Orheiul Vechi Monastery is probably the most popular tourist attraction in Moldova, but that doesn’t mean that getting there is necessarily easy. While my guidebook mentioned a few buses that ran there, other sources on the internet insisted no public transportation would take me there. I asked the staff at my hostel to look into it and while no buses were running directly to Orheiul Vechi, buses left hourly for Trebujeni, a nearby village that was walking distance from the monastery.
Finding the bus to Trebujeni, though, turned out to be quite the challenge.
I headed to the central bus station, only to be met with mass chaos. You see, in Chisinau, the central bus station is sort of combined with the central market which leads to, well, mass chaos. I arrived at the “station” (really several blocks of informal parking spaces packed with mini-vans) well ahead of the 9:20 departure time given me by the hostel, but by 9:30 I was still wandering around in a state of confusion.
Finally, I saw a slew of mini-buses with signs for Orhei, which I knew to be just past Trebujeni so I approached one of the drivers to ask, thinking perhaps he would stop there on the way. Luckily, another driver overheard me and it turned out he was the guy going to Trebujeni!
The driver led me to his mini-van, parked completely hidden behind a large bus and another van and with a sign in the window that did not say Trebujeni. Sure, like I ever would have found him on my own. He was leaving at 10:30 so I got on the van and waited.
Once on the road, we had been driving for about 45 minutes when we passed a road with a sign pointing to Orheiul Vechi. At that point, I figured I should get off at the next stop and walk back that way. However, when I went to pay the driver, he told me to sit down. Apparently unnecessarily, I explained that I wanted to go to Orheiul Vechi and the driver hushed me, saying “da, da, monastare.”
To my pleasant surprise he drove me directly to the entrance to the monastery complex.
As I exited the van and prepared to ask the driver when he would be returning to Chisinau, he beat me to the punch and wrote down the two other times he would stop there – 12:05 and 16:00. Considering that it was already about 11:30, the 16:00 departure looked like my best bet. As it turned out, keeping myself occupied until then was another question.
As the van pulled away, I looked around me and saw nothing but trees and white, white snow. An apparent path to my left seemed to lead toward the monastery up on the cliff, but the only footprints I saw belonged to an unknown animal. Not seeing any other real alternative, I followed the tracks.
Soon, I could see a bell tower and a cross in the distance, below which stood the entrance to a cave church. As I got close to the church entrance, the door was closed and it suddenly occurred to me that it might not be open. My heart sunk just a little bit as I thought, “no, I didn’t come all this way and trudge through a foot of snow for nothing.”
I reached the door and breathed a sigh of relief as I pushed it open and found myself staring down a stone set of stairs leading to….a thick curtain covered by a plastic sheet. To help my eyes adjust to the lack of light, I left the door propped open and I made my way carefully down the stairs, my sense of disappointment increasing with each step as it seemed there was nowhere else for me to go. Then, suddenly, I heard a loud rustling behind the curtain. My first thought? Bats!
Yes, I thought I had entered a cave and disturbed a bunch of bats.
Then the curtain moved and a monk with a long white beard appeared, yelled at me (in English) to close the door, and vanished again behind the curtain.
I ran up the stairs to pull the door shut and then cautiously headed back down. With the curtain closed again, I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to follow the monk behind it or not. I called out and asked in Russian “may I?”
Hearing a muffled answer, I pushed the curtain inside and found myself inside of a cave about the size of my condo back in Chicago, much better lit than I expected due to windows carved in the side of the cave. I could understand why Orthodox monks back in the 13th century would choose this location, in the side of a limestone cliff overlooking the Raut River, to dig out their small monastery and church.
As I looked around, though, I sort of wondered if that was it. Sure, there was a small church with the usual orthodox icons but I was expecting a bit more – something like the labyrinth I visited at the Pecherska Lavra monastery in Kiev. The monk then approached me and asked me, in Russian, where I was from. When I answered “ya eez Amerikee” he asked what state. I told him Illinois and then specified Chicago and asked him “vwee znayete?” He said he did and then walked over to the other side of the cave and opened a door for me. He asked where I learned Russian and if I learned in America – apparently surprised that I could learn Russian there. Then he motioned for me to go through the door and down some steps to see a series of small “rooms” where he explained to me the monks used to sleep. Then he left.
After a few minutes of poking around and taking some pictures, I walked back into the main room, not seeing any other doors and not wanting to ask “is that all?” So I thanked the monk and headed back outside.
From there, I continued on to the church I could see in the distance, creating fresh footprints in the snow every step of the way and stopping to take in the view and snap pictures every few minutes. I was the only person (aside from my friendly monk) anywhere in the vicinity and felt incredibly peaceful. When I departed Chisinau that morning, my mind had been full of stressful thoughts over visa issues for my onward travels, but in this pristine environment, those were the furthest thoughts from my mind.
I reached the gate to the courtyard surrounding the church and found it closed shut. Again, I thought “oh no.” This time, when I pulled and pushed the door, nothing happened. Just as I was ready to walk away defeated, a monk came walking up some stairs out of nowhere. I asked in Russian if it was closed, and without responding, he walked over to the door, turned the large handle, and pushed the door open. Duh.
I have to say, I was a little disappointed with what I found inside, although I could see from the outside that it wasn’t particularly large. The church itself wasn’t open (boo!) and this time, the monk who showed me the way in quickly disappeared, leaving me wandering around a small courtyard not knowing exactly where to go next.
I ended up passing through the courtyard and out onto what would otherwise be a road (minus two feet of snow). Following some faint tire tracks, I walked along a wide ridge away from the monastery which, while it didn’t lead to anything, it did give me a nice view back of the complex and the cliffs.
By the time I made my way back to where I started, it was only about 1:30. I had two and a half hours to kill before the mini-bus would return. Getting impatient and a bit chilly (it was a nice sunny day but my feet were completely soaked from walking in all the snow), I headed toward what appeared to be a tourist information center. It turned out to be just that, combined with a hotel and restaurant, all of which were closed. Ugh.
Realizing that I was totally isolated where I was, I decided to head back out to the main road and hope that another mini-bus would come by. The girl at the hostel told me buses left Chisinau at 1:10 and 2:00, which meant they should reach Trebujeni around 2:00 and 2:50. Seeing the village of Trebujeni in the distance, I speculated that they likely stopped there, then turned around and came back, so I figured that doubled my chances of catching one.
As I stood there, completely alone on a road with almost no traffic, I tried not to stress. I told myself that, at the very worst I would get picked up at 4:00. And I reminded myself how things have managed to work themselves out on this trip so far and that I need to have faith that things will continue to work out.
Sure enough, about ten minutes later, a white van came screeching to a halt in front of me, with a sign that said Chisinau in the window. It was heading to Trebujeni before returning to the capital so I hopped along for the ride down to the village and then sat in the van for about twenty minutes as the driver took a break to drink (yes, drink!), chat and smoke with a bunch of his buddies.
By 3:00, we were on our way back to Chisinau, my day trip to Orheiul Vechi a success, although certainly not stress-free!