Friday, 22 March 2013

Day 296 – Religious Caves and Frozen Vineyards. (Moldova)

Moldova is not a huge country and there isn’t a huge number of attractions to go and visit. There’s the home of gypsies in the north of the country; not an attraction as such, but an interesting area where you might get a little bit of insight into the way they live. The style of houses we saw in Romania are abundant in this part of Moldova and the self-proclaimed but widely recognised gypsy king and his family reside in this part of the country. Moldova is also the proud home to some very good wineries and huge cellars, but of course these were all closed over winter. These are both experiences we would have loved to have had, but unfortunately due to timing (the gypsy area – not enough time, the wineries – not the right time) we couldn’t, so the other place that really sparked our interest was Orhei Monastery.

40 km North of Chisinau, Orhei Monastery comprises of a selection of caves hand carved into the side of a rocky ridge. From a distance, as the ridge came into view, we could see all the tiny holes in the side of the rock which we presumed to be the windows of the caves, and perched atop the end of the ridge was a small white church. We drove up as far as we could, and then making our way on foot over the snow covered rocks we climbed up and across the ridge. The road on which we had approached wound its way through some of the famous wineries. They were all frozen over with snow and ice, but the stripes and squares that vineyards form were still visible, producing an eerie sort of grey scale version of this landscape that you know should be green and filled with life. A frozen river dissected the wineries and disappeared off into the rolling snow-covered hills on either side. Just below us on the other side of the ridge there was another narrow river, this one very shallow and rocky, and a line of small houses and buildings directly below us that from where we stood looked like little more than sheds and shacks. On the other side of the village and this river some much higher hills shadowed menacingly over the whole valley.

It was a very serene setting, a little ghostly even, and we quietly observed the surroundings as we walked over to the small church. The building and grounds of the church were beautifully maintained and a small dog yapped at our ankles and growled at us when we approached his elaborate hand-made kennel. We were pretty content that even though we hadn’t actually seen inside any of the caves, the place was impressive and we had enjoyed it. We began heading back towards the car when we spotted a couple of other tourists up ahead who had stopped and were obviously planning on speaking to us. Immediately we recognised the bloke’s relaxed Australian drawl as he asked whether we had spoken to anyone about going in the caves. Well no, we hadn’t, but fortunately for us he and his Polish girlfriend had made arrangements with the priest and were just waiting for him. So when the bearded, robed priest appeared a few minutes later we followed on with their little private tour, so grateful to Mr Aussie for having included us.

A heavy door at the bottom of a small clock tower mounted on the side of the cliff was opened for us and we were ushered inside to a surprisingly warm corridor. The priest had walked on ahead and turned around, calling out forcefully and making some wild hand gestures. We realised we were doing something wrong and thought maybe we weren’t allowed to come in, so quickly retreated through the open door, to which we received more yells and arm movements. For a moment we weren’t sure what the problem was, concerned about what mistake we may have made, and then we realised that he was simply telling us to shut the door behind us to keep in the warmth. Of course in our kafuffle we’d ended up leaving the door wide open for much longer than necessary, allowing lots of heat to escape from the unusually well heated cave. Embarrassed and apologetic we quickly closed the door and followed the priest down the stone steps.

The corridor opened out to a room decorated with an array of paintings, statues and candles, similar to what one finds in most monasteries. The expertly carved windows allowed natural light to filter into the otherwise dark space. A young man, maybe a teenager, dressed in jeans and a jumper sat on a bench underneath the windows and watched as we explored the cave. To our left as we entered was a small opening which the lead to a small steep stairwell opening out onto another room. The stairwell continued down a metre or two reaching a dead end which was being used as a storage space, so we followed the priest as he teetered across a very narrow landing, only a few centimetres wide, at the side of the stairs. This room had no pictures or monuments and barely any light, but walls adjacent to the external walls had been carved into the stone, forming small open-fronted rooms around the edges of the main room. It was a very interesting space, the walls left rugged and unfinished, but we didn’t actually figure out what the purpose of it was.

If we looked right instead of left when we entered the main part of the cave there were two archways fashioned out of the rock which opened onto an alcove which was obviously the main worship point of this particular cave. The priest sat down on the bench next to the boy and waited while we looked around and took a few photos. The boy spoke quite a lot of English and after explaining a few things about how the caves were carved and giving us some examples of rituals and traditions unique to this place, he asked us some very insightful questions about religion in each of our countries, specifically how Catholicism varies the world over. We were very impressed with the priest and the boy and were so glad that we’d bumped into the Australian guy who had made seeing inside the cave possible for us. It turned the experience from being an enjoyable one into being a thoroughly interesting and unique one.

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