Discover the incredible biodiversity of Romania’s remote Danube Delta. Take a boat through this unique ecosystem to where the river meets the Black Sea, and observe the traditional daily life of its remote communities. Spend time in the least-visited corner of Moldova – itself the least-visited country in Europe – in a breakaway strip of land called Gagauzia that highlights the complex cultural and historical diversity of this region. Moldova is famous for its wine, so sample the local tipple during a guided tour of Mileștii Mici, sitting on top of 200km of underground cellar tunnels, making it the largest quality wine collection in the world. Become one of the few travellers to visit Transnistria, a breakaway republic in eastern Moldova, where Soviet values are still upheld and locals continue their fight for independence
Welcome to Bessarabia, a land so remote that tourism is yet to get a foothold. Escape the tourist crowds on this unique trip to Eastern Romania, Moldova and the Black Sea Coast of Ukraine. From the breakaway republic of Transnistria – where Soviet values persist – to the eerie wastelands of Chernobyl, the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster, this itinerary showcases some of the least visited sights in Europe. Get ready for an adventure.
Buna Ziua! Welcome to Bucharest. If you arrive early (highly recommended) head out to explore Bucharest. Romania's capital is known for its Belle Epoch architecture and communist sites. It also keeps things big – it’s home to one of Europe's biggest squares and its Palace of Parliament is the second-largest building in the world. Perhaps join a guided tour around the recently restored Old Town. After the welcome meeting this evening perhaps head out for a group dinner to get a first sample of Romania's unique cuisine.
Bucharest / Tulcea
This morning there may be some time to explore Bucharest before heading off to the provincial city of Tulcea by local bus (approximately 5 hours) at around noon. Located in Romania's far east on the banks of the mighty Danube River, Tulcea is a typical Romanian working class town. This has been an important harbour city since ancient times, where the Danube empties out into the Black Sea. Its position has seen it under Byzantine, Genoese, and Ottoman rule before being reabsorbed into Romania at the end of the 19th century. In your free time you could visit the Azizie Mosque, an exotic and culturally rich heritage structure with quaint minarets, or enjoy the view from the Victory Monument east of town.
Danube Delta / Tulcea
Today, head out on a full-day excursion through the remote Danube Delta. This is a UNESCO protected area of ecologically significant lagoons, channels and marshes – one of the largest wetland areas in the world, and one that’s a paradise for birds. There are around 30 different ecosystems in this area of 4152 square kilometres, putting it just behind the Galapagos and Great Barrier Reef in terms of biodiversity. This is the place where the Danube empties into the Black Sea after journeying 2860 kilometres through ten countries. The Delta is also home to over 300 species of bird, so keep your eyes peeled for the avifauna that live around the floating reed islands, tree-fringed lakes, pastures, forests, sand dunes, and narrow canals lined with trees. The boat ride also gives you the opportunity to see local life from a unique perspective. The delta is home to an estimated 16,000 people, many of whom live isolated with no road access, surviving on traditional activities like fishing. At lunch time indulge in local specialties or the catch of the day. In the late evening, return to Tulcea.
Valeni / Comrat
This morning, travel by private transport to Moldova and on to Valeni, our first stop in Moldova. Here you will be treated to a traditional lunch and some live music by a locally famous grandmother. In the afternoon continue to Comrat, the provincial capital of the Republic of Gagauzia. A small strip of land, Gagauzia once vied for independence from Moldova alongside Transnistria, but gave up its aspirations when it was granted a special legal status in 1994. The official name is now Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia. Gagauzia is home to Turkic-speaking people. Theories vary as to why, but many believe that Gagauzians are descendants of Seljuk Turks who migrated here in the 13th century. When you arrive, take some time to wander around the compact town centre. Walk down the main street, still named after Lenin, and see the statue of the revolutionary leader that stands paradoxically near a memorial to the victims of Communist repression. Pass the monument to soldiers who died in the Russian-Afghan War or just absorb the atmosphere of this unique little town.
Milestii Mici / Chisinau
After breakfast, you’ll make your way towards Chisinau (pronounced Kishi-Now), Moldova's bustling capital (approximately 2 hours). But before entering the city you have the opportunity to taste Moldova's famous wine on a tour of Milestii Mici winery. With more than 200 kilometres of underground passages – 55 of them lined with around 2 million bottles and given street names – Milestii Mici is home to the biggest wine cellar in the world. Enjoy a tour of some of the tunnels (drivable by car!) and sip on exceptional wines. Continue to Chisinau, a perfect example of a city almost entirely rebuilt in a Stalinist style with pre-manufactured concrete slabs, as it was completely destroyed by three events within two years: Soviet occupation and an earthquake in 1940, and then the takeover of the city by the Nazis in 1941. While Soviet high-rise buildings dominate the city, there is a wide main boulevard (named after the great medieval king Stephan the Great of Moldovia) which bisects two large green parks and along which the main museums and sights lie. This evening, be sure to sample some more Moldovan wine, little known worldwide but famed for its quality.
Orhei / Chisinau
Head out of town to the little village of Orheiul Vechi (approximately 1 hour), where you'll visit the famous14th-century monastery. This is the country’s most important historical site, a World Heritage contender that’s also a place of remote, stark beauty. Here through the ages the Raut River has carved its way through the landscape, creating a valley with high rocky ridges that served as an easily defendable site to settle. Archaeological excavations have uncovered remains of ruins and fortifications estimated to date back as far as the 6th century BC. The most impressive and memorable sights here relate to its use as a religious site. Atop one of the hills is the church of the Ascension of St Mary, which has some interesting murals inside, but the real treat is the cave monastery. Below a squat bell tower is a black door, behind which steep steps lead down to caves that are still used by monks 700 years after the site was dug into the cliff. Admire the views across the valley and another local feast at a family home in a nearby village. Back in Chisinau visit the buzzing local market. You can wander through the central park to the Victory Memorial of the Soviet army, and on to the Eternal Flame, dedicated to the unknown soldiers from the city who died in WWII. The park also houses the Cathedral of Christ’s Nativity, an important gathering point for celebrations or protests. Nearby is the local market, a feast for the senses. Why not shop here for lunch before continuing your exploration of the city. The Museum of Ethnography and Nature has an almost Islamic inspired exterior, while the grand National Archaeology & History Museum has displays from settlements dating back to 10,000 BC up to the Soviet era.
An early morning drive (approximately 3 hours) takes you across the border to Tiraspol, the capital of the breakaway republic of Transnistria. This thin strip of land east of the Dniester River, officially known as the Prednistrovie Moldovan Republic (PMR), declared independence after the Soviet Union broke into pieces, and unlike Gagauzia, is continuing the fight to this day. Transnistria is only recognised as an independent entity by other unrecognised former Soviet breakaway republics. It is, however, 'de-facto independent' from Moldova – with its own parliament, police force, currency and coat of arms among other things – and still upholds Soviet values. In 2014 the head of the Transnistrian parliament asked to join the Russian Federation. Upon arrival, head out on an orientation walk around town along October 25th Street, greeting the Lenin statue standing high on its pedestal outside the Supreme Soviet (Parliament) Building. You’ll see old Russian cars on the street, Orthodox churches, hammers and sickles, memorials, and brand new constructions sitting next to crumbling soviet apartment buildings and homes. This is a place where around one corner it’s the present day, around another it feels like 20 or 30 years in the past.
Bender / Tiraspol
This morning take a trolley bus (a mix between a bus and a tram) a short distance outside the city to the regional town of Bender, in the buffer zone between Transnistria and Moldova. Drop by the 16th-century Ottoman Tighina Fortress, an impressively stout construction on the right bank of the Dniester River. The three miles of walls are dotted with defensive towers and gates, all topped with bright red conical roofs. Once back in Tiraspol the rest of the day is free for you to experience this unusual city. Explore the memorials and the military-themed Museum of Headquarters, check out the impressive House of Soviets (Parliament) building complete with Lenin's bust out the front, or visit the golden domed Nativity Church. Perhaps head to the bridge at riverside De Wollant Park for panoramic photos of the river and downtown Tiraspol, or embark on a boat tour along the Dniester River itself. Near the university, Pobedi Park, with an old amusement park in the middle, is a great place for people-watching. You may want to check out the Kvint distillery to learn about the famed local rocket fuel, which is available at any bar throughout the territory. At the headquarters of this 1897 company, you can taste award-winning brandies made from grapes from the nearby ancient Bessarabian wine region.
A train or bus ride today will take you across the border to Odessa, Ukraine, an underrated gem located on the Black Sea (approximately 2.5 hours). The city was founded at the end of the 18th century by Russian ruler Catherine the Great, who sought to create an architectural getaway on the sea shore. Russian aristocrats flocked to this city of Baroque and Renaissance buildings and shady tree-lined streets to cool off in the summer, and today many sun lovers still make their way to this cosmopolitan city for the sandy beaches. The great buildings were neglected during the Soviet years, but now much of the fine plaster and marble work has been restored to its former glory. After an orientation walk with the group, wander down Primorskiy Boulevard, where babushkas shuffle alongside fashionable mums. Make sure you check out the famous Potemkin Steps, which lead from the street down to the waterfront. The sweeping stairway is famous for its part in Sergei Eisenstein’s classic 1925 film, ‘Battleship Potemkin’, the scene where Russian soldiers massacre Odessans during a 1905 anti-tsarist uprising. A pram rolling down the steps after the mother has been shot is one of cinema’s most iconic images. Alternatively, spend some time hanging out in the city's parks or the charming Old Town. There are several beaches within the city should you wish to cool down a bit.
Odessa / Overnight Train
Today is a free day to explore the pretty town of Odessa and it's surroundings. Take your time to stroll around the streets and admire the Neoclassical and Baroque buildings – the National Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre is grand enough to rival any in Central Europe, with rococo style columns, arches, sculptures and intricate mouldings. Wander down the pedestrian Deribasovskaya Street and feel the history, then stop at the nearby Sculpture Garden at the Literary Museum, where a new statue is unveiled every year. To see a completely different side to the city, head to the unique underground Museum of Partisan Glory 12 kilometres outside the city. Odessa is built on limestone, and much of it was carved out during the construction of the city in the 1800s. This left some 2500 kilometres of labyrinthine catacombs running beneath it (that’s more than the distance from Odessa to London), which attracted those who wanted to work in the shadows and hide from those in control. After the Nazis forced the Soviets out of the city during WWII, dozens of rebel groups remained in the catacombs, trying to live a normal life and waiting to strike. The catacombs later housed smuggling and criminal groups, and today it’s groups of explorers. A small section of the tunnels are officially open to the public in Nerubayske, offering a glimpse into the lives of the soldiers who lived and fought here. You'll be free until the late evening, when you’ll board an overnight train bound for Kiev (approximately 10 hours). Ukrainian trains are very comfortable, with four passengers per cabin and ample space for luggage.
Upon your early morning arrival into Kiev, drop your luggage at the hotel and embark on a city tour with a local guide around this magnificent city. Many travellers say that Kiev is a diamond in the raw, just waiting to be discovered. The city boasts a vibrant energy through it politics, art and culture - it’s a place where Soviet grandeur is mixed in with medieval architecture and religious monuments. In your free time make sure you visit the 11th-century Lavra Monastery overlooking the Dnieper River. The exterior of the ‘Monastery of the Caves’ is visually stunning, with tiered frescos of Saints and towers topped by bright gold domes that glisten in the sun. It’s also a wonder underneath, with kilometres of catacombs below where reclusive monks worshipped, studied, lived and died, their bodies preserved by the caves' cool temperature and dry atmosphere. To get an insight into the country’s history, a stop at The Ukrainian State Museum of the Great Patriotic War is recommended. No visit to Kiev is complete without a stroll along Khreschatyk Boulevard, spending time at Maidan square, where evidence of the recent historic events (like the 2014 revolution) are still visible, and then an amble down church-lined Andriivsky Descent. This street lined with vintage stalls, arts and crafts shops, small restaurants and hidden bars is sometimes called Kiev’s Montmartre, and is one of the oldest and most beautiful parts of the city. Kiev has great places to try Ukrainian food, and is a city that knows how to party, so get out and experience it tonight.
Chernobyl / Kiev
Head out of town on a full-day trip to Chernobyl. At Dytyatky, which sits on the edge of the 30-kilometre exclusion zone (the circle drawn around the town after the 1986 accident) you'll pass the first checkpoint. After a short introductory and safety briefing, embark on a tour of Chernobyl town, passing the robots and vehicles used to clean the radioactive fallout. Then, after another checkpoint, hear the slight click-click of the Geiger counter while you stand in front of Reactor Number 4, now covered by the huge new sarcophagus, the largest moveable land-based object in the world. The undisputed highlight of today is the visit to the ghost town of Pripyat, where Chernobyl workers were rapidly evacuated 36 hours after the disaster. There’ll be time to explore Lenin Street, the main square, the Palace of Culture, Polissya Hotel, a supermarket, the famous ferris wheel, a school and a swimming pool. Wander the eerie, abandoned streets and get a real sense for what happened here. After lunch at the Chernobyl canteen – all ingredients are brought from outside the zone and are ecologically clean – visit the village of Paryshiv to meet the self-settlers (people who chose to come back to their homes after the evacuation), and see the once top-secret Duga 3 (the so-called 'Russian Woodpecker', a military radar). Return to Kiev for your final night of a memorable adventure, perhaps delving in the city’s nightlife with the group.