Travel Tramp’s Top Things To Do In Chisinau, Moldova!
Europe is by all means an over explored continent. There’s few places left off the grid, there’s few places that don’t intersect with the well travelled trails of tourists, interrailers and budget holiday flyers. But head east, and Moldova is one of the few remaining bastions of the truly unexplored, one of the few remaining European destinations that could be considered off the beaten track. It’s Europe’s least visited country, and that means that there’s a lot left to be discovered by the ambitious traveller in this small landlocked nation. And the drab yet enthralling centre of this poor but increasingly vibrant post Soviet country on the fringe of Europe is Chisinau, the capital city of Moldova.
So here are the Top Things To Do In Chisinau, Moldova!
Drive Around The World’s Largest Underground Wine Cellar
Post-Soviet nations have a reputation for drinking. Well, it was hard to survive the tyrannies of Stalin and communism without getting black out drunk every once in a while I suppose. The Moldovans though have a more refined reputation for drinking, at least in the East, supplying Europe with some of the best- yet shamefully unappreciated and unknown- wines on the continent.
And just outside Chisinau, you can visit the world’s largest underground wine cellar– Milestii Mici- stocked to the rafter with unimaginable quantities of Moldovan wine. While most communist countries were busy building nuclear fall out shelters, the Moldovans simply made sure their vast stores of locally produced wine would be safe in the likely event of World War III. These cellars form a huge underground labyrinth, stretching for miles, and a visit here is accomplished by driving around in a car with the high beam lights on to fully realise the extent of the cellars.
Cheap Wine, Cheap Beer, Cheap Vodka!
Moldovan wines are relatively unknown in the Western world. The main market was- of course- Russia, but with the Russians boycotting imports from Moldova, they’ve had to begin to look elsewhere, and slowly the quality of Moldovan wine is being realised outside of the old Eastern Bloc. It’s cheap too, and Chisinau is the place to stock up and indulge. Not to mention the cheap beers, and cheap vodka sold across the bars of the city.
Transnistria: The Breakaway Country Which Doesn’t Exist
Just a short Marshrutka ride from Chisinau is one of the strangest places in Europe. Transnistria is a surreal place. It’s a breakaway nation, a small piece of land on the Dniester River whose Russian speaking population declared independence from Moldova when the Soviet Union disintegrated in the early 1990’s. Russian troops stepped in to stop the fighting, and ever since Transnistria has governed itself, but with no international recognition, it is a country which doesn’t really exist. Despite this they still have their own flag, currency, government, and a huge standing army ready to wage war at the first shot of an AK-47.
It’s a place where Lenin statues still stand proud and the national monument is a T-34 tank. The de facto capital, Tiraspol, can be reached by train or bus from Chisinau.
Take The Soviet Sleeper Train To Bucharest
For a slow travel experience, the sleeper train to or from Bucharest is a refreshingly slow experience. The route has been connecting the two capitals for decades, but with more modern transport links available- read: quicker- you might find yourself the sole occupant of an antique sleeper cabin which was built when Stalin was still in power. Geographically, the two capitals aren’t too far apart, but on the old train lines it takes the whole night to travel. The locomotive chugs painstakingly slowly along, before stopping at the border for hours, not just for immigration purposes, but so the carriages themselves can be lifted from one set of wheels to another- both countries have rail systems with different sized gauge, a tricky and time consuming obstacle to inter city travel.
The Arc de Triomphe
No, you’re not in Paris. You’re in Chisinau! This miniature arc de triomphe is modelled on its slightly larger predecessor in France, and while not quite as imposing, with the Moldovan version you can walk right under while not straying from the pavement. Adorned with the national flag, and sitting across from the Parliament, like most arc’s it’s a tribute to independence and victory.
Haggle At The Market
The national language of Moldova is Moldovan- similar, almost exactly the same to be precise, as Romanian. But don’t worry, if you don’t speak Moldovan, or Romanian, then the vast majority of locals speak Russian too. And if you don’t speak Russian, then just use your hands. This gives you a plethora of languages to haggle in at the huge Chisinau market, a bustling centre point full to bursting with vendors and shopkeepers selling their wares and goods from across the country. It’s the best place to get a taste for day to day life in the city.
Get Lost On The Trolley Busses And Marshrutkas
It’s easy to get lost in Chisinau; the suburbs sprawl and streets just end in a blockade of rubbish tips and feral dogs. Utility like apartments surround the centre, and there’s few landmarks or high rises for reference. And it’s all part of the city of Chisinau experience. A vast, at times seemingly random network of marshrutkas and trolley busses ply the streets, criss-crossing, occasionally crashing into each other and going anywhere. It’s a challenge to find the right transport, but just jump on the trolley bus, pay for a 10 cents ticket and jump off again somewhere else to see the city in all its working glory. Exploring Moldova shouldn’t be a burden on your wallet as it is one of the places you can travel even on a tight budget.
WWII Victory Memorial
This sombre WWII Victory Memorial, a memorial to those Moldovans who died in battle not only against the Nazis, but more recently in the internal strife that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, should be visited to appreciate the tribulations of Moldova. A small eternal flame encased by a huge Soviet style monument, guarded around the clock by the military, is a tribute to the large struggles of this small nation.
The National Museum
Learn more about Europe’s least visited country with a walk around the National Museum. Slightly run down, and clearly underfunded, this museum still has a wealth of artefacts and exhibits dating from prehistoric to post-Soviet times and everything in between. Much of the accompanying signage is labelled in English too, and there’s a harrowing display on the often brutal days of communist rule, giving a huge insight into the long yet frequently unfortunate history of Moldova.
Epic Soviet Statues
And when you’ve hit all the sights of Chisinau and drank all the wine, it’s time to wander the streets of the capital and take in the nostalgic, monolithic forms of Soviet artwork which still dot the city. Epic Soviet statues of hard working heroes and fearless warriors still stand tall, giving the traveller a small feeling of what once the city of Chisinau must have felt like to wander through not even so long ago.