Numarul 2 / 30 august 2004 /
saptamanal de politica internationala / publicatie personala / Realizator: Nicu Ilie
|Moldova in catalogul Lonely Planet ENG|
If, as PJ O'Rourke paraphrases, 'Russia is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, tied in a hankie, rolled in a blanket and packed in a box full of Styrofoam peanuts', then Moldova, with its cultural ties to Russia, Romania and Turkey, is even more of an puzzle. It has risen from the ruins of Soviet socialism to become a democratic republic split in two, one area controlled by the government and the other by separatist rebels loyal to Mother Russia; it has few cities but is one of the most populated countries; unification with Romania, its closest neighbour, is an on-again-off-again issue and yet it has more in common with other former Soviet countries; the official language, Moldovan, is phonetically identical to Romanian, while Transdriestran schools and universities are all taught in Russian. Moldova actively encourages entrepreneurial flair and closer ties to Western economies but is still hobbled to the Russian rouble; it's got all the ingredients for a successful tourism industry but is less developed than other Eastern European countries; Moldovans are gregarious people but make some of the surliest hotel staff in the world. Everything in Moldova has an equal and opposite reaction, which makes it either one of the most balanced of countries or one of the most confusing.
War and religion play a big part in the Moldovan psyche, and it has a fistful of monasteries, ancient fortresses, wooden churches and war memorials to prove it. These architectural and cultural museums are supplemented by medieval frescoes of Madonnas, princes, crosses, anonymous churchy folk and a range of gilded iconography that immediately makes you think of Russia. Literature, art, music and dancing are also pretty big in Moldova. Folk dancing is similar to other Eastern European folk dancing; all dirndls, bonnets and elaborately embroidered tunics, with partners moving in circles or sinuous lines to the sound of bagpipes, flutes, panpipes and violins. Sort of like sedate square dancing without the Stetsons and whoopin'n'hollerin'. And when all the praying and dancing are done with, Moldova has some of the best and biggest vineyards in Eastern Europe. Wine and wine tasting are an integral part of Moldovan life.
It's fortunate that the wine is so good because Moldova has inherited the Russian anti-style of cooking: meat done to a consistent grey and vegetables boiled to a watery pulp and sculpted into forms resembling Soviet-style monoliths. The ubiquitous Romanian mamaliga (soft cornmeal mush) appears on most menus along with Turkish sasliks, kebabs and baclavas. Some of the better dishes include Russian dumplings in mushroom sauce and hearty Jewish stews. One uniquely Moldovan speciality is tochitura Moldoveneasca, pan-fried pork in a spicy pepper sauce served with mamaliga and topped with fried egg. If you've got a cast-iron stomach and feel particularly adventurous you might want to try some of the dishes at the Cactus Cafe in downtown Chisinau, where time is saved by serving main meal and desserts on the one plate. How about chicken with chocolate sauce or turkey with bananas? Mmmmm-mmmm
Chisinau is a surprisingly green city on the banks of the Bac (Byk) River, flanked by parks and lakes. Despite being the transport hub of the country, its pretty tree-lined streets resemble a provincial town in Romania rather than a capital city. Bombs in WWII destroyed nearly two-thirds of Chisinau's old buildings, and it's obviously a city on the remake. It still has a wealth of stately old buildings and onion-domed cathedrals, but mixed in with these are the stark, Gulag-grey boxy buildings from the Stalinist era, offset by a number of funky bars and cafes sprouting up around the city and trying hard to swim against the prevailing economic current. Once in the surrounding rural areas, however, the extent of the poverty becomes obvious.
With the exception of the statues of the famous writers Alexander Pushkin (who spent his exiled years in Chisinau) and Mihai Eminescu, nearly every other piece of upright masonry in the city is a war monument of some sort. Inside the Stefan cel Mare Park, which dominates the western flank of Blvd Stefan cel Mare, is the statue of Stefan cel Mare. Needless to say, the medieval warrior-prince is still something of a hero in Moldova.
There are a number of art and history museums scattered around Moldova, but there's a truly mind-boggling exhibition in the National History Museum. It's a life-size rendering of the Soviet invasion of Chisinau in 1945. As if the original wasn't enough! As an antidote to all these slate grey men on slate grey horses, head off to the Exhibition Hall, where contemporary art is exhibited. The Galeria Brancusi, inside the hall, has pieces for sale for those interested in collecting international objets d'art.
Chisinau is tailor-made for the directionally challenged; straight streets in a rigid grid system. The main drag of Chisinau, the Blvd Stefan cel Mare, crosses the town from southeast to northwest. At the northern end is the central square, dominated by the blockbuster buildings, the main cathedrals and Moldova's Arc de Triomphe. Restaurants and hotels are scattered throughout the central city section. Although the streets are laid out in a straightforward fashion, the naming of them isn't. Some streets have their Moldovan name, some still bear their Russian name, and some have both old and new.
You may be a little tired and emotional after your visit to the vineyards and ready for something restful and spiritual. There's an old monastery conveniently located 7km (4.5mi) southwest of Straseni in the isolated village of Capriana where you can repent of your drinking ways and give your liver a rest. It's a 14th-century monastery that miraculously survived the militant atheism of the Soviet era and its obligatory looting and pillaging. Sitting serenely at the edge of a lake, it's comprised of three sections, each built in a different era. The oldest is the church of the Virgin's Assumption, built in classic 14th-century baroque style. Saint Nicholas' Church was built in the 1800s and Saint George's church (abutting the abbot's house, refectory and cells) was built at the turn of the 20th century. Forty-two Orthodox monks still use the monastery today.
Three buses leave daily from Chisinau to Capriani, but they begin their 30km (19mi) trip back to Chisinau almost immediately. This makes a day trip difficult.
Unfortunately most of Moldova's wineries can only be visited on officially sanctioned tours, and guides can charge like wounded bulls for the privilege of tasting their local plonk in situ. But the wineries have their compensations and delights. Cricova lies some 15km (9mi) north of Chisinau and is the starting point for your Moldovan pub crawl with a difference. Cricova is completely underground with a labyrinth of subterranean streets stretching more than 60km (37mi). All the streets are named after wine types, so you can stagger along Cabernet Street before crawling east into Pinot Street.
Fifteen kilometres (9mi) west of Cricova is Cojusna, which produces the usual array of reds and whites as well as vodka and heavy port wines for the diehard drinkers. Cojusna is strictly geared for the tarry-and-tipple tourist, although this doesn't mean sipping old wines in French-style chateaux. There are no actual vineyards in Cosujna, as the cellars are stocked from the harvests of smaller vineyards in the district.
The Straseni vineyard, 12km (7mi) west of Chisinau, is renowned for its sparkling white wines. This is where you'll find the sprawling vineyards that you might have expected in Cojusna. A little farther north is the Romanesti winery, one of the largest in the business and the one-time leading producer of wines in the USSR. One of its more famous products is a Bordeaux-type red which was the drink of choice for many a famous tsar.
Visiting the Cricova winery is only possible as part of an organised tour, which can be arranged through the winery's excursion bureau in Chisinau. The prohibitive price of the tour does at least include transport there and back. To tipple at the Cojusna winery, call the factory, make an advance booking, and then take a bus from Chisinau out to the village. The same system, different bus, applies to getting to and from Straseni.
Off the Beaten Track
The autonomous republic of Gagauzia, in southern Moldova, is populated by a Turkish-speaking Christian minority whose Muslim ancestors fled the Russian-Turkish wars in the 18th century. The price of entry into the region was conversion to Christianity, and their language, a Turkish dialect, is now inflected with Russianisms rather than with the Islamic influences of other Turkish dialects.
The Gagauz have made an art of resisting the usual gamut of assimilation tactics, which goes a long way toward explaining their bulldog obstinacy in the face of Moldovan nationalism. Constant threats by the Gagauz to secede from the republic finally forced the Moldovan government into a backdown, and small but significant changes in the constitution paved the way for Gagauzia to become autonomous in regional affairs and to be better represented at government level. Gagauzia's capital, Comrat, is a one-horse town about 92km (57mi) southwest of Chisinau. Nothing much happens in Comrat, apart from a lot of studying at the University, but it was the site of violent clashes between the Moldovan armed forces and Gagauz nationalists in 1990 over the issue of Gagauz independence.
There are a few daily return buses from Chisinau and it is possible, and probably a good idea, to do a day trip. If staying overnight, there is a limited choice in accommodation.
The ancient city of Orheuil Vechi or old Orhei, sometimes referred to as Trebujeni, is out in the boondocks of Moldova. It's a bit of an archaeological wonder, holding the remnants of a civilisation ancient enough to think that stone tools were the height of sophistication, as well as the ruins of a medieval village. The remnants of this village - including the vestiges of a mosque, two mausolea, a caravan-seraglio, three bathhouses and a typical Moldovan house - are open to the public. The rest of the complex includes an ancient fortress built by the indefatigable Stefan cel Mare in the 14th century and destroyed by the equally indefatigable Tartars in 1499, and an ancient monastery carved out of the face of a lime cliff.
The cave-monastery of Butuceni was built by monks during the 13th century and is a classic example of the role that architecture played in the medieval ages. It was built not only as a place of worship but as a refuge during times of adversity . The interior is an almost seamless web of corridors, devoid of geometrical lines or sharp turns, with light penetrating the gloom through rectangular doors hewn out of the stone. At some stage during the 18th century the faithful from neighbouring Butuceni dug a tunnel through to the chapel so that they could practice their religion in relative secrecy.
Getting to Orheuil Vechi by public transport is tough. It involves firstly getting a bus from Chisinau to the town of Orhei, about 50km (30mi), and from there another bus to Orheuil Vechi or Trebujeni (another 10km/6mi). Ask the bus driver to drop you off at the monastery complex on the way. A taxi can also shuttle you between Orhei and Orheuil Vechi.
Transdniestr has been a thorn in the side of the Moldovan government since the predominately Russian republic was first formed in 1991. Separatist rebels, with the blessings and wherewithal of the Russian military, have been stirring the pot ever since. It is a self-declared republic with Tiraspol as its capital city and its own currency, army, media and police force, but Transdniestr really started looking like it had slipped down a rabbit hole when it began drawing imaginary borders and protecting them with (unofficial) border guards holding (real) guns. It also elected its own president, Igor Smirnov, and you don't get any more Russian than that.
Nearly two-thirds of Transdniestr citizens are elderly and impoverished and long for the good old days of Soviet rule when the quality of life was so much better. These days they would find life tough under any form of government, but trying to establish an independent republic has put an added strain on resources. Rampant inflation, a currency that is next to worthless, low wages, the collapse of the Russian economy and soaring debts have put Transdniestr behind the economic eight ball. Nevertheless it's worth a visit. It's a walking, talking, breathing mausoleum of Stalinist-style government; the Iron Curtain in Transdniestr hasn't been demolished as much as drawn back a little for a cautious peek outside. There are no golden arches, Coca-Cola signs or funky cafés selling double decaf-cafs here. It's all peasant pragmatism and Stalinist utilitarianism. And they don't go much for US travellers either.
It's actually quite expensive for a foreigner to spend time in Transdniestr because of the three-tiered pricing system. In the topsy-turvy world of Transdniestrian logic, even asking questions at the information desk will cost you money! There are a number of buses every day that do the 70km (40mi) trip between Chisinau and Tiraspol, and two per day between Comrat and Tiraspol. Transdniestr has just announced that all foreign visitors will need to register with the police within three hours of arrival and pay a fee. In a powerful bit of brinkmanship this includes Moldovan nationals, whom they define as 'foreign'.
Moldova is hardly set up to cater for tourists, and much of the area is covered in cultivated fields which limit the number of energetic outdoorsy activities you can indulge in. If you're an adrenaline junkie and really need a fix, there's a parachuting club above the open-air festival stage in Chisinau. Lake Valea Morilor, a sprawling park west of Chisinau, offers caneoing and paddleboat opportunities and is a great place to relax and write those long-promised postcards. But the best idea is to drink your way round Moldova. By the time you've visited all the wineries in Moldova and sampled all the sparkling red wines, cabernets, sauvignons, rieslings and port wines, Moldova will look like a tourist's paradise and you'll be thankful that there are so few things that require physical exertion or your undivided attention.Environment
With the exception of Armenia, Moldova is the smallest of the former Soviet Republics but one of the most populated. At about twice the size of Hawaii it's a small area of land, roughly triangular in shape, cut from the larger cloths of Romania and Ukraine. Romania lies to the west of Moldova, and Ukraine closes around it on its northern, southern and eastern borders, effectively creating a landlocked republic although at its southernmost point it's only 100km (62mi) from the Black Sea. The two most significant geographical features are the Prut and the Dniestr Rivers, which not only form natural borders between Romania and Ukraine respectively but also provide one of Moldova's most precious resources, rich and fertile soil. The landscape is mostly flat steppe, or gentle rolling hills, with a few forested areas to provide visual relief.
It's still possible to see wild boars, badgers, foxes, wolves and various kinds of deer in the steppe, but Moldova is too small and too populated to support much in the way of wildlife. Large tracts of wilderness have been swallowed up by sprawling vineyards and cultivated fields that, in the summer months, turn into bright carpets of sunflowers. It's a Kodak moment just waiting to happen, particularly with the fruit orchards and whitewashed villages in the background, but this pretty-as-a-postcard Moldova hides a less attractive reality. During three decades of Soviet industrial expansion the environment was the biggest loser, and Moldova is now reaping what it sowed. The indiscriminate use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides has led to dangerously high levels of soil toxicity, while over-clearing, deforestation and failure to protect the natural fauna has led to a drastic reduction in biodiversity. Since the early 1990s Moldova has participated in a number of initiatives to protect the environment and rectify some of its worst excesses.
Moldova is often classified as having a temperate climate similar to that of Western Europe. The warm season lasts for well over three-quarters of the year and the sun shines on average once every second day. Despite this, it's still not quite the Bahamas. The average temperature hovers around a rather chilly 10°C (50°F) and in the winter months regularly slips a few notches below zero.Money & Costs
Currency: Moldovian Leu
Moldova, like other ex-Soviet countries, is still a cheap place for Western tourists despite the fact that the Soviet three-tier pricing system ('From each according to his abilities etc, etc, etc') is still in effect. The biggest expense is accommodation, but if you're not too fussed about how reliable the hot water system is, can put up with a bit of surliness from hotel staff and don't mind endless meals of cornmush and kebabs, you can get by on US$30 a day. A bit of spice in your meals, a reliable shower and hotel rooms that come with a smile will cost about US$60 a day. If you're looking for accommodation that includes plush sofas and silver service meals you'll be spending upwards of US$150 a day.
The good old cash-and-carry system still operates in Moldova, so take lots of US cash including some smaller denominations. There is often a shortage of ready change which means you may find yourself holding a box of matches or half a loaf of bread in lieu of a leu. Travellers cheques are almost impossible to exchange in Moldova although there are a few banks in Chisinau that will exchange and one that charges a 4% commission for advances on Visa or Mastercard. This is about the only time your credit card will get a workout as they are not accepted anywhere else in Moldova.
Transdniestr (a separate republic in everything except international recognition) has introduced its own currency, the Transdniestr rouble. It's about as valuable as Monopoly money but not as stable or straightforward. When inflation reaches critical meltdown, zeroes are added to selected bills with an insouciance that would make an economist weep. All you have to remember is that the blue 50,000 notes are worth 50,000 roubles while the brown 50,000 notes are actually worth 500,000 roubles, and five rouble notes are really worth 50,000 roubles if they have a silver hologram attached to them. And none of them is worth anything outside Transdniestr. Got all that?
A tip of 10%-15% is expected in restaurants and taxis.
|Update (Numarul in lucru)|