Moldova. Where I hear you say? Isn’t that just some made up place you hear of once a year watching the Eurovision Song Contest?
Well according to the World Bank, International inbound tourists (overnight visitors) only amounted to the measly total of 8,000 in 2010. This is an incredibly low number, not surprisingly really given that the country has the hideous title of Europe’s poorest country.
Back in August 2013 I decided to try out the country for myself and see if all those shy international tourists are wrong.
My first view of Moldova was from the smoker’s den at the back of the train. I travelled overnight from the Romanian capital Bucharest, with Calea Ferata de Moldova (CFM for short) on the Prietenia train, which leaves at 7.30pm and takes approximately 12 hours.
Do not expect to sleep the whole way or in fact any of the way, you will be rudely woken up around 2am by Romanian officials who bang on your door for passport control. The border crossing is a well-known drugs route and security is tight. Good luck to any who try it as I would not like to face the Moldovan officials if you did attempt it!
Once I’d had my British (European) passport checked by the Romanians the train slowly made it’s way to the Moldovan border, by this point it was pitch black outside, I couldn’t see a thing and the only sounds I could hear was the rickety old train and some dogs barking in the distance.
I was in the last carriage of the train, which although busy, I often felt like something sinister was going to happen, however this is probably from watching too many James Bond films about Russians.
So I finally make it to Moldova, the crazy frontier land squashed between Europe and Russia. My Moldovan passport control officer could not speak any English; he tried a few questions but got no where. He eventually was able to say Hotel? I said the 5* hotel, best in Chisinau hotel. Before I’d even finished the sentence he’d stamped my passport and said spend lots of money!!
Now that all the formalities had been completed the train could now be lifted off the tracks and change gauges.
Yes, you did in fact read that right! They lift every single carriage off the tracks so they can change gauges from European to Russian standard. This was the one reason I actually took the train, it’s such a unique experience although it does happen in the very early hours of the morning so I guess I must really be a travel geek!
All in all it takes around 2-3 hours to cross both border controls and change gauges.
Once the train got going again, I somehow managed to lock myself in my cabin. After banging on the door for around 20 minutes for someone to come help me, eventually a man quite literally lifted the door up and pushed it open. I was rather relieved to say the least! All I can say Is bring lots of toilet roll, wet wipes and food with you on this overnight journey.
Thankfully upon my arrival in Chisinau (Pronounced Kish-I-now) I was offered a taxi ride by the local man who saved me on the train. His daughter who had been talking to me on the train spoke six languages fluently; I struggle with English sometimes so for this fact I was amazed. I’m always warned not to get into cars with strange people or go “off the beaten track” but something told me I would be okay with these guys and thankfully I was. They even helped me to the door of my hotel, my initial thought was they wanted money but for this narrow minded thought I’ll forever regret, they were simply being kind to one of the very few tourists who visit their country.
Staying in best hotel in the city still felt like a throwback to the 60’s although the main entrance was beautiful. The Leogrand is basically somewhere a local could never afford, €190 is the average monthly wage in Moldova and that’s only if you live in Chisinau!
Walk down Stefan cel Mare (Chisinau’s main street) and you will immediately think to yourself, why is there so many money exchangers? There must have been at least 100 along one tiny street it was crazy, never seen anything like it.
So my first day in Moldova, what is there to do? Well as you can imagine, in not being particularly touristy there isn’t a huge amount to do in the capital. However I was incredibly impressed by the free Wi-Fi in the capital’s city parks, this is something London could learn a huge lesson from. I was already aware of a break-away region called Transnistria, officially not recognised by any country, this was a relatively dangerous part of Moldova to visit as no official embassies are based there nor can they offer consular assistance if anything goes wrong.
So typically I decided to pay Transnistria a visit!
After organising a relatively expensive half-day trip and crossing the border control with ease, the first city I arrived at was called Tighina (or Bender in English!!). During the Ottoman period a fortress was developed, although personally I’d seen more spectacular places I was literally the only person there to enjoy it. Some of the torture instruments left little to the imagination…ouch!!
The capital of the breakaway region is called Tiraspol, a typical Soviet style city with ugly buildings and huge high rises. I was warned by my guide not to take photos of Government buildings and specifically not of soldiers. Thankfully I’m quite sneaky with my camera and managed to capture some images I’m not supposed to have.
Unfortunately I don’t have a huge amount of praise for the place, it’s very corrupt and quite frankly not very pretty.
Moving on from Transnistria I decided to visit a place that Moldova is most famous for…WINE!
I love wine from any country, however I’m starting to become more selective and I love wine tours. Relatively unknown outside the country, Moldovan wine is incredibly good quality but unlike European wine this is not reflected in the price.
The huge Mileștii Mici wine complex amazed me; it was like an underground bunker. In fact it was so big we had to be driven around, travelling along various roads resembling various wines from around the world – rather cool!
Mileștii Mici has the world’s largest wine cellars although it’s likely you’ll never heard of it. It’s a shame really; my guide was really informative and very friendly. Thankfully the best part was the tasting. White, red and desert wine. All were absolutely beautiful, although unfortunately I couldn’t afford some of their more expensive wine which can cost up to €500 per bottle.
Some wine connoisseurs are now paying huge amounts of money to store their most prized collections of wine in Mileștii Mici, mostly Russian and Chinese. Seeing it with my own eyes was incredible, i’d never experienced a wine complex like it. The storage racks either side of the walkway were packed full of historical wine dating back from 60’s and 70’s.
Well worth a visit if ever you find yourself in Moldova.
Unfortunately after only a short trip it was time for me to leave the fascinating country. A place where I experienced some of the most unique travel experiences so far, with just a hint of ex Soviet style customer service!
Moldova is quite difficult to fly into so I would recommend you use Air Moldova, it isn’t cheap but was good enough and they fly direct from London Stansted and many other European capitals.
If you’d like to discover more photographs and information from this trip or any others please feel free to ask me any questions. You can visit my Facebook page and please don’t forget to ‘Like’ Travel Geek UK.