Wine-loving Moldova and breakaway state Transnistria make for a quirky combo on the new Explore short break.
The damp, musty air hangs heavy as I tour the underground network of carved-out tunnels on my small train, like a wannabe James Bond movie baddie inspecting his underground lair.
It’s not world domination I seek, however, but plonk – the setting being the 75-mile network of 15th-century limestone wine cellars at Cricova, just north of Moldova’s capital, Chisinau.
Nestled between Romania and Ukraine, Moldova was “the vineyard of the USSR” during Soviet times and its wine regions such as Purcari enjoy an enviable reputation.
Wine is serious business here – there’s even a National Wine Day in October. Tours of Cricova’s subterranean “wine streets” add novelty value, with one area dedicated to the collections it gifts to visiting dignitaries, who include Vladimir Putin.
Cricova’s collection is trumped only by local rival Milestii Mici, whose subterranean wine-packed tunnels span a record-breaking 120 miles.
Feeling done with tunnels for the day, I head instead to the more rarefied option of Mimi Wine Castle, 25 miles from Chisinau.
Touring the exquisitely restored facilities, I learn of plans to open a wine spa and seven high-end lodges by next summer, and there’s ample time left over to savour the castle’s delicious wares over a substantial meal in the restaurant.
I manage to fill in any lingering gaps in my Moldovan wine appreciation back in Chisinau over an entertaining, sommelier-led tasting at wine shop-cum-bar Carpe Diem.
Fancy wine castles aside, Moldova remains Europe’s poorest and least-visited country.
Yet interest is building, and combined with neighbouring Transnistria it’s a new addition to Explore’s 2019/20 Worldwide programme.
As Hannah Methven, the small-group specialist’s worldwide programme manager explains, it’s proven an instant hit with customers, with some departures for the five-day guided Moldova Short Break tour I’m road-testing selling out almost immediately.
My journey begins in Moldova’s compact capital, Chisinau. Rocked by a powerful earthquake in 1940 and almost obliterated in the Second World War, it then endured the Soviet era, which saw its cathedral turned into a Museum of Lenin.
Battered but defiant, it’s an interesting city that wears its chequered past on its sleeve.
A walking tour with my guide Victoria ticks off highlights such as Cathedral Square and unravels the mismatched architecture, from Brutalist behemoths to the older, grander edifices flanking its tree-lined boulevards.
The Army Museum shines a fascinating light on the darker aspects of the Soviet period, with lighter, outdoor relief on hand in the form of Stephen the Great Central Park and the Botanical Garden.
Venturing out to the countryside I discover Moldova’s monastic cave complexes, which include Tipova, carved into the soft cliffsides.
Set amid timeless villages such as Trebujeni, the complex at Orheiul Vechi proves a particular highlight, and I explore its candlelit corners before gazing down over the river Raut carving its winding path below.
My ultimate highlight is the overnight in Transnistria, the Russian-aligned republic along the Dniester river, which split with Western Europe and declared independence from Moldova in 1990.
Legacies of the brief 1992 civil war between Moldova and Transnistria still loom large, from prominent war memorials in the capital, Tiraspol, to the continued presence of 1,500 Russian “peacekeepers”.
Officially, Transnistria doesn’t exist, being unrecognised by any official state.
Yet the people of Transnistria cling to their “independence”. Other quirks include its plastic coinage and love of Soviet-era symbolism, a hammer and sickle adorning its flag while statues of Lenin front prominent government buildings.
Then there are the showy, Soviet-style military parades that mark special occasions in Tiraspol.
They are what bring me here, my 9 May visit coinciding with one of the biggest: Victory Day.
It proves a fascinating, emotionally charged affair. Souvenir and refreshment stalls lend a carnival air to the swaggering martial marching choreographed to the stirring Russian anthem, before a procession of locals edge down the main street clutching flowers and photos of their fallen.
Victoria divulges further Transnistrian insights over walking tours of Tiraspol and the Ottoman-era Bendery fortress, pausing for a traditional village lunch at Casa Karaman, overseen by its indefatigable owner, Anjela.
It proves the calm before the brandy storm at Kvint distillery, where the sweet-smelling fumes of the barrel room soften me up for the lengthy guided tasting.
Before leaving Transnistria, Victoria has one surprise that’s not on the itinerary: a hearty dinner at Noul Neamt, a local Orthodox monastery.
The affable abbot’s wine toasts flow as rapidly as his anecdotes before a monk shepherds us to a tasting in the aged cellar.
“They make wine like in the old days, but theirs is special because it’s blessed,” confides Victoria, and I certainly feel affected by the Holy Spirit by the time I roll out of that cellar. It’s a fitting end to a grape escape.
Getting there: Air Moldova flies from Stansted to Chisinau in three-and-a-half hours, or Wizz Air flies from Luton.
Currency: Moldovan leu. For Transnistria, take leu and change there (cards not accepted). Visas: None required.
Best time to visit: Transnistria’s highlights include Victory Day (9 May). Orheiul Vechi in Moldova has an opera festival in June and Chisinau hosts a wine festival in October.