Weetabix covered in Marmite for breakfast? Err… maybe not.
Back bacon, sausage, eggs, black pudding, tomatoes, mushrooms, fried bread and toast with butter…
When holidaying in the UK, there’s nothing quite like waking up in a bed and breakfast to the joys of a traditional English fry-up.
Admittedly, I have a passionate dislike for baked beans (although full English breakfast aficionados would say that baked beans should never be offered as part of a fry-up) and most holidaymakers have one or two alternate requests to the advertised menu when ordering their dish at a B&B – but corn flakes in lager is certainly one you wouldn’t expect as a hotelier.
From a doll hospital to lesser-known delicacies, this guide will help you discover the hidden gems of Lisbon for yourself.
From the beating heart of Alfama to the Manueline marvels of Belém, Lisbon is a truly world class city that is sure to delight any visitor. On a recent trip to the Portuguese capital, I decided to truly get under the skin of the city and seek out some of the lesser-known sites the guide books often overlook.
For first time visitors, don’t forget to check out Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, Castelo de São Jorge and Praça do Comércio or enjoy the pleasures of ‘pastéis de nata’, ‘fado’ music and the charming trams and ‘elevadores’ that grind up and down the city’s streets.
However, if you’re planning your second (or umpteenth) trip – or just fancy going beyond the tried and tested tourist trail – here I present my Top 10 Alternative Lisbon.
The Doll Hospital
Above an unassuming toy shop on Praça da Figueira you can visit ‘Hospital de Bonecas’ – The Doll Hospital. Owned by the same family since 1830, it is one of the world’s oldest doll hospitals, where beloved possessions sent in from around the globe are given a new lease of life.
From close-up animal encounters to the history of Kenyan rail transport, Nairobi offers the perfect taster for the best this African nation has to offer.
I went to Kenya for business, but it was the spirit of its people that will draw me back.
My first trip to Kenya came about as a result of me representing my place of work at the Uniserv UK Education Fair 2017, which took place at the Sarit Centre in Nairobi earlier this year.
There was a great irony in this situation as, while I was discussing with hundreds of prospective Kenyan students all the things they might be able to do for the first time if they choose to study in the UK – attend a Premier League match, take a ride in a black cab or make a snowman – I was experiencing their country for the first time. Continue reading “The warmth of Kenya”
From the world’s largest labyrinth to the world’s the world’s first monument to Darth Vader, Odessa makes for an unusual yet captivating city break.
I know the phrase ‘Paris of the…’ gets bandied around all too often, but Odessa may well be worthy of that statement. It’s like the best bits of Paris, Milan and Istanbul have all been mixed in a Slavic hotpot. Plus, just like Barcelona, it boasts stunning beaches mere minutes from the city centre.
Odessa might not seem like the obvious city break destination, but there is plenty to see and do for a short trip, with countless eateries to suit all taste buds and green spaces that are simply captivating.
Ukraine hasn’t had its fair share of good press recently and Odessa, its third most populous city, is no exception, with violent clashes taking place there in the country’s 2014 pro-Russian conflict.
However, despite the delicate situation in nearby Crimea, it appears to be business as usual for Odessans and I felt nothing but calm as I wandered the city’s streets at all hours, being met by the locals with a warm smile and good humour every time.
Founded in the 18th century by Catherine the Great, Odessa blossomed from 1815 onwards when it became a duty-free port. The wealth of this period is evident in the stunning neoclassical and Renaissance revival buildings that border an easy to navigate grid street plan.
However, it is perhaps the immigrants that the Black Sea port attracted that has left the city with its greatest legacy, leaving behind a pan-European outlook evident in the wealth of artistic treasures on display and the multitude of world cuisines on offer in such a relatively small urban centre. You only have to look at a map of Odessa to see this influence, with French and Italian Boulevards and Greek, Jewish and Albanian Streets listed, to name but a few. People from more than 130 nationalities live in Odessa today.
Where to stay
Odessa boasts accommodation to suit all budgets, but it is advisable to book in advance if visiting during the high season in July and August. For those wishing to make their money spread even further, renting an apartment may be a good idea. There are plenty of touts offering rooms at all many arrival points, but if you arrive without a booking, your best bet is to visit the Central Vokzal Apartment Bureau, which is across from platform four near the train station’s rear exit.
Palais Royal Hotel
This boutique gem, situated next door to the ornate Theatre of Opera and Ballet, is housed in a 19th century building that was completely renovated in 2013. Plus, with only 19 rooms, you really feel looked after by the hotel’s friendly staff.
Breakfast is served in the hotel’s trendy restaurant, Sparja, which offers a choice of European and Asian-style breakfasts.
When making your booking, ask for one of the rooms with a private balcony. It’ll be perfect for sitting out on with a morning coffee while people watching below.
My room itself was rather clinical, but had everything I needed and was cleaned to spotless standards each day. This being Ukraine, however, there were a couple of quirks; noticeably the plasters holding up tiles in the bathroom and the mini-bar, which offered chilled condoms. Safety clearly comes at lower temperatures in these parts!
For a touch more of the opulent, directly opposite Palais Royal Hotel is Mozart Hotel, which oozes European luxury, and its success in Odessa has seen it expand to six hotels in three countries. With an exterior designed in the Biedermeier style, Mozart Hotel is an exact replica of an aristocratic club that stood on this spot in the early 19th century.
Across the road from the equally stunning Odessa Philharmonic Theatre, Bristol Hotel first opened in 1899 and continues to welcome VIPs, tourists and business travellers alike. Its historic legacy is clearly reflected in its décor and the Le Grand Café Bristol Restaurant is the perfect place for a romantic meal.
Places to eat
From the heart-warming stodge of traditional Ukrainian home cooking to cutting edge European fine dining, Odessa does not disappoint on the culinary front. Plus, with prices in Ukraine generally much lower than the UK, you can really splash out at every meal. Reassuringly, for those of us who don’t read Russian, most places I visited had English menus.
The café scene in Odessa is equally as diverse, with lots of independent coffee shops vying for your attention. However, if you’ve not got time for a sit down, most street corners and public squares boast at least one coffee van. These small, brightly-coloured vehicles contain an espresso machine and offer your favourite coffee variant at an equally tiny price.
Walking in to Kompot is like stepping in to Grandma’s house (if she was Odessan) 30 years ago and enjoying simple cuisine that makes your stomach smile. The beetroot salad I ordered was perfectly presented, its cutlets were succulent and Kompot’s desserts felt like they were homemade just for me. Plus, don’t forget to try their eponymous ‘kompoty’, a traditional juice made from preserving fruit in jars.
There are four Kompot outlets within Odessa, but I cannot recommend the original restaurant on Deribasivska Street enough, and I enjoyed both an evening meal and a lunch here during my stay.
Leaving chic Odessa behind, Kumanets transports you to a traditional Ukrainian village from days gone by, complete with servers in folk dress, lavish floral displays and plastic cockerels. It may feel a bit gimmicky, but, thankfully the food hits the spot. I particularly enjoyed their ‘deruny’ (potato pancakes) and Odessan caviar, made from aubergines.
Sometimes you just want a juicy burger and at this Odessa diner you won’t be disappointed with their meaty offerings. Haute burgers made from beef, chicken, duck, venison, ostrich, trout and falafel can all be washed down with a wide selection of artisan soft drinks and beer.
Lviv Coffee Manufacture
Freshly roasted ground coffee is the speciality in this outpost of the Lviv-based chain. Its rustic interior only adds to the charm; that and its delicious selection of desserts.
This tiny café is the perfect place to stop for a rest and beverage in the afternoon, and admire its fairy tale-like interior.
What to do
Get your bearings in Odessa by taking a stroll along pedestrianised Deribasivska Street and exploring the stunning City Garden. While here, make a point of visiting the lavish Passazh, a neo-Renaissance covered shopping arcade which echoes Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.
Next, head towards the Black Sea along Primorsky Boulevard. The highlight here is the majestic Potemkin Steps, made famous by Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent film ‘The Battleship Potemkin’. Avoid climbing back up the almost 200 steps by taking the free funicular railway that runs parallel to the stairway.
At the eastern end of Primorsky Boulevard stands the pink-and-white colonnaded City Hall, which has also served as the city’s stock exchange and later the Regional Soviet Headquarters. In front, there is a cannon captured from the British during the Crimean War and a statue of the Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin.
Pushkin lived in Odessa for 13 months in 1823 after being exiled from Moscow. However, it seems he wasn’t exactly welcome in Odessa either and, following clashes with the government, the local governor was able to get the Tsar to send him packing from here too.
At the opposite end of Primorsky Boulevard stands Vorontsov Palace with its Greek-style colonnade that offers views over Odessa’s busy port. You can also walk over the padlock-covered Mother-In-Law Bridge, which is just around the corner.
There are two theories as to why the crossing is called Mother-In-Law Bridge; the first one is that, due to it swaying when jumped on or in heavy winds, it’s akin to mother-in-law’s tongue (not my words!). However, I prefer the other version that claims the bridge was commissioned by the local chairman because he loved his mother-in-law’s pancakes. She lived on the other side of Voennyy Descent to him, and so the bridge meant he could get to them more quickly!
A great way to see Odessa, particularly the resorts further out of town along the Black Sea coast, is to buy a ticket for the hop-on, hop-off City Tours, which sees you transported between all the major sights in a nippy e-shuttle, complete with a live guide.
My tour guide Larisa was a very staunch woman and I made a note not to get on her wrong side. I saw her go from placid guide to formidable force in 0.001 seconds when the e-shuttle driver decided to take a personal phone call. He was clearly shaken by her stern telling off as, when we stopped at the next location, he took himself off to a quiet corner, presumably to contemplate what he had done.
Despite her demeanour, I was impressed by Larisa’s knowledge and thought she would be a safe bet to take me on a tour of Odessa’s catacombs the following day. She told me that I was underdressed though and must wrap up warmer when we next met.
If placed in one line, Odessa’s limestone catacombs would stretch for over 2,000km. Originally quarried out for building in the 19th century, they have been used by smugglers since and people have even lived in them. Most famously, they sheltered partisans in the Second World War, who waged a war of attrition against the Nazis and occupying Romanians.
The catacombs themselves are situated about 15km north of central Odessa in the unassuming suburb of Nerubayske and can be difficult to reach under your own steam, so I would recommend hiring a guide and driver through your hotel to save time. The excursion will certainly be a memorable – if sobering – highlight of your trip to Odessa.
Although, taking Larisa’s advice, I had wrapped up extra warm, yet proceeded to be driven in the warmest car known to mankind. Clearly watching me drip with sweat from the front, Larisa said something to the driver in Russian, they both laughed hysterically and then one of the windows was opened a tiny crack.
As I visited during the low season, the catacombs were locked, so Larisa had to telephone the caretaker who promptly let us in and then locked the door as soon as we entered. His action made me feel a little uneasy and I certainly wasn’t reassured when Larisa escorted to me to a derelict passageway and asked me to turn off my torch.
I’d be lying if I said that at that point I was a bit concerned about my welfare. I was alone with an eccentric tour guide miles away from civilisation where no-one knew where I was. Oh, and I was now in the dark in a warren of – locked – catacombs.
I kept thinking about the tragic – admittedly disputed – tale of Masha, an innocent partygoer who ventured down into the depths with some friends on 1st January 2005. While down there, she took a wrong turn or two, and got lost. It took two years before the police were able to locate her body and retrieve it from the catacombs. I also read that the catacombs are a pretty good place to stage a murder, with its labyrinth structure hiding bodies from the law. Was I to be the catacombs’ next victim?
Well, thankfully, no.
A few seconds passed – although it felt like several minutes – and Larisa turned her torch back on, smiled and we continued back along the set route. I relaxed and began asking questions about the catacombs. “Yes my dear” or “no my dear” was how she would start a response, before giving me a light touch on my left arm every time. When she wanted to reiterate a point she was making she would recap a fact with “and I repeat.”
I soon warmed to Larisa; she was so much more than just a guide, as her off topic chat wandered towards describing times of yore. She had worked on the Soviet Union cruise ships and also regaled a story of taking oligarchs around Las Vegas. “Vegas! I don’t like it”, she concluded. She also allowed Protestants to sleep on her sofa, but I am not sure of that significance of that; it was just as hot in the car on the return journey and, being more concerned about not fainting in the heat, some of what she said was lost in my trance-like meditative state.
Also on the journey back to the city centre Larisa retrieved several crumpled five and 10 pound notes from her bag and asked if I could swap them for newer ones, which her bank would accept.
“I only have ‘hryvnias’,” I replied.
“Oh. That is most disappointing.”
In April 2015 a law was passed in Ukraine that required all monument from the Communist era to be removed. However, rather than destroy a statue of Lenin on the outskirts of Odessa, local artist Alexander Milov decided to encase it within a titanium façade, creating the world’s first monument to Darth Vader. I made a point to seek it out while there.
It was quite difficult to find, but as soon as I saw the reception desk for the company who own the courtyard where it stands and said “Darth Vader” (I may have done this in a slight Russian accent), a blue camouflaged-clad security guard whisked me through the building to the glorious sight. It was remarkable how the artist managed to blend Lenin’s coat into the ‘Star Wars’ Sith Lord’s famous cape.
Apparently, the statue also offers free WiFi, but I could only connect to a HP printer on the second floor.
Travel Facts and Tips
Odessa is a great city to visit at any time of the year, with moderate winters and pleasant summers.
There are no direct flights to Odessa from the UK, but Ukraine International Airlines and LOT Polish Airlines offer one-stop connections via their hubs from London, or you can fly via Istanbul on Turkish Airlines from Birmingham Airport.
Ukraine’s ‘hryvnia’ (UAH) is a closed currency, so you can only exchange money once you arrive.
Bargain hunters should head to Seventh-Kilometer Market – thought to be Europe’s largest. Closer to the city centre, Starokonny and Privoz Markets are also a must for shopaholics.
Odessa was named after the ancient Greek city of Odessos, which was mistakenly believed to have been located here, although the city was the site of a large Greek settlement not later than the middle of the 6th century BC.
Stay healthy while in Odessa; the city’s six kilometre-long traffic free Health Track runs along the shore of the Black Sea and is popular with walkers, runners, cyclists and rollerbladers alike.
Odessa was a very Jewish city in the 1920s, but the Holocaust and anti-Semitism during the Soviet period reduced their presence. Many Jews moved to New York’s Brighton Beach, which is nicknamed ‘Little Odessa’.
If you’re looking to bring treats back home, you can’t go wrong with a box of chocolates from ABK or Rosheen, both Ukrainian manufacturers.
If you fancy a night out by the sea, head to Arkadia Beach, which offers a variety of cafés, bars and nightclubs.
Odessa is considered one of the capitals of Ukranian winemaking and tours can be arranged to nearby vineyards.
On the eastern banks of the River Dniester in Europe lies the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, better known as Transnistria. Although officially still part of Moldova, this breakaway territory has proclaimed its ‘independence’ since 1990. Unquestionably pro-Russian, exploring this separatist state is like taking a walk through the Soviet Union, despite the fact the USSR crumbled in 1991.
The four-car train from Chișinău trundled through the Moldovan countryside as two elderly women chatted near to me and a girl opposite was furiously texting on her mobile phone. At the rear of the carriage, a giant urn was whistling, ready to deposit water in to cups of coffee for two men who were conversing at the snack bar.
The train had seen better days, with worn upholstery and a wood-panelled décor that would’ve been more at home in a 1960s living room. We must’ve been travelling at no more than 30 miles per hour, but I didn’t mind, as the gentle rocking of the carriage allowed me to drift in and out of sleep.
Two hours later, the train spluttered its way into Tiraspol, the ‘capital’ of Transnistria. I disembarked and walked into the grand booking hall of the station, where I met my guide, Andrey.
I found Andrey’s travel agency – Transnistria Tour – online and was immediately won over by such phrases as “we are glad that you have interest for our small Republic,” “there are no McDonalds in Transnistria,” and “we will do our best to make your visit in Transnistria comfortable and interesting.”
After shaking hands he immediately led me to a booth where I had to show my passport and was handed a slip of paper. This was my ‘migration card’ and after filling in my details, the guard promptly stamped the paper with the coat of arms of Transnistria – complete with the hammer and sickle – and I was granted a stay of up to 10 hours.
Playing it straight
With the ‘border’ formalities out of the way, Andrey led me to his car.
“Are you married?” was the first question he asked me?
“No, engaged,” I replied?
“To a woman?”
“Err… yeah.” My heart sunk. I felt like I was betraying my fiancé back home.
“I hear that in your country men can marry men and women can marry women.” His tone suggested he wasn’t impressed by the 2013 Same Sex Couples Act. I made a note to do some research on LGBT rights in Transnistria when I was back in Chișinău, but in that moment I thought it best to play it straight.
Of course this totally backfired, when, an hour or so later, we were walking the streets in Tiraspol and Andrey got very excited by the shape of a passer-by’s derrière.
“What an ass!” he exclaimed.
Not wanting to a) shatter the illusion of me being a fully-fledged heterosexual or b) show disdain at his misogynistic comment, I simply replied with “it is very nice indeed, yes.”
Back to being in Andrey’s car, we headed for the wonderfully-named town of Bender. Every time he said ‘Bender’ I was sniggering vigorously inside, as if my sense of humour had been taken over by a randy teenager. I also kept thinking about ‘the bender going to Bender’ and, if I stooped while there, I would’ve been ‘the bent bender in Bender.’ Of course, I never said any of this because I was straight now. Instead, I walked between the sights with a definite swagger even Vinnie Jones would be proud of.
With a population of 500,000, Transnistria is only slightly larger than Rutland and it didn’t take long for us to cross back over the Dniester to reach Bender. As we traversed wide boulevards past perfectly manicured parks I was struck by how empty the place seemed to be; there was hardly anyone around. It was like being back in North Korea, just with more adverts.
Apart from the lack of people, the only other noteworthy sight en route was the colossal Sheriff Stadium. With a capacity of 14,000, it dominates a territory that also boasts five other football pitches, training fields, an indoor arena, a soccer school, residences for the players of FC Sheriff and a hotel.
Interestingly, the Sheriff corporation is omnipresent wherever you go in Transnistria. Although I only visited one of their supermarkets and saw a petrol station, as the region’s second-largest company, they seem to have an almost monopoly, also boasting – according to Wikipedia – a TV channel, a publishing house, a construction company, a Mercedes-Benz dealership, an advertising agency, a spirits factory, two bread factories and a mobile phone network. I mean, even Tesco doesn’t have a TV channel… does it?
We’d gone to Bender because, as a rail enthusiast, I had read that there was an old steam locomotive you could visit. Housing the Bender Military Museum in its carriages, Andrey said it was closed for winter, but I wasn’t bothered with the exhibition and was happy snapping away around the old Russian CY 06-71 steam locomotive, much to his contempt. I also stopped by the giant granite mural adjacent to the locomotive, which commemorates the train workers who died in the 1918 revolution.
Realising I wasn’t joking when I said trains are my ‘thing’, he took me to the large building next to the museum which was the town’s former railway station, Bender-1 (trains today stop at the less impressive Bender-2). Again, I was treated to another imposing waiting room, adorned with socialist-realist architecture.
“Ben, come here, I want to show you something special.”
I walked over and saw a mural that featured the front of a diesel locomotive.
“It’s a train,” I stated.
“I know. But, if you look, closely, it has a face.”
“Oh… yeah… kinda.” I just looked like a train to me. Clearly, Thomas the Tank Engine hasn’t chugged into Transnistria yet. I duly took a photograph of the ‘train with a face’ and we moved on.
Our next stop was Bender’s Gorky Cinema. Inside, it could’ve been 1955, if it wasn’t for the posters of the latest Hollywood blockbusters giving the modern era away. Sadly, there was no time for a film and we headed back outside on to Lenin Street and in to Lenin Park to see a statue of… well… Lenin.
We then took a stroll along the pedestrianised Liberation Square, passing the beautiful tree-lined Sovetskaya Street. As we walked along, Andrey pointed out the bullet holes on City Hall, which were created during the civil war in 1992.
The Transnistria War broke out in 1990 as Moldova began its journey towards independence. The mostly-Russian speaking population of Transnistria, fearing a union between Moldova and Romania and an exclusion from public life, proclaimed, on 2 September 1990, the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic; ‘Pridnestrovie’ being the name for Transnistria in Russian.
Less than two months later, Moldovan forces entered Transnistria and the war began, although fighting only intensified in 1992, with Transnistria receiving support from Cossack unit and elements of the Russian 14th Army,
Following the deaths of over 300 people on both sides, a ceasefire agreement was signed on 21 July 1992, which has held to the present day. As part of the agreement, a three-party (Russia, Moldova, Transnistria) Joint Control Commission supervises the security arrangements in the demilitarised zone. As we drove around Transnistria, Andrey would occasionally point out some of the Commission’s military checkpoints and I was relieved to see that the soldiers there looked mainly bored, rather than ready for another conflict.
Passing Bender’s City Hall, we briefly enjoyed a peek inside the Pavel Tkachenko Cultural Centre, where youngsters were practising dance routines underneath huge murals of traditionally-dressed peasants tending to their crops in the fields. Approaching the River Dniester, Audrey pointed out an abandoned river port (he had no idea why it closed down) and then we stood underneath another monstrous Soviet-inspired piece of public artwork; the Monument to Fighters for Soviet Power.
Our brief stay in Bendery concluded with a walk round the memorial park dedicated to local victims of the war in 1992. An eternal flame burns in the shadow of an armoured tank, from which flies the Transnistrian flag. Over the road, the 11.5 metre tall City of Military Glory Monument glistened in the morning sun, surrounded by four blocks showing the most important dates in the history of Bendery.
Tour of the ‘capital’
After another short drive dotted with the occasional trolleybus, we were back in the ‘capital’ and I was stood in front of the headquarters of Transnistria’s de facto government. Dwarfing the other buildings on 25th October Street, the Transnistrian Government is flanked by a brutalist statue of, you’ve guessed it, Vladimir Lenin.
Heading east past the local government building, there was a lot of activity ahead of us, as a large stage was being erected for a concert by one of Russia’s biggest pop stars that evening. As we approached, we stopped to see Tiraspol’s War Memorial, complete with another tank and an eternal flame, as well as its Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Behind the concert stage, there was a large billboard welcoming visitors into the city with the Transnistrian emblem in the centre. In the top-left corner, was ‘1990’, when the country proclaimed its ‘independence’. In the bottom-right, the date read ‘2016’ to signify the current year. However, in order to save costs, the accumulating year is simply pasted over with a sticker and you could see ‘2015’ peeping out as ‘2016’ was slowly peeling back.
Continuing along 25th October Street, we stopped to admire the Suvorov Monument and the towering Stalinist House of Soviets. In front of the city hall for Tiraspol there is a bust of, you’ve guessed it, Vladimir Lenin.
Audrey also pointed out the only English sign in the ‘capital’. Situated outside the Gymnasia of Humanitics and Mathematics, he said that the sign was translated as many people come here to learn English. The school was named after the famed chemist Nikolay Zelinsky, who was born in Tiraspol in 1861.
Our walk finished at Tiraspol Theatre, where Audrey directed me to a plaque which commemorated the proclamation of the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic in 1990. He was quick to point out that this was changed from the original sign that mentioned the ‘Pridnestrovian Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic’, which ceased into being when the USSR fell in 1991.
Next, it was time for lunch and Audrey took me to Kumanyok, a kitsch eatery dressed to look like a Ukrainian country lodge, complete with traditionally-dressed servers. The food was fantastic though and I had succulent shashlik (skewered and grilled cubes of meat) mopped up with some homemade flatbread and washed down with kvass. Kvass is a fermented drink made from bread, which tasted much nicer than its sounds. I also had an eventful trip to the toilet too, as a mural depicting a bottom-bearing local being whipped by, presumably, his wife, looked over me as I squatted.
With a belly full of Eastern European meats, I was ready to embrace the next part of the tour. However, Andrey informed me that this was the concluding part of the tour and he’d be heading home. It was at this point that I reminded myself to ask next time I book a tour when it actually finishes.
Andrey stood by his pride and joy – his saloon car – which he spoke a lot about during our time together. He showed me the modifications, he told me about how it took him and his family to Russia and back, and he pointed out where it had had work on it before he bought it. It all went over my head, by the newly developed straight part of me was able to nod confidently and I think I even said “carburettor” at one point.
With a firm, very heterosexual handshake, Andrey wished me well and thanked me for visiting his country. His parting comments included an expression of hope for a union with Moldova, going forward, which was rather heart-warming. However, in the wake of his departing car fumes, I was left wondering what I was going to do for the next seven hours, when my return train to Moldova proper was due.
On my own
My first thought was that I needed money, as Andrey had said that Moldovan leu wasn’t accepted here and I’d need some Transnistrian roubles. As the saying goes, in London, you’re never more than six feet away from a rat. In Tiraspol, the same can be said for currency exchanges. 25th October Street was literally littered with them, boasting rates that barely differed from one another. I plucked for one inside a bookshop and left with a wad of roubles and a poster bearing the Transnistrian flag.
As you would expect, my change was given to me in coins. However, this being Transnistria, things were a little different and I was delighted to see the shopkeeper offer back a handful of plastic tokens. Boasting various bold colours, it was as if I was five years old again and preparing to play with a My First Shopping set, albeit with legal tender.
With pliable brass in my pocket, I splashed out on a coffee from a street vendor and admired the city’s largest and newest church – the Church of the Nativity – a Russian Orthodox Church completed in 1999 to serve as the Mother Church of the Orthodox Christian Diocese of Tiraspol. Turning on to Karl Marx Street (well, obviously) I think I figured why all the streets were so empty – everyone was at the market.
Tiraspol’s Central Market was positively teeming with people, busy buying fresh produce, homewares and horrendously tacky knick-knacks. Despite its Soviet façade, based on the frantic shopping habits I observed, Transnistrians have clearly embraced the free market socialism the country now enjoys.
Passing under several banners featuring presidential candidates promoting themselves ahead of the upcoming elections (who depicted themselves either in a rugged business-like manner or as a staunch military leader) I stumbled across the Kvint factory.
Producing vodka in Tiraspol since 1897, Kvint is perhaps more famous nowadays as a fine producer of brandy. Producing more than 20 million bottles of the hard stuff each year, Kvint is so integral to the economy of Transnistria, the factory even appears on the back of the country’s five rouble banknote.
Not wanting to miss out on all the fun, and with reasonably-sized bottles costing less than one pound, I asked the server in the factory’s shop which was the most popular brandy they sold. Clearly not understanding what I said, she placed several bottles on the table for me to inspect and I enquired which she preferred by placing a thumbs up above each one and then pointing at her. We narrowed it down to her two favourites; a three year-old brandy and a bottle of Kvintoff vodka, infused with mint. I even got more plastic money in the change.
Several hours later, I had pretty much explored the entire city, as I weaved in and out of concrete tower blocks in a place no larger than Warwick. With the temperature dropping significantly and light failing, I decided to cut my losses and head for the train station, where I’d sit and read my book until my ride home arrived.
Just outside the station, there was a convenience store-cum-café and I decided to stop for a drink before heading for the waiting room. I ordered a coffee and was pleasantly surprised to learn that the owner, Yevgeniy, spoke good English.
After we had exchanged pleasantries, I asked him about the alcohol I had bought and he was concerned that I had not bought the best produce to take home. He then made it his mission to introduce me to the best vodka his country could offer.
Sitting at the table, he poured a generous shot and after a joint cry of ‘na zdorovie’ the vodka went down a treat. He then began to pour another and, not wanting to appear rude, I accepted dutifully. However, when the third glass was poured I made a point of saying that I didn’t want to get too drunk.
“You won’t get drunk,” he exclaimed, “we will eat between vodka!”
With that, he offered me a TUC cracker. Hardly enough to mop up the alcohol being consumed, but every little helps, I guess.
In between shots and Yevgeniy serving customers we sipped on a locally-made fizzy soft drink – adorned with a drawing of Pinocchio on its bottle – and I frantically nibbled on more TUCs. The conversation was fascinating, as my host regaled stories about his experiences as a child during the Transnistrian War, when he remembered peering through curtains as soldiers fired from both sides of his street. As our dialogue flowed, so did the vodka and I was getting very, very drunk. By chance, I managed to squint and read the time on my watch.
My train was due any moment and so I gathered my things together and said a fond, yet hastily, goodbye to Yevgeniy. He wouldn’t let me pay for any of the drinks we had consumed together.
“You were my guest,” he said and smiled.
Feeling guilty, I quickly bought some items from his shop for the journey back, and waddled with all my bags towards the train station.
Yevgeniy’s hospitality was the one thing that I will most treasure from my time in Transnistria and, if you go there for yourself, please pay him a visit. His bar is situated close to the train station at 57b Lenin Street.
As I edged closer to the station I heard the engine’s horn sound and panicked, as I knew I still had to surrender my ‘migration card’ before boarding the train. I also had plenty of cash left over that I knew I couldn’t exchange once back in Moldova proper.
Therefore, I made the snap decision to transfer my roubles back into leu and enter the station via the unlocked side gate, so as to avoid the ‘border’ guards. This worked and I was on the train with seconds to spare.
The train pulled away from the station and my heart continued racing, as I now realised that I was on-the-run from a country that doesn’t exist. However, several minutes later we had passed Bender, crossed the Dniester and were chugging back into Moldova, so I felt I could relax and let my alcohol-induced state take over. I think I was gurning on the journey back, but I didn’t remember much of it as I blanked out, only waking as the train grinded to a halt in Chișinău.
Walking back to my hotel, my head began to clear and I looked again at my ‘migration card’ and wondered how the Transnistrian police deal with fugitives. I reassured myself that I was safe now, but might have to rethink a return trip anytime soon.
My day out in Transnistria was both bizarre and eye-opening in equal proportions. I had visited a little corner of Europe where the iconography of the Soviet Union continues to flourish and its people seem to have ignored all that has changed politically around them with a twisted sense of history.
Still, the world still turns, and I met some lovely people who feel very passionate about where they come from, yet they offered no hostility towards Moldova proper. Perhaps the two countries will come to a more substantial agreement in the future.
In the meantime, rip up whatever you think you know about modern day Eastern Europe and embrace all what Transnistria has to offer, brandy, vodka and all.
Chișinău feels like the Soviet Union fell yesterday and no-one’s still quite sure what to do next. However, once you get past its shortcomings, Chișinău reveals a capital city that oozes sights, quality eateries and is a genuine treat for any traveller.
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.
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.