Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Kishinev, my Easternmost European destination

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I wanted to visit Kishinev for many years, but either I always rather took the plane in the direction of Western Europe, or I was too far away to include it in my short-term travel plans. Familiar with the history and with a couple of good friends from Moldova, I kept regretting that I'm not able to check the reality on the ground on myself. Shortly after the plans to visit Romania were established, the thought of paying a visit, although short, to Moldova, returned. What if? But with the never ending troubles in Ukraine, some worried friends advised me to rather go to the neighbouring Bulgaria or maybe better spend more time in Romania. But I hardly give up, especially when it comes to travel, so kept asking on travel forums and friends about what's like to be a solo woman traveller in Moldova. When I needed only one more inspiration to finally book my tickets, I met a young taxi driver in Bucharest whose emotional accounts from his home country finally convinced me that I should not miss the chance to go there.
Although it is possible to fly or to go by train, I rather decided to take a minibus, from Autogara Filaret, place that looked completely out of time. The round ticket goes around 40 Euro pro person.
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The journey lasts around 8 hours, it's relatively safe - if you forget about the need to use safety bells which were completely broken - and the mini-buses on both ways are ready to go every 2 hours. There are around 3 companies operating regularly and phone reservations are also possible. Otherwise, it's quite easy to get a place without, if you are in the station at least 30 minutes before departure.
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The custom checking was relatively smoothly, although during the summer time, the traffic was quite busy with people coming back home from Italy, Spain or France, among others. The country was recently included in the free-visa program of the EU, but many Moldavian citizens succeeded to get a Romanian passport - the two countries have a long common histories and for those with Romanian ancestors it was possible to get the citizenship - allowing them free travel and working opportunities in EU countries. On the way back though, the checking took much more, because entering the EU area involves some serious restrictions in terms of the quantities of cigarettes and alcohol that can be carried. As I was carrying only a small bag for my one night stay in Kishinev, I did not make too many worries and enjoyed looking out of the window. Once arrived in Moldova, the rich landscape kept my camera busy. Kishinev is situated in the middle of a beautiful natural landscape, one of the most favourite destinations for the weekend of the local people being the outdoor experiences of Rezervatia Codrii, a large area covered by forests, small hills and green paths.
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For purchasing my tickets, using the Romanian currency was possible, and in many places in Kishinev, it was still allowed to trade with it. This goes too for Euro. However, for paying in restaurants in shops, you rather need to use the local money, colourful pieces of paper adorned with historical characters from both the Romanian and local history. Many exchange houses are open on Sunday too, especially near the train and central bus station, as well as on Stefan cel Mare avenue.
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My first contact with the city was through its people: the driver of the mini-bus, kindly explained me where I should stop for reaching the street where I had rented a too large apartment; the owner of the apartment to whom I paid around 30 Euro for a huge 4-room complex - sometimes, the monthly salary is around 25 Euro, the country being considered the poorest in Europe - and who bought me some water, coffee and some small breakfast treats; the same owner who the next day insisted to pay my ticket to Dendarium park; the many anonymous people who helped me with directions either in Romanian, English and my very broken Russian. Thus, I felt not only safe, but also welcomed. Maybe the streets were looking bad and the contrasts between the very expensive 4x4 cars and the big holes on the roads were too big to ignore, but the warm hearts can open the eyes for long-time friendships.
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Either part of Romania or the Soviet Union, Moldova regained its independence only recently. The National Museum of History presents extensive local interpretations of history, covering also the repression during the communist years, although there are a lot of historical events completely absent.
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At the Museum of Art, although I was only 10 minutes before closing time, I was allowed to visit the Otto Dix exhibition featuring graphic war experiences during WWI. A couple of weeks later, I visited Dix's home in the German city of Gera, keeping in mind this encounter.
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Most part of my time in Kishinev was spent walking the long avenues - especially around Stefan cel Mare blvd - noticing the local institutional architecture, strongly influenced by the communist/rigid Soviet architecture.
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In the main square, the arch that was used as a meeting points for anti-governmental protesters in the last months. For now, the situation is stable, the only travel warning being related to the travels in the crony Transdniestr region, which is out of the legal and administrative control of Moldova where it reigns a pro-Russian communist Soviet-style government.
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Almost each historical encounter in this city needs an addenda. For instance, this monument dedicated to the historical character of Stefan cel Mare was moved several times in the next decades due to various historical and political circumstances.
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The institutional buildings are unusually big - sign that working for the public institutions might be a serious offer on a very unstable market - and pleasant apparitions.
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The new national identity is displayed in the most simplest way and as often as possible, but in such an open warm way that you might accept easily the clumsiness of the very beginnings.
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As in Romania, summers in Moldova are very hot and due to the high energy prices, not all the places do have air condition. After a couple of good hours of walking, I decided to have a foodie stop, trying some local specialities at Andy's Pizza, a local network with air conditioned restaurants all over the city. It's open 24/24 hours, with home delivery, fast service and very acceptable prices. The menu was in both Russian and Romanian, but the waiters were able to speak some English too. The lemonade was fresh, cold, perfumed and with the right amount of lemon, although a bit too sweet. The veggie mushroom soup was creamy, rich in parsley and with lots of crunchy croutons. I ordered some fresh back bread because curious to taste it, and was not disappointed by its freshness and dough aroma. I continued with a four-cheese pasta with dried tomatoes, nothing special, but consistent and with a good combination of cheeses.
Although I did not notice too many traditional Moldavian restaurants, there are plenty of Georgian menus all over the city, serving also their famous wine. Moldova has its own famous vineyards, a bit far away from the capital city, at Cricova, a special tourist attraction that kept the Soviet space traveller Yuri Gagarin, among others, busy for a couple of good days with its variety of bottles.
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There are many small streets where some traditional architecture and houses that used to belong to middle class people at the beginning of the 20th century. Many of them are part of the historical heritage and waiting for enough state funds to be rebuilt. On the Armenian street, some decorations of the windows included also some communist symbols, the famous sickle and the red star.
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For the late evening, I discovered close to my Badulescu Bodoni street, near the high building hosting the OSCE Mission, a huge park, Parcul Morii, with long trails of ups and downs stairs, few small restaurants and a huge lake with little beaches and walking paths. It looked like late in the evening, most part of the city's population is out from the hot apartments for enjoying the fresh wind of the beginning of the night.
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Some courageous one were swimming, others were fishing, the kids were running around and young people were gathering together to look at their iPads - there is free wifi in the parks of Kishinev - or to watch and play some street music and dance. Earlier on in the city, I encountered a group of break-dance youngs and in the front of Stefan cel Mare central park, people were also listening to various music improvisations.
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After so many experiences the other day, I started my next and last day in Kishinev, with a colourful and very sweet breakfast, at Caramel, on Banulescu Bodoni. The indoors looked very elegant, with white and green stripes wall papers and a very welcoming service. The big rose macaroon has a combination of sour rose, very crunchy, but maybe too sugarly to have an original taste. The same was for the chocolate mousse, where I also felt too much oil and artificial sweet flavours.
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The Monday mornings brought more movements on the streets, and on Armeneasca street, fresh veggies and huge water melons were on sale.
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Nearby, there were also other products sold at very small prices, mostly Made in China and of low quality. More interesting finds were at the flea market near the National Theatre, on the - already famous - Stefan cel Mare blvd. Looking around at product descriptions and recommendations of travel destinations, the usual reference system we are used with in Europe is completely different. There were recommendations of trips to Georgia and Armenia, of beauty products from Belarus or of ready made clothing products from Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan. Buses for Moscow and other local destinations in Russia are regular.
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One of my addictive discovery was the street sold kvass. With my usual innocent face, I asked the vendor what does it mean, what are the ingredients used? She - many teenagers were selling it, probably as a temporary summer job - was so surprised by my question that I felt ashamed to ask one more time. Instead, I bought if for less than 0.50 Euro and instantly fell in love with. A traditional beverage in Russia and Ukraine, but also in other former Soviet countries, it's a fermented beverage made from black or regular rye bread, with an accidental - due to fermentation processes - alcoholic concentration of less than 1.2%.  During my last 4 hours of travel in Kishinev, I tried to get at least one cold plastic glass per hour.
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At another end corner of Stefan cel Mare blvd., I was introduced to the huge Dendarium park, a local Botanical Garden, with beautiful roses and various selections of local flowers. There were not too many people around, so I enjoyed the silent presence of nature. Without a clear tourism strategy and too many street maps showing the directions, a successful trip to Kishinev should relate to the recommendation of the locals, and given my pleasant experiences I had by far, it's a great opportunity to meet new great people.
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Kishinev is a green city, with an urban presence growing up on the slopes of hills. The central area used to be always the privileged habitation of rich communist elites, while the newly areas of block houses were built for hosting proletarians from all over the Republic and other Soviet countries. In the countryside, people keep planting their gardens with fruits and vegetables and vineyards, and their hard work is a valuable source of revenue. The country might be poor and with salaries at the limits of survival, but the people keep smiling, I rarely heard cursing or aggressive encounters and the street women fashion is always glamorous.
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Although at the very busy central bus station, where comical events can take place, names of other cities like Cahul or Orhei, were screamed loud for attracting more travellers I decided that it might be enough for this one short trip and booked my bus ticket back to Bucharest. But did not want to leave before another foodie treat, at Blinoff, serving traditional Russian pancakes. I ordered another tasty lemonade - after so many glasses of kvass, I needed a change - which was very well made - it seems that people here really know how to prepare it - plus some hard cheese and mushrooms filling and bechamel sauce blinis. An excellent lavish treat before saying 'good bye'. For a fresh glass of kvass I'm ready to return any time. And not only.
For more pictures from Kishinev, have a look at the dedicated Pinterest board: http://www.pinterest.com/ilanaontheroad/kishinevchisinau-republic-of-moldova/

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