We spent four nights in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova (and pronounced something like “Kishinev” which I found really confusing, as though there was some roving “h” that appears where it doesn’t belong and doesn’t appear where it does belong). We had two nights there before Transnistria and two nights after, before flying on to Rome. We didn’t have any massive interest in Moldova but the stop had a couple of things going for it:
1) It’s right next door to Romania and if not now how often are you going to be in the neighborhood?
2) We both are interested in the various former Soviet Republics. I’ve now been to nine of the 15 exes, while Mark has been to seven. We definitely need to get to Central Asia and the Caucusus to get those numbers up.
3) And strangely, there was a direct flight on Wizz Air – a Hungarian discount airline – from Chisinau to Rome. When we got on the flight I found myself wondering, “Who flies from Chisinau to Rome? How many Italians need to vacation in Moldova?” But there it was and we needed to get from somewhere in the region to Rome so why not go to Chisinau (which, as I said, is pronounced something like Kishinev and I’m still confused every time I write it).
What’s there to say about Chisinau? Not much, really. It’s the biggest city in Moldova and both the cultural and economic hub, but that’s not really saying much. Moldova is, after all, the poorest country in Europe and the least touristed. Still, with a metropolitan population of something over 800,000 people it felt like a metropolis after our two days in Tiraspol.
The city suffered substantially during World War II and it shows today. In the early part of the century Chisinau had had a significant Jewish population; those fleeing the Russian pogroms ballooned the Jewish population in Chisinau to over 40 percent of the total, one of the highest percentages in all of Europe. As the city fell first to the Soviets at the start of the war – it had been part of Romania – and then the Germans and then again the Soviets, the city was ruined and the Jewish population decimated. While in cities around the Balkans that we were in had substantial areas that felt like you would expect old European cities to feel like, that was not really the case in Chisinau. Today as you walk around you are surrounded by ugly Soviet-era blocks, sad and crumbling relics to a sad and crumbled economic experiment.
There were a couple of not-all-bad parks near the city center and we found good Greek, Ukrainian, and Russian restaurants to enjoy. We stayed in two different hotels for our brief two-night stops and both were quite nice. Our first stop was a Radisson Blu that was perfectly comfortable and in a great location, while the second was in a local boutique hotel that, as Mark said, felt as though it had been built with the money of a Russian oligarch who needed someplace to stash his cash. Though the location wasn’t great – it was a 20-minute walk to anything we wanted to see or anywhere we wanted to eat – it was honestly one of the nicest rooms we have stayed at in months. What was strange about the hotel situation was how full they were; for both of our brief stops in Chisinau Mark had to really struggle to find available rooms. Given that it was October in a notably under-touristed city, we were surprised.
The good thing about being somewhere where there’s not a lot to do is that we got other stuff done. I nearly finished a biography of Caesar Augustus I was reading (perfect timing for our onward journey to Rome) and Mark made big progress on future travel plans. One thing that was reinforced for us on this swing through the Balkans and Moldova is that without advance planning you may well not get the hotels you want. From here we’re off to Italy for two weeks with friends and that’s all planned, but after that we’re going to Israel and Jordan and then down into some of the safe Arabian emirates. So he spent his free time (i.e., his time not eating) sketching that out and starting to make reservations. We’re excited about heading to Italy, really our favorite country, but now we’re getting pretty excited about Israel, Jordan, and the Arabian Peninsula, too.