KVINT-essential Surprise

This afternoon was dedicated to, what is featured on the five ruble note – i.e. the KVINT divin (brandy) factory.

We got to the factory mid-afternoon and were welcomed by our guide, who directly led us to the plant’s showroom. Here we could get a bit of history of the factory and learned, that during Soviet times KVINT was about as premium as things could get for most, with some of the produce even making it into space and to the MIR space station (despite the fact that alcohol was officially off limits). We even got to see the one bottle, that made it back from space (so – what was wrong with that one – or did they just smuggle too many?).

We also learned about the product range and the best sellers. Key fact here … there is more than brandy … KVINT also does wine, vodka and gin.

From the showroom we continued to the bottling facility and then on to one of the cask stores. Final stop – of course – was in one of the ‘board rooms’ for a brandy tasting – covering five divins starting with a six year old one all the way to the ten year old XO Surprise … certainly an interesting tasting 😉

After the tasting we made it to the KVINT store around the corner and some of the older brandies (i.e. mostly older than anything, we had in the tasting) made it across the counter (in exchange for several of the already mentioned pictures of the KVINT factory). As I was curious about the gin, I got a bottle of that and we ended up having some gin & tonics later that night. The gin was a fairly simple affair, very crisp and clear towards juniper (as it should be) with some side notes of cardamom and none of the playfulness of most gins in Western Europe – for my taste a very straight, delightful and refreshing gin (and at less than 2 USD for a half liter bottle a very affordable one as well).

Bendery Fortress

Once back on the van we made the ten minute trip to a parking lot near Bendery Fortress. After a ten minute walk through an abandoned industrial area we eventually arrived at the actual fortress.

The fortress dates back to the very early 16th century, initially just build from wood – but developed into a full fort after the town had been conquered by the Ottomans in the mid 16th century. Over the centuries the fort was expanded a number of times and also went through a number of sieges (isn’t that, what you build a fort for?).

Today the fortress – or better the area around it – is yet again undergoing a major transformation – this time battling for tourists. Paths are being built, as is a parking lot – overall infrastructure around the fortress is going through a major overhaul (like for instance toilet facilities).

We started our guided tour outside the fort in an already renovated area overlooking the river. Here a cannonball with an attached seat grabs the attention. Background is that it was here in Bender, where the fictional (?) Baron Munchausen did ride the cannonball to get into the fort during a siege – and then of course out again with some added tactical information.

From here we made our way around the fort to its main entrance and on to the museum, where the tour concluded.

Into Transnistria

We left Chisinau in the morning and after a quick stop at a wodden church – Casa Biserica – we were on our way into Transnistria.

Transnistria is an interesting case,  for some the region is indeed a country on itself – known as Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR) – complete with its own government, military, postal system, currency and police force. For others the region remains territory of Moldova, essentially like a federal state with some level of autonomy. This is also how Transnistria is seen internationally, the vast majority of countries (incl. the UN) do not recognize the PMR and indeed consider it as part of Moldova. Putting it all together Transnistria indeed is de-facto a country, that does not exist. Check this wikipedia page for more information on Transnistria.

After about an hour on the road from Chisinau we made it to the border region. After a quick check by Moldovan authorities, we were let into the buffer zone, which – following the war from 1992 – is guarded by an international peace force (mainly from Russia). We eventually arrived at Transnistrian immigration and were allowed into the territory after a documentation check.

Our first stop in the Transnistria proper was at the Sheriff-11 supermarket on the outskirts of Bender. Main mission for the moment was, to change money into Transnistrian rubles (a currency, that is internationally as recognized as the the issuing country – there is not even an ISO 4217 code for it).

Day of Caves: Mileştii Mici

After touching the outskirts of Chişinău we were now South of town – the destination being Mileştii Mici – home of what is probably the biggest wine cellar in the world (which may well count as cave).

The cellars here extend well beyond 200 kilometers (of which about 55km are used) and houses in excess of 1.5 million bottles of wine (world record).

After a quick look around the entrance area with the wine fountains, we had a tour around the facility – driving into the mountain with our van. During a few stops we were shown, how wines are stored – until eventually we made it to the tasting room, where we could get a first taste of the wines.

Some in the group decided to continue the tasting later on (including myself) and got some of the older vintages (all around 1987 +/-)  to try and share. Needless to say, it ended up an interesting evening of oenological significance 😉

Leaving Gagauzia …

We had a slow start this morning … despite the fact that hotel reception had taken the breakfast orders already on the previous evening, breakfast had taken more than an hour – following a very strict process (food was brought out person by person – and forget about getting a cup of tea or coffee prior to your first food item).

We eventually made it through – and there was no hurry anyhow (the advantage of private transport).

We left Comrat in the morning and made our way towards Moldova’s capital Chișinău – a total drive of about 100km. On the way we had a quick stop at the Welcome to Gagauzia sign.

On to Comrat and Gagauzia

How about expectations, when your tour leader explains in advance, that you are about to head for the least visited region in the least visited country in Europe?
Well – I guess, there are really none … and probably that’s not a bad thing.

Comrat is the capital of the autonomous region of Gagauzia in Moldova. Gagauzia is different from the rest of Moldova with the majority of the population being of Turkish descent.
Today Gagauzia is a territory of Moldova, however with a special legal status and autonomy in certain areas. Official languages include Romanian, Gagauz (a sort of dialect of the Turkish language) and Russian and letters remain Cyrillic (as opposed to the rest of Moldova with the exception of Transnistria). People here also still today have a more pro-USSR / pro-Russia view than in the rest of the country (again minus Transnistria).

This all becomes obvious in a subtle way while walking through the center of Comrat. We started that walk with a stop at the Great Patriotic War Memorial to see the statue to the heroes of the war (which in other parts of the country would simply be a memorial to the victims of world war two). From here we made it via the cemetery to the main street – and to the first statue of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov aka. Vladimir Lenin for this trip (with more to come).

We continued to the main square and after a quick look into the St. John the Baptist Cathedral, we got to know another Moldovan institution – Andy’s Pizza.
Andy’s Pizza is a Moldovan restaurant chain with outlets all over the country. Food is – as the name suggests – mostly pizza and Italian-style, with the one or other odd Moldovan dish mixed in. I usually avoid chain restaurants, but this one is just great with a good menu, quick service and consistent food – plus it is not as heavy as most other places (depending on the pick of course) and avoiding the meat is no big deal here – a clear winner. Needless to say, that Lenin would have loved this place (after a bit of redecoration though). 😉