Visiting Moldova, a Sovereign country that was Once Part of Romania
By Paul McDougal
Sitting in the darkness of a remote bus station in Brasov, Romania, I wondered if I was in the right place.
I was looking for the overnight bus to Chisinau, Moldova’s largely unexplored capital city. Asking around, I received stares, shrugs, and confusion from the local people, who seemed no more aware of a bus to Moldova than I was.
Eventually, I got lucky and found a Moldovan girl of around my age, who gladly talked me through the journey.
She and I were taking the same bus, so we waited, bought our tickets from a man with nicotine-stained fingers and a broad smile at my bewildered face, then boarded the bus.
From my conversation with my new Moldovan friend, I knew I was in for more of the same Eastern European generosity and helpfulness which I’d experienced in my six months traveling throughout the region.
Moldova was to be my last – and perhaps strangest – stop before heading home.
Sharing Sweets en route to Moldova
We chatted on the bus, and she shared some local sweets with me before I drifted off to sleep. I awoke at the border for surprisingly quick formalities before we set off again.
Two things told me I was in a new country: the abundance of horse-pulled carts lining the road and dotting the view; and, secondly, the diminishing quality of the road itself.
The rest of the journey was a juddering, jolting journey of lumps and bumps, and the prospect of more sleep seemed far off. Coming from the relatively richer country of Romania, the poverty of Moldova was pretty clear.
Coming from the relatively richer country of Romania, the poverty of Moldova was pretty clear. This is one of Europe’s most poor countries, and it does show. That said, poorer countries normally offer warmer smiles and broader hearts, and this was the case again in Moldova, where the generosity of the people struck me to a massive degree.
Chisinau, the Capital
Chisinau is a lively capital with little to do but much to feel. There’s a certain vibrancy in the capital, and it has a feeling of its own.
People are the heart of this place, and that’s clear when you arrive. On the streets, people will say hello; in cafes, they will ask where you are from; in bars, people will want to be your friend.
I went for a wander with an American guy I met, and everyone was keen to chat with us and tell us all about their country.
Wherever you are, make sure you chat to anyone and everyone you can; you’ll be offered food, drinks, insight, a place to sleep and a new friend.
Oddly, I also found a lady selling kittens on the street, for the equivalent of $3 each. I was tempted to buy one before realizing that I would have no place or way to keep it.
Big Imposing Statues
As we wandered, we looked and saw monuments and structures just like you might expect from any former Soviet region.
Big imposing statues, dome-topped churches, brightly-colored cathedrals, communist-era buildings, and strangely, the infamous hammer and sickle icon still archaically carved and drawn on many buildings and monuments. Even government buildings oddly still display the image at which the western world may gasp.
Perhaps my favorite attraction in the capital is a still-functioning Soviet-era fairground.
As I was drinking coffee one day, I began to chat with a local girl about her life in Chisinau. I asked for her recommendations on the area.
She gave me a knowing smile, concealing something silly, and offered to show me something strange for the day.
First stop, to fuel our bellies for the journey, she took me to her favorite sweet shop and bought ten chocolates each for us.
We munched them along the way, and they were some of the best chocolate I’ve ever eaten; each one was completely different; cherry-filled, almond-filled, caramel-coated, stuffed with fruit; they were all pretty amazing. Moldova has great chocolate; who knew? Moldova is also famous for its wine.
The Main Attraction
And then it was time for the main attraction. With me still unsure and ignorant to where we were going, the secret still not shared, we vacated the tram fifteen minutes after having got on and took a short walk. We then arrived at our destination, the strange theme park which my new friend had thought fit to take me to.
It’s a strange place, but absolutely worth a visit. With its garish designs and bold colors, the Soviet-era fairground has a small rollercoaster, bumper cars, a Ferris Wheel, and a bunch of strange sideshows and attractions.
It feels like a true blast from the blast, a taste of real Soviet life with a strangely nostalgic atmosphere. We rode the rides, played the games, ate a snack, and went on our way home. If you’re a fan of odd things or if you like unusual attractions, this is my number one tip for the capital city.
Orheiul Vechi is a great day trip from Chisinau, and lies around 60km from the capital, though the country’s transport system makes it feel way longer. It’s an archaeological site with great historical significance and a large monastery.
I went along with a couple of other travelers to take in the sights, so the first order of the day was locating the correct bus.
Like many countries in the region, there’s no real such thing as a bus station – there is merely a collection of streets which buses sometimes depart from and arrive from.
We found a spot busy with buses, and began the task of approaching everyone in sight, asking ‘Orheiul Vechi?’
We were pointed in various directions from various faces, many of them well-meaning but wholly misinformed, but eventually found our way onto the bus. It took about twenty minutes of circling the same streets but we were there!
In classic Eastern European style, the departure time is dictated not by a timetable, but by capacity. When the bus is full, the driver departs.
And full does not mean that all of the seats are taken – full means that every inch of floor is covered, with most of the stuffed-on passengers standing for the duration of the journey.
Sharing Food on the Bus
After over two hours of standing, munching, and sharing food (though no common language) with other passengers, we had arrived.
The complex is very interesting; the church as bright and bold as any other example of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, the cave carvings interesting and historic, the views beautiful. The whole region is surrounded by small villages, hiking opportunities, wild horses, and fantastic panoramas.
We explored for a while and stumbled upon many jaw-dropping sights and views. Upon clambering thirty minutes up a hill for another awesome eyeful, we encountered a group of locals doing much the shame, who shared with us a few swigs of their local brandy. A tasty affair!
Knowing that we had missed the last bus home, it was time to find a lift.
Hitching a Lift
We intentionally eschewed the final bus, knowing that we would have no problem hitching a lift home; I had previously hitchhiked my way to a couple of small villages to wander and see rural life. So we simply approached people in the car park.
The first car was already overstuffed, the second car wasn’t going to Chisinau, the third was more than happy to accommodate us. The elderly couple spoke no English, but my request of ‘Chisinau?’ was met with smiles and handshakes.
They moved their belongings from the back seats into the trunk, turned up their tunes and drove us speedily all the way to the door of our hostel. Upon being offered money, they politely refused. As always, poorer countries offer the richest welcome.
Transnistria is a self-declared republic sandwiched between Moldova and Ukraine. It’s a demilitarized zone with links to Russia and is the closest you can get to the real Soviet vibe.
If I thought Moldova felt archaic, this was something altogether different. The journey begins with another bus ride, much like that described above. The difference here lies in border control, which is a strange affair given that Transnistria is not actually an official country.
Upon arriving at the border, you leave the bus and enter a small cabin. You are given a small piece of paper on which is printed your passport number, your name and your details of entry.
This entitles you to ten hours in the state, which you can either extend when you arrive in Tiraspol, the capital, or you can ensure that you leave within the allocated slot.
I’ve heard horror stories of people being detained and fined for leaving later than instructed, though I wouldn’t let this put me off – and nor should you. But keep your piece of paper safely tucked into your passport, flimsy though it may be!
First things first– changing money. Transnistria, bizarrely, has its own currency, which can only be obtained once you arrive, given that nowhere else on earth is it considered valid. It’s adorned with, of course, the hammer and sickle imagery.
We wandered around Transnistria for a while, the streets decorated with military statues and images, the avenues lined with soldiers, the posters full of propaganda. There are also statues of the famous figure of Lenin, which is a strange sight, to say the least.
But, as expected, people are super friendly and won’t allow their minimal understanding of English to deter them from helping you in your quest.
People are happy to show you statues, take you to local stores and tell you what and where to eat.
One cheery man recommended that we visit a local monastery, so we headed over the river and it was yet again time for the bus-finding routine of walking blindly to find a bus.
After asking many people, we were shown onto a vehicle and the driver gave a thumbs-up, seemingly offering to tell us when we’d arrived. Luckily, he and every other single passenger gladly informed us of our arrival at our destination, eager to help as always.
Noul Neamt Monastery
The monastery complex, Noul Neamt, is a splendid affair and the interiors and exteriors are pretty majestic. If this was in Rome or France, it would have queues out the door. But here in Transnistria, a monk, surprised by foreigners in his wake, was delighted to show us around.
He showed us the whole complex, took us to the exclusive realms of the bell tower, gave us some holy water, offered us free pears from the orchard, and repeatedly hugged us and shook our hands.
But a word of warning to the wary – holy water is meant for a blessing, not for drinking. I stupidly drank a hearty amount of the eggy-smelling water, much to the dismay of my bowels and stomach for the next couple of days. But traveling is about learning, right?
We then hitched back to the center of Tiraspol, wandered around a little more, ate some food, and boarded the bus back to Chisinau.
Luckily, we returned within our allotted slot, produced our pieces of paper, left the state, and returned to the relative normality of Chisinau.
Moldova is awash with small villages of little attraction but that of the rurality and reality of local life. I hitched and bussed my way to a small few of these during my time in Moldova, and was greeted with smiling, though admittedly bemused, faces, along with offerings of food, drink and a place to stay.
Annoyingly, I was working remotely while in Moldova, so I had to politely decline the offerings of shelter, though I did accept food and drink.
I have no recommendations of particular villages, but you will receive the same welcome anywhere rural and remote. Make sure you do it!
Moldova is a surprising package, but if you value experiences that are unique, unusual and somewhat adventurous, this is for you. You’ll be welcomed, warmed and helped, and you’ll experience a place of happy faces, hearty food, and rural hospitality. It looks very archaic, but it feels very much like home.
Paul McDougal is an artist, writer, and traveler. He is (sort of) based in the UK and is always seeking the next adventure.