Originally it was Poland, then Estonia, and now we – that is my sister and I – have been defeated by Moldova. You could put it down to our upbringing in Yorkshire: give us dark, curious buildings and heavy stews and we are happy.
Moldova, a small former Soviet state in Southeastern Europe, was a surprise. All I knew was that it has a fantastic reputation for wine and that the capital, Chisinau, is more cosmopolitan than you might think.
It features trendy bars and restaurants that blend into a beautiful mix of Orthodox churches, parks, 19th-century Art Nouveau buildings and Stalinist architecture.
Orthodox face: The Nativity Cathedral in Chisinau, the cosmopolitan capital of Moldova
Sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine, Moldova gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1992. The main language is Romanian (in the interwar period a large part of the country was part of Romania), but almost everyone we met spoke perfect English. “We learned from watching Dallas,” said a young woman.
Diana Isac, from wine and travel website Winemaker, was our guide for the weekend and showed us the best of Moldovan art, fashion and food.
Chisinau was founded in 1436 as a monastery village. We spent a day exploring the sights, including the Triumphal Arch, the 19th-century Nativity Cathedral and the home of the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin.
As a fan of brutalist architecture, I also wondered about the Soviet era Government House, National Opera and Ballet Theater and the President’s House (guarded by scary guards).
Non-carnivores can get a hold of Eastern Europe, but the Moldovan diet is mostly plant-based, since they had to pick and preserve everything from the fields in recent centuries. Puff pastry is king here, so pack loose clothing.
We loved the black rabbit in loft style (blackrabbit.md), all light wood and green (reminiscent of the early days of Shoreditch), with its savory mushroom cappuccino soup and black ravioli.
Trendy Parol (facebook.com/parolrestaurant), run by a couple – one of whom happens to be a Moldovan pop star – has an extensive cocktail collection. The Black Widow, with gin, amaro, lemon juice and squid, almost finished us.
Chisinau, pictured, was founded in 1436 as a monastery village. The sights include the Triumphal Arch and the home of the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin
With its rich soil and climate tempered by the Black Sea, Moldova has devoted more agricultural land to vineyards than anywhere else in the world.
Grapes have been grown on family farms for centuries. Diana started our winery tour in the 19th-century Castel Mimi castle (castelmimi.md). If you accidentally enjoy too much, you can stay in one of the on-site boutiques. These have a private bathroom and flat-screen TV and there is an outdoor swimming pool that you can use.
The next day we leave for Cricova, an underground wine town 15 minutes outside of Chisinau. There are more than 1.5 million bottles in this former limestone mine, the second largest underground wine cellar in the world. We later discover that the excavated limestone was used to build Chisinau.
Cricova, an underground wine town 15 minutes outside of Chisinau. There are more than 1.5 million bottles in this former limestone mine
We are driven by train through the streets that bear names such as Dionysus and are lined with bottles and barrels. Here we witness the winemaking process and we gain insight into the techniques used for fermentation and aging. In the last cellar there is an extraordinary collection of wines for presidents from Obama to Putin.
The many parks, food markets and street festivals make Chisinau a lively city. But it has also had dark times. It was heavily bombed in World War II and was invaded many times.
The Russian wine embargoes in 2006 and 2013 almost destroyed Moldova and many women were forced to go abroad to work to feed their families.
Our home for the trip was the Berd’s Design Hotel, the first boutique B&B of Chisinau. The Italian architect Luca Scacchetti has sleek modernist lines combined with Moldavian furniture, ceramics and carpets.
There is a spa and a hammam, and I booked a Balinese massage, in which warm oil soaked with lemongrass and ginger was stamped into my skin. What a bliss after all that wine.