Moldova has nothing going for it from a traditional tourism perspective – It’s Europe’s least visited country. Stunning mountains lie elsewhere – west, in Romania. Oceanviews and vast seas can’t be found – Ukraine and Romania connect south of Moldova leaving it tantalisingly close but ultimately disconnected from the Black Sea. City slickers will also find little to get excited about in the capital – Chisinau was razed during WWII and the ruins were enthusiastically built over by the Soviets with uniform, sterile apartment buildings that now look like they need a good power wash and a fresh lick of paint. In fact, when I Google: Moldovan sites, people apparently also ask Google often: Is Moldova a real country?
The tourism board has its work cut out.
In saying that, the tourism board might be the best reason to visit Chisinau. I never thought I’d find myself saying or writing that in my life but here I am suggesting Moldova as a legitimate travel destination based on the tourist information centre in Chisinau. Confused? I would be too. I don’t even go to tourist information centres anymore. I don’t think I ever did. Anywhere. Ever. They’re typically bland, state-run organisations that do little more than point out the destinations obvious highlights; the staff are typically as helpful and informative as a lion in its den. But in Chisinau the tourist information centre came to us, and I could not have been more impressed.
This blog is the eleventh of a series tracing our journey over land and sea to Australia, starting in Ukraine. We’re hoping to make the foreign familiar for you by showcasing the unique and universal details of the places we go and the people we meet. To get all our posts, videos, and exclusive content subscribe to our weekly newsletter here. For short, absorbing snippets of our adventure follow us on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.
Still scratching our heads after two perplexing days in the unrecognised state of Transnistria, we arrived into Chisinau’s main bus station where we stepped out into the chaos that engulfs every Eastern European transit hub. Taxi’s, minivans, buses, and pedestrians weaved in amongst vendors selling anything from snacks for long journeys to used clothing and jewellery. As usual, money changers abounded with boards flashing competitive exchange rates. I looked at our phone and saw that Chisinau was laid out in grid formation, which contrasted the disorderly scenes around us. To my relief, we only needed to take one right on Stefan Cel Mare Boulevard and one left on Armeanasca street to arrive at our hostel – just two turns in a 20-minute walk. Capitalist or Communist, I think we can all agree nothing beats a grid system.
The Tapok hostel clearly struggles for tourists in the winter months (and probably all months for that matter). Being the cheapest beds in town, however, means tourists aren’t the only market. And that gap is filled by mainly Russian-speaking men who’ve come from afar to work all day and drink, quite literally, all night. Pragmatically squeezed into a few rooms were an 8 bed dorm, 6 bed dorm, 4 bed dorm, and a kitchen area hopelessly unfit to accommodate 18 people cooking dinner. Fortunately, being the dead of winter in little-visited Chisinau meant there were never more than 10 guests. If you made it before the dinner rush you could turn around in the kitchen without spilling spaghetti down someone’s front. It was cozy though, and the tight quarters meant we got familiar with our fellow guests very quickly.
Sergei was one such character who we got to know and love. Sergei was Barrel-bellied with tinges of grey coming through on top of a face that suggested a few decades of blue-collar work and vodka consumption. Animated and jovial, the language barrier felt nonexistent as he expressed himself clearly through friendly, exaggerated gestures and it was always a safe guess to deduce he was trying to crack a joke. Sergei was affable and easy-going to boot – he made no suggestions as to what we should do or where we should go and never objected to being dragged into different bars or playing card games that he didn’t understand. As long as he has some form of alcohol in hand, Sergei’s smiling.
Every meal he ate was exactly the same: Instant noodles mixed with chopped and fried frankfurters. The frankfurters were the kind you see in the grocery store and wonder ‘who on earth eats these?’ and you convince yourself that there must be a mixup and they’ve sent the Moldovans dog food in sausage form. His repetitive, nutrient-starved diet chipped away at Beth’s ability to bite her tongue. Being a former PE teacher and avid health fanatic, Beth watched Sergei eat and couldn’t help becoming invested in his long-term health. It’s in Beth’s nature to get involved and Sergei’s diet would prove no exception. By day three she cracked and, with her characteristic lack of subtlety, surprised him with a lentil and kale salad. He looked at it the way someone would view a circus for the first time. He got Google Translate out and typed in: what dish is this called? Unhappy with Google Translates Russian word for salad, Sergei took a bite, struggled to conceal a grimace, and promptly got out some frankfurters to fry and mix in. Probably feeling slightly awkward, Sergei sat playing cards with us for an hour or so while the salad lay untouched in front of him. Beth finally put it in the fridge – much to Sergei’s relief.
Our unique list of characters at the hostel continued with Claudia – A young, sharp-as-a-tack Australian on holidays from teaching English in Kazakhstan. She spoke 7 languages and seemed to have travelled everywhere. She was likeable, quick-witted and unpretentious. I wondered how she’d found herself teaching English in the far-flung corners of Central Asia. She seemed better suited to a corporate office in Switzerland or working for the upper echelons of the UN in New York. I was interested to know what drives someone to live and work in Kazakhstan and spend a winter holiday in Moldova. I never did ask. Probably because I couldn’t answer why I chose Moldova in early January myself.
Adding to our eclectic mix was Jane from Hong Kong whose real name I can’t pronounce let alone type. Like so many english-speaking east asians, she’d gone with a generic english name to travel through Europe. Jane arrived into our six-bed dorm at 1 am one night and turned on all the lights then left them on while she went and had a shower – a cardinal sin in any dorm room. She was doing a whirlwind tour of European capitals before heading to Vienna to study on a scholarship. Despite an earnest attempt, our personalities didn’t click. I was too scarred by her dorm room entrance. Topping it off she left two postcards and some cash and asked me to mail it for her as the post office was closed the day she was leaving. I begrudgingly said I would while I fantasized about throwing out the postcards and buying a sleeping mask with the cash. Beth refused to let me do so and dragged me into the post office where I discovered she hadn’t left me enough cash to pay despite ensuring me she’d done the research and had provided adequate funds. I ground my teeth and handed over the extra $2. I got over it, barely.
Finally, there was an Iranian man whose name I’ve forgotten who lived in Sweden. I felt he was one of those people that you could instantly trust with your deepest secrets. He was soft-spoken, caring and his voice and tone seemed to emanate peace, love and wisdom. I developed a man crush instantly. He had emigrated to Sweden with his family and was studying to become a doctor. He was currently touring Eastern Europe in search of a university that would accept him in the middle of winter as he had finished his time studying in Ukraine. I didn’t really understand the sequence of events that had led him to Chisinau but I listened intently and got lost in his kind, soft eyes. I assumed that if Chisinau wasn’t the bottom of the barrel then it must be awfully close. I got the sense that he had had a long, difficult journey to get to where he was now. He never portrayed bitterness though and seemed quite content and fulfilled with where he was now and where he was going. He was the kind of person that could probably write a book about his life but would never have the pomposity to do it.
All these diverse interactions, introductions, and general life stories took place in the pint-sized hostel kitchen. Adding background noise and mild entertainment was a perpetually drunk Russian gentleman crammed in the corner who occasionally hiccuped and slurred something inaudible in Russian. He sat watching black-and-white slapstick Russian comedies on his 3-inch smartphone plugged into speakers that were as crackly and tinny as speakers found in a chronically underfunded primary schools technology cupboard. It was like listening to a cassette player on fast forward while someone constantly drags their nails down a chalkboard.
These are the characters that populate a hostel in the depths of winter in the least visited country in Europe. We were the Misfits in Moldova. And some of us decided we wanted to paint the town red – as in: have a night out, not: try to send Chisinau back to its Communist past.
Aptly named pubs
Like most trendy places in Eastern Europe, the happening places in Chisinau are all called something like Propaganda Cafe or Revolution Restaurant. We started around the corner at Eric The Red. As we sat down we ordered some snacks and drinks. Sergei indicated he didn’t want to eat anything and translated through Claudia that he doesn’t eat at night in order to watch his weight. He tapped his rotund belly while explaining this. The waiter brought over two pints of beer – both of which were for Sergei. Everyone else shared a bottle of wine while Jane told some boring story about trying to buy a train ticket in Kiev. I started wondering how this scholarship in Vienna was going to go. Sergei and I insisted we start playing Durak; a classic card game played all over the former USSR.
Over cards, we took full advantage of Claudia’s translating skills and started asking Sergei more questions. Turns out he’s a Moldovan citizen but works as a mechanic in Russia. He had to leave Russia to come back to Moldova for three months due to some visa issues. He showed us his passport. I was astonished to see his birthdate; he was only 28. Sergei’s
One wine bottle turned into three and Sergei’s two beers turned into six. Beth was regaling the group with our first year on the road and our failings at travel vlogging while Sergei quietly destroyed us all at Durak – he had his tongue jutting slightly out the side of his mouth while he intensely focused on exacting a satisfying revenge on us for taking shameful amusement from his birthdate.
Before we knew it, it was midnight; Jane and Beth headed to bed while Sergei, Claudia and myself went looking for more entertainment. I figured I might as well stay out as Jane would probably be intermittently flicking dorm lights on and off for the next few hours anyway.
The three of us walked into a bar that was exactly what we were looking for in that perfect state of buzzed and excited-to-be-let-out-on-a-Saturday-night. A live band was loud enough to reduce any interaction to screaming and spitting in each other’s ear from 2 centimetres away. There were enough trendy patrons to make you feel like you were at a hip place but not too packed so that you could still approach the bar. As we congratulated each other on a fine choice, right on cue, a short stout man in a dark suit with an earpiece blocked our red carpet entrance. Sergei turned immediately knowing the jig was up. Claudia asked this imposing figure, whose head seemed to be shinier than the disco ball throwing light around the room, why we couldn’t enter. He mumbled something dismissively while shaking his head and ushered us out carrying me lengthways by the belt with one hand and Sergei upside down by the ankle with the other. I was surprised Sergei wasn’t vomiting instant noodles and trough-quality frankfurters by this point.
We tried another place close by which promised a karaoke bar. ‘This’ll show that bastard bouncer,’ I thought in my inebriated state, ‘I’ll make an ass of myself singing Waterloo in front of complete strangers.’ We walked in and through a series of arbitrary and disorderly interactions we were seated in a large soundproof room with 6-8 other people and given menus and directions to download an app to request songs. At $3 USD per
Sergei and Claudia then chimed in with two popular Russian pop songs that I vaguely recognised from bus journeys and cafes. I was drunk enough to think that a sweet treat would go down well at this point. I browsed the dessert menu. I noticed something called The Chocolate Bomb and asked the waiter what it was by screaming in his ear as Claudia and Sergei’s out-of-tune voices bounced off the walls around us.
“It’z chocolate bomb, vot more you need know?!” he responded with a big smile. I concurred and ordered, satisfied with my choice.
A chocolate cake stuffed with melting chocolate and ice cream came out and I consumed it in 3.4 seconds. It was good. Well, I say it was good but it was 2 am and I would’ve eaten your shoes if they were put on a plate in front of me. Even in the state Sergei and Claudia were in they watched in astonishment as I ate at a pace that was only slightly slower than slicing open my stomach and pouring the meal in directly.
We called it a night after realizing that we’d need to take out a mortgage to continue singing. While walking home Claudia and I discussed the pros and cons of teaching English in Kazakhstan (Spoiler: there are mostly cons). We became more and more curious as to the nature of the FaceTime conversation Sergei was having a few metres behind us. Sergei introduced us to his friend from Russia. The man he was FaceTiming looked right out of a documentary titled Russian Mafia Henchmen. With a shaved head, a few grim looking scars and a heavy silver chain drooped round his neck he sat in a mansion painted exclusively off-white. I felt there might be someone bound and gagged or an array of assault weapons carefully laid out if he accidentally flipped the camera round. Adding character, the largest cigar I’d ever seen hung from his mouth and a bottle of premium-looking vodka was held flaccidly in his other hand. I expected Stuck In the Middle With You to spark up in the background and “Action!” from Tarantino. Suddenly I questioned Sergei’s Innocent Mechanic Back Home With Visa Issue’s story. And then I really questioned the gall we had to laugh at his age in his passport.
I slept soundly. Fear of Sergei exacting revenge in the night and Jane’s snoring and random light-flicking being drowned out by red wine, cider, and a chocolate bomb thrown in for good measure.
The next day I was too hungover to do our planned day trip to Old Odorheiu. A combination of drinking alcohol once every few months and being the victim of obscenely debilitating hangovers means a night out generally has a two day knock on effect.
The fact that Orthodox Christmas would prevent us doing the daytrip the following day meant we had two days to kill. In Chisinau. It’s a tall order.
We wandered the city and explored some incredibly underwhelming museums. We stumbled upon Christmas markets which weren’t particularly riveting and we clapped politely at the school band’s earnest attempts at Christmas Carols. I think we were the only ones watching without kids in the band. We took a short bus ride to Asconi winery and while the wine was very good I’d probably recommend you inquire about Moldovan wine at your local liquor store before getting too giddy and booking a flight. I’m the last person that should go anywhere near blogging about wine however.
I felt guilty that I’d come to Moldova and couldn’t find a reason to recommend it. It felt like the most nondescript, boring place I’d ever been. In an attempt to salvage Moldova, and because we weren’t in any rush, we stayed on to do this famed day trip to Old Odorheiu.
Little did we know, Moldova was about to be rescued.
We clambered into the van labelled Old Odorheiu. Seeing few seating options we sat separated near the front. A friendly voice called from the back in fluent English “There are two seats together back here with us if you want.” We turned and saw three young, fresh-faced women smiling invitingly at us from the back of the bus. Their bright eyes and innocent expressions said ‘come, sit and chat with us, you look foreign and we want to make you feel welcome here’. We walked to the back of the bus and Carolina, Alina, and Elana (yes it got confusing) decided immediately that they were going to be our personal tour guides and make sure we had an unforgettable day. They proceeded to do just that.
On the bus ride there we chatted Moldovan history, culture and cuisine. These girls were astoundingly knowledgeable about their country and its place in the broader geo-political picture. Alina would tell us about Moldova’s shifting borders through war and treaties while Elana pointed out little Moldova was essentially just a pawn for empires throughout history. As we drove through the countryside they pointed out wineries, churches, and anything noteworthy. We got curious about our three personal guides and we discovered all three of them volunteer at the Chisinau tourism office. They were getting the bus that day to Old Odorheiu to drop off brochures, have lunch, and, endearingly, carol the local inhabitants. These girls were as earnest and wholesome as Santa’s workshop.
We shuffled out of the the mini-van to surroundings that are as good as they get without oceans or mountains. A small river has carved out a modest, yet picturesque, canyon that snakes through a rocky, grassy, barren landscape. A dusting of snow with a chilly wind added a sharp edge. Perched atop one of these dramatic canyons is a small monastery with a cave network below it; hacked out by monks to hide terrified locals from invading armies. Nestled cozily within one of these canyons, sitting alongside the calm, slow-flowing river sits the small village of Old Odorheiu.
We strolled through the near-deserted village, passing a few donkeys patiently waiting to be laden with goods while a few curious, cute cats and dogs cautiously enquired about us. The modest houses in the village were painted in tasteful, traditional colours. Deep blues and yellows painted in consistent patterns complimented the mostly bright white walls. It wasn’t tacky like so much of what we’ve seen in Ukraine and Moldova where colour and sparkle are overdone giving potentially old, authentic buildings a cheap and kitschy appearance.
Our impromptu tour guides took us to lunch at what must’ve been the only restaurant in the village. A monopoly didn’t mean poor quality in this case though. We were led into a traditional wooden building with an enormous plump clay oven taking pride of place. The intimate, authentic restaurant served up hearty meals with local wine, liqueurs, and
We needed a bit of time to contently rub our bellies before hiking in the hills. Conversation flowed animatedly as we all bathed in the comfort that often comes with content tastebuds, full stomachs and the prospect of fresh-baked desserts and liqueur. We noted Elena’s American accent and learned she’d lived and worked in the US for seven years. Her personality had a certain quick-witted, no-nonsense feel to it. She struck me as someone who knew how to stand up for herself and had learned some hard lessons being a foreigner in the US. She’d worked in hospitality mostly but had returned to Moldova somewhat disillusioned with the American way of life – eating fast or processed food, working too many hours and being generally unsatisfied with the superficial lifestyle she felt stuck living there. Sitting in this tiny village’s snug restaurant after dining on traditional food, local wine, and biting into satisfyingly fresh-baked cherry strudels for desert, I understood what she missed. My favourite story she had from her time there was when a colleague informed her she was disgusted with how much food was being thrown out when kids were starving in Africa. “Don’t worry,” she replied drily, “they wouldn’t eat this.”
We hauled ourselves up to the monastery; Beth rolling me up like a barrel. We entered an old, heavy wooden door leading down into the darkness of the caves via rocky stairs. I felt like we were visiting an oracle. We walked downstairs with phones providing light, if not ambience. At the bottom of the stairs a small room was blurrily illuminated by a few small windows built into the walls of the subterranean dwellings. A solo octogenarian monk took no notice of us as he hunched over a table of candles reading a book that was on the verge of disintegration. My imagination went left-field as I half expected him to stop solemnly, look up at me, and declare that he’d been waiting 400 years for me. Then I would find that suddenly we’d swapped bodies and I’d look on helplessly in my monk’s outfit while he walked out in my body with Beth. I’d be condemned to eternity in this underground area – or until I could lure another young helpless male into the lair.
He did proceed to look up at us, but not to perform a spell on me but to grumble angrily at us for a reason that I failed to recognise at first. But as he pointed up the stairs I could see that we’d left the door open. Looking up at the open doorway I saw another image that would be a fitting stage for a miracle. The cold air from outside was ominously creeping, almost seeping, down the stairs. It looked like thick, cloudy white gas was being poured down towards us. The light streaming down would have made a dramatic silhouetted figure of anybody who decided to power pose at the top of the stairs. Like when Beyonce enters a concert silhouetted with smoke machines blurring the bottom of the stage. While I waited for Beyonce, the monk got up, grumbled to himself and hobbled up the stairs and slowly closed the door – he pushed laboriously with both hands while bent at the waist. I was sure that Alina, dainty and petite, had opened the door casually with one hand when we entered.
We gawked around a bit and walked down some further stairs and saw an empty, dark, rocky room large enough to house a few dozen terrified people. I imagined them huddled in the corners while hordes of soldiers marched above looking for places to pillage and plunder. It was a suitably doomy atmosphere. One of the girls lit a candle, said a prayer and left a small bill on a table of candles.
Being agnostic, I’m always nervous in religious places. I don’t want to offend anyone but inadvertently a devout babushka will berate me for standing in front of Mary’s portrait or someone will shove me away from an area reserved for kneeling or confessing or someone will mutter behind me that the wine’s for sipping not swigging. Anyway, I don’t generally know what needs to be done or when, so this time I did nothing and headed up the stairs towards freedom. Nobody yelled at me – a first.
It was getting late and the last minivan left at 4pm for Chisinau. While the three girls had taken us under their wing and shown us a great time here, they’d inadvertently forgotten one of the key reasons for coming – to carol some locals. So as we headed back to the bus stop we stopped in at a small bakery – the only other business in town and, we found out later, owned by the restaurant where we’d eaten.
We crammed into the tiny bakery where there was just one staff member rolling something delicious in front of a small clay oven and a couple with their young son. The girls excitedly pulled out their laminated carol sheet. Not being able to miraculously read and sing in a foreign language, I was given the bell to ring which I did with more gusto than rhythm. As we finished there were claps all round. The staff member gave us some baked goods and, to my surprise, the couple slipped a few bills to their son to give to us. Hmm, I thought to myself while stroking my chin, we’ve stumbled upon something here. I pictured myself caroling the ticket lady at the train station and getting enthusiastically clapped and showered with rail passes. Start-up costs would only be a bell, it might be worth a shot.
We drove back to Chisinau with our knees around our ears as we were crushed into another minivan. The sun was setting quickly over the dreary winter landscape while I reflected on what a great day out we’d had. I’m always hesitant to judge a country based on my own personal experience and interactions, but Elena, Carolina, and Alina’s sincere efforts to ensure we had an exceptional experience that day has meant I now can’t help but look at Moldova with rose-tinted glasses. Not only that, their sincereness throughout the day meant I’d do something I truly never thought I’d ever do in my life: Whenever anyone mentions Moldova I launch into a semi-coherent, glowing, lionizing sermon about how amazing the girls are at the tourist information in Chisinau. Listeners typically look at me like I’ve got three heads. Frankly, I can’t blame them – I would too.
I crawled into bed and grew even more content reflecting on the fact that tomorrow we would be catching a train – my favourite mode of transport – to Romania.
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