Chisinau’s train station waiting room is sparse and utilitarian, yet unintentionally inspiring. A giant map showcasing all the train routes across Eastern Europe and Asia spreads out across an entire wall. I started secretly hoping our train was late so I could just stare in wonder at the cross-continental lines. The antique ticker timetable on the wall also battled for my attention and I felt wanderlust rushing through my veins. Moscow, Budapest, Bucharest and Vienna were the next few trains to go. I wanted to be on all of them.
Alas, I only have one body so we chose the one to Bucharest with the intention of getting off just over the border in a city called Iasi (pronounced Yash). From reading, Iasi seemed to be the blooming flower of Romania. It’s stately Palace of Culture had recently been given Romania’s most expensive facelift since joining the EU. I read about a thriving night life and a foodie scene powered by a vibrant student population. It seemed like a no-brainer.
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The sun had set and a moonless night descended. Whipping my drool off the awe-inspiring map and purchasing a private cabin in another cosy, rustic carriage, we boarded under the station lights. I looked at our train ticket and noticed we wouldn’t be arriving into Iasi until 10:20 pm – a five-hour journey. On the map, it looked to be no more than 100 km away. Not that I was complaining, I’ll take any excuse for a long train ride. We set off at a decent speed and I couldn’t help but wonder what would keep us from arriving three hours ahead of schedule. I put it out of my mind while sitting back with my e-reader. The night lights of Chisinau receded behind us and Moldova’s darkened rural countryside encapsulated us.
After a speedy hour and a half, we reached the border. WIth Iasi only a further 20 kilometres or so, I wondered how on earth formalities were going to chew up 3.5 hours. The Moldovan authorities came aboard and collected our passports without asking a single question. They stepped off momentarily then came back and returned our passports casually, complete with a Moldovan exit stamp. ‘That was simple,’ I wondered, cautiously optimistic, ‘what have the Romanians got in store for us for three hours and twenty-five minutes?’
The train lumbered forward for a few hundred metres and stopped. A few minutes later we rattled back a couple of hundred metres. Then we lumbered forward a hundred metres or so. I popped my head out of our cabin into the hallway and looked down each way. Our carriage was mostly empty and there were no authoritative figures in sight. We looked out the window and a mildly amusing show commenced.
What we’d failed to realize in advance was the fact we were currently on the former Soviet border. This is the spot where former empires and ideologies drew lines in the dirt. One of the diverging beliefs, it seems, was on railway tracks. Trains from the former Soviet bloc couldn’t glide on the tracks laid in the rest of Europe and vice-versa. I’d think the most efficient way to overcome such a problem would be to have passengers alight and change trains at the border but it seems the Moldovans and Romanians prefer to have some fun with giant tools instead.
For the next two and a half hours we watched from the comfort of our cabin as each carriage was elevated off its wheels while burly men rolled out the hefty wheels from under us. They then laboriously rolled in the wheels fit for the rest of Europe; crowbars levered the wheels backwards and forwards to ensure we were lowered into place correctly. A satisfying click, like a seatbelt into a buckle, would have been reassuring but was elusive.
It was like watching a toy train set being dismantled and put back together; we were like lego-sized passengers stuck in the suspended carriage, eyes and cameras glued to the window. It was entertaining for a while but after two hours we were starting to crawl up the walls. I started to realize my infatuation with trains is due partly to the fact they move in a linear direction towards new and exciting places.
We weren’t just leaving the former Soviet Union, we were entering the blurry edges of the European Union. Romania is apart of the EU but is not apart of the obscurely named Schengen zone. While being a member of the EU liberalizes trade relations and economic ties, the Schengen zone is an area of Europe where borders have been effectively removed for the free movement of citizens. So, it seemed to me, the EU was willing to do business with Romania but didn’t trust it to be in charge of its exterior borders. It’s probably more complicated than that though if you asked a bureaucrat in Brussels. Regardless, I was curious to see how Romania was doing after a decade of EU membership.
While I pondered Romania’s geopolitical situation, the right wheels were being applied to the final few carriages. A Romanian border guard boarded and collected our passports with minimal fuss and no questions. He was closely followed behind by a customs agent who popped his head in our cabin:
“Any drugs? Guns?”
Before we had a chance to desperately respond in the negative and plead our innocence he let out a laugh that came from the depths of his barrel-belly, closed our cabin door, and walked on. We could hear him chuckling as he headed down the carriage. That joke clearly doesn’t age.
We got our passports back, the train jolted forward and backwards a few times as our train was put back together and we glided on to Iasi. During the whole process, no one checked anything in our cabin or our bags. Maybe the bureaucrats in Brussels were right to be sceptical about Romania’s thoroughness at its borders.
At the risk of sounding petty, one of the first things that I judge a city on is walkability. Iasi is not walkable – at least the parts we explored. We were constantly confronted with intersections that lacked crossings or lights. We scampered across roads avoiding trams, buses, cars and motorbikes. It was like we were constantly playing frogger but with much more dire consequences for failure than slotting another dollar into the machine.
The morning after our quirky train ride, we dodged our way from our Airbnb to Romania’s most expensive, newly renovated masterpiece – the Palace of Culture.
Seen from some distance around due to its dominance over the rest of the city, the palace is absurdly opulent. Think intricately carved stone lions with their paw atop the globe and turrets attached everywhere that could’ve housed Rapunzel. It’s stately appearance and sheer size would satisfy any megalomaniacal monarch.
Housing four museums, we felt obligated to go in and see what they were about. With millions of euros poured into the place and being lauded as the crowning jewel of Romania’s successful ascension into the EU, we thought there might be something to the place.
Sales and service.
Strolling into the entrance area, that looked fit to host a 19th century bourgeois ball, we headed over to the ticket counter. With just a few leaflets informing us of little more than entrance prices and times, we were looking to be enlightened as to what to see. The frumpy lady behind the ticket glass despised us immediately and pointed us over to the information desk when it was clear we weren’t just going to hand over cash and buy a pass for all four museums. We walked over to the information desk that was labelled as such. It looked to be the kind of desk where one could get valuable insights into whether the museums were worth the hefty 40 Romanian Leu to enter.
The young lady spoke fluent English but was exceptionally useless. She seemed flustered and inconvenienced by the fact we’d come to the information desk for information. She imparted nothing other than the names of the four museums and what’s obviously contained in them – ‘in the Romanian art museum you will find Romanian art’.
We stepped away from the desk and I stated what we were both feeling, ‘I don’t really want to see any of it.’ ‘Yeah’, Beth replied thoughtfully, with a mix of guilt and relief – guilt that we might be doing some major faux pas for skipping the biggest attraction that Iasi has to offer and relief that we weren’t going to wander through the exhibits politely feigning interest. We looked through the leaflet further and it seemed like we could climb the clock tower, we enquired at the uninformative information desk about whether there were good views at the top.
“So the one thing you want to see is the one thing I didn’t tell you about?” our unhelpful lady asked sarcastically, suddenly proud of her duties and offended that her uninspiring spiel didn’t have us showering her with compliments and promises to see all four museums.
I wanted to reply ‘well, yes, because you’re terrible at your job and it would be better to have a paper billboard in your seat rather than you – it would at least save the city your salary which you’re clearly undeserving of’, but instead I mumbled awkwardly ‘err, yeah.’
She went on to explain that there are no views at the clock tower and it’s “just an old man” who explains the workings of the clock, “But he doesn’t speak English so you won’t get anything out of it”. O, good, sign me up!
If we were looking for views, she informed us, we should head to a church across town. I asked her how to get there. She told me to look on Google maps.
We wandered around the free parts of the palace for 10 minutes. It was full of enormous presentation halls, stately rooms and hallways you could drive a bus through. Some signs indicated that such and such a king gave such and such a speech on such and such a date in this hall. Some boring paragraphs briefly explained some of the architectural features and design along with the interior decor.
I desperately wanted the signs to tell me something interesting and engaging. Maybe the king used to have a habit of incessantly farting while he gave a nervous speech, maybe this spot was where the queen first eyed her mysterious Hungarian lover. So often museums just blandly state some dates and people with no insight or engaging observations. The Palace of Culture in Iasi could do worse than taking the salary of the information desk lady and paying Bill Bryson to write the descriptions of the museum’s inside and why I should pay to enter.
With the explicit exception of science museums – which seem universally interesting, engaging, and interactive – I rarely go into a museum, gallery, or any site really that has descriptions and exhibits that I find engaging. More often than not, I feel some irrational obligation to visit even though I fully expect to be bored out of my mind.
Maybe I’m not cultured or educated enough, but I can’t help but feel I’m not alone. In the Romanian art museum, wouldn’t it be great to have a section where kids and adults can give painting the style a go to get a better appreciation of what we’re looking at? Or a time lapse of someone painting something we see? Even a student studying one of the subjects contained in the four museums could surely be employed part-time to add some interpretation.
This blog post has inadvertently turned into a big whinge about the Palace of Culture in Iasi, which was not my intention. I guess now that I’m putting fingers to keyboard I’m realizing how frustrating the experience was and how much better it could’ve
Wrapping up my whinge.
Anyway, we spent the rest of our two days in Iasi in second-hand book shops, nice cafes and the cute Christmas market that spread out along the only pedestrianized
It was a nice city and I could see it would be a great place to live and study. For a short-term visitor though, it’s not a place I would change my itinerary for.
Luckily for us, the mountains were just a couple of hours west. And after a few weeks being solely in cities, it was these mountains that called us. Fed up with cities, we dived onto a passing bus heading that direction.
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