Channeling my inner Roger Ebert, I am giving Moldova one thumb up and one thumb down.
In the interest of full disclosure, I admit I may have had a very different impression of this small country squished between Romania and Ukraine if I visited at another time of year – a time when it wasn’t still digging out from massive amount of snow, followed by a warm spell that turned the entire capital city of Chisinau to mush.
Actually, it wasn’t even just mush – the whole city was covered by a horrible mix of snow, ice, sludge and mud. It was disgusting and often dangerous as everything froze over in the evenings, meaning a morning stroll through the city was really sliding on ice and trying not to fall flat on my butt.
I actually had an old babushka grab me on the sidewalk to keep me from falling over at one point.
But I couldn’t help feel that even when the sun is shining and flowers have bloomed, Chisinau is just kind of blah. It seemed to lack any major attractions, especially that you would expect in a capital city, and the aesthetic appeal was about zero. There were a few small museums and a couple small parks in the center, but that was about it.
Oh, and there was this guy, creating his own personal Occupy Moldova movement (sort of).
Almost everywhere I went, the streets were either so packed I could barely walk (particularly within a few blocks of the chaotic central market and bus station) or they were almost completely empty. The central bus station was a near disaster, with my first attempt at locating a specific bus leaving me close to tears.
Luckily, the people were incredibly friendly.
In addition to the babushka saving my butt, everyone was happy to answer questions and provide directions and those who spoke some English seemed eager to practice. When I first arrived, the guy at the currency exchange booth at the north (and much less crazy) bus station quickly chatted me up in Russian, asking first if I was a Russian tourist, then Polish. When I told him American, he gave me a huge smile and commented how far away I was from home. As I gathered my things to catch a bus to the city center, he came out of his booth to talk some more and eventually helped me find the right bus as well.
As I struggled to board the bus (actually mini-bus) with my large backpack and smaller pack, a gentleman in the front row quickly came to my rescue, grabbing my day pack and holding it on his lap as I got myself situated with the bigger pack. Then he made sure I got off at the right stop.
While it is said that Moldovans are the least happy people in the world, their alleged unhappiness certainly doesn’t stop them from being friendly.
Everything worth seeing in Moldova is outside of Chisinau.
Given the small size of the country and the fact that you can get almost anywhere in 3-4 hours, that doesn’t sound like such a bad thing. Unfortunately, many of the major tourist attractions (if you can call them that since Moldova is not exactly a tourist hub) are not easily accessible by public transportation. Those that are still require some advance planning as buses don’t always run regularly and it may not always be clear where to get off or where the bus may pick you up for a return trip. I took three day trips (to Orheiul Vechi monastery, Transdniestria and Milestii Mici winery) and two of the three I would not have been able to figure out without the help of the hostel staff where I was staying.
I missed out on several destinations because the public transportation options were so limited. Soroca town and fortress are four hours north of Chisinau by bus, with the last bus returning at 6:00 p.m., which wouldn’t have left much time to explore. Likewise, Comrat, the capital of the autonomous region of Gaugazia in the south, is several hours away from Chisinau by bus with even more limited return options.
Other sites like the Tipova and Saharna monasteries are not accessible by public transportation at all and thus require pricey tours – assuming you can get a tour company to actually respond to your inquiries. I contacted several agencies with only one response. The one that did respond was initially enthusiastic but then was so slow to follow up that they never arranged anything for me. How do these people stay in business?
If I were to visit Moldova all over again, I would do two things differently.
First, I would visit in the spring, summer or fall months when the weather is likely to be much nicer. Second, I would not base myself in Chisinau but instead would stay in small towns around the country. Accommodation options outside the capital are limited and likely more expensive, but it would give me more time to explore the country without having to worry about missing the last bus back to Chisinau.
Have you ever been to a country that just felt a little blah?