When my friend Lauren emailed me a list of reasons to go with her to Moldova in 2013, I immediately said yes. Besides good wine being on her list and our friendship going a long way, I was curious to know this little known Eastern European country between Romania and Ukraine that was a member of the former USSR (1940-91). Plus, both of us were living in Europe so it was a relatively short flight and justifiable for a long weekend.
Vying for European Union (EU) membership since 2005, Moldova is caught between this political goal and the practical reality that Russia maintains a firm grip on its economy. Trade sanctions make it easy for the former parent to control its child that moved out of the house.
Before Russian occupation, Moldova was part of Romania and maintains strong ties with this EU member state. The Romanian language and other cultural elements bind them together. Yet Moldova has not been allowed into the EU because of poverty (it is the poorest non-microstate country in Europe) and an unrecognized breakaway state called Transnistria. Instead, Moldova adheres to the European Neighbourhood Policy, an EU entity that deals with countries bordering its member states.
Moldova’s capitol, Chisinau, shows its communist past with drab, cookie-cutter buildings. Exceptions are Russian orthodox churches with their bulbous tops and bright colors as well as some corporate buildings with colorful logos like the primary telecom company MoldCell (no joke). Lauren and I stayed in a mundane but clean hotel with friendly staff.
Moldovans in general were very friendly and welcoming. Everywhere we went, a red carpet was rolled out for us as rare tourists. Locals were curious to know why two young, American women were there. When we said tourism, they were honored (or thought we were spies) and showered us with hospitality.
“You’re from America!” one waiter exclaimed. “We’ve never had customers from there. You must try a special Moldovan liquor and take these flowers with you,” pointing to a fresh bouquet decorating the restaurant.
In Chișinău, we appreciated churches, parks, lakes (the capitol has one of the highest proportions of natural spaces among European cities) and the National Museum of History of Moldova. In the latter hangs the country’s 1991 declaration of independence from Russia, tacked onto a wall with no protection like a pin-up poster. It was an odd display of national pride.
Nightlife in Chișinău was equally intriguing. The hottest nightclub in town was located next to a gas station and fueled female “drivers.” At first Lauren and I were humbled by the number of gorgeous women hanging out and performing in the club. Then we realized that more than strong drinks were likely for sale. There was a large Russian man in the middle of about 10 women and several Italian men on a weekend holiday … Nonetheless, the music and dancing were great.
The next day was even stranger with a day trip to Transnistria, officially the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, a Russian-backed state in eastern Moldova that borders the Ukraine. This frozen conflict area is internationally recognized as part of Moldova with the exception of other breakaway states: Abkhazia, Artsakh and South Ossetia. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, tensions between Moldova and the Transnistrian territory escalated into a 5-month military conflict in 1992. A ceasefire agreement between Russia, Moldova and Transnistria turned the state into a demilitarized zone with de facto independence. It is a semi-presidential republic with its own government, parliament, military, police, postal system, constitution, flag, national anthem, coat of arms and even currency. The bills are like those in the game Monopoly – worthless outside of its own confines.
To cross the Transnistrian border, we had to be vetted through a checkpoint. Our young, progressive tour guide, Natalia, took our passports to converse with the guards.
“Do not take any photos or the guards will not let us in,” she said. “I repeat, do not take any photos. And don’t get out of the car. Keep a low profile.”
This was trying for me as a travel photographer but we managed to get into Transnistria without a hitch. Our guide repeated the above phrase at most stops in and around the capitol of Tiraspol. The state is a throwback to communist Russia in the 1970s. Not only is it a frozen in conflict, but also frozen in time.
Aside from statues of Russian political figures and state buildings — none of which could be photographed except tanks — we visited a famous brandy maker called KVINT. I purchased a bottle of it and exchanged a few Euros into local currency to prove I was in Transnistria. (The brandy is very good. I guess that’s how locals survive in the drab, oppressed state.)
On the drive back to Chișinău, we stopped on the side of the road to check out cabbages sold by female farmers. We took photos with them and the ladies kindly offered us a cabbage, a staple in Eastern Europe. We gave it to Natalia, who graciously accepted it for cooking. Moldova is blessed with rich, fertile soil. No wonder food crops and wine are among its top exports.
The next day, we delved further into the countryside, visiting at an ancient monastery run by a lone monk and eating lunch in the home of a lady in a nearby village. Her homemade cheese pie and dishes with homegrown vegetables were divine. Wine followed with a tour at Cricova, one of the largest wineries in Europe with 120 kilometers of underground cellars. It’s the only winery we’ve ever visited where golf carts were required to transport tourists! We even saw stashes of wines from Nazi leaders during WWII as well as a collection by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Our brush with Moldovan culture continued that night at a karaoke bar behind our hotel. It was a Monday so we figured we could practice singing without an audience. To our surprise, the venue filled up over a few hours and we found ourselves in a battle of English versus Russian songs. On top, two candidates from « Moldova’s Got Talent » were in town to compete that week. They humbled us with their outstanding voices so we took to dancing instead. Some local guys spun us around on the dance floor in a hysterical gymnastic fashion. We must have each burned 1,000 calories.
Our Moldovan suitors sat down with us and attempted conversations that went nowhere with language barriers. But they were sweet. Lauren and I thanked them and scurried back to our hotel at 2 am to sleep before our morning flight. Who would have thought that a Monday night in Moldova could be so much fun?
In spite of its communistic appearance and depressed economy, Moldova exceeded our expectations with flashes of vibrancy from MoldCell to “Mold cellars” to “Moldova’s Got Talent.”