Moldova aims for global recognition of its underground world

As Moldova strives for UNESCO World Heritage Site recognition for its vast wine cellars, a journey begins to immortalize their history.

Moldova’s extensive wine cellars in Cricova and Milestii Mici, stretching hundreds of kilometers and housing millions of bottles, captivate tourists who traverse the tunnels in small train-like vehicles.

But there’s an important story that visitors may miss. These tunnels hide the tale of how the capital city of Chisinau was destroyed and then rebuilt. This, in fact, is one of the reasons why Moldova has such a unique underground world today.

The ruins of Chisinau. Credits:
Rebuilding Chisinau. Credits: Chisinau City History Museum
The ruins of Chisinau. Credits:

Guides at Cricova and Milestii Mici acknowledge that tourists are more focused on the wine than mining history or the reconstruction of Chisinau after the world war. But how could they know to ask?

Much of the story about Moldova’s gigantic wine cellars remains unknown or appears coincidental, like a secret kept in the cellar away from daylight. 

Moldovan historian and architect Sergius Ciocanu said that until now, the history of both cellars has relied more on legends than factual documents. “But it may change soon!” he added.

Time for a UNESCO Site

The Moldovan Ministry of Culture has begun getting both of the world’s greatest underground wine cellars—Cricova and Milestii Mici—listed as UNESCO heritage sites.

“Our goal is to be on the list by 2030,” explains Sergiu Prodan, Moldova’s Minister of Culture.

Milestii Mici has already been globally recognized as the largest wine collection. It’s in the Guinness Book of Records with 1.5 million bottles. Cricova is not far behind. 

In the Cricova cellar alone, seven kilometers of tunnels are filled with half a million bottles of sparkling wine. Each of the seven women working there daily rotates 35,000 bottles of sparkling wine produced in the style of traditional Champagne.

Lidia has been turning the bottles in a wine cellar for 43 years, since she was 18.

As of now, there is only one UNESCO heritage site in Moldova: the Struve Geodetic Arc in the north. Astronomer Friedrich Georg Wilhelm von Struve was the first to precisely measure a long meridian segment, which helped determine the Earth’s size and shape. Thirty-four of Struve’s UNESCO points are located across ten countries, with one in Moldova.

“We need to have our own heritage site registered on the UNESCO list. In our view, Cricova and Milestii Mici are the most important and realistic candidates for inclusion,” says Sergiu Prodan. In his opinion, Moldova is underrepresented on the famous list.

Sergiu Prodan, Minister of Culture of Moldova.

That suggests that the country is still largely undiscovered.

To achieve this, he put together a working group comprising historians, archaeologists, industrial developers, and locals led by heritage studies specialist Professor Sergiu Musteata. Underground wineries of this scale are unique to Moldova in both Europe and globally, Musteata said. The process to prove this has now begun.

Innovation from a Bombed-Out City

The story of the Moldovan wine cellars is deeply connected to the devastation caused by war and occupation, and the rapid innovation that often arises during challenging times.

The capital city of Chisinau was heavily bombed during the fighting between the Nazis and the Soviets. When the Soviets emerged victorious in 1944, the city was in ruins.

“By August 1944, more than two-thirds of Chisinau’s buildings were destroyed,” explained Musteata. There wasn’t much left, with only about 20,000 inhabitants remaining in the city when the Soviet occupation began.

Chisinau in 40s. Credits:
Chisinau in 40s. Credits:
Chisinau in 40s. Credits:

“It became necessary to rebuild Chisinau, and for that, they needed materials,” adds Musteata.

Limestone has been the key construction material in Moldova since the late 19th century. When the Soviet occupation started, mining was taken to a much larger scale.

“White limestone was used to construct buildings. Many houses appeared after the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s,” Professor Musteata adds. Chisinau was hence called the white city.

Researcher Doina-Cezara Albu notes in her study that Moldova began using limestone blocks on a large scale in the 1950s. The Soviets built kindergartens, schools, and well-known apartment buildings like Stalinkas and Khrushchyovkas out of limestone blocks. 

During the Soviet period, Moldova produced up to 1.25 million cubic meters of limestone annually, equivalent to about 500 Olympic-sized swimming pools. By 2000, production had fallen to a quarter of what it was before.

Signs of an Ancient Sea

Despite lacking a coastline, Moldova is full of signs of the sea, and limestone is one of them. Walking around the capital, you’ll notice that much of the city is built from tiny sea creatures. The landscape appears wavy as if the waves have transformed into hills and ceased motion.

Millions of years ago, the Paratethys Sea covered a vast area stretching from Central Europe to Central Asia. At its largest, it extended across present-day Ukraine, Moldova, Romania, Bulgaria, and Serbia, among other regions. 

About five million years ago, the sea shrank and disappeared, leaving traces of its existence, which can be widely seen in Moldova today. This is also why Moldova is rich in limestone and limestone mines.

Limestone mine in Cricova. Credits: Rustom Seegopaul

One working mine is not far from Chisinau’s city center. If you enter the tunnel in the Riscani district, you can travel about four kilometers underground northward toward Cricova. Another working mine is located there, near the Cricova wine cellars.

The Chisinau mine is still active, storing limestone blocks that are ready for shipment to construction sites in Moldova. Sergiu Lungu, the mine’s manager, boasts about the high quality of limestone in the country. Studies confirm that Moldovan limestone blocks can withstand strong and catastrophic earthquakes up to 8 on the Richter scale.

Lungu has spent 30 years working in the mines. “Mining industry developed during the Soviet times,” he adds, showing how the extraction machines cut out blocks from the limestone walls.

Sergiu Lungu in Chisinau mine.

He tells us that once, there were over 100 mines in Moldova. According to the Moldovan think-tank EXPERT-GRUP, there are 166 limestone excavations in the Republic of Moldova, of which 59 are used for cutting blocks.

Like many others in this country, the world’s biggest wine cellars in Cricova and Milestii Mici were once nothing more than limestone extraction zones.

Perfect for the Wine

“The digging of the stone started in the 1950s became extensive, as evidenced by the 200 km length of tunnels,” says Petru Tataru, the guide in Milestii Mici. 

Parallel to the explosive growth of the limestone industry, the Soviets were looking for ways to increase wine production in Moldova – a country well-known for its wine.

‘Since the end of the 1950s, there have been discussions about producing wine in industrial quantities and selling it around the Soviet Union. It was necessary to establish a huge area to produce and preserve the wine,’ adds Sergiu Musteata.

Professor Sergiu Musteata is helping Moldova achieve its own UNESCO heritage site.

Then, the idea was developed to experiment with the empty mining areas around the capital city.

“The temperature here is always 12 to 14°C,” explains Veaceslav Dogari, guide of Cricova winery “And all this is free; we don’t need extra money to maintain these conditions – it’s natural.” 

“It is unique how industrial spaces, after extracting the stone, have been repurposed for a completely different use,” says Musteata, explaining why the giant wine cellars deserve a spot on the list.

After a few years of experiments with wine production, the Cricova wine cellar was officially opened in 1952. By the end of the 1950s, Moldovans had started preserving and producing wine in these cellars. Moldovan wine production became huge in the Soviet Union. 

The country is now rediscovering its history and putting together the facts like a puzzle. So that Moldova wouldn’t only be known for its wine but also for the stories behind it. Moldova, it turns out, hides many hidden tales underneath the ground.

The limestone walls in the Cricova wine cellar.
Traces of the sea on the buildings.
Old bottles in Cricova.

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