The Most Popular Site in Moldova – Orheiul Vechi. Is It Worth Visiting?

Text: Maria Axenti

Photos: Tanya Obuh, Maria Axenti

Only on our 10th hiking season we decided to organise a trip to Orheiul Vechi. We knew it was popular and probably that was the reason for keeping ourselves out of this place.

Practical Information:
Location: 55  km NE of Chisinau
Hours to spend: 1 day
Open: 7/7
Additional Information: Museum Orheiul Vechi, Tuesday-Sunday, 10.00-18.00, tel. +373 235 56806, +373 235 56042
English tourist guide: http://www.columbia.edu/cu/archaeology/pdf-files/broch.pdf

Orheiul Vechi [Orheyul Vek’] translated as Old Orhei is an historical and archaeological complex located 55 km North-West from Chisinau in between the villages Trebujeni and Butuceni. It is “old” because there is a “new” Orhei – a modern town at some 15 km from the old settlement.

What indeed makes remarkable this place is the natural landscape. The river Raut twists left and right like a ribbon making a round peninsula in front of high hills dating back for more than 30 million years – bottom of those times Paratethys sea. These hills formed a natural defence system and created perfect conditions for human settlements. In these area archaeologists found traces of civilizations from Geto-Dacian times (10th-4th centuries BC) up to Golden Horde (14th century AC) and Country of Moldova (16th century).

We decided to build our route starting from the forest of Ivancea to Furceni village, and culminate our two days hiking with the site of Orheiul Vechi guarded by Trebujeni and Butuceni villages.

From the forest of Ivancea to Furceni

It’s spring and walking through the freshly green forest is extremely nice. Like kids, we are tempted to gather flowers and watch carelessly the giant ants climbing our shoes when we stop for making photos. We can’t resist and gather some wild garlic that gives a special flavour to our improvised lunch.

The landscapes of Furceni – limestone hills are laying somehow shy on the left bank of Raut. On the right bank green grass, spare trees and a beaten road by the wheels of villagers’ carts. The spring grass is good for milk and it seems the large meadow is a beloved place for grazing cows and sheep. Being grown up in cities, we are both fascinated and afraid of these animals. On their turn, black and brown cows are indifferently gazing at us while we are passing them around.

Just after this Alps-looking scenery, the river Raut makes another bend going into forest and near an improvised bridge some noisy boys are fishing. We decide to keep the right bank and continue admiring the stony hills with sparse trees, grazing horses and running water. Frankly speaking river Raut is not so picturesque. In fact, it is not picturesque at all. It is the third river in Moldova after Nistru and Prut. Once Raut was navigable but today in some places could be crossed by foot (we did that once J ). The water is grey, it is highly polluted and I wander what kind of fish locals are still able to fish. Special installations for fishing could be seen often on both banks of the river.

Homeland of traditions – Trebujeni

Our walk from Furceni to Trebujeni lasts around three hours. We don’t encounter many villagers except herdsmen and shepherds. The hills are becoming higher and more confident as we arrive closer to Trebujeni. One could see big stones are falling apart from these millenary hills. At a certain moment, this could be dangerous. We cross the river on a hand-made bridge out of iron ducts. First houses are seen just after turning the hill. Village of Trebujeni was first attested in 1573 and it was part of once Fortress of Orhei. Unfortunately, nowadays there are only a few remains of Middle Ages fortifications dispersed in the area. Nevertheless, locals are fond of the history of their place and are used to meet curios gazes of tourists. The traditional is proudly exposed for these gazes. Small fences, Moldovan style balconies are at the entrance of almost every house. Colourful, geometrical, solar ornaments on walls and gates keep the old times atmosphere. “Blue of Orhei” is the omnipresent paint of local dwellings. The place is authentic enough to grasp the impression of a Moldovan traditional village.

In 2007 Moldovan Government applied to include Orheiul Vechi complex in the UNESCO World Heritage List. Officially, the application is still under examination but most likely, it will be refused as the site was not restored and maintained according to international norms of cultural preservation, allowing modern interventions and changes. However, the rumour is that the place is already in the list or soon it shall be. It is a kind of Moldovan love to make renovations, to paint fences every year before Easter, to build annexes and modern buildings with PVC windows being firmly convinced that “this is beautiful”.

Indeed Orheiul Vechi is beautiful. The natural landscape is breath-taking when the Trebujeni ends due to the changing relief. Preeminent stony hills up to 120 meters are making a round circle and create the impression you are inside of a natural bowl. Big and small caves could be seen here and there. The extraction of limestone was a basic occupation of villagers, developed in soviet times and manually continued in the last decades. Now it is clear where locals are taking from stone for their houses and fences.

Traces of Tatars and not only

Just about to leave Trebujeni, a modern bridge built in soviet times is helping to cross Raut. On our right, just next to the bridge the most popular vestige are located – remains of Tatar baths. Tourists and local boys are climbing 12th century foundations. Archaeologists found coins, foundations of a caravanserai and a mosque, and even a lapidary that could be read: “This mosque was built by order of the pious benefactor Alih…san”. The medieval town of Orheiul Vechi was built approximately in 1330, during the reign of the Golden Horde. After the Mongols had abandoned the region in 1369, the area named already “Orhei” became the most important fortification at the eastern border of the medieval Country of Moldova. Stephen the Great (1457-1504) developed the defence system of the country by building several fortresses. Hotin and Bilhorod-Dnistrovsky (originally “Cetatea Alba” – the White Fortress) are today in Ukraine, Bender is in Transnistria, and only Soroca is on Moldova’s territory. The fortress of Orhei was destroyed approximatively in late 16th c. After that, the new administrative center was transferred to Orheiul Nou and the old settlement became an ordinary village that disappears at the dawn of the 18th c.

Tourist map for Orheiul Vechi Complex. To see all places, take care to save or print the map beforehand.
Tourist map for Orheiul Vechi Complex. To see all places, take care to save or print the map beforehand.

Today the large open space in the embrace of Raut gathers people for walks and picnics. Climbers are coming to conquer the hills. A festival of ethnic music “Gustar” became already a tradition though the sun is pitiless in summer and the shadow is rare here. All the archaeological remains are scattered in the area, somewhere visible, somewhere covered by soil and grass. Unfortunately, there are no indicators except one panel at the entrance in Trebujeni from Chisinau direction. The best option is to take beforehand a tour book or an experienced guide that will show all the vestiges.

tip7Last but not least, the grottoes

Further on, we went to check the caves. We turn left from Trebujeni, in the direction of the spring well. Locals have taken care and built a stone entrance. Even in hot days, this place keeps cool and fresh water. Other springs are lacking, thus that’s the most importance source of water in the area. We had a time-out for refreshment and continued our hike. The small path is taking us to so-called Monastery of Bosie. There are no arranged stairs, we just climbed the path on the hill. Round stones are falling at every step, the respiration is faster, one more careful effort and we are up. Though not preserved, this  place is filled with peace. At the entrance, some old carving in Cyrillic says the story of the place: “This church was built by the slave of Bosie, pircalab (Chief Magistrate) of Orhei, together with his wife and his children, to cherish God, to forgive his sins. Selevestru, year 7173 [1665]”. There are around 150 caves in the promontories of Raut, many of them were shelters for monks. There are inscriptions that were not yet decoded, thus scientists assume monks came here even in 11-12th c. It is known that stone monasteries were left in 19th c. Today some grottoes are blocked by stone falls, others are explored by courageous tourists. Only in one of them, the cave just under the church on the hill religious ceremonies are carried regularly. One common thing for all caves is the scenery that is opening from hand carved windows and terraces. With an exercise of imagination one could picture the old times fortress, soldiers, carts and humble monks. Just a perfect place for meditation.

The last point to arrive is the stone cross and the church on the hill at the entrance of Butuceni village. Here the entire panorama of Orheiul Vechi complex is seen as on palm. Now we are on the edges of the bowl. It’s a nice feeling. It fulfils with peace. I remember my first visit to Orheiul Vechi was during an international summer school. Most of us were enthusiastic to see the most popular site in Moldova. When arrived, our Georgian colleagues were not impressed at all. “That’s all you have?” asked they somehow disappointed. I assume for those who are used with spectacular old mountains or crystal waters, Orheiul Vechi may seem somehow regular and not impressive. For us, Moldovans, it’s unique. Though it is not properly arranged four tourists, every one that comes finds something for him/herself:  landscapes, history, traditions, peace, sun, atmosphere and that is worth feeling.

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