Usually I like to put pretty pictures up here, but this is really more representative of Chisinau

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).

The weather for our four days here was a total mix of sun, gloom, and rain. All in all, though, we’ve had fabulous fall weather for this portion of our adventure.

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.

Soviet apartment blocks

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.

Much of the city felt more like a developing country, more like Guatemala than Europe. Markets like this were certainly attractive, though.

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.

The parks weren’t spectacular, but some were nice enough

Even if they weren’t stunning, at least Chisinau can keep the fountains going better than Boston can

By now it is distinctly autumnal in the region

Another park with cute duckies

Our return to Chisinau after Transnistria coincided with the annual wine festival. Moldovan wine was surprisingly good but sadly the festival was on the a day with absolutely terrible weather – cold and steady rain. Mark’s raincoat brightened things up some, but it was a grim day.

Chisinau’s triumphal arch

The Stephan the Great monument, in homage to Moldavia’s greatest leader, at the entrance to the Stephan the Great Park

The perfect start to a Ukrainian meal: pickled vegetables and ice-cold vodka

A church

A statue

And finally, lunch at Propaganda, a wonderful kind-of-Russian restaurant in the diplomatic area of Chisinau. The food was good and it felt cozy like a grandmother’s parlor, even though my grandmother was a lousy cook and didn’t have a parlor.

We had a pleasant walk through Tiraspol’s botanical garden, one of a very limited number of things to see here

How can you say you’ve seen the world if you haven’t seen Transnistria?

From Romania we continued east to Moldova, formerly the Soviet Socialist Republic of Moldavia. I was very confused about the relationship between Moldavia and Moldova, but the simple answer is that Moldova is the Romanian name for Moldavia and Romanian is the official language of Moldova. Of course the whole relationship of historic Moldavia to the borders of Romania, Moldova, and Ukraine is complicated, and then you can throw in the fact that the region was sometimes called Bessarabia to make it even worse. Until 1939 Romania controlled what is now Moldova but when Stalin and Hitler agreed to their nonaggression pact the Soviets just took it from Romania. And they kept it until the Soviet Union went away in 1989 and Moldova declared independence.

That’s Transnistria in red, wedged in between Ukraine to the east and Moldova to the west (and Romania further west). Most of it is east of the Dniester river though in some cases Transnistria controls land west of the river as well.

OK. Then what is Transnistria? It’s a strange place, that I can tell you. Transnistria is a breakaway republic in what the rest of the world considers Moldova. It runs in a narrow path along the Dniester River (“trans-Dniester” becomes Transnistria) between Moldova and Ukraine where ethnic Slavs – mostly Russian and Ukrainian – make up the bulk of the population. As Moldova moved towards independence and declared that Russian was no longer an official language the ethnic Slavs began to feel marginalized and felt their future was at risk. To be honest, I’ve seen this in other former Soviet Republics: the ethnic Russian minority had been in a position of power and dominance but after the breakup of the Soviet Union suddenly they were an at-risk minority. So the Slavs in Transnistria fought back, declared independence, and went to war.

In the context of some of those post-Soviet ethnic wars (see Bosnia and Kosovo, for instance) this one wasn’t so bad; most of the fighting took place between March and July of 1992 and only about 700 people died. When the cease-fire was declared the Transnistrians were left in de facto control of their lands while under international law it is still part of Moldova. When you cross from Moldova to Transnistria, for instance, the Moldovans have no emigration process as they feel you’re staying in Moldova, but on the Transnistrian side you go through immigration, customs, get a visa, and all that.

Today, then, Transnistria operates independently but is not recognized by any U.N. member; only South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Abkhazia – all breakaway republics on their own – recognize Transnistrian independence. It’s a small country, only about 500,000 people, and they would apparently like to be associated with Russia; in a 2006 referendum the people of Transnistria voted overwhelmingly for “free association” with Russia. My guess is that despite the degree to which Vladimir Putin likes to mess with the West, he knows Russia would have little chance of imposing a pro-Russian solution there: he would have to move troops through either Moldova or the part of Ukraine that remains loyal to the existing Ukrainian government. So Transnistria remains in a kind of international never-land.

Its a sad place that feels run down, like a real throw back to the old Soviet Union

What’s there? Really not much. Transnistria has its own currency but you can’t use it or exchange it anywhere else. That means you can’t use a credit card or ATM there, since there is no official exchange rate. We spent our time in Tiraspol, the capital and major city (population 130,000). It’s a surprisingly and demonstrably poor place, presumably because of the difficulty in integrating with the larger international economy. And they seem to have a bit of a love affair with the old Soviet Union: there are statues of Lenin still standing, the big government building near our hotel was still called the “House of Soviets,” and it is the only “country” that still has the hammer and sickle on its flag. I suppose for the people here the Soviet era was the good old days.

We went for two nights, though it became obvious that one would have been enough. There was one really good Ukrainian restaurant where we ate three of our four non-breakfast meals. A pleasant enough botanical garden and a couple of marginal parks. A nice walk along the Dniester River. And that was pretty much it.

The one highlight in Tiraspol was a Ukrainian restaurant where the food was outstanding. Those are stuffed eggplant rolls, pickles, and soup, all washed down with icy-cold vodka. Thank god for that restaurant!

It was all a little sad, to be honest. I understand why ethnic Slavs would feel that “independence” from a majority Moldovan/Romanian country would be preferable to what they feared would be subjugation, but they’re paying a big price for it. To a much greater degree than we’ve seen anywhere in a long time, people just didn’t seem happy; walking down the street or through a park no one met your eyes or smiled. With a little luck the cease fire between Moldova and Transnistria will hold and somehow someone will figure out how to integrate the people here into something that works for them. Maybe. And then, over breakfast on our last day, we encountered a group of Americans staying at our hotel. That was strange since this is really off the tourist route. What were they doing here? Then we heard them and realized: they were missionaries, here to save the Transnistrians. As though things weren’t bad enough for them, now they have these foreigners telling them their god isn’t good enough. Grrr…

Now it’s back to the real world. We’d actually stopped in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, for two days before coming to Tiraspol, and now we’re headed back there for two more days. After that, Italy for two weeks with friends.

A government building with “House of Soviets” in big Cyrillic letters. And that’s a bust of Lenin in front. Strange place, indeed.

Tribute to the fallen heroes of the War of Transnistria in a decidedly Soviet style

The botanical garden

More botanical garden

Enjoying fall in Transnistria

On our way to catch a bus back to Chisinau. I love the way Mark’s raincoat brightens up a cold, dreary day.