Music, Wine and Beton Brut – at least three reasons to visit Moldova
“I am only here because Moldova is my last country in Europe to visit” my new acquaintance whispered to at the Ballet in Chisinau just before curtains went up.
“Really?” I wondered, as the opening rhythms of ‘Spartacus’ thundered from the orchestra pit. “Should Moldova be relegated to the last-on-the list item of the Grand European tour tick list, and be visited for no other reason than having completed a tour of everywhere in Europe?”
He obviously wasn’t alone. Chisinau has been called “most boring capital in Europe” with “gray, crumbling, blocky Soviet buildings and torn-up sidewalks“. “There’s nothing to see or do in Moldova” seems a common judgement by fellow travellers.
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But is Moldova really not much more to the visitor?
This is just a typical Chisinau side street. It’s not Versailles, but let’s say the city has a pleasant feel, nice architecture and let’s not forget these classy vans. Who needs a VW camper van when you can have an UAZ?
I am no expert. Rather than flocking to the new wonders of the world at peak season, I prefer the less crowded places, as long as they have either culture and/or natural beauty. I used a weeks annual leave to visit Moldova, so this was rather a brief trip which also included a short trip to Odessa.
But I loved it. I feel compelled to come to Moldova’s defence. It all started when, responding to my quest for modernist Eastern European concrete, Nick from Concrete and Kitsch suggested Moldova. And why not, I thought, it’s not that far away, it is kinda convenient for Odessa and its fabled opera house, and, the icing on the cake, there is an ancient train journey to be had in the process if I book super cheap flights to Bucharest (it was 39 EURO return, and no cheap connections to either Moldova or anywhere near Odessa from Eastern Germany).
So, flight booked, I set off. And look what I found! Apart from the Moldova official tourism slogan “Hospitality. Tradition. Mystery” I definitely would add cheap wine, great music and Beton Brut to the attractions of Moldova.
1. The wine is excellent and the wineries very entertaining
Did you know that Moldova produces some great wines? In Soviet times, this tiny republic was the top producer of wine and sparkling wine for the entire Soviet Union and beyond. I try to remember, but we never saw any in Eastern Germany, although Ukrainian sparkling wine was hailed a great delicacy.
And despite the incredibly cheap prices (2-3 EURO for some very decent bottle) there appears to be wine in the country that stands the test of time.
The former state factory (Cricova) survived, and there are a large number of producers, many of whom open their cellars to visitors. I did a tour of Cricova, which was highly entertaining, as we were driven in little toy trains round the subterranean cellar network and admired the vast wine collection, the room where Yuri Gagarin got inebriated and some questionable interior design.
As the subterranean network at Cricova is about 160km long, you get driven around in these toy trains.
But the piece de resistance… the tasting rooms! You can argue about interior design and taste, but at least Cricova made an effort to give you a range of equally wacky tastes. Below is the room where Putin celebrated his 50th birthday. I will leave it at that.
Our wine tasting was held in the room where Yuri Gagarin tasted the Cricova Cellar goods. The decor was somewhat less distracting, and the photograph is very nice. Look at the left eyebrow! Could it be they modelled Star Trek Mr Spock on him just a little bit? Myth has it he emerged from the cellars with support a few days later, the number of days being subject to discussion. Still, the memories must have been good, as he wrote them this thank you letter.
But my absolute favourite was this “Life Aquatic with extra colour” room. Absolute spare cellar room design goals. It will take a while though, and incorporating the washing machine will be difficult.
Typical tasting: that food (wholegrain crackers, local walnuts and Moldovan cheese pie) may not be a looker but is quite tasty. Also, the wine pourings are generous and it is considered bad taste to spit it out. It’s not just the sickly sweet dessert wine and sparkling wines that some online reviews have you believe. I went on the cheapest package wine tasting in Cricova, and every single of the four or five wines we tasted (retailing at the equivalent of 3-4 EURO in their factory shop) were excellent.
Sadly, they have no real distribution outside Moldova, and so if you like, buy there and purchase extra luggage space and be aware of customs regulations. They don’t shop at Cricova, and sending a parcel through Moldovan Post could have come in at around 30 EURO. There are some Moldovan wines in Otopeni Duty free, costing about three to five times as much as in Moldova.
So, I think maybe a return by car or train and a wine tour is in order.
2. Enjoy world-class musical performances for very little money
As a woman of the world, I love the high brow entertainment, but I am not willing to drop megabucks on it. I almost put my neck out trying to see something on my 120 EURO-ticket La Scala, and purchasing opera tickets in Paris or Vienna requires careful budgeting. I have already been very lucky that by living in the UK and now in Berlin, you get tickets for a bit less money if visibility is not an issue.
But Chisinau (and Odessa) were something else. I paid about 7.50 EURO for a top seat for the ballet in Chisinau and about 2.50 EURO for a similarly good seats in the stalls at Odessa National Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre. Yes, I am well aware that the average income in these countries is something like 300-400 EURO per month. But should it stop foreign tourists from buying tickets when they are freely available and perhaps spend money in the country? Don’t think so.
The National Ballet and Opera Theatre of Chisinau. Another nice bit of concrete.
Inside, it’s all rustic spaceship style. Very comfy. Good acoustics.
If Chisinau Opera doesn’t have what you want I suggest a short trip to Odessa (4 hours by train). The opera is much grander, the tickets even cheaper. Odessa is a more beautiful city in a conventional sense, with an incredible colour scheme.
A shame I missed Verka Serduchka! I saw the posters on my first day in Chisinau, having just bought a train ticket for the same night. I was seriously tempted to scrap my vintage night train ride (more on that later) and go and worship Verka.
And lets not forget, Moldova has a rather interesting music scene. If you love offbeat pop and rock, double Eurovision veterans Zdob Si Zdub are Moldovan and give regular concerts in Moldova and Romania. If you like Goran Bregovic and Balkan Beats, try them. And do you remember the super cheesy but super danceable “Dragostea tin Dei”? Moldovan, too.
3. Visit Chisinau if you like Brutalist and Modernist Architecture
This warrants a separate post, really. It is not just the “famous” landmark buildings like the Moldova Telecom Building, the abandoned Circus or the Romanita Housing Tower that bring a few concrete lovers to this corner of Eastern Europe, but the smaller apartment buildings and monuments that you will come across in Chisinau.
There are small parks everywhere, often with some monument as the focal point.
You really don’t have to go far to find an abundance of concrete architecture. These apartment high-rises were just off United Nations Square. Can you see how one apartment unit is really nicely rendered, whereas others are falling apart?
Something old and something new.
The reflection is of the Moldtelecom Building. One of the more striking landmarks and a prime example of Modernist Soviet architecture. I bet in 20 years this will still look cool whereas the glas-clad office block will look dated.
Just walking along side streets – there are minor architectural gems everywhere.
Poor choice of footwear, lack of decent plasters and resulting problem with my left foot unfortunately put a stop to exploring most of the landmarks. Many are accessible by Public Transport, and apart from people possibly staring at you, they are safe and hassle-free to visit.
4. Never been to the Soviet Union? You can catch up in Transnistria
I was lucky enough to be rewarded with a school trip to Moscow in 1989 and let’s say that one was more cheerful than my day trip to Tiraspol. Sure, there are Western cars, restaurants and shops in Tiraspol (but not that many). However, I could not shake a weird and pretty unpleasant feeling the entire time there. This was a time warp that was a bit too real, and despite having visited a good number of ex-Soviet Republics, this place gives perhaps the most authentic Socialist realism experience.
Transnistria is officially part of Moldova, inofficially and unrecognised after a long association with the Soviet Union and now Russia, they have proclaimed independence in 1990 and after a separatist war with Moldova, the 1992 ceasefire has held until today. When I visited (October 2018) it was easy to visit by marshrutka or train from Chisinau, as long as you did not overnight there. For overnighting I understand most hotels would do the foreigner registration for you, avoiding hassle at the border.
The severe-looking Train Station. It is also the final stop for Chisinau marshrutkas and buses. There is a trolleybus into the centre, otherwise its a longish walk.
Another trusty UAZ – and yes, it’s a real ambulance, not some cosplay vintage car.
Pretty much Tiraspol style in a nutshell: a lot of concrete apartment blocks, and some older buildings in striking colours.
5. Just passing through? Add Moldova to another itinerary
Moldova is small, and can be easily visited as part of a trip to Romania. There are several trains a day (and minibuses, too) to Iasi, which has another grand opera house, by the way! So that is definitetely on my wish list as well as the landscapes and painted monasteries of the Bucovina region.
From Chisinau, there is now a daily direct train to Odessa, making continuation of your trip into Ukraine very convenient, It leaves just before 7 in the morning, while the return trip from Odessa is currently at 18.45. And if you move on from Odessa, there are several trains a day to all major cities in Ukraine and a daily train (taking 24h) to Moscow.
Odessa Station: a Stalin Baroque beauty. And here’s a bit of culture shock, because everything is in Cyrillic and you get nowhere fast with English.
Odessa Station. The train on the right is the pretty modern daily Chisinau train, the left is a classic Soviet era couchette and they predominate in Ukraine.
Just one picture to entice you to visit Odessa. You could even do a day trip from Chisinau if you are. At present, the train arrives in Odessa just before 11.00 and leaves again just before 19.00. However, you may not be able to buy the return in Chisinau, where ticket staff spoke decent English, but in Odessa, and this may take some time.
Did I mention Moldova is probably one of the cheapest and safest countries in Europe to travel?
But there any not-so-good things to say about travelling in Moldova?
Well. There is a language barrier
It helps if you speak a bit of Russian although the only times when I really depended on speaking Russian was to get my place on the next Mirtrans Shuttle from Bucharest to Chisinau and buying a train ticket in Odessa, so both places outside Moldova.
Most people look at tourists slightly surprised but are friendly and helpful. As all signage in Moldova is in Romanian, which is somewhat decipherable if you know French or Italian, as it belongs to the Italic branch of Indo European languages, it’s not like you’re going to bother with Cyrillic much.
Its no action land
The landscape is sparsely populated, green and undramatic. You’re unlikely to find abseiling, bungee jumping and white water rafting. Its peaceful and rural for most parts. But I liked it. I will probably add a few posts on Chisinau, Tiraspol and wine touring here. Let me know if you want to know anything in particular!
Disclosure: This trip was entirely self funded, and I have received no monetary or non-monetary rewards for linking aside from some affiliate links (marked with an asterisk). For the simple process of linking to other businesses, I proclaim this unpaid advertising. I will only review and recommend places that I have stayed in myself. You can trust me for the complete, unbiased truth. More details on my affiliate link policy are here.
Getting there and getting in
I flew to Bucharest Otopeni (main Bucharest airport) return on Ryanair, grabbing a cheap ticket well in advance for 39 EURO. To get from Otopeni Airport to Chisinau, I just showed up at the minibus stop outside Otopeni Arrivals Hall. Just as someone to point you to the Chisinau minibuses, they were in the far left corner on my trip. You can find a schedule on autogari.ro but in my experience they did not actually stick to it. Some say its adviseable to book, but if your flight is late you lose the booking. If you turn up and the minibus is full, they will usually put you on the next one.
I caught a Mirtrans Express minivan. Mine was a well maintained, somewhat cramped Mercedes Sprinter, driven very safely, and arriving somewhat late at a destination not listed on their website. Altogether I found them safe and pleasant. The border crossing was hassle-free and fast – we didn’t even have to leave the minibus. Check if you need a Visa – if you have a passport from Europe or the Americas you will be unlikely to need one. You can change cash into Moldovan Lei at the border, but unless you arrive in the middle of the night, you will usually find some money exchange open at way better rates in Chisinau. EUROs generally work best but US Dollars will be accepted too as well as Russian roubles. Also, change all your Moldovan Lei back before leaving the country, as you’ll be unable to exchange them anywhere else except perhaps in Transnistria.
Turns out the “Marathon Shopping Mall” where the minibus ended was just off Stefan cel Mare si Sfant Boulevard, which is an excellent place to be, as it bisects the city, is well lit and has lots of trolleybuses running along it. It was just a 5-minute walk to my hotel.
Where to stay
For a country with such an underdeveloped tourist infrastructure, there are a decent number of hotels and even more serviced apartments in Chisinau. I highly recommend staying in the centre somewhere along or off Stefan cel Mare Boulevard. Not only is it safe, well lit and easy for orientation, it is central and offers transport any time of the day. I did not have trouble finding something the night before I wanted to stay, and every coffee shop/ restaurant has WiFi, so booking even at short notice is not a problem.
I stayed in three places:
The Chisinau Hotel* is, though extremely cheap, clean, safe, and right next to a bus stop yet easy to walk to both train station and city centre. It is also really old school, so if you want a taste to Soviet style travel, I would recommend this one.
Continuing with the faded Soviet theme, my night at the concrete beauty Cosmos Hotel* was somewhat less restful, and unless you’re deeply into concrete and viewing from outside isn’t enough, stay here. I found bed comfort and WiFi less satisfactory, but at least you get your own balcony and the staff was extremely friendly here.
After getting a bit tired with endless rounds of pies and bread, I opted for an apartment for the last two nights so that I could prepare food (i.e. salads and loads of fresh fruit) myself . This was also the cheapest, and I loved it. Not only was it 2 min from the Central Market (great for transport and fresh produce) , it was beautiful, clean, and very professionally managed. The listing can be found on AirBnB.
The good news: Most places of interest can be visited easily by public transport. The bad news: you really should, because organised tours are few and can be very expensive. 80 EUROs for a tour of Cricova? 100 EUROs to Orhei Vechi? That’s the reality of visiting a country with little touristic infrastructure. They only recently opened a Tourist Information Office in Chisinau (it is quite useful and on Stefan cel MAre Bourlevard near the Organ Hall). So, I have no tours or tour operators to recommend, but refer to an extensive network of public minibus and bus services at autogara.md. You will be able to visit Cricova, Orhei Vechi, Milestii Mici, Castel Mimi and Bender and Tiraspol in Transnistria in day trips from Chisinau.
Where to Eat
I’m afraid I went off the pies and fried stuff quickly and ended up eating lots of fresh fruit and salad which I prepared in my apartment. As a vegetarian, you may end up somewhat stuffed although pretty much every restaurant will have something veggie even if it is just chips and a cheese pie. Here are a few places I went to and liked:
La Placinte is a Moldovan/Romanian traditional dining restaurant chain. They have ten restaurants in Chisinau and one in Balti and yes, this is meat and pie central! If you want a traditional Moldovan cheese pie, or Mamaliga, the traditional polenta-like side dish, this is the place. Also, they make nice lemonades. This is not fine dining but it’s pretty much a local place.
Delice d’Ange Patisserie is French-inspired and although nothing compared to a quality French patisserie, it is not bad when comparing it to the average cake shop in Eastern Europe, and besides, the setting ina quiet side street is extremely pleasant.
Keks Bread and Dessert is conveniently located on Ismail Street just before it intersects Stefan cel Mare Boulevard. It looks very modern, and has good coffee, small snacks (better portion control than La Placinte) and pretty little cakes of good quality.
You see, Moldova isn’t about culinary discoveries (wine excluded!). What I can say though is that the fresh fruit and veg in the Central Market was of extraordinary quality and very tasty. Pretty much everything there, save for a few oranges, is local and seasonal, and probably organic, and you can taste it.
Where to Shop
When it comes to spending money, Moldova seriously sucks. I would say spend money on wine if you can carry it, but otherwise you will come home with your funds undamaged. Saying that, I spent an enjoyable morning in the UNIC Department Store on Ismail Street because I had a foot full of blisters and was not up to walking much. It is a very old-fashioned shop full of mainly Moldovan products. I had a great time browsing the fabric and haberdashery floor and check out the babushka scarfes. If you want a hand embroidered folk blouse, this place has the most choice.
I also managed to buy a hand-winding 1970’s Poljot watch with an alarm from the “Kishinovsky Arbat” next to Organ Hall, a small craft and souvenir market. Its funny how you can buy a nice and reasonable accurate highly practical vintage watch for the price of lunch when dealers around here want over 200 bucks for it.
You may or may not find traditional Easter Eggs painted in wax batik technique around Moldova (they are painted in Old Orhei). Moldova and the Bucovina in Northern Romania (and Ukraine) practice the tradition. I bought mine on my last day, in Bucharest, as they are real eggs, and I carried them with great care to the airport, onto a full Ryanair flight and then home where they now live with my vintage Christmas baubles.