|If, like me, you want to travel from Romania to Ukraine, you have two choices: an expensive flight, or going through Moldova. (OK, there is also a direct Bucharest-Kiev train, if 27 hours on a train built when JFK was president is your idea of fun). What’s there to see or do in Moldova, you ask? I didn’t know, and based on my research and my visit, probably not much for the average tourist. But it’s a lot cheaper than flying to Ukraine.
Moldova is the poorest country in Europe, by FAR. Many buildings, like my hotel, have not changed much since the fall of the Soviet Union. The place being empty, the lovely English speaking receptionist let me check-in at something like 7 am. I came to ask for a wake-up call in the evening and it was still her behind the counter. At 6 am, she called my room and when I returned the key, she handed me a packed lunch for my train trip! Quite the work shift!
Some hotels are doing a lot worse than they used to. Either through economic collapse, or because the communist project never made any business sense outside a planned economy, several buildings in the capital are in a similar condition. That’s the fountains of the abandoned hotel in the foreground, in case you were wondering.
Another problem is that I visited over Easter week-end. Not the best, but I had to be somewhere over Easter, and it fell here. So I went to the War Museum, and of course, it was closed on Easter Saturday.
Judging by the exterior displays, I don’t think I missed much.
The History Museum looked very nice from the outside, but a guard informed me that this would be all I would see today.
So I saw an old burial stone in the front yard. Some are 2,400 years old. I don’t mean to disrespect the dead, but from the face he is making and the position of his hand, you could swear someone just kicked him in the balls.
Even the fountain was closed.
An arch can’t really be closed, so it was there, with the ugly Parliament building in the background. I didn’t approach too much because there were a lot of police around. The website of a British expat resident had warned of staying clear of the police, less you want to risk some imaginary “fine”.
The Easter decorations were on, and locals were playing chess on a gigantic board.
Because of population decline and economic hardship, a lot of buildings in the capital lie in a state of ruin. But this does not reflect the actual level of poverty in the country. I was looking for signs of poverty because the statistics are absolutely astonishing. According to IMF data, Moldova has a per capita GDP of $2,229 (nominal, 2013). This ranks them just ahead of Sudan and behind Papua New Guinea! A 500% increase would bring them in line with Gabon! I simply had no idea there was a country so poor in Europe.
I certainly saw signs of poverty that don’t lie. Beggars you can see in the richest countries, caused by whatever combination of lack of social safety net, or lack of support to mental illness and substance abuse. But I saw four separate elderly people who showed no obvious sign of handicap, social exclusion or drug addiction, sitting on a bench all day, with a scale on the ground in front them. You could weight yourself if you paid 1 Moldovan Leu ($0.07). This means it is worth their time to sit there all day to make a buck or two, at the very most (I never saw anyone using their service – although perhaps some people give them money and the scale is a “business” to avoid the stigma of being a beggar). This is the kind of thing I have seen in countries like Ethiopia.
But still, many look to be doing OK, which suggest to me that people in poor neighbourhoods must be really poor and people in the countryside must be close to living on subsistence agriculture. Surprising then, the number of luxury cars I saw. “From EU development money” a woman told me. Sadly, I was not surprised one bit.
The building adjacent to the abandoned one in the previous photo is the Carpe Diem Wine Shop and Bar, one of three things to do in Chisinau according to Tripadvisor. In such a non-touristy destination, things can be surprising, but also predictable.
Barman: “Where are you from?”
Barman: “You saw our listing on Tripadvisor?”
Moldova has long been a wine producing country. I am not a connoisseur, but I really enjoyed the two I tasted. There is actually one very worthy thing to do in the country, visit the Milestii Mici wine galleries, the largest in the world.
Over 2 million bottles of wine stored in 55 km of former mining tunnels, out of a total of 200 km of such tunnels. The natural levels of humidity and temperature are perfect for aging and some bottles spend decades there before being shipped to Japan, where the bottle worth $2 in 1974 is sold for $800. But guess what? Closed for Easter!
PS: This is my 129th travel story, and I just noticed that for the first time ever, all the pictures I shared are in the exact chronological order I took them. I just don’t have a narrative to build about Moldova. Perhaps that says something about the harshness of the place. Sad to think that what I saw was the rich centre of the capital.