After a five hour delay and an erratic taxi drive through some pretty ropey areas of the Moldovan capital, I arrived at my Communist-era hotel in a pretty foul mood. I dumped my bags in my room and ran my fingers along the wall-to-wall carpet, but even this crime to interior decoration failed to raise a smile.
So, I braved the bitter winter air and ventured out in search of something, anything, to elevate my disposition and rekindle the excitement I felt 12 hours earlier when I checked in at London Luton…
Lingering at Luton
At that time, my Wizz Air flight to Chișinău – the city formerly known as Kishinev – was on time. After a lacklustre 6am breakfast at Frankie & Benny’s, the departure time was pushed back an hour and this soon doubled in duration.
At its best, London Luton is just a giant Portakabin with a brightly coloured stud wall placed in front of it, but with the airport in the midst of a £110 million ‘transformation’, the duty free shopping area was as lively as a swimming pool after a child has torpedoed-out a floater.
The bar was open, of course, but I didn’t fancy arriving with a hangover, so I stared intently at the departure board as the flight time kept being pushed further and further back.
After trying the hand wash in all the airside toilets – they’re all the same, FYI – I decided to go and speak to someone. There was something about fog in Poznań and a stranded plane, but I am a sucker for a freebie and I skipped away from the information desk with a complimentary £7 ‘light refreshment’ voucher and wolfed down my second breakfast of the day in Pret A Manger.
Time moved slowly, but I managed to bond with fellow passengers as we discussed our disdain for the delay and whether it was likely we would get any compensation. Regardless of the outcome, I think I may have made Martin Lewis a minor celebrity in Moldova, as I directed everyone to his money saving website for the relevant EU flight delay guidelines.
Once the plane arrived, everything happened very quickly and we were ushered in to one of Luton’s gates, which feel more like a Prisoner of War camp hut than a holiday departure area. Within seconds, we found ourselves inside one of Wizz Air’s purple transporters and, finally, after much apologising from the crew on board, we were en route to Chișinău.
It was dark and cold when we landed, shrouding my initial impressions of visiting a country for the first time; noticing the architecture of the roofs as the plane descends and looking at what’s being grown in the fields around the airport. The airport itself was pretty clinical, but the process of exiting was a quick one. After agreeing a price with a local taxi company, I was soon on my way to my hotel.
However, the taxi driver took me on a somewhat convoluted route and I could feel bile rising in my throat as we weaved in and out of some sketchy suburbs, dodging delivery drivers and mongrel dogs.
I write about all this as, albeit in a #firstworldproblems kind of way, as I’d had a rubbish day and other than simply going to sleep and hoping tomorrow would be better, I had no idea how I was going to get that ‘I’m on holiday!’ feeling back.
Walking around a darkened capital, other than a few supermarkets and trendy wine bars, everywhere looked closed. However, as I sauntered past the city’s grand-looking railway station, some twinkly lights caught my eye.
As I approached, framed inside the Christmas lights was a bright-looking restaurant, filled with families and friends enjoying each other’s company and wolfing down large quantities of food. Above the door the sign read ‘La Plăcinte’ and, before my mouth could properly start salivating, I was sat down at one of the spare tables with a menu in hand.
I soon discovered that La Plăcinte is a national chain, offering traditional Moldovan foods in a contemporary environment. The signature dish of the restaurant is the ‘plăcinte’ itself, a large, round-shaped pastry filled with ingredients such as cheese, cabbage, eggs, potatoes and onions, as well as layered variants stuffed with meat. Ordering two pies, I was immediately sent to pastry heaven – a Greggs’s steak bake this most certainly was not – heightened by the fact I washed them down with a large glass of Chișinău, the flagship lager of the Efes Vitanta brewery.
If ever you find yourself a bit grumpy in Moldova, make a beeline for La Plăcinte. I left feeling full and with a big smile on my face, having tried something traditional in a setting that had already altered my preconceptions of what Moldova was like. Although none of the staff spoke English, they were all extremely polite and pointed out the most traditional meals on the menu to me. Plus, the picture menu was a doddle to navigate and entices repeat visits.
Back in my hotel, I could fully appreciate its Soviet kitsch for all it was worth. When the USSR was in full swing, I imagine the 19-storey Cosmos Hotel really impressed tourists arriving from across the Soviet Bloc. However, other than the introduction of an unreliable WiFi service, I don’t think it has changed at all since opening in 1983 – and all the better for it. People always want to stay in a place that has ‘character’, well Cosmos Hotel is like walking back in to the recent past.
My subdued room felt like something from a Communist-themed live escape game, but instead of offering clues on how to get out, fixtures and fittings delighted the senses at every turn. Tactile, Rococo-style wallpaper engulfed the room, only to be broken up by a round mirror that was framed by a layer of thick carpet.
Directly opposite the stiff bed was a piece of lenticular artwork that depicted a seaside scene, which seemed odd considering Moldova is landlocked. Regardless, its 3D effect was a joy to view from every angle and reminded me of something my Nana would’ve hung in her living room in the later 1980s.
Other items in the room included a telephone that had seen better days in the years immediately following the Second World War. Even when I had a call from reception the following day, I was sure that after answering its archaic reverberations I would be given a secret mission from the KGB, certainly not a pleasant wake up message. The television was a bit more modern. Well, it had a few channels in colour, although it lacked a remote and was about as deep as a double garage. Randomly, my room also boasted an industrial-sized fridge. There was nothing in it either, but, if there was a freak heatwave, at least I had a nice place to crawl into to cool off.
Even the room key baffled, hung on a gigantic wooden chocolate drop that was very cumbersome to carry around in my pocket and kept scratching my thigh. The suspicious opaque mildew in the shower was somewhat worrying, however.
Breakfast in this reinforced concrete monolith was served in a gigantic room that felt like I was dining in an aircraft hangar. Despite being filled to the brim with frilly tables, there never seemed to be more than eight or so people breakfasting there and the majority of the floor space was occupied by the waiting staff, who were all dressed like bizarre nurse-dinner lady hybrids. Why so many staff were needed was beyond me, as the tiny breakfast table offered just a small selection of meats, cheeses, pastries and stodgy delights that certainly hit the spot, but hardly left me spoilt for choice.
Regardless, all the staff I met were lovely and if you prefer a hotel with character, I cannot recommend Cosmos Hotel enough.
If you’re interested, you can read more about Cosmos Hotel over on Socialist Modernism.
On first glance, Chișinău doesn’t feel like an obvious city break destination. Its streets are hardly paved with gold, if at all – I think I walked along half-finished walkways and rubble more than I did actual pavements.
Also, apart from when I was being served in a restaurant, I never really saw anyone smile all week. Certainly, it’s very unnerving being in a country where people say ‘good luck’ instead of ‘goodbye’, as if something terrible will happen the minute you leave their company.
Plus, even crossing the road felt like I was dicing with death. Close to the derelict and modernist National Hotel, pitch black tunnels pass underneath Bulevardul Ștefan cel Mare și Sfînt, Chișinău’s main drag. I literally thanked my lucky stars when I made it from one side to the other each time I made the journey without being stabbed at from the shadows. I almost chuckled to myself before I left, when I read the UK Government’s travel advice for visiting Moldova; bring a small torch, it said. Well, walking through those tunnels, I wasn’t laughing anymore, I was positively shitting myself.
Luckily, from the darkness comes light and I was fortunate enough to be in Chișinău when, on December 1, the city turned on its Christmas lights. These brought much needed cheer to the capital’s dark streets, as electric icicles hung from trolleybus wires and a colossal Christmas tree lit up the area in front of Casa Guvernului.
Interestingly, December 1 is also Great Union Day, which declared the Union of Transylvania with Romania in 1918, along with the provinces of Bukovina and Bessarabia, which is today mostly occupied by modern-day Moldova. It was interesting seeing this being celebrated alongside the Christmas festivities, with lots of Romanian flags being displayed – most notably on a huge electronic billboard on Strada Pușkin – and it was easy to see how, as well as a shared language, traditions and folklore, there have been calls throughout history from both nations for unification.
Despite these joyful scenes, closer to my hotel, I would see street sellers each morning offering various wares on small rugs, that hid the lack of a pavement underneath. In my own romantic way, I saw it as a bric a brac flea market, but I was later told that people are forced to sell their worldly possessions in order to put food on the table. This was a sobering reminder that I was, after all, visiting Europe’s poorest country.
Chișinău feels like the Soviet Union fell yesterday and no-one’s still quite sure what to do next. This sense of limbo is apparent everywhere you go. However, once you get past these shortcomings and moving scenes, Chișinău reveals a capital city that oozes sights, quality eateries and is a genuine treat for any traveller.
Soaking up the sights
Firstly, there’s lots to see and do in the city itself. My first full day in Chișinău was spent pounding its streets, visiting everything from the Arcul de Triumf – watching over the Parcul Catedralei and its Orthodox Cathedral like a mini Arc de Triomphe – to the Parcul Ştefan cel Mare where I followed in the footsteps of Pushkin, who used to stroll the park grounds in the 1820s. Here, I admired the glorious statue of Stefan cel Mare – Stephen the Great. A 15th century prince, he achieved fame in Europe for his long resistance against the Ottomans and continues to hold a special place in the heart of Moldovans and Romanians alike. Also worth seeking out when here is a bizarre monument that looks like a lotus flower with a fire inside. Made of concrete, of course.
Next, I spent a couple of hours in the fantastic National Museum of History of Moldova. Before entering, the lady on the front desk laughed hysterically when I asked for the advertised student ticket. On producing my ISIC card, she didn’t laugh anymore and dutifully let me inside of the equivalent of 20p (5 MDL).
Once inside the museum, I was able to fully appreciate the history of a country that has been annexed throughout history and perhaps explains why it is still struggling with its national identity today. From its time as part of Bessarabia and the horrors of Stalinlist repression, objects and images highlight a country that has forever been at the crossroads of conflict in Eastern Europe.
I finished my visit in the museum exploring the temporary exhibition ‘Independent Moldova. Pages of History’, which celebrated 25 years from Moldova’s declaration of independence. Here, placards, posters and photographs focused around the beginnings of the Movement for National Revival and subsequent independence in 1991. I was reminded that Moldova is an extremely young state in its current form and the struggle for independence left me feeling hopeful of a country that has so much to discover about itself, as well as much to offer the rest of the world.
Another place of note was the sombre Victory Memorial and Eternal Flame, which honours Moldovans who perished in World War Two. The Eternal Flame burns brightly underneath a giant Communist-era structure which is guarded by soldiers. Time your visit around the top of the hour for the changing of the guard, complete with some impressive goose-stepping and bayonets.
The Victory Memoria is situated in perfectly manicured grounds that also include a World War Two cemetery and a Monument to the Victims of the Transnistrian War in 1992.
On the other side of town stands the eerie Chișinău State Circus. Opened in 1981, this Soviet-era circus appeared all but abandoned when I visited, but I understand that restoration work is going on to bring the venue back to life, so do check local listings if you visit, as it is said to be very impressive inside.
There was no shortage of places to stop for a coffee or a quick snack when out and about in Chișinău either, as tiny booths on every street corner offer a freshly brewed caffeine fix, sweet treats and lots of delicious bakery items. Reversing the trend of other underpasses in Chișinău, the area below the intersection of Bulevardul Ștefan cel Mare și Sfînt and Strada Ismail had some particularly good on-the-go eateries, which filled me up for a few pennies.
Apart from one McDonald’s, Chișinău boasts few multinational chains. I’m certainly not against Starbucks, but it was refreshing to visit a capital city where its two-tailed mermaid logo is not adorning every street corner. However, Chișinău boasts its own, down-to-earth alternative; Tucano Coffee. Proudly promoting ‘Love. Peace. Coffee.’, Tucano Coffee offers the convenience of second wave makers, such as Starbucks, but with the craftsmanship of third wave representatives. I visited a couple of its branches in Chișinău and was pleasantly surprised at the knowledge its staff had of their products and appreciated the personal touches (after you’ve ordered, the baristas bring your drink to your table to save you waiting at the counter, for example) offered in their South American-themed shops.
Moldova impressed with its Western-style eatery chains too. I’ve already mentioned my gorge-fest at La Plăcinte, but I also tasted the dough at its sister chain, Andy’s Pizza. Admittedly, it varied little to that of Pizza Hut or Domino’s Pizza back home, but when you can leave stuffed for just over £3, I certainly wasn’t complaining.
The other chain I tried was Star Kebab, which opened its first store in Chișinău in 2011. Offering wraps filled with meat or falafel, French fries and all the trimmings, their meal deal comes complete with a glass of neon blue iced tea. When in Rome, eh? It was actually surprisingly thirst-quenching, but I had no idea of its taste or what was in it. I imagined I was going to experience a ‘Sunny Delight’ transformation and wake up the next day looking like a Smurf, but, alas, that did not happen.
However, Chișinău really shone for my in the culinary department with its independent offerings. For example, not only did I have one of the succulent steaks since I can remember in Propaganda Café, its décor was a ravishing feast for the eyes. Its antique interior feels like you’ve stepped in to a Victorian dollhouse and there is something interesting to look at in every nook and cranny, from vintage television sets to contemporary artworks.
Even the toilets were a treasure trove and, after relieving myself, I spent a good few minutes flicking through the old novels on display – after washing my hands, naturally – and admiring, randomly, a hot water bottle hung on the wall.
Also close to the centre of Chișinău, Vatra Neamului felt like it belonged to an even older era than that of Propaganda Café, complete with themed rooms boasting imaginative names such as Aristocrat Hall, Sala Antica and Sala Regala.
I was seated in an area that felt more like a cellar than a restaurant, but it all added to the charm as I made my way through the humongous menu. Giving up several pages in, I asked my waiter for recommendations and soon enjoyed stewed pork served with a generous portion of mămăligă, a cornmeal polenta-like staple.
My waiter was certainly very well-informed about the wines on offer and this was something that resonated throughout my stay in Chișinău; the Moldovans clearly know their wine. In a country where grapes have been cultivated since 2800 BC, the knowledge on offer should come as no surprise. Every restaurant or bar I visited, there was an extensive wine list and the locals were eager to assist in choosing what red I should partner with my meal or finish my evening with.
It was therefore only apt that I spent my last day in Moldova fully getting to grips with its well-established wine industry. Thanks to the fantastic Moldovan tour operator TatraBis, I was able to arrange for a driver to take me half an hour south of the capital to Mileștii Mici, which boasts the world’s largest wine collection.
Paradise of wine
Arriving at the entrance, which felt more like a border crossing, a cheery guide jumped in the car and we promptly drove through a giant limestone tunnel to slowly descend 85 metres underground into what I can only describe as a ‘wine city’. I’d visited cellars before, but never one where it was so large, I had to traverse it in a hatchback and one that it had its own street names.
As we whizzed past countless oak barrels filled with reds, whites and dessert varieties, the guide informed me that this underground kingdom keeps the wines at a constant temperature (12 -14°C) and a relative humidity of 85 to 95 per cent to best preserve and mature them. In total, the cellars stretch for around 200km, which made my head spin before I’d even tasted a drop.
After seeing more butts than you can shake a stick at, we parked and walked to see Mileștii Mici’s collection of over two million bottles, which houses the winery’s Golden Collection, along with stashes belonging to private wine collectors. I was even given a glimpse into secret room, where, during Mikhail Gorbachev’s period of partial prohibition in the Soviet era, wine bottles were hidden away from the Russians.
The tour was a whirlwind, where my guide offered fact after fact after fact with supersonic delivery – presumably to get me to the tasting session even quicker. It was not quite 10am and I was already sipping a full-bodied red. I was clearly following in the footsteps of Hollywood royalty too, as the faded photographs of Steven Seagal and his wife visiting around me in the tasting room showcased.
After trying a few more sips – OK, glasses – and grabbing a few more bottles for home from the giftshop, I was being whisked back to Chișinău by my designated driver, as I sat swaying tipsily in the back.
Hours later, and having had several coffees to wash away the morning’s alcohol intake, I was en route to Chișinău International Airport. I was genuinely sad to be leaving Moldova; a county that had quietly charmed me during my time there.
Not only was the visit easy on my wallet, I felt that I had truly experienced an Eastern European country that has yet to be spoilt by mass tourism, but yet offered all what you expect from somewhere more developed – as long as you are prepared to root places out yourself.
At the airport check-in I pulled a sad face at the lady behind the desk and said, ‘I don’t want to go home’. She wasn’t convinced and winced back at me as if to say ‘have you actually visited my country?’ However, when I said that I was gutted I wouldn’t be able to enjoy ‘plăcinte’ for a while, she knew I wasn’t taking the piss and smiled sweetly back at me. ‘You’ll just have to come back again soon’. I think I will.
Stocking up on Bucaria chocolates, a bottle of Nucul de Aur (be careful – that stuff is lethal) and more wine, I boarded my Whizz Air flight, which departed, this time, on time.