Continuing my trip to Europe’s poorest country……
We decided to take a day trip to the breakaway republic of Transdniestr, a region of Moldova that had declared independence in 1990.
Not officially recognised internationally as a nation, Transdniestr nevertheless has its own government and currency and is said to be supported in its bid for independence by Russia.
Moldova forcibly tried to hold onto its territory but failed in the attempt with the civil war finishing in 1992. Since then there had been an uneasy truce with diplomatic arguments still raging.
Lonely Planet described the place as a real Communist throwback and to be prepared to be asked for bribes on the border from KGB style border guards.
If we had wanted to stay for more than twenty-four hours, we would also need to register with the police. We were only visiting the capital Tiraspol for a few hours, so registration would not be necessary, but the thought of going here took me right back to my aborted mission to Eastern Europe in 1987.
We left the bus station at ten for the ninety-minute journey east. We had taken the advice offered on travel forums and only had about €30 on us, just in case of border hassle.
After around an hour, we arrived at the checkpoint. We both felt a little nervous as we were directed to the border control office where we presented our passport and completed entry card. The guards did indeed look austere but the only questions we were asked were purpose of visit, length of stay and time of departure.
The subject of money did not crop up at all. It seems that the Transdniestr authorities had had a crackdown on rogue border guards and cleaned up their act.
Our entry card was stamped and we were given a portion back to be handed in upon departure. Under no circumstances lose this, we were forcibly told. I believed the dire warning and was grateful that another good mate named Poll, who notoriously mislays important documents, was not with us.
I was slightly disappointed with the ease of entry. I however clung onto my entry card as if my life depended on it.
After thirty minutes we were on our way again, arriving in Tiraspol on the Dniestr River in a further half-hour, following a brief stop at the wonderfully named Bendery.
As I mentioned Transdniestr is said to be Russian backed, I certainly felt like I was somewhere in Russia due to the conspicuous hammer and sickle flags and omnipresent military personnel. Hamish agreed indeed it did remind him of his first time in Moscow.
We changed €15 for 160 Transdnistran rubles and bought lunch costing half of our new beans. We were refreshed enough to eagerly take in all that Tiraspol had to offer.
Sadly, apart from a few interesting buildings, some impressive monuments and a nice park, there was very little else to get remotely excited about. Clearly the main attraction of Tiraspol was to get there and tell the tale afterwards.
We had an hour or so to kill before our designated five o’clock departure, so got rid of the rest of our beans on ice cream, coffee and a tiny Transdniestr flag on a cocktail stick. No amazing dark beer anywhere to be found though unfortunately.
The crossing back into official Moldova was even quicker and smoother than the one in the opposite direction.
We were glad we went just to experience the very different feel to the place. Strangely we both felt we missed out due to the trip being hassle free. The accounts we had read beforehand had virtually guaranteed that we would face bureaucracy and a request for an ex-gratia payment.
We had taken on-board all the advice on how to deflect such a request and stand our ground when confronted, so were a little disappointed we hadn’t needed to put this into practice.
It was like we had phoned our bank to complain only to have the wind taken out of our sails by an immediate offer of compensation. The right result achieved, but somehow all too easy.
Neither did we have a passport stamp to show for it, although we did manage to smuggle out a few souvenir rubles.
On our final day in Moldova we decided to visit what was described as the country’s premier attraction – the monastery of Orheiul Vechi.
This took us into the countryside again, only this time in a northerly direction.
The cave monastery and old church were well worth the visit. We were handed a very basic guide pamphlet at the rather large ticket office-come restaurant. It did not help that much directionally, but our driver pointed out the rough route to the main sites.
Off we wandered and found the church first of all that had been built into the limestone cliffs. We prised open the large wooden door and descended the steep stone steps into the chapel.
An old monk with huge white beard greeted us. I was sure that he must be in demand around Christmas time, that’s as long as Moldova buys into the Santa Claus tradition.
When I say greeted, I really meant lambasted. He yelled at me pointing furiously to my head. I had forgotten to remove my cap, a heinous crime for a man in a holy place. I rapidly removed the offending headgear and thanked my lucky stars that I wore long trousers else I fear that I may have been cursed forever.
Hamish was oblivious to all of this, as he had gone straight through onto the rock balcony outside to take pictures of the river below. He found it hilarious when I told him later that the old holy man had admonished me.
We joked that he had taken a fifty-year vow of silence like the unfortunate hermit character in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, only to have me ruin forty-eight years worth of vow due to my ignorance.
The chapel was typical Orthodox, full of multi-coloured icons. I purchased a small replica icon from the monk, hoping that this would redress the balance a little caused by my offence. At least he grunted in a semi-friendly manner when I gave him the money and refused the change.
The entrance to the main monastery lay further along the hilltop, with us having to climb down to the rock hewn part below. There was not another soul around apart from the monks at work watering the garden.
I thought the place summed up Moldova. A fantastic attraction, but in no way exploited.
We then walked down the hill to the village where we stumbled across a traditional house that had been turned into a free museum. It would have been rude not to take a look, so we did.
It very much reminded me of a traditional house on the Greek island of Skyros, where I had visited several times – all cool white walls, tapestries, exposed wood and lots of pots.
It was my turn to laugh as Hamish whacked his head on the low stone doorway that led to the ancient kitchen. That was our last action at the venue as it was time to rendezvous with our taxi for the return journey.
So that was just about it for our Moldovan adventure. We had only skimmed the surface, but what we had seen received a big thumbs up.
The country may be poor, but it welcomed us visitors with open arms and it is sure to make strides forwards as foreign investment finds its way into the country’s coffers.
We would have like to have explored more of the impressive rural landscapes, but needed to press on into Crimea. I would certainly recommend a visit to anybody that likes a great value short break.