Date visited : May 2014
I have to say I didn’t really explore Moldova that much – going purely to Chisinau and Transnistria, but then Moldova isn’t particularly large (just bigger than Belgium), of which Transnistria makes up an area twice the size of Luxembourg. It’s weird to imagine that when you look on a map as Luxembourg feels bigger than it really is, although Transnistria is a very odd shape, being quite long but incredibly thin – about 400km North-South but less than 50km East-West even at its widest point.
Moldova’s considered to be the poorest country in Europe; when I stepped off the train into the main square and saw hundreds of people selling stuff on the ground, stretching out from the square halfway along the road, when I saw the unkempt pavements, scruffy buildings, and well-worn buses, and when I saw what the place was like after 20 minutes of torrential rain, I could well believe that. If I’d been told I was in a poorer part of Asia or Africa, I could well have believed it.
This apparent poverty extends to the ‘look and feel’ of the place; general upkeep is sadly lacking. After a 20 minute rainstorm the roads were flooded quite substantially, there are ornate buildings falling down because no-one has the money to renovate them, and even the Soviet architecture in Chisinau doesn’t look as ‘striking’ as that in neighbouring Tiraspol (“capital” of Transnistria), where they just seem to care more.
Transnistria feels very different to Moldova, even though they’re the same country, and I shall talk (albeit briefly) about the weird nature of Transnistria in a separate entry.
Chisinau / Kishinau / Kishinev is the capital of Moldova, but really it’s the largest of a series of backwater towns were no-one really ventures. The area has a population of around 800,000 people but it really doesn’t feel like it. The main railway station sees about 9- or 10 trains a day, which for a European Capital is very small – although saying that, there’s only one railway line that runs through, which in effect goes from Bucharest to Odessa, neither of which are themselves on the way to anywhere in particular.
There is a local transport network, mainly made up of ex-Soviet minibuses; solid but with virtually no suspension, and furthermore they feel like they’ve been ‘donated’ after having served for a couple of decades in a more salubrious part of the USSR previously. There are also local private minivans (marshrutka-like) that plough the roads, but as is normal for these, there are no timetables and no route map to hand. If you know where they go, they can be more direct than the normal buses.
In addition, there is a bus station, although a little hard to find as it’s round the back of a shopping centre, and consists mainly of a series of ‘parking bays’ and hordes of people happy to direct you to the minibus you need.
Costs are cheap; Moldova confusingly uses the Lei, like Romania, but the two are of different values. The local buses are2 lei (marshrutkas are 3); my #LetterACountry was 5.5 Lei – the exchange rate when I were there was 22.4 to the £. As I couchsurfed for my whole time there I can’t comment on the price of accommodation, but a decent meal at a restaurant might set you back 100 lei or so, so not really breaking my budget at all.
The very real unfortunate fact though is that Moldova isn’t exactly blessed with touristic sights. The country is famous mostly for wine rather than for any historical/cultural relics, and while Chisinau has a few nice parks and cemeteries (and the war memorial that, with the eternal flame under it, looks a bit like a dodgy contemporary art rendition of a volcano), it’s not somewhere to go if you want to ‘see’ stuff.
I did feel pretty safe walking the streets; my fears were more concerned with tripping over on the pavement or falling down holes than anything to do with personal safety. Tourists aren’t terribly common in Moldova – the majority of younger ‘Westerners’ are here on aid projects or teaching in schools rather than visiting, so on that basis I doubt I was looked upon as being ‘a rich tourist’.
The converse side of this of course is, had I been visiting on my own rather than couchsurfing, I’d probably only wanted to stay a day or so, and I wouldn’t have got that far at all under my own steam before getting frustrated at the inability to communicate. English doesn’t seem to be often spoken here (and there’s no reason why it should be), and obviously my Romanian/Moldovan (two languages separated by a political will rather than an etymological divide) is pretty minimal …
In truth, if the west bank of the Dneister River were part of Romania (as it used to be), it would be a forgotten corner of a large country, akin to England’s Grimsby or Norwich. Maybe if it joins the EU, it may find a niche to attract people easily, but with no ‘old town’ to attract and no real cultural identity, it’s hard to believe. I don’t even see Chisinau turning into the new Riga as a stag-night destination. I fear Moldova will forever be merely a ‘tick-box’ on people’s journey through Europe.
Transnistria, however ….