, you'll do'," laughs Vicki, 63.
After marrying in 2010, the couple journeyed to intrepid places like Egypt, Jordon, Albania, Guatemala, Kenya, the Arctic, Botswana and Myanmar.
"We both still work fulltime so we can travel," explains Paul. "There's no point waiting till you retire, we might be dead by then."
Adds Vicki: "We love travelling in small groups and going unusual places other tourists don't go."
Moldova definitely falls into that category. Mention its name and most people will say, 'Moldwhere?' Last decade it was famously named the 'least happy place in the world, in the bestseller, The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World, and it's considered to be one of the poorest countries in Europe.
Perhaps that explains why Moldova received only 11,500 visitors in 2015, a tenth of the number who travelled to tiny Bhutan, isolated high in the Himalayas.
Once under the control of Russia, Moldova declared its independence and took its name after the collapse of the Soviet Union in August 1991.
Its visitors enter a strange time warp as Lenin marble busts frown down from above, and trendy bars, café and restaurants slowly spring up in its capital, Chisinau. Only a three-hour flight from London, the world may be starting to wake up to mysterious Moldova, with its old-world charm, fascinating history, unspoilt scenery and world-class wine tours.
EERIE WASTELANDS OF CHERNOBYL
For adventure travellers Vicki and Paul, the draw-card to Eastern Europe was the eerie wastelands of Chernobyl - less than an hour's flight from Moldova.
"A lot of our friends couldn't get their head around the idea of us heading to Chernobyl as a destination, they thought we were mad," says Paul.
"But it was only opened to tourists in 2011, and we wanted to tread where few had been before us."
The meltdown at the Soviet plant in 1986 was the worst nuclear disaster in history, officially killing few than 50 people although the World Health Organisation predicts the death toll from radiation exposure could run as high as 4000 as more cases of inter-generational cancer emerge.
In a growing phenomena known as 'dark tourism', about 10,000 visitors a year visit Chernobyl's 50km radius contamination exclusion zone and its surrounding ghost towns.
Vicki and Paul say although it was a sobering experience, it was fascinating to be part of history. The nearby town of Pripyat had 60,000 residents who had two hours to evacuate after the explosion.
"We saw dolls in the preschool, desks in classrooms, an empty swimming pool, an abandoned amusement park," says Vicki.
The radiation levels have dropped enough to allow visitors into the exclusion zone, but remain ten times higher than normal levels. Because of the risk, the couple went through three security points to get into the exclusion zone, and was told to not touch anything, eat or drink, or even sit on the ground.
"We saw catfish in the river as big as sharks, after they explosion they were left with no predators and apparently grew due to the radioactive material in the water," says Paul.
While some areas have been looted, others remain untouched except for the trees and vegetation that have sprung up over time. "It's like nature is taking the city back again," says Paul.
GLIMPSE OF MOLDOVAN HISTORY
In Moldova, the couple visited the country's most important historical site, Orheiul Vechi, a crumbling open-air monastery that is a UNESCO heritage site.
Vicki says they were enthralled by the complex, which includes eerie caves, carved into the steep limestone cliffs by monks 800 years ago.
The area's small archaeological museum houses artefacts unearthed on the vast site, such as ceramics, headstones from the Ottoman Empire, and fragments of statuettes. To get to there, it was an hour's uphill walk for Vicki and Paul, through the village of Butuceni.
Along the way, they saw traditional homesteads, brightly coloured like quaint gingerbread houses, and each family used every inch of available land to plant in vegetable gardens. Vicki and Paul were offered ice-cold water drawn from the village well, and passed locals still using a horse and cart. "It was like stepping back in time," says Vicki.
Another highlight for the couple was a visit to the winery, Chisinau Milestii Mici, which apparently houses a staggering million bottles of wine – placing it in the 2005 Guinness Book of Records for the biggest wine collection in the world, much of it in barrels prepared from Crimean and Krasnodar oak.
Like an underground wine city, the network of galleries stretches a staggering 200km – it's so vast many of the underground passages even have street names, and you can travel through them by bus or car.
While much of the world has no knowledge of Moldova, it's a country that's firmly placed its pin in the world map for wine-lovers, even being named by Bloomberg as The World's Next Big Wine Region.
It's considered to be the 22nd biggest wine producer in the world, and exported 90 percent of its produce to Russia until a diplomatic dispute in 2006 disrupted business. According to the World Health Organisation, Moldova is also the second booziest nation on earth (behind Belarus) with each person over the age of 15 drinking 16.8 litres a year.
Vicki and Paul say they returned from mysterious Moldova with their eyes wide open to a part of world few get to see. "We saw no other tourists, apart from our group of 12. We got lots of funny stares, and we spent a lot of our time pleasantly surprised," says Paul.
"Isn't that what it's all about? We don't go away to holiday, we go away to travel and have an adventure somewhere new."
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