The perfect place to escape other tourists: Moldova
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“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those two imposters just the same . . .”
We were driving along potholed streets, through a corridor of grey Soviet-era blocks. The man at the wheel quoting Kipling, Valery Bradu, 54, with a wild mop of hair, was frantically looking for a piano to play. He’d written a song and he wanted me to hear it.
We’d just met with Disaster. The doorman at the Philharmonic Hall had, not unreasonably, perhaps, given that he didn’t know Valery, refused to let him loose on the hall’s concert piano. And so on we drove, searching.
“If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew / To serve your turn long after they are gone . . . ”
When I told friends that I was going to Moldova for the weekend, the most common response was “Moldwhere?” Some — educated, well-travelled — guessed Africa, a few remembered it as the location of a 1985 Dynasty cliffhanger. Capital city? People had no idea, though a few had vague notions of appearances in the Eurovision Song Contest. And that, largely, was it.
Pre-trip research revealed a survey declaring it the unhappiest place to live in the world and statistics from the World Bank identifying it as the second least-visited country in 2013. On the latter measure it is pipped to the post by tiny Kiribati (a nation of 33 islands surrounded by thousands of miles of Pacific Ocean). Statistics on tourists are notoriously imprecise (how do you differentiate business and leisure travellers, for example?) but here there is a sizeable margin for error. Moldova received just 11,500 tourists — a tenth of the number who travelled to tiny Bhutan, isolated high in the Himalayas, and a hundred times fewer than the number who made it to Namibia. And yet Moldova is just a three-hour, direct flight from London.
Triumph was ours at the Academy of Music, where Valery, my guide, found his piano. It was in a small room, at the end of a long corridor punctuated by padded doors, from behind which drifted fragments of sound: violins, harps, the piercing voice of a soprano.
“I wrote this for Eurovision 2014,” Valery explained (the song made it to the second round of Moldova’s selection process). Then he launched into his performance. “The shadows will soon go away,” he sang, “will soon go away . . .”
Later, we walked along the main boulevard in the capital city, Chișinău, past street stalls where babushkas sold babushka dolls. On the road, trolleybuses and battered Ladas jostled for space with sparkling Mercedes and Range Rovers with dark windows.
Chișinău was largely razed by an earthquake in 1940, finished off by the Luftwaffe and then rebuilt by the Soviets, so very little of the historic centre remains. One of the exceptions is the Holy Gates, dating from 1841, from whose arch an enormous Moldovan flag hung, the hem of which passing Moldovans stopped to kiss. Either side of the arch were central Chișinău’s two parks, the Parcul Catedralei, dominated by the city’s main Orthodox cathedral, and the Grădina Publică Ștefan cel Mare şi Sfânt, the entrance of which is guarded by a 1928 statue of Ștefan cel Mare, the country’s greatest hero, a 15th-century prince who led the resistance against the Ottomans. We walked through the latter. A young Orthodox choir sang folk songs. People jogged and rollerbladed. Teenagers flirted on benches, as the sun splayed dappled light through the canopy. This didn’t feel like the unhappiest place in the world.
Chișinău seems unlikely to become the new Prague, but some clearly feel it deserves to be less overlooked. Baltic Holidays, a UK tour operator specialising in Scandinavia and eastern Europe, is this year launching trips to Moldova. It had arranged Valery to be my guide, and as we walked he told me about Moldova’s recent past, the Soviet years, from the second world war to independence in 1991. “I had long hair and used to get black-market vinyl from the sailors just back from Odessa,” he said. “Jimmy Page, Led Zep, King Crimson. The Soviets would say to me, ‘Look at your hair! How can you be a good Soviet citizen?’
“Then I discovered Kipling. It blew my mind. That poem was like my spiritual path. ‘If you can dream . . .’ Under the Soviets, the state owned our lives. We were not real people to them, but shadows.” Moldova paid a heavy price for independence. A civil war in 1992 left about 700 dead and 500,000 living in a separate pro-Russia enclave, Transnistria. The economy collapsed; corruption was rife. Many people looked to the west, to the European Union, and especially to Romania, with whom most Moldovans identify, ethnically and culturally. Yet it was to the east, to Russia, that almost half the agricultural products went (43 per cent in 2013) and from where most of the country’s energy needs are supplied. Moldovans have watched the war in Crimea with growing anxiety. Many of its 3.5m people, Valery explained, including his own daughter, have left to work abroad. Their remittances constitute 25 per cent of GDP.
The next day Valery and I drove out of Chișinău, heading northwest, across low hills, through forests of pine and silver birch. At Căpriana, the country’s oldest monastery, founded in 1420, we visited the neo-Byzantine St Mary’s church, where a service was in full swing. Priests wafted clouds of incense and the chanting and incantations rose and fell in sorrowful waves, as the packed congregation held aloft branches of spruce, tears running down many a cheek.
That night, back in Chișinău, I went for dinner at La Taifas restaurant, the interior of wood and stone modelled on a traditional Moldovan peasant house, where, on arrival, I was given a glass of white wine and a walnut, as per an old Moldovan hospitality rite. I tucked in to my pike perch, served with traditional mamaliga (a maize porridge similar to polenta), sour cream and diced egg. The band in the corner, dressed in embroidered tunics, played a sweet, fast, waltz-like tune on the pan flutes, accordion and tsymbaly, a boxed stringed instrument. A couple danced, him in a sombre suit, her in a dress the colour of daffodils, twirling, laughing.
Over a quince schnapps, I opened Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Bliss (2008). In it, he tries to understand what makes some countries happy, others less so. Moldova, he infers, is like the ribbon on the rope in the east-west ideological tug-of-war, a country in limbo. “Without an abiding faith or culture on which to rely,” he writes, Moldovans have a world view which is ‘“free-floating, anchored to nothing . . . ”
On my third and last day, we drove to the Milestii Mici winery, 20km south of the capital. We picked up our guide, Arlina, at the gates, then drove underground, into the start of 200km of tunnels carved into the limestone, lined with 7,000-litre barrels of Crimean oak and 1.5m bottles of wine, a number that won it a Guinness World Record as the largest collection in the world.
As we drove deeper, Arlina explained how Moldova was famous for its wines under the Soviet Union, the combination of sunshine, soil and rainfall being ideal for grapes. The industry took a big hit after communism collapsed but had been recovering over the past two decades. Then, in 2013, Russia embargoed imports of Moldovan wine (the latest of many trade sanctions), a move Moscow said was due to impurities in the product but which others claim was about the imminence of an EU trade deal. A huge market disappeared overnight. The rope tightened once more.
Deep underground we came to some oak barrels in the wall, which Arlina swung open on a hidden hinge to reveal a cavernous space behind, with large fishtanks and banqueting tables. All very James Bond. She lined up some bottles — reds and whites — and by the time I emerged, blinking, out of the tunnels some 30 minutes later, it’s fair to say my mood was somewhat buoyant.
“And now we go to ‘paradise’,” said Valery, his tone ironic, and he started to sing “Back in the USSR”.
It was raining by the time we had travelled the 40km east and 25 years back in time to Transnistria. We stopped at the border post, where heavily armed guards checked cars and passports. All signs were now in Cyrillic and a vast Transnistrian flag flew from a pole, complete with hammer and sickle, the last place in Europe to feature it. It was all very surreal, especially when processed by a brain powered by Moldovan cabernet.
Valery explained how, after the Soviet Union collapsed, people of eastern Moldova — predominantly ethnic Russians and Ukrainians — balked at greater ties with the west and instead established one of the world’s oddest political entities: a nation that doesn’t officially exist, yet has its own government and currency, the Transnistrian rouble (though an estimated 70 per cent of its budget comes from Moscow). A few miles later and we were in Bender, a smart little town with orderly, wide tree-lined boulevards, whitewashed kerbs and a park with close-cut lawns and immaculate flowerbeds, above which, from atop a tall column, a statue of Comrade Lenin gazed benevolently. It all seemed so tranquil, so calm, in contrast to Chișinău’s restless energy.
“It is because here people have nowhere to rush to,” said Valery, seeming to suggest there was a touch of the Potemkins about Bender.
We drove on, past a base where the 14th Russian army has 7,000 men stationed, and on to Tiraspol, Transnistria’s capital, past a war memorial guarded by an old Soviet tank, behind which lay the Heroes’ Cemetery, with an eternal flame honouring the dead from 1992 and from the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan. We parked and walked along the main drag, named Ulitsa 25 Oktober, the date the Bolsheviks stormed Petrograd’s Winter Palace in 1917. We stood in front of the monolithic House of Soviets, Transnistria’s parliament, where another, this time fierce-looking, bust of Lenin gazed down. It struck me that by bringing tourists here, it is almost as if modern Moldova can only frame itself by what it isn’t any more, struggling to move forwards, glancing fearfully over its shoulder.
In Tiraspol, as in Chișinău, or indeed anywhere else in Moldova, I saw no other tourists, an extraordinary thing to experience in Europe in 2015. The country might not have the most dramatic of landscapes, nor the kind of ancient cultural treasures to draw the masses. But therein, maybe, lies its appeal; its charms subtle, to be worked for by travellers; its history not consigned to museums but happening right now.
We headed back across the border. “Goodbye paradise,” said Valery. “I will see you soon.”
Mike Carter was a guest of Baltic Holidays, Air Moldova and Radisson Blu at Stansted airport. Baltic Holidays offers a six-day private guided tour of the wine region, monasteries and Transnistria, staying at the five-star Nobil Boutique Hotel in Chișinău, from £471 per person. Return flights with Air Moldova from London to Chișinău cost about £290. Doubles at the Radisson Blu Stansted (for the night before departure) cost from £109
Photographs: Michael Runkel/Robert Harding; Mike Carter; Carolyn Drake/Panos Pictures
Letter in response to this article:
Chișinău pogroms merit a mention in Moldovan tour / From Jean-Bernard Wurm