Ten kilometers to the southeast of Orhei city lies Orheiul Vechi (Old Orhei; marked on maps as the village of Trebujeni).
This is arguably Moldova’s most fantastic sight. The chimerical Orheiul Vechi Monastery Complex is carved into a massive limestone cliff in this wild, rocky, remote spot. Getting here ain’t easy (forget about public transportation), but it’s well worth the effort. The Cave Monastery (Manastire in Pestera), inside a cliff overlooking the modest Raut River, was dug by Orthodox monks in the 13th century. It remained inhabited until the 18th century, and in 1996 a handful of monks returned and began restoring it.
Shorts are forbidden and women must cover their heads inside the monastery. A small, moody chapel is part of the complex, which acts as a church for three neighboring villages, as it did in the 13th century. Adjacent is the area where up to 13 monks lived for decades at a time, sleeping on pure bedrock in tiny stone nooks (chilii), opening into a central corridor. There’s also a stone terrace, from where views of the entire cliff and surrounding plains are nothing less than breathtaking.
The cliff face is dotted with additional caves and places of worship, dug over the millennia by Geto-Dacian tribes from before Christ’s time. In all, the huge cliff contains six complexes of interlocking caves, most of which are accessible only by experienced rock climbers and therefore off-limits to most tourists.
After WWII archaeologists started uncovering several layers of history in this region, including a fortress built in the 14th century by Stefan cel Mare, later destroyed by Tartars, and the remnants of a defense wall surrounding the monastery complex from the 15th century. Some of their finds are on exhibit in Chisinau’s National History Museum.
In the 18th century the cave-church was taken over by villagers from neighboring Butuceni. In 1905 they built an additional church above ground dedicated to the Ascension of St Mary. This church was shut down by the Soviets in 1944 and remained abandoned throughout the Communist regime. Services resumed in 1996.
On the main road to the complex you’ll find the headquarters where you can purchase your entrance tickets and visit the tiny village museum where several archaeological finds from the 15th and 16th centuries are presented. Guides can be arranged here, but only in Russian and Romanian. Ancillary attractions include remnants of a 15th century defense wall surrounding the monastery complex, an ethnographic museum in the nearby village of Butuceni and newly open caves across the valley.
You can find some excellent photos of Orheiul Vechi (described with mirthful enthusiasm) here.
Orheiul Vechi Monastery Headquarters has five pleasant rooms and a small restaurant. The rooms facing the monastery have spine-tingling views. Spending the night here is highly recommended.
Another sleeping option is Agro Pensiunea Butuceni, a lovely looking pension in the village of Butuceni just below the monastery itself. This place has a variety of rooms and can arrange meals, local outings, tours, cultural activities and performances. Single rooms start at 45 euros per night, doubles are 65 euros. Breakfast is included, as is (extremely slow) wifi.They also have a tiny pool for cooling off after hiking or biking around the valley.
There’s an arresting side attraction nearby Orheiul Vechi, “Magnetic Hill”, just south of the city of Orhei. Nazis were reputed to have buried Jews alive here, and strange happenings are alleged to occur in the area. If you position your car just right, in the parking lot of the Safari Cafe across the road, facing the hill, and slip it into neutral, the car will eerily advance, despite the slight uphill incline.
If you like spoilers, here’s the video I shot testing the Magnetic Hill legend: