Monastery at Orheiul Vechi
So, onto the rest of Moldova, by which I mean 'anything other than Chisinau and surrounds'. A rented car plus driver seemed like a solid enough plan, and appeared, even prior to departure, to be the kind of arrangement which would make 2 separate areas of Moldova visitable in the context of one full day. The first port of call was destined to be the most rural location of the lot - the monastery, cliffs and caves at Orheiul Vechi, and the place which the guide book described as the country's most spectacular sight. Visibility wasn't favourable enough to view this spot in the most glorious context, but the rocky edges of the cliffs, coupled with the sight of the river in the valley down below, and the monastery perched atop the highest plain was enough evidence to suggest that the day trip had kicked off in fine style, and a narrow passageway led us into a place of worship, with a rear exit door, which led to a ledge which one would best describe as a viewing spot, with photo opportunities to boot.
Soviet-era tank on display in Tiraspol
Regaining the route, the most advisable way to get to the self-declared independent republic of Transniestr was via the Moldovan capital city, and past tales of bribery, corruption and an overall creepy atmosphere at the border itself soon vanished into the ether when it proved to be a border crossing entailing nothing more than a simple formality and a spot check of the vehicle. The chief town of Transniestr is the colourful town of Tiraspol
, and the first constatation is the city's cleanliness and apparent calm, as the visitor works their way through the city's handful of reference points, monuments, buildings and shops, all of which portray the city in a 'relic of the Soviet era' light. Money exchange bureaus are dotted here and there, which are a necessity, considering the existance of the Transniestran rouble as the local currency, but the low cost of living coupled with the scattering of retail outlets makes this as good a place as any to stock up on items such as Kvint (locally-made cognac), at prices which you'd barely be able to grouse about.
Tiraspol's grandest-looking building?
For my money, one of the most striking sights is the Soviet-era tank on display as a monument, which alludes at the region's past, and acts as a reminder of the fact that merely 20 years ago, this region was in the grip of all-out civil war chaos. 12 or so kilometres due west of Tiraspol is the smaller town of Bender
, formerly known as Tighina, and also known as Bendery - though Bender is my personal favourite rendering, hence this blog entry's pun-filled title. The chief sight here is the fortress, which is a pleasant piece of eye candy, and the town's central market too is not without its charms, suggesting that the market culture in Transniestr as well as the rest of Moldova, is an institution being kept very much alive and kicking.
View of Bender fortress from afar
All in all, the day trip was every bit as successful and enjoyable as pre-trip expectations amounted to, and to have witnessed at first hand life in a comparatively tourist-free area of Europe was indeed a triumph of intention over execution. With so very few European countries left to cover, I departed from Moldova with the overriding impression that a lack of individual tourist sights can easily be compensated for in terms of overall experience.