Moldova is said to be the poorest country in Europe and indeed a visit here does seem like a step back in time.
The ex-Soviet offers a break with a difference, especially if you also take in ‘rogue state’ of Transnistria as part of your visit.
I arrived on the overnight train from Bucharest. Travelling first class rewarded me with a decorative plastic tree and some net curtains, the like of which my grandmother used to have.
The decor may have left something to be desired, but when I viewed the small groups crammed into the standard compartments it was clear what the premium priced ticket had bought me.
I had pre-booked Chișinău accommodation – a twin bedded apartment for Hamish and I. This led to a few complications as this extract from my book testifies:
“We arrived in the Moldovan capital in what can only be described as a severely groggy state. The hard train seats had not given the most comfortable of nights and there had also been people constantly shuffling noisily up and down the corridor.
Add to that being woken by the usual border control plus the fact that we were close to the noisy diesel locomotive that was hitched onto us on the Moldovan side, and it is easy to imagine that sleep was at a premium, even though we had been pretty fatigued from the night before.
Tetchy and tired are never a good combination, but fortunately we managed to use our last Romanian money at the grey station to buy a roll and some strong coffee to attempt to reawaken the senses and improve the mood slightly.
Sufficiently revived, it was now time to find our way to our accommodation. I had pre-booked this, the intriguingly named ‘Tatyana’s Flat.’ The place had been described as central, recently renovated and apparently Tatyana would be available to answer any questions we might have.
Disappointingly Tatyana had replied to my e-mail to say that she was unable to meet us at the station, but advised us to take mini bus 353 that would take us very close to the flat. She advised us to alight just past the petrol station.
I thought it a little odd that a central place would have a petrol station nearby, but dismissed the thought almost immediately.
At €30 a night the accommodation was damned cheap, although not a bad little income for Tatyana.
The station was pretty big, fronted by a large concourse with a busy road in front of it. We shunned all taxi driver advances and strode off purposefully in search of minibus 353. The flaws in our plan soon became obvious. We had no idea in which direction we needed to go or how to hail the vehicle we needed.
Furthermore, there were dozens of minibuses zipping along, each with a just about visible number on their windscreen. We screwed our eyes up to try and see our magic number, but there was no sign of one. In any case you had no chance in seeing any number until the bus was right upon you. We would need to eat humble pie and get a taxi.
Back to the concourse where of course we were approached straight away. I showed the address to the elderly driver who laughed and responded in a gruff voice “this is far away, why you want to go there, I take you to hotel near here.”
We declined. We had heard it all before of course. The taxi driver was after hotel commission. We were wise to that little scam, besides I had paid a non-returnable €10 deposit. “No, we go here, how much?” The driver indicated forty, which we automatically took to mean Euros. No way.
We then marched off indignantly, to be stopped again, this time by a younger driver in his thirties who spoke very good English.
He confirmed what we now feared – the flat was indeed outside the centre and would cost fifty Leu to get there (about €3). I immediately felt like apologising to the first taxi driver who was quoting a genuine forty Leu fee – we must get a grip of these exchange rates before travel in future!
What to do? We decided to stick with Tatyana. We were soon pulling away from the main drag and heading into housing estate territory. We turned in just past the aforementioned petrol station and parked up alongside some very shabby blocks of flats and a wreck of a car stood on grey breezeblocks. We were fifteen minutes taxi ride from the train station and twenty minutes from the centre and this was no garden suburb. Oh!
I turned to Hamish, we were both thinking the same thing, “what have we (I) done booking this place?”
Regretting my lack of attention to detail, I handed the driver the piece of paper with the address on it again. It was one of the flats here but we were not quite sure which block. I tried to call Tatyana but no reply. I volunteered to go with the driver to find the correct flat, whilst Hamish stayed behind and guarded our bags.
The whole area was pretty run down. It featured a couple more abandoned cars stripped of anything useful, a pile of old worn tyres, heaps of rubbish strewn about the place, puddles of stagnant water, heaps of rusty metal objects and grubby kids playing in the dirt. It certainly looked the kind of place from where bags could easily be relieved from their owners, hence Hamish standing guard.
The flat was on the third floor of the poorly lit block. The driver reached for the light, which gave out a dim glow, enough for us to see that the lift was not working. Part way up the stairs, the light went out completely and we continued in almost total darkness up to the third floor.
The driver knocked on the door of what we supposed was Tatyana’s flat. No answer, so he knocked again. We were about to leave when we heard a shuffling noise approaching the door. A middle-aged man wearing only a pair of blue & white Y-fronts and complementing vest opened it.
The fellow was short with a large bronzed belly spilling out from under his threadbare food stained blue vest. His greying black hair was dishevelled and as he rubbed his eyes and yawned extravagantly, it was obvious that we had just woken him up.
It soon became apparent that he had no idea who Tatyana was and he was pretty pissed off that we had interrupted his ‘beauty’ sleep. He however had the decency to grunt and point next door when we showed him the address, which was therefore where we headed.
It was the same ritual in the next block – dimly lit lobby, broken lift, dark stairwell, knock and wait. The shuffling came quicker this time. An elderly grey-haired man dressed in identical Y-fronts and with similar belly, this time augmented with shabby off-white string vest, answered our call.
We were in the right place at last. I imagined this to be Tatyana’s dad. Suddenly the sexy image conjured by her name disappeared. She would be short and fat like her father.
The curt message was to come back at twelve and no we could not leave our bags in the meantime. I managed to get a quick peak into the flat and could see that it was pretty bare. That does it I thought, there was no way that we were staying here and laying in the bed just vacated by papa, sod the €10!
Hamish was delighted that I had drawn the same conclusion that he had reached fifteen minutes earlier. We arranged for the taxi driver to take us to the Hotel Cosmos, which Lonely Planet described as good value. The driver laughed and must have been thinking “stupid English tourists!”
The round trip cost us €10 on top of the lost hotel deposit and wasted an hour. Not a great start to our time in Moldova. We just hoped that there was room at the inn.”
Happily there was ample room to allow us to stay for three nights before we would continue onto Odessa.
We decided to spend a couple of hours exploring Chișinău, before heading out to Milestii Mici winery in the afternoon.
The city was pretty non-descript really. A few nice buildings and churches, a pleasant park and a bustling flower market was about the sum of it. However, the thrill of being there was ample enough for us.
We did get to witness something quite unusual. Pulsating music emanated from the central boulevard and quite a crowd (of mainly elderly men) had gathered to see a spectacle of some sort. The crowd-pleaser was soon revealed to be four attractive females strutting their stuff down the pavement in making a glamorous advert.
We stayed to watch for a few takes, still none the wiser as to what was being advertised.
It was soon time to meet our driver and to head off into the countryside to go to the winery which remarkably boasted the largest wine collection in the world!
Getting out into rural Moldova was a great pleasure and certainly gave us a feeling in being in a country of a bygone age.
We could see horse drawn ploughs in the fields and rows and rows of haystacks. Before long we were in vineyard territory and quickly turned up a rough track towards the winery itself.
The road surface improved as we entered the winery gates, with its immaculately manicured grounds and fountains supposedly spouting red and white wine.
What an amazing place it was. The wine was stored inside underground limestone caves and we were driven around the labyrinth of tunnels along ‘streets’ named the likes of cabernet and chardonnay to view the multitude (over two million – pity the poor stock-takers) of bottles in storage. We went down as far as eighty metres – pretty chilly, perfect conditions for keeping wine.
Our female guide was incredibly enthusiastic about the winery and its contents. She clearly really loved her job and waxed lyrical about the caves and all the different types of wine. She certainly knew her subject, so when she pointed out some red wine that apparently was a favourite of Queen Elizabeth II, I decided that I would buy a bottle for a special occasion*.
After we had buzzed along numerous tunnels and walked into cavernous wine cellars, it was time for our final stop, the restaurant. Here we were treated to some traditional live music and five types of wine to sample. We left very happy.
There was time to visit the wine shop before we left. Feeling the effects of the free alcohol, I went crazy and spent €25 on wine, the majority on the aforementioned special bottle that our Queen evidently loved so much.
*I proudly opened the wine with my wife and parents on Christmas Day. The story of the wine was told as I raised everybody’s expectations regarding the nectar we were about to savour. Imagine my dismay when I discovered that the wine was corked, meaning it ended up down the kitchen sink. Pass the Chilean cabernet sauvignon quick!
Coming shortly, part two – monasteries & mysteries