Ten kilometres to the southeast of Orhei city lies Orheiul Vechi (Old Orhei; marked on maps as the village of Trebujeni), arguably Moldova’s most fantastic sight. It is definitely one of the most popular places among tourists. Orheiul Vechi Monastery Complex, carved into a massive limestone cliff in this wild, rocky, remote spot, draws visitors from around the globe. The Cave Monastery (Mănăstire în Peşteră), inside a cliff overlooking the gently meandering “Răut 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 to this secluded place of worship and are slowly restoring it.
You can enter the cave via an entrance on the cliff’s plateau. Shorts are forbidden and women must cover their heads inside the monastery. A small, highly atmospheric chapel inside acts as the church for three neighbouring villages, as it did in the 13th century. You can visit the area where up to 13 monks lived for decades at a time, sleeping on pure bedrock, each occupying a tiny stone bunk that opens into a central corridor. This leads to a stone terrace, from where views of the entire cliff and surrounding plains are breathtaking. The cliff face is dotted with what seem to be holes; most of these are other caves and places of worship dug over the millennia, as this region was a place of worship for Geto-Dacian tribes from before Christ’s time. In all, the huge cliff has six complexes of interlocking caves, most of which are accessible only by experienced rock climbers and many of which are out-of-bounds for tourists.
In the 18th century the cave-church was taken over by villagers from neighbouring Butuceni. In 1905 they built a church above ground dedicated to the Ascension of St Mary. The church was shut down by the Soviets in 1944 and remained abandoned throughout the communist regime. Services resumed in 1996, though it still looks abandoned. Archaeologists have uncovered remnants of a defence wall surrounding the monastery complex from the 15th century.