When you think of the iconic Europe experience, the country of Moldova isn't the first to come to mind — if it comes to mind at all. In fact, the country, sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine, is one of the least visited destinations on the Continent, and yet it could be an intriguing match for travelers looking for something truly unique in these days of rampant, and much talked about, overtourism.
"We're always looking for new places that are off the beaten path, and when looking at Europe, Moldova represents so much mystery because it's relatively unknown to the world," said Michael Sadowski, head of marketing and communication for North America at the Intrepid Group, the Australia-based company that specializes in small-group adventure tours.
Visiting the country is like entering a time capsule to the Soviet era, Sadowski said, and is particularly interesting to visitors who are fascinated by the distinctive, if unpretty, architecture of that period as well as Moldova's rich and tumultuous history.
This is especially true of Transnistria, a breakaway republic within Moldova that isn't recognized as a separate country by the United Nations but operates more or less autonomously and retains much of its Soviet-era cultural identity.
Sadowski is quick to point out, however, that Soviet style — including old Russian cars on the streets and hammer-and-sickle flags freely displayed — doesn't mean unappetizing food and unfriendly locals. In fact, although they are unused to visitors, people are welcoming, and Intrepid activities there include caviar tastings and visits to a brandy distillery, where tour participants can interact with producers.
As to the rest of Moldova, another important draw is its growing reputation as a wine destination. Previously a supplier for much of the Soviet Union, the country is now reverting to more traditional, artisanal production, focusing on quality. Tour participants will be able to taste wines and meet vintners as well as try local varietals at wine bars, which are just beginning to crop up.
Throughout the tour, the emphasis is on dining at local restaurants, visiting little-known attractions with English-speaking local guides and, above all, fostering connections with Moldovans, Sadowski said.
The tour, called Moldova, Ukraine & Romanian Explorer, begins in Bucharest, Romania, and ends in Kiev, Ukraine, and includes experiences in all three countries, ranging from the more straightforward like a boat ride along the Danube Delta in Romania and visits to monasteries and fortresses to the more adventurous, like a daytrip to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
The company is also transparent about possible risks inherent in the Transnistria and Chernobyl portions of the trip, due to some level of political instability in the former and possible lingering radiation in the latter. That said, tour participants are supported by tour leaders, and for travelers who aren't especially risk-averse, these could be the highlights of the trip.
The 12-night itinerary is priced from $2,435 per person, land only, and while it's clearly not for everyone, Sadowski is quick to point out that the trip doesn't include some of the traditional outdoor pursuits that some other Intrepid adventures are known for and required only an average level of fitness.
"We are a reflection of the broadening definition of adventure travel. For some people a cooking class in Italy is an adventure. In this case, we mean cultural adventure," he said.