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Yes, Virginia: Gagauzia is Real

Guttorm Flatabø via Flickr CC BY 2.0 DEED

You can't go to Oz or Narnia or Westeros—but you can go to Gagauzia.

There’s some places that when you hear of them, you just know they can’t be real: Asgard, Westeros, Narnia, Oz and. . .Gagauzia?

But here’s the thing—Gagauzia is real and you can visit it anytime.

Situated within southern Moldova, the Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia (officially known as Gagauz-Yeri) is only an hour (100km) from Chisinau.

I’ve been there twice now, to the capital city of Comrat. Both times were for the annual wine festival which I highly recommend. 

The first Sunday of November is the official Gagauzian Wine Day. There’s more than wine though–there’s also cultural displays and performances from the biggest villages in the territory so you can learn a lot without leaving the capital.

Where you actually are

Unlike the unrecognized breakaway state of Transnistria (also official part of Moldvoa), Gagauzia doesn’t maintain any borders or checkpoints. Other than a sign on the side of the road (which looks like all the signs welcoming visitors to new regions of the country), you wouldn’t even know you entered it.

Whereas Transnistria has its own currency and mobile phone network, Gagauzia is fully integrated with the rest of the country in terms of organization. It’s seamless to get on a minibus and go there for the day.

The explanation for Gagauzia

What explains the existence of this autonomous region populated by ethnically unique people with their own language in the middle of a European country? How and why didn’t these people get integrated?

One unique aspect of Moldova is that around the country, villages tend to attract and retain people of a certain culture and language. Or if a village is big enough, people on one side of the river will be from one group while those across the river are from another.

Just last week, I was in Sārata-Galbenā, a village where one of my students comes from, and she explained her side of the river is Ukrainian and the other side of the river is Romanian. So the people don’t always mix.

For the last 200 years, in the territory of Gagauzia, there have been settlers in villages that primarily came from what we now know as Bulgaria, which was part of the Ottoman Empire. 

There are roughly 20 theories to explain the existence of Gagauzia, but in a nutshell, Gagauzians were Christian Orthodox people who were relocated to Eastern Bessarabia (currently Moldova) by the Russian Empire.

Reports from Gagauzia

Most of the important statistics and other information about Gagauzia can be easily found online, so I talked to some Gagauzian students at my university to hear what they had to say about it.

First off, they were “city kids”, from Comrat. They were not from the villages. So this is one big difference for them. In the villages, their peers were raised in a more strictly Gagauzian culture whereas they were learning a hybridized culture, starting with the language. 

They first started learning Russian from their parents because Gagauzia as a region has generally been more sympathetic to Russia in the past. And they learned Gagauzian from their grandparents. This is the learning that takes place before school. 

In school, primary students are learning Russian, Romanian, Gagauzian and—starting in the second grade—English. So these are incredibly talented and highly educated people. I can’t think of any place where students are studying four languages in primary school.

Next comes the culture in general. Gagauzian culture and Moldovan culture have some overlap. More overlap than, say, with Russia. How could they not? They are inside Moldova so it makes sense there is some overlap.

When I brought up the subject of Russia, one student clarified that even though his region (and his elders) might have more affinity for Russian, he was happy to be Moldovan and did not want Gagauzia to become part of Russia. (Remember that at the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine, it was speculated that Russia would first take Ukraine and quickly also take Moldova).

So there you have it: a brief primer about an incredibly unique place that you are welcome to go to. For many travellers, hidden gems are the holy grail and Gagauzia is definitely one of those.

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Robert Eckhart

Bob Eckhart is currently a Fulbright Scholar in Moldova. He has managed language programs in China, Turkey, and Indonesia and was previously the Executive Director of ESL Programs at Ohio State University. Bob was also a Fulbright Scholar in Belarus in 2018.

Website: www.instagram.com/bobeckhart

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