When Ramona, our Romanian colleague, and her husband Dan invited my wife, Pam, and me to join them for a week in Moldova, we couldn’t resist. Having led many Ffestiniog Travel adventures to Romania and fallen in love with that part of Europe, we were both very keen to see something of Romania’s eastern neighbour. Would we enjoy our trip enough to include Moldova in Ffestiniog Travel’s 2015 brochure we wondered?
Moldova had once been a part of Romania and the national language is, naturally enough, Romanian. However at the end of the Second World War, it had become part of the USSR and remained so until becoming independent on the breakup of that country.
Ramona and Dan had both been before but only very briefly. Even so, there would be no language difficulties and, for them, it would be home from home. Nothing could possibly go wrong, could it……?
Day 1 - We left Ramona’s home village in their trusty Ford Galaxy mid morning and, by lunch time, were driving through the eastern extremities of Romania. We found a nice roadside restaurant for lunch and reached the border in the early afternoon.
Romania is in the EU and Moldova isn’t and so there were some formalities to be gone through, especially with regards to the paperwork for the car. Nevertheless it was painless and we were soon on our way again. The road was wide and almost deserted – we were on the M2 but this bore no resemblance to the one in Kent.
I had expected Moldova to be just like Romania – narrow roads with horses and carts – but had overlooked the fact that it had been part of the USSR for over 40 years, during which time its farming had been modernised and everything done on an industrial scale. Agriculture is still the mainstay of the economy – that and the production of wine, about which more tomorrow!
Two hours later and having already driven half way across this small country, we reached the capital, Chişinau. The city was surprisingly large for such a small country and surprisingly green for a former USSR city! In fact, with its attractive public buildings and parks, it was much nicer than I had expected.
Dan soon found the hotel and the check-in was straightforward. Ramona had taken the wise step of making a short-list of likely restaurants and we had a pleasant evening meal together.
Day 2 - Time to explore and see what Chişinau and the surrounding area had to offer. A local tourist agency, no doubt with an eye on possible future business, had laid on a car with driver and not one but two English speaking guides, one for the city and one for the area outside the city boundary.
By now there were seven of us and so the car was large and very comfortable. Dan wasn’t impressed. It ran on petrol and that would make it expensive to drive – not a patch on the trusty Ford Galaxy.
The city guide did her bit – a rather impressive church, parliament buildings, several parks, a very elaborate railway station which we would see again later in the holiday and a district full of high rise which is still known as the Brezhnev Apartments – we think this isn’t meant to be a compliment! Then she hopped off in a residential part of town and the “country” guide took over.
First stop Cricova, just outside the city. We’ve been to wineries before in Romania and Germany but nothing had prepared us for what we were about to experience. Opened in 1952 by the USSR government, Cricova winery is a huge underground complex and we were told it is only the second biggest in Moldova. The underground roads stretch for miles and each road is named after a famous wine whilst casks line the roadside – thousands of them all waiting to be opened on the due date and their contents tasted and bottled for market. Once upon a time, Moldova supplied the whole of the USSR with most of its wine but not anymore. Moldova as a country now faces firmly west and the punishment for this is economic.
Some of the roads have side alleys leading to ornately decorated tasting rooms and even banqueting halls. Photos of distinguished visitors line the walls. We were told that we could have had a sumptuous lunch down there but suspected that would have come at a significant surcharge!
So, back into the sunshine and time to move on. Next stop, Butuceni, a small village situated a few kilometers off the main road and reached by a narrow winding road that led down into a deep gorge. Eventually the road surface gave way to dirt and we even saw a horse and cart. So parts of Moldova hadn’t been given the USSR treatment after all and this pleased us.
Round the next bend we entered the village, a tiny single street of lovely old cottages. Outside one was a sign advertising this as a small guest house – there was even a menu posted and as it was well past lunchtime, this was too good to miss! We introduced ourselves to the owner and it turned out that this enterprising family owned several properties in the village which had been converted into accommodation, just like the homestays we use in Romania.
After a tasty lunch from the local traditional menu – all organic and home produced of course – we were shown around the various cottages. As it was before Easter, the season hadn’t yet started and the builders were still at work in a couple of places. Nevertheless, what we saw was impressive. All the rooms were en suite of course and some of the beds were the original raised traditional structures heated from below in the winter time by ducts from wood burning stoves in each room. Slightly incongruous but no less welcome was an open air swimming pool.
After the usual thanks and exchanges of business cards, we wanted to explore the village and this inevitably led us to the tiny monastery perched on the top of the gorge. This included a small underground chapel reached by a flight of narrow stone steps and opening out onto a narrow ledge on the side of the gorge itself. Pam and Ramona were required to don a headscarf and a loose fitting wrap around their waists. It’s amazing what this does to womens’ ages! The only other people there apart from us were an elderly nun and an even more elderly priest – at least, they appeared to be elderly but perhaps their true ages were disguised too. As they were about to conduct a religious service but without a congregation, we silently crept out.
Back in Chişinau that evening, we found another good local restaurant and ate well.
Day 3 - Today was the day we had set aside for a visit to Transdniester and here I ought to digress to give a little background information.
Transdniester is a small part of Moldova which lies beyond the Dniester River and is largely Russian speaking. After the collapse of the USSR and Moldova’s independence, the people of this part of the country did not accept the authority of the government in Chişinau and declared their own independence in 1992. Unlike the recent developments in Ukraine, this didn’t really make any headlines around the world, perhaps because Moldova is a small country and had no strategic significance at the time. Today, Transdniester has its own government and its own currency but isn’t recognised by any other country in the world except, so I’m told, by South Ossetia (which is itself an unrecognised breakaway republic).
We had wondered for a while whether, in view of events in Ukraine, a visit was altogether wise but, although the government in Transdniester had recently requested to join Russia, there had been no unrest and everything, on the surface at least, seemed peaceful enough.
So, with a sense of adventure, we arose early and made our way to the elaborate station for the 0725 train to Tiraspol, capital of Transdniester.
If Moldova as a country now faces firmly west, its railways definitely still face east. For one thing, they have the Russian broad gauge and all the rolling stock is ex USSR. Working practices also have more than an air of Russian operation about them. We arrived at the booking office at around 0715, obviously rather later than we should have done because we were told it was too late to buy a ticket for the 0725. Then, as an afterthought from the booking clerk, “Perhaps the conductor will sell you one.”
Out on to the platform we went. The train crew were all standing by the back door of the large green USSR looking carriage. The lady conductor didn’t seem best pleased to see us but did allow us to board telling Ramona in Romanian that she would collect the fares on the journey.
The inside of the train was gloomy, the cloudy and dull start to the day not helped by those half curtains that seem to be obligatory on all the windows on Russian trains. We found an empty seat bay for four people, sat down, drew the curtains aside and started work on the packed breakfast we had brought with us. The train left early but, never mind, we were safely aboard and looking forward to our day.
The final destination of this train was Odessa. We had at one time thought of going there but events in Ukraine persuaded us that this wouldn’t be a good move. As we rounded a curve, I noticed that the loco was one of those ubiquitous Soviet built machines that were once common in East Germany, Poland, Hungary and no doubt elsewhere and which the Germans called “Taigatrommel” (Taiga drums) on account of their drumming sound from the two stroke engines.
The conductor came to collect the fares. We couldn’t buy day returns to Tiraspol, only singles, and neither were we given tickets. I wonder where the money went!
The scenery was part wooded and undulating but looked unremarkable on this very dull morning. Rain threatened but, fortunately, not much actually fell. A little more than two hours later we crossed the Dniester River and noticed a check point on the adjacent road. Very soon after this, we pulled into Tiraspol.
Most of our fellow passengers stayed in their seats, obviously continuing to Odessa. In fact, come to think of it, I didn’t notice anybody else alight and perhaps this isn’t surprising because the two parts of Moldova don’t seem to have much in common.
My first thought was to go and have a look at the loco. I knew I wouldn’t be allowed to photograph it but surely there was no harm in just looking. Well, apparently there was because, no sooner had I started to walk along the platform than a very attractive but also very determined female guard appeared as if out of nowhere and told me I couldn’t go there until I had first got my entry papers.
We entered the large station building, recently redecorated and looking quite smart in a traditional sort of way. At the far side of the large hall was a kiosk which seemed to be the immigration office and, alongside the window, a notice which read in several languages
VISAS SHOULD NOT TAKE LONGER THAN 45 HOURS
We had five before our train back to Chişinau. Ramona explained this to the official in the very smart military uniform who seemed sympathetic but couldn’t understand why we would want to visit for such a short time. Eventually and in return for a lot of form-filling (including father’s name and goodness knows what else), he decided he would grant us 10-hour transit visas. Whilst these were being processed, Ramona changed some Moldovan lei into Transdniester roubles and I decided I needed the loo.
I’d already spotted the toilet signs and strode ahead, not noticing a woman sitting in a little booth collecting two roubles with menaces. This nearly caused a diplomatic incident. I had gone inside without a care in the world when Pam noticed the woman becoming seriously outraged. Ramona was able to bail me out with two of her new found roubles and, by the time I emerged, the crisis was over.
The next job was to buy rail tickets back to Chişinau. The booking office was a short walk through two further large halls. There were two possible trains, one at 1526 and the other mid evening. We reckoned that the 1526 would get us back in time for an evening meal whilst the later train would only just make it by bed time. So the 1526 it was to be – until we tried to book. Definitely out of the question, it would appear. Everybody goes on the later train. The woman behind the desk spoke a lot of Russian but only a little Romanian whilst Ramona speaks a lot of Romanian but only a little Russian. Eventually we worked out that she was trying to do us a favour. The 1526 is the Moscow to Chişinau sleeper which only has sleeping cars whilst the later train is the returning train from Odessa. The only way to use the 1526 was to buy a four berth sleeper and this would be very expensive. In fact it cost next to nothing by western standards and we settled for the 1526 – hard class of course.
Finally it was time to do our sightseeing but, firstly, this required a trolleybus into town. We didn’t have to wait long before an extremely ramshackle trolleybus drew up. But where to buy tickets? Then we spotted that the bus had a conductress and, with that, we were off. A moment later she came to us and, on payment of another two roubles each, issued our tickets.
I had expected Transdniester to be pro-Russian rather like Eastern Ukraine with Russian flags flying from buildings and so on. What we actually found came as something of a shock. It wasn’t so much pro-Russian as pro-USSR and perhaps this stems from the fact that it achieved its so called “independence” only a few months after the demise of the USSR so that was what they fondly remembered. There weren’t any Russian flags but there were hammer and sickle posters. There was also a large statue of Lenin, a tank on a plinth in the park and, spookiest of all, when we got off the bus in the town centre, tinny patriotic music was coming from loudspeakers to remind everybody how wonderful it was to live in such a glorious place. It was only later that we found out that the secret police is also still called the KGB.
We called in at the large market, though, in truth it was a large half-empty market. The local folk seemed resigned to their lot, preferring perhaps to sacrifice their freedom in return for the security that such a system brings.
We ate the remains of our packed breakfast sitting on a bench in the park and feeding the birds. At least they were enjoying their freedom. Then we found a small café and had a coffee. This was quite nice and the owners very friendly. It seemed incongruous in such a place.
Next we wandered up the street to a store selling the famous Kvint local brandy. Dan and Ramona wanted to take some home for their parents. I was told later that, had we had time, the Kvint factory is the thing to do in Tiraspol.
Not far beyond the store was a large imposing building which was the seat of government. Ramona translated the Cyrillic letters on the front – “Soviet House”. Flanking the building were large photos of the members of the Politbureau and equally large photos of famous people from the glorious past – all Soviets of course.
Finally, we walked back to the station by following the trolleybus wires. Transit visas were handed back in return for a nice smile from the smart military official. Even the lady in the booking office managed a smile. Perhaps they were all pleased to see the back of us – weird folk from the decadent west obviously up to no good!
Before the train arrived, large crowds plus a TV crew began to assemble on the platform. The crowds were there to greet their relatives returning from Russia where they had been working. The TV crew seemed interested in interviewing passengers as they alighted and we could only guess that this was because the 1526 had come via Kiev from Moscow and they were trying to get a story about what it was like there.
The train was almost empty by the time we boarded and we didn’t see anybody else get on. We soon found our hard class sleeping compartment and it was very hard. Fortunately we didn’t need to sleep and two and a half hours later we arrived into Chişinau. Had it really happened or was it all just a dream?
Day 4 - We were thankful that the rain held off for most of yesterday but today we weren’t so lucky. In fact it poured with rain all day but at least this time we had the car and could do most of our sightseeing from within.
Moldova is a long thin country and, in the last couple of days, we had already done its width. Now it was time to head north. Our destination was Soroca where a fortress stands on the banks of the river, the opposite side of which is Ukraine.
There is a ferry across the river at this point and it seemed to be well used but Ramona’s Vodafone was sending her a message which said that the Romanian government was advising against all travel to Ukraine. Dan didn’t get the same message and nor did the UK government send me any message via my Vodafone. We felt a bit put out that we weren’t being looked after as well as Ramona!
The fortress was closed for building work but a notice said it would reopen before 2015.
We found lunch in a restaurant which seemed to be mainly for young people who watched football – two separate matches on two large TVs.
Soroca was a pleasant town but it was wet and so we didn’t linger.
Ramona had heard of a monastery that was worth visiting at Tipova on the Dniester River. We turned off the main road to take a dirt road to Tipova just as the local bus was dropping a young woman to start her walk along the same remote road and we wondered if this was her journey home from work each evening and what it must be like in the depths of winter.
It was no less than 15 kilometers of dirt and bumps to Tipova and the rain was coming down by the bucket load. When we finally got there, the sign suggested it was a further walk along a footpath to see anything worth seeing. Pam and Dan weren’t keen but Pam offered Ramona and me her umbrella if we were stupid enough. We were! About 200 meters down the footpath past a church we came to the edge of a deep wide valley at the bottom of which was the Dniester river and the opposite side of which, through the mist, was Transdniester. It would have been an idyllic view on a clear day. We didn’t venture as far as the monastery but took a photo of the sign giving directions to various places of interest which we felt might come in handy on a future occasion.
Back up the dirt road we went and, here’s the amazing thing. About half way back to the road junction and about an hour after we had first seen her, we passed the same woman still making her weary way home.
It was getting quite late by the time we reached the outskirts of Chişinau and so we found a restaurant as soon as we could. Once again we had a nice meal and then continued on our final short journey back to the hotel. It was then that disaster struck. 30 kilometers of bumpy dirt roads had taken its toll on the Ford Galaxy and the bit that drives the wheels from the engine parted company with the rest of the car. We managed to drift downhill into a filling station and parked for the night, taking a taxi the rest of the way. Fortunately Dan knows a thing or two about cars and so his job was to sort it all out next day if he could. This was critical as we were due to go back to Romania in the late afternoon.
Day 5 - Dan was up at the crack of dawn and we didn’t see him at breakfast. Ramona was keen to attend a travel fair and to check out another hotel in case this was ever needed. Pam and I thought we would like to have a look at the shops and have a walk in one of the parks. The weather was brighter but cold. It was still only mid April of course. We all arranged to meet back at the hotel at midday when we would go for lunch. The plan was for Ramona, Pam and myself to take the train across the border to Iaşi (about five and a half hours) whilst Dan would drive with the luggage.
On the stroke of midday, Dan arrived back with the car duly fixed. He had found a Ford dealer with the necessary part! We went to the station to buy the tickets. The late afternoon train, the only one of the day to cross the border, was the Bucharest sleeper and, once again, the only accommodation was in sleeping compartments. We booked three berths in a four berth and hoped that they wouldn’t sell the fourth which they didn’t.
We had a full lunch at the restaurant we had used on the first night, reckoning that there would be no catering on the train so this was going to be the main meal of the day. In the afternoon, we pottered around the shops and bought a few souvenirs plus a picnic for the evening. Then it was time to go back to the station, bid our fond farewells to Dan and join the train.
The train was similar to the one from Moscow but perhaps not quite so hard and there was a small table for daytime use. We had already come to the conclusion that Moldova had all the right ingredients to add to our 2015 brochure. Ramona and I discussed how we might put everything we had learned in the last few days into a tour and we reckoned that the tour would be better balanced with part of the time spent at the hotel in Chişinau and part at the delightful homestay in Butuceni. As for Transdnieseter, we calculated that some would enjoy the experience and the adventure as we had done whilst others would hate it. Therefore Transdniester should be an optional day excursion with everything spelled out clearly beforehand.
After a pleasant journey, we reached the border station where the usual formalities took place but with an added bonus. After we had cleared Moldovan emigration, we were shunted into a siding to have our wheels changed from broad to standard gauge. The train was jacked up on large hydraulic jacks, the old bogies run out from underneath and replacement bogies run in. Photography was almost certainly not allowed although Ramona discreetly managed a few shots. Then we were on our way again to the Romanian side of the station for more formalities. Since this was one of the eastern borders of the EU we hear so much about in the debate on illegal immigrants, we wondered how strict it would be. It was very thorough. Not only did they take all passports away for at least half an hour for checking but also they checked under the train, on top of the train, inside the service cupboards and even inside the roof lining and wall panels.
It was during this process that Ramona received some alarming news on her mobile. Dan had been refused permission to leave Moldova in the car. We can all laugh about it now but it wasn’t funny at the time. It should have occurred to us but it didn’t. The car is registered in Ramona’s name for her business and, although Dan is a legal driver of the car, he couldn’t prove ownership. Worse still, he was driving alone with four suitcases in the back, two of which contained women’s clothes!
There was only one thing to do. Ramona had somehow to get back into Moldova so that Dan could pick her up and then both of them could go through together.
But Ramona was already in Romania and her passport was at this very moment being processed. We arranged to meet up at the hotel in Iaşi if ever she was able to make it safely across the border. I knew where the hotel was from leading previous Ffestiniog tours to the city. Then, before she had time to say “goodbye” she was ushered away by the Romanian border official. More difficult, no doubt, was explaining to the Moldovan immigration staff why she wanted to re-enter a country she had left only thirty minutes previously.
Pam and I were still pondering all this when our train set off again. There was no changing of minds now.
It is only a short journey from the border to Iaşi and it was with much relief that, when we arrived, we found a smiling Ramona and a smiling Dan waiting on the platform. Never had a hug been more heartfelt!
As I lay awake that night thinking about it all, it occurred to me that there is a lot more to EU membership than the oft debated issues of immigration, welfare benefits and health tourism. Back in Romania, although still some 2000 miles from Penrhyndeudraeth, we were home in the security of our cozy comfort zone and that meant a lot that night.
The final itinerary for the public tour will include a tram tour of Iaşi and a few days in Bucovina but since Iaşi and Bucovina are already well known to us, the research trip concluded at this point and we made our way back to Ramona’s village for a few days’ rest before the flight home!
The public tour will of course have the benefit of a hired coach for transport and so some of the pitfalls we encountered won’t occur. Nevertheless, we wanted to tell it as it was for us so that you can make up your own minds whether this is also the holiday for you.
As mentioned in the text above, we intend to make the day trip to Transdniester entirely optional.