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…..

Sunday, 24 June 2018

Chişinău, a Modest Capital City: Part 1 of Moldova

Introduction to Chişinău


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


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, a 6.4t bell cast from melted down Ottoman cannons 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 when Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering earth orbit in 1961 created a demand for planetariums church domes 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 The union, recognised in western Europe but regarded as an occupation by the USSR, 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. 90,000 were deported to Siberia and some 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 am certain he could not find Moldova.

A steady stream of demonstrators towards the centre, Chişinău
We dropped into the bar on the left above to watch England's demolition of a woeful Panamanian team. Emerging around 5 o'clock we watched the demonstrators heading the other way, following them down to where 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.

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