Day 10: Travelling to the least known country in Europe
Chisinau Travel Blog› entry 12 of 260 › view all entries
Moldova (formerly known as Bessarabia) is pretty much unknown to the Western world. I had heard of a civil war in this region in Eastern Europe, and more recently their successful participation in the Eurovision Song festival, but I had never really realised it was an actual country. I thought it had been part of former Yugoslavia, as the news of all the wars happening there had greatly overshadowed any news about Moldova.
So when I downloaded some chapters of Lonely Planet and read up on the country, I was surprised to learn that in fact Moldova had been one of the smallest of Soviet republics and had been one of the first to declare its independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union. A surprising move considering it had only ever been independent for two months at the beginning of the 20th century when it gained independence from the Russian Tsarist empire and decided to unite with Romania shortly after.
But independence they gained, and almost immediately the country entered a bloody civil war between the Roman, Turkic and Slavic population. Today both the Turkic and Slavic minorities hold autonomous regions within Moldova. Turkic Gaugaz seems happy enough with this, but the Slavic Transdniestr region is still striving for full independence. And what is more, Transdniestr is the last country/region in the world with an old Soviet style government. While Russia itself has come to terms with embracing capitalism, Transdniestr remains some kind of relic (or some say living museum) of Soviet past. Truly bizarre.
Also bizarre: while Moldova is looking towards the west rather than east and hope to join the European Union soon, they have a (democratically elected) communist government.
After a not particularly pleasant night I arrived at the ChiÅ�inÄ�u bus station at 7 in the morning. I had been in touch with an apartment rental agency, and I had to get to their main office in the centre of town to check in. With plenty of time to spare, I decided to try and see how the local buses work in this country.
So after changing a couple of dollars and my last Ukrainian Hryvna into Moldavian Lei I walked up to a line of waiting buses. Well, buses, modified Mercedes vans is a better description. Immediately I discovered that Moldavians are quite different from Ukrainian. Moldova may have been part of the USSR once, people here are from Roman descent, rather than Slavic. This also made their language a bit easier to decipher (they speak a Romanian dialect).
That last bit sounded enough like 178 to me to enter the bus with that number. This driver did not understand my pronunciation of Piata Negruzzi, so the first bus driver had to come and explain it to him.
The bus driver may not have been able to understand my pronunciation, he did feel very responsible for me getting to my destination, so he made sure I got out at the right stop, and that I walked into the right direction to get to the Negruzzi square.
I immediately fell in love with this little country.
Like Ukraine private apartments are a better alternative than hotels, but unlike Ukraine apartment rental in Chisinau is a bit more efficiently and professionally organised. The Adresa apartments agency has a few dozen apartments scattered around the city centre. The apartment I had originally booked via the Internet was not available yet (it was too early) so instead they gave me one of their more luxury apartments, smack in the city centre, for the same price.
After a short nap and a long hot shower it was time to explore the city. Not that there was an awful lot of exploring to do though, as Chisinau holds very little attractions for the casual visitor.
No, this is not the place for sightseeing, it is more that this is a very liveable city. With great drinking and dining opportunities, killer nightlife and - get this - free wi-fi in the city parks! I kid you not, everywhere on the park benches you see people with laptops. There is even electricity available! That is 21st century communism for ya!
The city has a cathedral which survived the war, there's Chisinau's very own Arc de Triomphe (unknown which triumph is commemorated here) and a very bustling market which quite resembles a Middle Eastern bazaar. The Opera house, often the most beautiful building in a city (at least, it had been in Lviv and Odessa) is a truly awful soviet style block of concrete and the presidential palace actually resembles some kind of seedy casino or Vegas hotel (without the neon lights though).
And that was pretty much it, really. Despite the lack of interesting sights, it was a very pleasant place to stroll around for a few hours.
It was also interesting to see my former employer Orange thriving so well here. There is at least one Orange store on every street corner, and usually another on in between as well.
For dinner I tried something typically Moldavian, of which I unfortunately forgot the name (Topaco, or something like that). Utterly delicious. Like the people are mix of different cultures, so is their food! It was like a combination of traditional Russian style home-cooking, with distinct Middle-Eastern flavours.