That’s one of the first things we saw when we were searching for information about Moldova, that it was one of the world’s least visited countries (at least by Western tourists). I found it hard to believe that a country in Europe could take that title. We were determined not to let that bother us, and instead, we decided to try even harder to enjoy the uniqueness of the place.
Moldova was never a country that we had considered visiting before, but the cheapest flight from Saint Petersburg to Barcelona was with Air Moldova, and it just happened to include a 20-hour stopover in the capital, Chisinau (pronounced kish-i-now – at least that’s how it was written in a guide book).
Looking outside the windows as we approached the airport, it was wineries as far as you could see. While not entirely unexpected (we’d read one of the few attractions of Moldova was their wineries), it wasn’t what we were thinking of from an ex-Soviet republic that shared borders with Romania and Ukraine.
We mistakenly joined a queue of people for transfers, as our final destination was technically Barcelona, not here in Chisinau. Not that I expected it, but I thought that they might provide transportation or accommodation in town – this wasn’t the case. While queuing for transferring flights, we ran into an Argentinian man who was on the same flight, and also headed to Barcelona tomorrow. He was planning on spending the entire 20-hours waiting in the small airport to save some money, but we managed to convince him to head into town, as it wasn’t that expensive, and likely a whole lot more fun than sitting in an airport.
We ran the usual gauntlet of taxi drivers, and rather than annoyance as is normally the case, we were impressed at the level of English that they had. Though, it quickly turned to annoyance.
We spoke with the lady at the information counter, and she gave us some guidance about the public transport into town. The three of us waited for the tropical-like rain to stop before jumping onto a marshrutka (minibus) headed for town. Tickets were a grand total of 3 lei (15 cents) each, plus we had to pay a further 3 lei for each of our bags. At first it felt like a scam, but we both realised that they were taking up space that could have been used by another paying customer. As with the minibuses in Russia and Central Asia (well, at least Kyrgyzstan), the bus seems to stop at random destinations every few hundred metres to let passengers on and off. After the passenger has boarded, and the bus is in motion, money is passed up towards the driver, who doesn’t skip a beat counting it and preparing change, which is then passed back down the bus to the correct passenger. It’s really weird passing money back and forth between so many intermediary strangers like this, but it seems to work. I do wonder just how much time is saved by not doing this before the bus starts off in motion.
The bus reached the centre of town and we, and most of the other passengers, hopped off. It wasn’t so simple to find our hotel, as it was actually an apartment in one of the grey concrete blocks, but being managed from an office in another nearby concrete slab. At 345 lei ($25), we actually booked what was one of the cheapest options available, and it turned out to be really rather amazing. It was in the centre of town, and it was a large studio apartment, complete with a king-sized bed. It was hot and humid outside, no doubt fuelling those giant tropical rain storms, so even though we were keen to make the most of our short time here in Moldova, it was hard to actually leave the air conditioning of our comfortable room.
We met up with our Argentinian friend, who upon inspecting the hostels that were available decided he’d rather go back and sleep in the airport. Together we explored some of the nearby markets, which were pretty much the same as other markets we’d been to, including the almighty Narantuul Markets in Mongolia. And, much like those markets, I wasn’t able to find shoes that fit me. Once again, as we made our way through these large and claustrophobically narrow alleys between stalls, we were amazed at how much English everyone spoke. Ordinarily it might not have been remarkable, but after nearly four weeks in Russia with the absolute minimum of English (even from hotels) it felt like a luxury to be able to communicate again. Sadly, there wasn’t much there that took our fancy, plus it wasn’t particularly cheap (at least not for us), so we didn’t waste too much time there.
However, we were hungry, and we had it in our mind that we would be able to find sashlyk (grilled meat on a skewer) from a market, much like the first time we tried it in Bishkek. We admitted defeat, and decided that we’d probably have more luck with a café somewhere in town. McDonalds was tempting (I do like to try it in every country that I visit), but for whatever reason, we kept searching.
There are sadly few attractions in town, no doubt one of the reasons there are so few tourists. One of the few attractions that does exist is the Arc de Triumph, which like the slightly more famous, slightly grander one in Paris, commemorates a victory in battle.
In the same park, there was a small, rather simple cathedral. It too was one of the top attractions in Chisinau. As I was wearing shorts (it was damn hot), I wasn’t able to enter, but from the quick glance that I stole from the doorway, it seemed that the austere design continued inside.
We could see that the next wave of storm clouds weren’t far away, so we decided that we should probably make for shelter. Somehow we ended inside a large shopping centre, which was awesomely decorated, yet was somehow depressing. There was a small food court on the top floor, much like other Russian department stores, which seemed like the perfect place to wait out the storm that was starting to rage just outside. Fooled by fancy photographs, we ended up at a small pizza restaurant, called MTV (I’m sure it’s a genuine license). We let our hunger get the better of us, and ordered a large salad, and a large pizza, both of which actually tasted better than they looked – though it was probably the hunger. As soon as I finished eating, I had a deep feeling of regret, as I deeply wanted to sample some of the local dishes.
We returned to the apartment and had a rest. While we were resting, we had a quick search for La Placinte, a local restaurant we’d seen advertised everywhere in the airport. It turned out that there was one across the road from our apartment, plus the prices were really quite reasonable (not to mention the dishes looked delicious, even with a full stomach). We waited an hour or so, then made our way back out. As we didn’t really know how safe it was walking the streets here at night, we decided to leave my camera behind. I’d love to have been able to take nicer photos of dinner, but unfortunately my camera is far too visible.
The restaurant seemed to be three restaurants rolled into one, a desert bar, a pizza parlour, and Moldovan cuisine. As tempting as it was to get pizza again (they actually looked and smelt fantastic as they came out of the wood fired oven), we ordered a selection of what we believed to be traditional dishes. They consisted of an assortment of pies and pastries, some with sweet fillings, like almond and cream, others far more savoury, such as meat and sheep cheese, and sauerkraut. We also grabbed a mixed grill, and finished it off with cherry pancakes for desert. It was all delicious, and quite different to the food we’d become accustomed to in Russia. It was unashamed gluttony, and we couldn’t squeeze another bite in if we’d been forced to.
Now that the storm had passed, and the sun had set, temperatures were beginning to fall. It was now that we realised that we didn’t actually have any blankets, and there were none to be found in the apartment. We went to visit the lady in reception in the neighbouring building, who made a call to have some delivered to us. We waited thirty minutes, then gave up and decided to just sleep in tracksuits instead.
It was a real shame that we weren’t able to extend the stop in Chisinau to be able to get out to Cricova to see the enormous underground cellars, but doing so would have come with significant financial penalties. At least this way we have a reason to return again one day.
Moldova was an interesting stop over, however we understand the reasons for the lack of tourists. Having already spent a reasonable amount of time in other large Soviet cities, there wasn’t really much here to excite us or for us to recommend to other tourists, other than the fact that there aren’t other tourists! We certainly could have tried harder, and found more things to do, and places to see, but we admittedly weren’t all that motivated, and instead were more excited to be flying to Barcelona to see my little brother!