I went to Moldova in March 2016.
It was a fluke, really. I was in Bucharest for work, and having already spent some free time in Romania on a previous trip, I was keen to go somewhere different. Moldova is one of those places which have fascinated me for years, in part because I was never sure if I would ever get there. Now I was getting the chance.
Moldova feels very far removed from the rest of Europe. A small country tucked away in the far south east, sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine, many people I mentioned it to hadn’t even heard of it, let alone considered going there. “What’s there?”, they would ask. No idea. That was the point of going.
Chișinău, the capital, is a small city which feels a little run down in a way that’s hardly surprising for the poorest country in Europe. I spent time in Russia in 1995 when it was only just emerging from the communist period, and Moldova in 2016 feels very like provincial Russia back in the 90s. Ragged around the edges, populated by middle-aged ladies in headscarves, it had a charm which grabbed me immediately. Adding to this charm was the knowledge that I was one of very few tourists. Barring a pair of businessmen in my large, Soviet-era hotel, I only noticed one couple apart from myself in the three days I was there.
I spent my first afternoon wandering the city centre, exploring Orthodox churches, grey parks still emerging from winter, small markets, and statues of local heroes I had never heard of. The Moldovan parliament, literally next door to my hotel, was an anachronism; heavily policed from the front (due in part to a large protest group camped outside), the rear door beside the hotel was completely unfenced and unprotected. I was careful not to take too many photos anyway. I was later told by Moldovans that democracy is very much a token effort at the moment, elections are rigged and tensions are high.
I did, however, discover a modern side of Moldova in the form of the Tucano coffee shops. Now, full disclosure at this point: the chain is Romanian. However, in a country where Starbucks, Costa and other western brands are conspicuous by their absence, the presence of a chain coffee house serving the sort of unusual drinks I love to try (violet latte, anyone?) had me going back three times in two days.
I ate the first evening in the hotel restaurant, next door to what turned out to be a public speaking class. Note for future reference: this is not a good idea. It’s hard to concentrate on your guidebook when you are being deafened by the volume projected from the next room, but it was certainly good entertainment value. The following morning, I set out on a pre-booked tour. As one of the only 3 tourists in Chișinău, it was hardly surprising that I was the sole foreigner on a tour that quickly swelled in numbers: myself, guide Natalia, driver Sergei and a fourth member, trainee guide Olga who tagged along for the day. We quickly struck out east towards Tiraspol and the breakaway republic of Transnistria.
Transnistria, Transdniester, or the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, is an oddity in a corner of Europe which is already largely unknown. It came about as a product of history: when the Moldovan SSR was formed in the days of the Soviet Union, the area chosen was a large chunk of eastern Romania, plus a sliver of land to the eastern side of the Dniester river, historically part of Ukraine. Fast forward to independence, and this little slice of Slavic land, populated by Russian speakers, suddenly found itself part of a nation which was historically and culturally closer to Romania and keen to shake off the Soviet heritage. It didn’t sit well with the Transnistrians.
Today, it is a self-declared independent republic, with its own parliament, currency, passports and border control. Recognised and supported by Russia, but not by anybody else, it is sandwiched between the Moldova it is trying to escape and Ukraine, with which relations are strained at best. Legally part of Moldova to the outside world, we nonetheless had to cross a frontier and pay for visas to enter (no passport stamps, sadly). Past the border and we were in another world.
Transnistria is not communist, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it is. If Moldova was a step back in time, it is nothing to Transnistria, which has clung on to its Lenin statues, House of Soviets, roubles and ceremonial tanks in a way that would make it a major tourist attraction if, indeed, there were any tourists. We headed straight for the capital, Tiraspol, city of wide roads, pigeons and trolleybuses proclaiming “In the future, together with Russia”. In the market, the prices are in Transnistrian roubles, which we had to exchange for Moldovan lei at the bank, and then spend before we left because they are not recognised outside the borders of the breakaway state.
We took a good look around the city centre, but the pleasures were soon exhausted. Still late morning, my guide (who surely qualifies for a degree in sales and marketing) suggested an additional trip to the Orhei monastery, back in Moldova proper. With lunch thrown in, I wasn’t going to say no, even as I parted with far more cash than I had planned to spend. We set off back to Chișinău before turning north and heading into the countryside which makes up the majority of Moldova. If the cities were poor, you really get an understanding of the country’s economy when you are out in the villages. Unpaved roads and ancient tractors abound.
We stopped for our lunch at a small traditional restaurant in the village of Orheiul Vechi, close to the monastery. The food was typically Moldovan, absolutely delicious, and far too much to eat in one sitting. Washed down with great Moldovan wine, it was worth the price of admission alone.
Finally we set off to the monastery. The biggest tourist site in Moldova, naturally we had it to ourselves. The monastery consists of a church built high on a bluff and caves, populated by monks, built into the site of the cliff face. In the Orthodox tradition they are beautifully decorated, with an awe-inspiring view across the countryside from the open doorway. However, what made the biggest impression on me was a quiet conversation between my guide, Natalia, and the monk looking after the cave we visited. I will never know what was being said, but she was clearly following up on a spiritual problem they had discussed previously. The obvious faith and sincerity from a young, modern woman, and the comfort she felt at the monk’s words, will stay with me for some time to come.