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Agricultural basket of the Soviet Union

Band, baaja and wine in Moldova

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LOCAL FLAVOUR: A typical Moldovan wedding has a lot of feasting and dancing;churches here are unlike other countries

On choosing a holiday destination like Moldova, you are first met with quizzical glances followed by wild guesses as to where could it be. Not on the average traveller's radar, Moldova is sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine with its culture and traditions treading between Russian and Italian. The aerial view one gets just before landing is a large oasis of greenery interspersed with water bodies.

Moldova's main natural resources being soil and sunshine, it was the agricultural basket of the Soviet Union. Lush with plantations, its agrarian culture dominates the countryside. On your drive a common sight would be miles of giant sunflowers and grape vines, walnut trees flanking the road with meadows stretching into the horizon and meandering rivers. The undulating terrain is ideal for different crops and this medley absorbs you in its natural beauty with an odd Lada passing by, the only car in erstwhile Soviet bloc countries. But the most interesting sight is the many wells and in diverse ornamented styles since each house has its own well!

The churches here look different as there are no pews or idols since the communist regime didn't encourage religion, however the few orthodox churches present were, interestingly enough, allowed to continue on the condition that the priest will be a KGB agent. Hence the flash back from many a war time films where people would often get caught at the confession box.

We were on our way to Balti (pronounced as Belts) the second largest city with an old country appeal. As you drive into town, it surprises you every now and then when in between the old supermarkets with local produce and gothic structures you chance upon the popular retail chain Zara. The whole town is dotted with parks, libraries and old churches and the taxi rate from any part of town to another is just 20 lei (around Rs 80).

The buzz in the city is centred around a square named after Vasile Alecsandri, a Roman poet and playwright. The oldest national theatre in the city, built in the Baroque style, is named after him too. The parks and street benches are always filled up with cheery teenagers and families. The children chatter over inghetata (ice-cream ) or a refreshing glass of cvaz, a non-alcoholic drink made of fermented rye bread. Open bars are called 'terraces' in these parts and serve tall mugs of draught beer. The accordion is a popular musical instrument and you can hear it often at street corners. In Belts, actually, nobody is in a hurry and with a summer holiday that stretches over three months, children are everywhere.

July seemed like a busy wedding season. The cost of renting a wedding gown has almost doubled and the demand for town halls, florists, photographers, make-up artists and limousines, say locals, is crushing. The recession does not seem to be intimidating the crowds at the beauty parlours.

We were lucky enough to attend a Moldovan wedding. If you think Indian weddings are a riot, try Moldovan. You need a royal appetite and the spirit of a court jester to see you through. It's a whole-night affair that begins at 7 pm and ends the next morning at 4 am with endless courses featuring caviar, roast pork, local cheeses, cold cuts, fruits, scores of desserts. Every course comes with a matching wine. The dance floor dominates the wedding hall and guests are accompanied by traditional kozachok dancers. You hear a familiar beat as guests start swinging - it is Mithun's Jimmy, jimmy! Here is a familiar ritual - the bride symbolically enters the community of married women by covering of her head with a scarf and donning an apron!
It takes a good three hours to go through the wedding meal. And if you decline another helping of wine, you will be told: "It's a digestive, must be had to wash down the meal!" Since the country produces a great variety of grapes, almost every family makes its own wine and preserves it in a cellar.

However the most famous cellar, also a popular tourist destination and a haunt of famous wine connoisseurs in history, is at Cricova, which boasts a 120 km of labyrinthine underground tunnels. It's here that we saw the wine collection of Herman Goreng. While the wine cellar is under state care, the guide tells us that China (biggest importer of Moldovan wines) is keen to open an inspired wine emporium with wines from Moldova.

We end our stay with an equally memorable meal of traditional Boch soup, Mamaliga (corn meal with sour cream to be had with the hands) along with other accompaniments such as grilled pork, topped with cottage cheese and sour cherry placinta (puffs). All of this was accompanied with some sparkling wine at a local inn Casa Verde where we clink our glasses and wish each other Noroj! for great times ahead.

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