So if you’ve followed DSL the last 7 years or so you might be aware of some of the completely ridiculous untouristy places I’ve ended up in. I’m talking about this ten for starters:
1. Bruny Island – remote island off south east Tasmania
2. Shahr e Kord – unknown mountain village in Iran
3. Portbraddon – Atlantic coast hamlet in Northern Ireland
4. Santa Ana Alta – pure rural Colombia
5. Jin Ji Cun – remote village near equally remote Luoping, China
6. Joya de Ceren – very remote UNESCO site in El Salvador
7. Amadiya – amazing mountain town in Iraq
8. Xinying – crazy city in Taiwan
9. Barrientos Island – the day I arrived in Antarctica
10. Osterweddingen – rural east Germany
Well those were all great and often I was the only tourist but I kind of made those places out to be more “off the beaten track” (forgive the overuse of the phrase please) than they were. The truth is there were 130 of us at Barrientos in Antarctica in 2010 and at least 3 others at Portbraddon. This time in deepest Moldova it was really just me…
A lonely Northern Irishman out in the middle of nowhere on a mission to tour Orheiul Vechi a backpacking in Moldova adventure to say the least. And I’m not doing this for me. I don’t travel for myself anymore. I travel 1/3 for myself, 1/3 for travelling Hong Kong girl Panny Yu and perhaps more emphatically I now travel 1/3 for YOU. At least a third. I go to places I want my readers, fellow travellers and other bloggers/ writers to see too. I do my best to do the hard work to make travelling easier for others and write about it so you can get to these places too.
So on a drab dreary dark lonely Wednesday morning in a Moldovan November I awoke in the Tapok Hostel in Chisinau on a mission to visit Orheiul Vechi Monastery. To backpack it, to explore it and to write about it. I follow a few other travel blogs, but only the real ones, genuine travellers (none of your “2 weeks in Thailand and Laos and I’m a hardcore backpacker bollocks”) and I read that two of my favourite other travel writers had also been to Moldova and covered their visit here to Orheiul Vechi. Katie Aune has an amazing site and story and is a proper hard working traveller who visited Moldova on her ex-USSR country hopping mission a few years back.
It was now my turn to write about Orheiul Vechi, here goes, it was an incredible journey.
Getting to Orheiul Vechi from Chisinau
OK so this will change all the time so rather than tell you bus times etc. I’ll tell you my journey. The buses I took that day were different to Johnny, Katie and that old backpackers bible the Lonely Planet. I headed to the main bus station in Chisinau at 9.30am.
It’s all a bit crazy and disorganised, mayhemic and confusing and reminded me a bit of bus stations in Azerbaijan and China. Signs on the front of buses yes but no real order to them (apart from the set platforms inside and in front of the station itself).
The buses to and from Orheiul Vechi do not leave from inside the station so don’t go inside. Enjoy the madness outside and keep asking people for a bus to Orheiul Vechi.
It turns out there are 2 or 3 each day and they leave when the driver wants to. I found my bus which said on it Orheiul Vechi.
I double checked with the driver if this bus took me straight to the monastery and he confirmed that it did and I trusted him. I also got the price which was 26 Lei (about £1.10). The bus wasn’t yet full so I went to grab a takeaway coffee to bring on board.
Please note that you need a bus direct to the monastery. There is no point getting a bus to somewhere nearby then having to walk, hitch hike or pray that you find another bus there. Don’t get on a bus to Orhei either – the name seems and sounds similar but it’s a different town.
I got my coffee, boarded my bus and it became almost full and left at 10.20am.
On the way out of Chisinau we picked up more passengers at random stops. About an hour and 10 mins later I was dropped off at Orheiul Vechi. I was the only tourist on the bus and the only tourist at Orheiul Vechi and you will be too probably.
On the way off the bus you pay the driver the 26 Lei. He also told me and wrote down the times of the buses back to Chisinau. You’re in the middle of nowhere so you don’t want to get stranded. The buses back were 12.05 and 16.00. Great – that means after seeing the monastery there is nothing else I can do until 4 pm I thought!!
It was now 11.30 and I knew touring the cave monastery and walking back for the 12.05 bus was a no goer and a stupid idea so I was “stuck here” until 4 pm.
As things worked out out in the end this was a pretty incredible day of travel and I’ll write about my other experience in Butuceni on its own. First up, it was the walk to the monastery. As I see it there are 4 things to check out at Orheiul Vechi monastery before heading down the hill into the village of Butuceni.
1. Church (Ascension of St. Mary)
At the very top of the hill you will see the church which is dedicated to the Ascension of St. Mary. The church was predictably shut down by the Soviets in 1944 and remained abandoned throughout the communist regime. Services resumed in 1996, though it still looks abandoned. Archaeologists have uncovered remnants of a defence wall surrounding the monastery complex dating back to the 15th century.
There are some staff working in the church – just knock on the door and they will let you in. No charge but you can leave a donation. It’s a pretty church in a nice surrounding at the top of the lonely hill.
I went inside the church and there are some cool murals on the walls, something quite similar to the monasteries in Bucovina Romania.
2. Cave Monastery
The highlight is the cave monastery. Basically head to the Bell Tower and go in the lower door. It should be open, unless it’s a Monday (I have heard that it is closed on a Monday).
In this cave I met Vasil who is a cool guy but also a bit of a crazy God worshipper and this is his lifestyle here in Orheiul Vechi – he lives in this place. Vasil and I spoke in German as he speaks zero English and me zero Moldovan. He spent some time living in Germany so that was cool. I learned that the cave monastery looks like a man’s face in the rock side when viewed from afar.
One of the rooms out the back has bats in it. It wasn’t clear to me what the room was originally used for, presumably shelters or sleeping quarters for religious people who came here.
3. Admire the Views
The views of the countryside here are remote, inspiring and sublime. Photo time 😉
4. Grave on the Hill
There is a curious stone cross tombstone – a grave on the hill. It makes for an eerie feeling seeing the world behind it and a breeze blowing by.
After checking out those four things I headed down into the village of Butuceni. The cave monastery reminded me of Kandovan in Iran, Goreme in Turkey and Davit Gareja/ Uplistsikhe in Georgia. I had an incredible day out in the end with some truly inspirational spontaneous travel memories and the follow up story appears in my Butuceni post.
Here are my videos from touring Orheiul Vechi: