There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..



Friday, 20 July 2018

Jodhpur, Not Just a Pair of Trousers: Part 6 of Rajasthan, Land of Princes

This is a new post though it describes the events of 30th and 31st of January 2018
It will be moved to the appropriate place in a few days.

This post covers days 7 and 8 of a 16-day journey around Rajasthan.

The size of Germany, Rajasthan is the largest of India’s 29 states. With the Thar Desert covering the north and west it is one of India’s less densely populated states, though with 200 people per km² (the same as Italy) it is hardly empty.

From Jaisalmer in the far west of Rajasthan we travel back to Jodhpur in the centre
In the 11th and 12th centuries the rise of the Rajputs created some 20 or so petty kingdoms ruled by Maharajas - the ‘Rajput Princes’. These kingdoms, at first independent, later vassal states of the Mughal or British Empires survived until 1947, when the Maharajahs led their ‘Princely States’ into the new Union of India, creating Rajasthan (the ‘Land of Princes’). The rulers became constitutional monarchs until 1971 when the Indian government ended their official privileges and abolished their titles. ‘Maharaja’ is now a courtesy title, but most remain leading members of their communities and some are still immensely rich. Several, like their British counterparts, have supplemented their income by turning forts and palaces into tourist attractions and hotels.

--ooo--

30/01/2018

Jaisalmer to Jodhpur

Jaisalmer is the end of the line, so to reach Jodhpur we first had to backtrack to Pokran, passing the military base and again battling through the roadworks – static obstacles last Sunday but busy on a weekday.

Roadworks between Jailsalmer and Pokran
At Pokran we turned southeast towards Jodhpur, breaking the journey at Ummed’s roadside pure veg restaurant, partly because Umed, our driver, (same name, different transliteration) had missed his breakfast and partly because he wanted to show that he understood our feelings about tourist traps. Although this is a matter of principal not money, two cups of tea and a small packet of biscuits here cost 40 rupees (45p) while each tea in a tourist stop is typically 80.

Ummed's 'pure veg' restaurant en route to Jodhpur
We continued across the Thar desert on small but adequate roads …

The Thar desert on the way to Jodhpur
… reaching Jodhpur around 1 o’clock and checking into our second genuine palace in three stops – with a fake fort in between.

Ranbanka Palace Hotel

The sandstone palace of one the Maharaja’s brother, built in the 1920s has been extended to create two hotels, one of them the Ranbanka Palace where our room – in a relatively modern wing – was comfortable enough but could not compare with our genuinely palatial accommodation in Bikaner. A shared balcony overlooked the lawn, restaurant (where we lunched on pakoras) and the pool. In the picture below the pale figure in the water is me; January days in Rajasthan are pleasantly warm, but the nights are cold and so was the pool, so I had it to myself.

Outdoor restaurant, parched lawn and pool, Ranbanka Palace Hotel, Jodhpur
We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the locality, finding a possible local restaurant and turning down invitations from the large number of local jewellery shop owners.

The 30th of January is Shaheed Diwas (Martyr’s Day), one of Rajasthan five annual dry days. As this does not apply to hotel residents we ate in, sitting beside the garden, warmed by braziers and soothed by the tinkly music of a harp-like instrument. Junglee Murgh is chicken with industrial quantities of ghee and chilli; traditionally a peasant dish of wild jungle fowl it has gained a little sophistication, but still packs a punch. Bharwan dum aloo, potatoes stuffed with cashews in a yoghurt-based sauce was gentler and together they made a fine dinner.

The line into Jodhpur Railway Station runs a few hundred metres to the north. The noise of the day drowns out the trains, but at night the mournful calling of the hooters – and Indian train drivers do like a hoot – is guaranteed to interrupt your slumbers.

31/01/2018


Mehrangarh

We set off across the city to Mehrangarh (often tautologously ‘Mehrangarh Fort’ but garh is Sanskrit for fort) with Umed and Dr S, our local guide who had dropped in yesterday to make the arrangements.

After succeeding his father as King of Marwar, Rao Jodha built a new capital modestly naming it Jodhpur after himself. In 1460 he started construction of Mehrangarh on a rocky outcrop 125m above the city which grew around it. No doubt it was impressive in 1460, but its 17th century refurbishment by Jaswant Singh I (reigned 1638-78) makes it as forbidding a fortress as can be imagined.

Mehrangarh, Jodhpur
A road winds up to the base of the fort.  If I had battled my way there, dodging arrows as I went, I would probably be dismayed by the 30m high walls. Fortunately, nobody lobbed rocks or poured boiling oil on us while we waited for Dr S to buy tickets. My picture catches the top of the Chhatri of Kiran Singh Soda. Dr S did not mention it, so I was unaware it was a ‘memorial to a brave soldier who fell on this spot’. This phrase is trotted out with minor variations in Wikipedia, a dozen Trip Advisor reviews, and all the photography websites of the world, but who was Kiran Singh Soda? Blogger Jatin Chhabra says he ‘died fighting against the forces of Jaipur in 1864 AD’, and that is all I have found.

The walls of Mehrangarh and the top of the Chhatri of Kiran Singh Soda, Jodhpur
From here you can walk up through the fort's various gates, but we took the lift, opening up fine views over the ‘blue city’ of Jodhpur.

Jodhpur is known as the Blue City as the houses were traditionally painted that colour - and some still are
Like Jaisalmer, Jodhpur is a desert city, but with over a million inhabitants it is twelve times the size. The desert topography gives it an unusual shape, the fort being on the northwest corner of a narrow rectangular centre beyond which the city becomes a loosely articulated patchwork of habitation and desert. From the foot of the rocky outcrop a desert park stretches northwest to the Jaswant Thada, the mausoleum and cremation ground of the Marwar royal family.

Jaswant Thada, Jodhpur
Unlike Jaisalmer’s fort, Mehrangarh is uninhabited, functioning solely as a museum. For decades it was deserted and crumbling but in 1972 the current Maharaja, Gaj Singh II, set up a trust to restore the fort and create the museum within. He had become maharaja in 1952 aged 4 after his father died in a plane crash but only took up his duties after attending Eton and Oxford - a proper maharaja’s education.

Courtyard, Mehrangarh
The courtyards, rooms, apartments and objet d’art are regarded as the best of their type but after four maharaja’s forts/palaces in the previous week I was becoming jaded. We saw exhibitions of howdahs, palanquins and turbans - who knew there were so many ways to tie a turban? – and inspected the armoury which, among other grisly ways of dealing death, has the swords of various luminaries including Mughal Emperor Akhbar the Great (another tautology, ‘Akbar’ means ‘great’) and Timur the Lame (Tamerlane).


Hilt of sword possibly belonging the Emperor Akhbar
(I am not sure which sword was whose - and the internet seems equally uncertain)
An exhibition of miniature paintings included several camel-bone models, one of a train…

Small train, Mehranghar

…and the genealogy and portraits of the maharajas. Marwar had 41 rulers between 1226 and 1947 when Rajasthan joined the Union of India - the present (42nd) has only a courtesy title. 21 are assembled in the photo below, though how many of the earlier likenesses were painted from life is anybody’s guess.

Maharajas of Marwar (Jodhpur), Mehrangarh

The Phool Mahal (Flower Palace) was the Hall of Private Audience of Maharaja Abhey Singh (ruled 1724-49).

Phool Mahal (Flower Palace), Hall of Private Audience of Maharaja Abhey Singh
Phool Mahal, Mehrangarh
The ceiling is gold filigree with mirrors and the 19th century paintings are of gods, maharajas and the moods of classical ragas.

Ceiling, Phool Mahal, Mehrangarh
Outside, we did not need the Birmingham-made spiral staircase to reach…

Wrought iron spiral staircase, looking slightly out of place, Mehrangarh
…the bedchamber of Takht Singh (r1843-73) who must have appreciated Christmas baubles.

Chamber of Takht Singh, Mehrangarh
Beyond was another magnificent courtyard…

Another magnificent courtyard, Mehrangarh
….and the Moti Mahal (Pearl Palace), the Hall of Private Audience of Sur Singh (r1595-1619). Polished chunam (plaster with crushed seashells), coloured Belgian glass and lights twinkling in the alcoves would have made this room brilliant, if slightly strange.

Moti Mahal, Mehrnagarh
Jaswant Thadi

From the fort we drove across the rocky desert park to the Jaswant Thada, pausing at the artificial lake beside the monument. Despite the lack of birds in my photo, the area teemed with wildfowl; several species of duck I could not name, coots with slightly different frontal shields from their British cousins, though they are the same species (Eurasian coot), red-wattled lapwings - common throughout Rajasthan but looking more at home here than the one I photographed in sandy Mandawa - and many more. A white-throated kingfisher flew across the lake, showing off its iridescent blue back.

Lake by the Jaswant Thada, Jodhpur
The Jaswant Thada was built in 1899 as a cenotaph for Maharaja Jaswant Singh II (r1873-95). His reign brought prosperity as he purged the area of bandits, introduced a proper judiciary, re-organised the administration, built roads and brought the telegraph and railway to Jodhpur. Dr S suggested the cenotaph was built by public subscription; I would rather have a present before I was dead, but as a Maharaja’s life was marked by (relatively) unlimited wealth and power, what else could he be given?


The Jaswant Thada, Jodhpur
Pratap Singh, a younger brother of Jaswant Singh, served as Chief Minister before going on to a career in the British Indian Army. He travelled widely, in 1897 taking his polo team to Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations. Traditional ‘churidar’ trousers are narrow fitting on the lower leg but loose around the thighs and hips and Pratap Singh realised that a little redesigning and reinforcing made them perfect for riding. He equipped his polo team with them, they took London by storm, the trousers were widely copied and ‘jodhpurs’ were born. Pratap Singh cannot be held responsible for subsequently redesigns by Savile Row tailors, the East German police, or anybody else.

Lieutenant-General Sir Pratap Singh (centre) with his son and the Raja of Ratnam
at Sir Douglas Haigh's chateau, Montreuil-sur-Mer - Jodhpurs much in evidence
(I don't know who owns the copyright, so thanks and apologies, whoever you are)
Having set the trend Jaswant Singh is now surrounded by the mausoleums of lesser royals, some much lesser,…

Royal mausoleums by the Jaswant Thada
…some only slightly lesser.


More royal mausoleums with the Jaswant Thada in the background
There is also a garden, and you have to respect anyone who can keep plants green in this rocky terrain and dry climate, though the desert rose is better suited to it than most.

Desert rose, Jaswant Thada, Jodhpur
Sardar Markets and MV Spices

Umed drove us into the city centre, Dr S first directing him to the Post Office so we could dispatch some postcards, then to Sadar Market in the Girdikot district.

Sardar Market, Jodhpur
The market has a clocktower built by Maharaja Sardar Singh (the son of Jaswant Singh) around 1900.

Clocktower, Sardar Market, Jodhpur 
And stalls selling everything from saris to vegetables.

Lynne and some vegetables, Sardar Market, Jodhpur
In a corner of the market is MV Spices.

MV Spices, Sardar Market, Jodhpur 
Mohanlal Verhomal once sold spices from a barrow but had acquired two shops, complimentary mentions in international guide books and a visit from Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen for a TV travel programme before he died suddenly twelve years ago. He left a wife and seven daughters and in India having no son to carry on your business creates a problem. Much as I love India, I realise that the attitudes of too many Indian men towards women are not just bad, but shockingly appalling. The seven sisters took over the business and despite facing problems ranging from acid attacks to unfair business practices by their rivals, they have prospered, now own five shops and were in 2013 the subject of an Australian TV documentary ‘The Spice Girls of India’. We sat, drank marsala tea and discussed spices with one of the sisters and left with a large number of packets, some to keep, other to distribute round the family.

One of the Vermohal sisters in the shop
A Rajasthani Lunch

Dr S understood our desire for an Indian rather than a tourist lunch, and recommended a restaurant called ‘The Spice Road’ – no marks for originality, then. It was a small, pleasant place in a garden and, one Japanese couple apart, all the other lunchers were Indian. The menu offered several local specialities from which we chose deep fried gram flour balls in a spicy gravy and a dish of minced chicken and lamb. Both were good without being outstanding.

Lunch at the Spice Route, Jodhpur
The waiter on the edge of the picture, left, is wearing churidar, the trousers from which jodhpurs developed.
Indian meals normally finish with a breath freshner, a teaspoonful from box of sugar crystals flavoured with mint, violet or aniseed. Sometimes the ‘box’ can be quite elaborate – or even be a train pulled by a fire engine.

A train full of breath freshners, Spice Route, Jodhpur
Dr S reappeared to check we approved of his recommendation, took his leave and Umed drove us back to our hotel.

Umaid Bhawan and a Blue, Super and Eclipsed Moon

We idled away much of the afternoon, but we did take a walk to photograph the Umaid Bhawan.

In the late 1920s a series of failed monsoons brought famine to Rajasthan so Maharaja Umaid Singh employed several thousand drought-stricken farmers on a ‘workfare’ project to build him a palace. They started the Umain Bhawan in 1929 and progressed slowly, spinning out the work (with the maharaja’s blessing), until 1943 when Umaid Singh moved into what was claimed to be the world’s largest private dwelling.

Designed by Henry Vaughan Lanchester and influenced by Lutyens’ designs for New Delhi, it is now a hotel, indeed the third best in the world (Trip Advisor’s Travellers' Choice 2018). In a land where a night in a four-star hotel costs less than a decent B&B at home, it is also one of India’s truly expensive hotels. Sadly, it was on the far side of one of those outbreaks of desert which are a feature of Jodhpur, so my photo is less than satisfactory.

Umaid Bhawan, Jodhpur
The evening was warm so we chose seats in the outside restaurant without bothering to check out the braziers. Our attention, though, was taken not by the menu but by the moon, hanging at the end of the garden, huge, red and at that point about two thirds eclipsed. A ‘supermoon’ – a full moon at the moon’s closest approach to the earth - is only slightly bigger than the average full moon, the size and colour we saw were caused by its proximity to the horizon. It was by far the most impressive lunar eclipse we have ever seen, though not as exciting as the full solar eclipse we saw in the Gobi desert in 2008. And where is the photo? There is none, just this picture of the restaurant at night from our balcony. Pathetic.

Restaurant, Ranbanka Palace, Jodhput
As afterthought, we snacked on peanuts, papads and satay chicken washed down with gin and beer (not at the same time!).

Friday, 29 June 2018

A Collection of Arcs de Triomphe (none of them in Paris)

Originally published on April 1st 2014, as ‘Four Arcs de Triomphe (none of them in Paris), I have updated this post to include arches I have encountered since. I hope to further update it as and when I encounter more.

It is not always easy to decide what is or is not a Triumphal Arch. I have not included monumental gates; the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and London’s Marble Arch (original intended as a gate for Buckingham Palace) are not Triumphal Arches. Triumphal Arches celebrate victory - they do not commemorate the dead and they are not war memorials. I have thus reluctantly removed Lutyen’s India Gate, despite including it in the original post, not because it is a gate (it isn’t) but because it was built as a memorial to the 90,000 Indians who died serving the British Empire in the First World War.

All these arches owe a debt to the Parisian Arch, because it was the first modern Arc de Triomphe; but it was not, of course, the original. Like so much in Europe, Triumphal Arches are a Roman idea.

We visited Libya in 2006, the home of two well preserved/restored Roman arches. The Arch of Marcus Aurelius in Tripoli was built in 165AD to commemorate the victory of his adopted brother, Lucius Verus, over the Parthians. It seems a thin excuse for building an arch so far away from the events, but perhaps Marcus felt in need of a monument.

The Arch of Marcus Aurelius, Tripoli
The ruins of Leptis Magna lie 130km to the East. Septimius Severus, Rome’s only African emperor, was born here in 145AD. He became emperor in 193 and ruled until he fell ill attempting to conquer Caledonia and died in York in 211. He is honoured by an arch in Rome commemorating his victory over the Parthians (it seems Lucius Verus failed to finish them off) and this one in his home town.

The Arch of Septimius Severus, Leptis Magna
After the Romans, triumphal arches went out of fashion until the days of Napoleon who rather fancied himself as a latter day Roman emperor. The wonderfully camp statue below is in Bastia the capital of northern Corsica. Napoleon was born in Ajaccio, the capital of southern Corsica – is it possible that Bastia was taking the mickey out of their rival’s favourite son?
 
Napoleon in a toga, Bastia
Planning the Paris Arc de Triomphe started in 1806 but it was not completed until 1836 by which time some of the shine had come off Napoleon’s triumphs. That did not deter the Parisians, nor indeed many others, as where Paris led the rest followed. St Petersburg has one (1829), as do New York (1892) and Mexico City (1938). London hopped on the bandwagon early - the Wellington Arch in Green Park dates from 1826 - though before I began researching triumphal arches I had never heard of it.

So, in order of construction....

The Arch of Bender. Built 1807, 27th June 2018 (Full story coming soon)

Bender (or Bendery, sometimes Tighina) is a city on the right bank of the River Dniester in the unrecognised Republic of Transnistria. It was on the front line in many of the wars between the Russian and Ottoman Empires, its fortress being taken by the Russians in 1779, 1789 and 1806. The arch commemorates the 1806 Russian victory and is contemporary with the Parisian Arch though it was finished much more quickly (and not just because it is smaller). The Russian-Turkish Wars continued, on and off, until 1918, but the fighting had moved away from Bender.

The Arch of Bender
Arcul de Triumf, Chişinău. Built 1841 24th June 2018

The modest capital of Moldova has an appropriately modest triumphal Arch, 13m high and sporting a clock that would not look out of place on a railway station.

Arcul de Triumf
Designed by Luca Zauşkevici it commemorates the Russian victory in the 1828-9 version of the Russian-Turkish fixture. It was built to house a 6.4t bell made from melted down Ottoman cannons originally intended for cathedral bell tower (the predecessor of the one in this picture), but would not fit. It strikes the hour with a rather unmusical ‘dunk’.

Arc de Tromf, Barcelona. Built 1888 29th March 2008

A whimsical piece of modernista architecture with Islamic-style brickwork, Barcelona’s Arc de Triomf was designed by Josep Vilaseca and built in 1888 as the entrance to the Barcelona World Fair.

Arc de Triomf, Barcelona
The arch represents no military triumph, real or imagined, and the sculpture on the front frieze is called Barcelona rep les nacions (Barcelona welcomes the nations). Perhaps it should not be included but it feels an altogether healthier expression of national (in this case Catalan) pride than any of the other Arches de Triomphe.

Monumento a la Revolución, Mexico City Built 1936 18th November 2011

Intended as a neo-classical home for the Federal Legislative Palace, building started in 1910 but was halted two years later by the revolution. In 1938 the completed first stage was adapted as a monument to the revolution that halted the building and it now contains the tombs of five revolutionary heroes including Pancho Villa.

Monument a la Revolucion, Mexico City
Transforming the core of a parliament building into a triumphal arch altered the neo-classical intention into something that has been described as Mexican socialist realism. Whatever the label, I think it’s ugly (sorry Mexico). At 75m high it is the world’s highest triumphal arch, but please don’t tell Kim Jong Un, he would only make his bigger


Patouxai, Vientiane. Built 1957-68 1st of March 2014

Ironically, this Arc de Triomphe was built to commemorate triumph over the French. Laos gained its independence in 1954 after the first Indo-China War and Patouxi (Victory Arch) was built in the late 1950s. Less reverently it is known as ‘The Vertical Runway’ as there is a story that it was built from concrete donated by the Americans for airport construction.

Patouxai (Victory Arch), Vientiane
There are stairs inside and shops at three levels. From the top there is a good view over the gardens below one way and down Lan Xang Avenue – Vientiane’s Champs Elysées the other.

The Arch of Triumph, Pyongyang.  Built 1982 9thSeptember 2013

North Korea’s Arch of Triumph, in Triumphant Return Square, commemorates Kim Il Sung's return to the capital (in 1948) and his founding of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea  after almost single-handedly driving the Japanese colonialists from his country (DPRK history avoids mentioning the global conflict and ignores contributions made by other combatants, including the Chinese, British and the hated Americans).

It was built in 1982 to celebrate his 70th birthday and is is blatant rip off of the French ‘original’. Two interesting details are that a) it is 10m taller than the Parisian Arch and b) that fact was the first thing we were told when we arrived in the square. Delusions of grandeur and a chip on the shoulder are the most obvious attributes of Kim Il Sung and the dynasty he founded.
 
Arch of Triumph, Pyongyang
Pyongyang’s sparse traffic means that it is perfectly safe to stand in the middle of the ‘Champs Elysées’ to take a photograph.

Porta Macedonia, Skopje. Built 2011 27th May 2015

The Porta Macedonia was designed by Valentina Stefanovska as part of the then Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski’s ‘Skopje 2014’ project which saddled the capital with a series of grandiose monuments at great expense. Despite its name it is not a gate, nor is it a war memorial, but the design is classic Triumphal Arch, so that is what it must be, though apart from commemorating 20 years of Macedonian independence it is unclear what the ‘triumph’ was.

Porta Macedonia
I am unconvinced that spending €4.4m on a triumphal arch was the best use of money, which is not overabundant in Skopje. Gruevski was prime minister from 2006 until forced to resign in 2016. In May 2018 he started a two years prison sentence for corruption.

Sunday, 24 June 2018

Chişinău, a Modest Capital City: Part 1 of Moldova

Introduction to Chişinău

23/06/18

After a delayed flight we did not reach our city centre hotel until after 9. We entered Chişinău (pronounced Kish-er-now) through the city gates, apartment blocks completed in the dying years of the Soviet Union.

The City Gate, Chişinău
Despite the hour there was plenty of light to gain a first impression: Soviet built apartment blocks have looked grimmer elsewhere, the streets were wide and clean, the traffic orderly and although we were in Europe's poorest country it looked, at first glance, relatively prosperous.

Our hotel was on Strada Eugen Doga, a pedestrian street lined with bars and restaurants, though all seemed eerily quiet for a Saturday night. By 10 (our body clocks said it was 8), we were in the beer cellar adjacent to the hotel ready for food, beer and the second half of Germany v Sweden. There were plenty of seats so we chose a good view of a convenient screen and ordered a couple of beers (Chişinău Brewery’s dark - because everyone else was drinking it) a ‘beer platter' (a pile of salami, basturma, prosciutto and other processed meats) and beef carpaccio, wafer thin slices in lemon and vinegar with flaked parmesan and a pile of dressed rocket - we were grateful for the greenery. The quality was high, as were the prices (though a tad below British pub prices) and judging by the reaction to the goals many of our fellow drinkers/watchers must have been German – perhaps only rich foreigners can afford to drink here. Well, we were in the cellar of a four-star hotel.

When we said we were going to Moldova we received several blank looks, so here is a map. Moldova, the former Soviet Socialist Republic of Moldavia, became independent in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. Landlocked (just, it almost reaches the Black Sea) and sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine it was in 2014, according to Travellers Digest the least visited country in Europe with 11,000 foreign visitors.

Moldova stuck between Romania and Ukraine, almost like an afterthought
And if not everybody could instantly point to Moldova on a map, the vast majority, including me until quite recently, would struggle to locate the capital, Chişinău.

Moldova - Transdniestria (or Transnistria) is a grey area we will visit in a few days time

24/06/2018

The breakfast buffet offered the usual suspects plus Moldovan specialties. Clatite are pancakes with a sweet or savoury filling, in this case minced beef, while pănănaşi are fried discs of sweetened dough and brânză (young, salty, crumbly ewes’ milk cheese). I enjoyed both.

Strada Eugen Doga, Chişinău

N arrived at 10 to conduct a walking tour of Chişinău.

First stop, at the end of the pedestrian street was the memorial to the Chişinău ghetto. Chişinău had a large Jewish population in the 19th century, when Moldova was part of Tsarist Russia, and there was a major pogrom in 1905. After World War One most of Moldova joined Romania but in 1940 it was re-annexed by the USSR under the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. In 1941, when the Nazis invaded the USSR, many Moldovan Jews retreated with the Red Army. Those who remained were collected in a ghetto which stood behind the memorial. Life was hard, many died and the rest were moved to a ‘place of safety’ in Tiraspol, 80km away across the River Dniester. Some sources claim most survived, others that they were transported to Auschwitz.

Chişinău Jewish Ghetto Memorial 
Chişinău’s current Jewish population is either 2,500 or 10,000, depending on source, and is falling as the Israeli government offers inducements to bright young people. One functioning synagogue remains, while a former synagogue on the pedestrian street near the memorial acts as a Jewish cultural centre.

Former synagogue, now Jewish cultural centre, Chişinău
Between the memorial and the cultural centre stands the monument to members of the Comsomol who died fighting fascism.  Born in 1979, N had joined the Young Octobrists aged 7 and moved on to the Pioneers, a Soviet scout-like movement, at 9. Whether she would have later joined the Comsomol, the young Communist League for ages 15 to 28, is a moot point as in 1991 all these organisations disappeared along with the Soviet Union. Most Soviet era statues and monuments have disappeared too, but this is a memorial to young Moldovans who died fighting fascism, so it has stayed. In this, as in many other issues, Moldova was split, but there is no memorial to those who died fighting alongside the fascists in the Romanian Army.

Comsomol Monument, Chişinău
On a lighter note, ‘Valentine’ by Pavel Obreja appeared overnight in October 2017. The young man holds a bunch of flowers in a manner we first observed in Poland in 2002. Eastern European men seem to buy flowers more often than their western counterparts and then carry them pointing straight down, they are activated on presentation by being turning the right way up. The girl is obviously late and has removed her shoes to creep up on him as a surprise, at least that was my interpretation. N disagreed, ruefully observing that nobody can walk in high-heels on these cobbles. And before we left Moldova we did see high-heeled shoes being carried down Strada Eugen Doga by their barefoot owner.

'Valentine' by Pavel Obreja, Strada Eugen Doga, Chişinău
Chişinău City Park

At the top of the Strada we crossed the road to the city park, dominated by the Russian Orthodox Cathedral. The city has a Romanian Orthodox Cathedral too, but although most Moldovans speak Romanian, eat Romanian and are eligible for Romanian citizenship, the overwhelming majority are Russian Orthodox.

Cathedral of the Nativity, Chişinău
The Neo-Classical Cathedral of the Nativity was built during the 1830s. Severely damaged, like much of Chişinău, during the Second World War it has been extensively rebuilt. As an exhibition centre during Soviet times its walls were whitewashed; all the interior painting and gilding dates from 1993 or later.

Inside the Cathedral of the Nativity, Chişinău
Mass in an orthodox church is a performance more than a service, the congregation milling around rather than seated in pews. The singing, from the choir in a balcony above our heads was sublime making all my little neck hairs stand on end. Eastern Orthodox church music does that to me.

Ceiling, Cathedral of the Nativity, Chişinău
Opposite the cathedral is a spring from which holy water is drawn on appropriate occasions and the bell tower, built in 1997 to replace the one destroyed by the communists in 1962.

Spring with globe and cross and the bell tower of  Chişinău Cathedral
The Summer Berry Fair was next to the cathedral. Moldova is a largely agricultural country and produces a lot of soft fruit.

Summer Berry Fair, Chişinău City Park
The warm summers means that fruit ripens earlier than at home and the variety and quality was impressive – blackberries in June!

Summer Berry Fair and the cathedral, Chişinău City Park
The practice of affixing padlocks to gates and fences as symbols of love is more common in China than Europe, but we have never before seen ironwork specifically set up for that purpose.

Hearts looked together for ever, Chişinău City Park
That may feel distinctly un-soviet but along the street the old Soviet practice of publicly displaying newspapers remains alive.

Newspapers, Chişinău City Park
Beyond the bell tower is the Arc de Triomphe (Arcul de Triumf in Romanian). In June 1812, days before Napoleon started his ill-fated march on Moscow, Tsar Alexander I ratified the Treaty of Bucharest annexing Bessarabia (pretty much modern Moldova) from the Principality of Moldavia (similar and confusing name!), a vassal of the Ottoman Empire. You might think that Christian Bessarabia would be happy to swap masters from Islamic Ottomans to Christian Russians but the Ottomans had allowed Moldavia considerably independence and there were misgivings. Russian-Ottoman wars continued through to World War One and the arch commemorates Russia’s victory in the 1828-29 instalment. From 1828 Russia exerted more and more control over Bessarabia, Russifying the region and suppressing the Romanian language. The Arch was built in 1841 as a reminder of who was boss.

Arcel de Triumf, Chisinau with government buildings behind across Stefen the Great Boulevard
Arcul de Triumf, Chişinău
It is a small, modest arch in a small, modest capital with a clock that would look at home in a railway station. Inside is a 6.4t bell cast from melted down Ottoman cannons which chimes the hour with an unmusical ‘dunk’.

The Arch de Triomphe with the bell tower and Cathedral behind, Chişinău
The Boulevard of Stephen the Great and the Saint (formerly Lenin Boulevard)

The front of the Arch is on Bulevardul Ştefan cel Mare şi Sfint, Chişinău’s main drag named for the country’s great hero.

We turned right, passed the National Opera and the World Cup ‘fanzone’ and paused to admire the Ministry of Agriculture building. Not exactly beautiful, it would be unremarkable in most capital cities, but it is the tallest building in Chişinău and hence in Moldova.

Ministry of Agriculture, Chişinău
Chişinău was taken by advancing fascists in 1941 and re-taken by the Red Army in 1944 so buildings predating 1940 are rare and the Church of the Transfiguration, consecrated in 1902, is a survivor. It was deconsecrated after the 1917 revolution but Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering earth orbit in 1961 created a demand for planetariums, and the domes of idle churches were ideal, so the Church of the Transfiguration became a planetarium from 1962 to 1990.  After independence it was returned to the Orthodox Church.


The Church of the Transfiguration, Chişinău
Crossing the wide boulevard was easy, there was little traffic and Moldovan drivers generally respect crossings. Turning back the way we had come we passed another pre-war survivor, the Urban Villa of Vladimir Herța. Herța was mayor of Chişinău when the Russian Revolution gave Bessarabia the chance to seize independence. In 1920 parliament voted to join with Romania, a union, recognised in western Europe but regarded as an occupation by the USSR. which lasted until 1940.

The Urban Villa of Vladimir Herta, Chişinău
Nextdoor we stood in front of the Moldovan Parliament Building, once home to the Central Committee of the Moldovan branch of the Communist Party of The Soviet Union. Now the Democratic Party of Moldova (social democrats), leads a coalition with a narrow majority among the 101 MPs. Uniquely among former Soviet republics the Communist Party, which now has 6 MPs actually formed the government from 2001-2009.

Moldovan parliament building, Chişinău
Next to the parliament is Stefan the Great Park and Gardens. It has a nice fountain…

Fountain, Stefan the Great Park, Chişinău
…and an avenue of busts of the great and the good. The busts were too small and too far apart for a decent photograph, but there was nobody we had ever heard of – I am sure the same would not be true in France or Germany and perhaps it is an indication of the gulf between Eastern and Western Europe.

Alexander Pushkin, generally regarded as Russia’s greatest poet, gets a spot to himself. Pushkin lived in Chişinău 1820-3; we previously met him in Tblisi were he had earlier settled briefly.

Alexander Pushkin, Stefan the Great Park, Chişinău
But the star is Ştefan cel Mare şi Sfint (Stefan the Great and the Saint), Moldova’s national hero. Prince of Moldavia (a much bigger area than modern Moldova) from 1457 to 1504, his 47-year reign brought stability to a principality surrounded by larger powers, playing off the Ottoman Empire, Poland and Hungary against each other and allegedly resorting to arms only when other means failed, which was quite often as he claimed to have fought 36 battles and won 34. Although a relatively sophisticated late medieval warlord, Stefan was known to use impalement as a punishment – he was an occasional ally of Vlad III Dracula of Wallachia – and imposed slavery on Roma and Tartar prisoners. These were not the acts of a saint, so his 1993 canonization by the Romanian Orthodox Church looks more nationalistic than religious.

Stefan the Great and the Saint looks out over his from his park, Chişinău
A few paces on and we were back outside the huge cabinet offices opposite the Arcul de Triumf. Here, where Lenin once stood, is a strange non-monument. The plaque on the rough marble slab announces that ‘in this place will be placed the monument in memory of the victims of the Soviet occupation and of the totalitarian communist regime.’ It has been like this since 2010. The Soviet annexation in 1940 was followed by mass arrests and 90,000 were deported to Siberia and around 100,000 died in a semi-deliberate post-war famine. But Moldova remains torn, some look west, but others still look east and all acknowledge that the Red Army liberated Moldova from fascism, so the monument remains controversial and absent.

Non-monument outside the government offices, Chişinău
We continued along the boulevard, passing through the nearest Chişinău has to a tourist market – handicrafts, t-shirts and paintings of varying quality - and reached the point from which all distances to Chişinău are measured. London (Londra) is apparently 2,566km distant.

Okm, Chişinău
Lunch at La Plăcinte, Chişinău

Our tour was over and we strolled back with N to the City Park where she recommended we lunch at La Plăcinte, one of a dozen or so branches in the city, on the edge of the park. N told us what not to eat (she knew our lunch menu for tomorrow), made some suggestions and left.

We shared a turkey salad and aubergine puréed with garlic. It may not have been original, but it was very good. Our supermarkets dictate what must be grown, insisting on perfectly shaped, perfectly coloured fruit and veg with a long shelf life. Nowhere do they concern themselves with flavour. It is not like that in Moldova.

Lunch at La Placente, Chişinău
We also discovered that 50cl of beer was 20 lei (£1), less than half the price of the hotel beer cellar.

A Walk and a Demonstration

We had a walk in the afternoon, accidentally finding Pushkin’s house…

Lynne finds Pushkin's House, Chişinău
 …and photographing odd corners that give the flavour of the city.

A corner of Chişinău
We noticed a steady stream of people making their way up Strada Eugen Doga towards the city centre and later heard chanting. The demonstration was against the annulment of the recent mayoral election on a dubious technicality. ‘We make our choice,’ N said later (these are not her exact words), ‘maybe we make a bad decision, but it is our decision, and then America or Russia tells us it must be changed.’ I am unsure about Putin, but I think she overestimates America’s interest. I am not completely sure The Donald could find Europe on a map; I know he could not find Moldova.

A steady stream of demonstrators towards the centre, Chişinău
The demonstration was peaceful and around five the crowds were heading the other way. We followed them down to the place were the trolley buses turn as they headed for home.

Trolley buses taking the demonstrators home, Chişinău
We dined at a pub across the road from our hotel. Grilled meat and vegetables were simple but good and we dipped our toes into the world of Moldovan wine. A rosé made from Merlot and Saperavi, a dark red Georgian variety, was inexpensive, dry and crisp with an intriguing honeyed finish. Good start.