We’ve been a few places in the world. Over 60 countries for both Kari and myself. For all of those 60 countries, I usually have some sort of take away from my time in those places. Visiting Moldova and it’s territory of Transnistria, or officially/unofficially Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, somehow invoke zero response when I think about our time there. It’s very strange for me to visit or explore a destination and when it comes to mind later on, have no real feeling about it what-so-ever. Moldova and Transnistria feel benign.
Before we get delve into why Moldova and Transnistria are as boring as a doctor’s waiting room, in the interest of full disclosure, I do have some negative feelings towards Moldova since we did take time and funds to travel there. There’s probably nothing in the world that annoys me more than wasting travel days and precious funds. However, that is our fault for not doing enough research and getting caught up in how “undiscovered” or “off the beaten path it is.” Because we are to blame, I will do my best to keep those negative vibes out of this piece.
On the other hand, I would like to offer that Moldova is fine place to visit. However, probably best to just keep your expectations low. Very, very, very low. If you only requirement is cheap vodka, a few Soviet relics and a society and population on the verge of Westernization, then Moldova is must. If you actually crave a reason to visit a place, like culture, museums, a single geographical feature, cuisine, nightlife, attractions…you will be sadly disappointed.
So, if you’re still wondering if these Eastern European travel destinations…and I’m using “travel destination” extremely loosely, are “Must or Bust”, we’re here to proclaim loudly…BUST!!!
Visiting Moldova: Lack OF Attractions
Not every country you visit is going to be rife with art, culture, architecture, nature, and adventure activities to fill a trip itinerary. The truth is that nothing in Moldova is impressive. The country has long been at the mercy of a corrupt government (this link will show you just how deep the corruption runs) torn between a communist past and a future with the European Union. Making for slow development of tourism industry.
The capital, Chisinau, appears good on paper. It’s a small manageable city with markets, a modern-esque walking street, parks, a couple old churches, etc. However, not of lot of attention appears to be provided to keep up the few attractions the city provides. While it’s central park close to the city center is a nice place to spend a chill afternoon, it’s hardly worth visiting the country for. And especially relevant, this is the capital we’re talking about. The center of culture, business, and everything Moldovan. It’s just a little bit sad. Nothing terrible, but nothing great.
THE 1 ATTRACTION in Moldova: MOLDOVAN WINE CELLARS
Outside of Chisinau, there are a few interesting places to see, if you can manage a way to get to them. One thing Moldova has is wine. With four growing regions in the country, it’s the 22nd largest wine producing country in the world. Most of that wine is exported to neighboring countries like Poland or Russia. A fair amount makes it’s way across the Atlantic to the US. Moldova produces mostly old world style wines and even maintains a few local varietals specific to the region. The few we tasted weren’t bad, but were far from amazing.
What’s actually amazing about visiting Moldova wine country is the massive underground wine cellars. I’m not talking about your average run of the mill wine cellar…I’m talking about a city of underground wine storage like no other on planet Earth. We visited 2 of these massive viticulture catacombs.
The first one was at Cricova and boasts over 120km (75 miles) of subterranean paths that extend under the city of the same name. Cricova also keeps wine reserves belonging to the likes of Vladimir Putin and John Kerry.
The second winery, we visited Milestii Mici, features the biggest wine cellar in the world with around 250km of passageways under the earth. Only about 120km of them are in use. Those 120kms are home to over 2 million bottles of wine. To visit the Milestii Mici wine cellar it’s mandatory to have your own wheels as it’s a self drive tour where the guide just hops in your backseat. The tasting takes place deep in the cellar and are almost really cool but fall short in presentation. As much as we enjoy wine, the highlight here is a photo of action film star Steven Seagal sampling some the Moldovan nectar.
While the tastings rooms underground coupled with miles and miles of wine storage are impressive, it’s still that…just a whole lot of wine storage. The tastings are fine, the staff is ok, and wine is decent…but it’s definitely not enough to consider visiting Moldova for.
THE FAUX COUNTRY
Transnistria, or, Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR), is an unrecognized territory that operates as a sovereign country within the borders of Moldova along its border with Ukraine. It was defined during a civil war in the 1990s but Transnistria never gained true independence. It’s now considered an autonomous territory rather than an independent country. This status is shared by the United Nations as it does not recognize PMR as an independent nation. Transnistria appears to be this renegade territory clinging to the Russia of old. It’s relic held over from the Soviet era determined to cling to it’s Soviet ties come hell or high water. Like a North Korea of Eastern Europe. A truly wild and authentic taste of Russia without having to go all the way to Moscow….
So, that’s what makes it interesting. They have their own government, military, money, etc, etc. There’s a border to cross and everything. A fairly heavily armed one. You must pass through and pay a fee upon entry. Do not drive your own vehicle into Transnistria. It cost us $50 USD for insurance and permit to bring the car into the country for 24 hours. You can get here via bus from Chisinau. You’ll get the whole armed border experience as you pay the “visa fee” for a small slip of paper allowing passage into the “country”.
Once in Transnistria, you’ll begin to see the Soviet influence in the form of war memorials and billboard propaganda. As you make your way from the border through the town of Bender towards Tiraspol, you’ll notice nothing shocking or special. You will pass by a huge, very new looking super market, Sheriff. It’s a bit like a Smart & Final or Sam’s club. The store has all the feel of western establishment…but it’s missing something. Customers. The place has an eerie feel.
When we arrived to Tiraspol, the had noticed a that the eerie feeling we had was sort of a theme. The streets were empty. As we pulled over to take photos of the first Lenin statue we spotted, we noticed the lack of traffic and lack of people in the buildings. Just a very creepy, abandon feeling the place was starting to have.
We met the host for our accommodation at a restaurant whose name translates to “7 Fridays”. It was the equivalent to a western chain restaurant serving everything from pizza to burgers. Our hosts, 2 young natives of Transnistria, had nothing nice to say about their home “country”. The citizens are depressed because Transnistria has no jobs. Those that do have jobs receive their wages in Transnistrian currency which holds zero value outside the small territory. They told us of that they were going to drop out of university because they could no longer afford to pay the professors the bribes they demanded to give passing grades. If we didn’t have shady feeling about Transnistria before, we did now.
We asked our hosts where we could exchange some Euros for local currency. When we arrived the Sheriff supermarket in town we found where all the people were. The line for currency exchange was 20-30 people deep. We simply skipped the line by exchanging Euros for Transnistian Rubles with a local instead of waiting. Locals we holding large stacks of rubles and exchanging them for Euros, USD and even Moldovan Leu..money that actually has value. Transnistrian Rubles are worth nothing…as in has no international currency code. As far as money goes, Transnistrian Rubles don’t exist.
Once Transnistrians have enough foreign currency, they make plans to get out of Transnistria. This economic state has people, especially young people, fleeing Transnistria in search of opportunity. Our hosts were planning to leave for Poland or Ukraine as soon as they had enough money. They felt there is no future for them in their home country. The whole place feels like a front for a money laundering scheme.
To add, our hosts pitched our accommodation as a hostel. However, it turned out that we stayed in a set of bunk beds in an apartment with only a sheet hanging between our sleeping quarters and hour host’s. Almost like sleeping in the same room as them. All very strange.
The Sights of Tiraspol
With this information, insight and probably one of the weirdest sleeping situations ever, we woke the next morning to take in the sights of Tiraspol. It took us all of an hour. A few old buildings. A couple statues featuring Stalin & Lenin. An old tank, a local market, a photo opportunity with a sign saying “I love Tiraspol” in Russian. Transnistria is a day trip at best and really nothing to see. There is a manmade beach along the river, that seems like it’d be fine on a hot day (completely empty when we were there) is something somewhat noteworthy…maybe? There just isn’t anything to see. Transnistrians we encountered asked us “Why did you come here?”
Back in Moldova…another place you might hear about or find some information on….is Orhei Vechi. It’s a old monastery carved into a hillside overlooking a river and a small valley near in the site of the ancient city Orhei. On top of the hill is a more present day Orthodox monastery. It’s a bit of wedding factory with wedding parties lined up awaiting their turn. There’s a gift shop almost as big as the worship area. A restaurant is near the monastery and another inn/pension walking distance from the complex. However, there is literally no information on any of the things to see. So basically, you end up sort of wandering around and wondering what exactly you should to be looking at. There’s a network of manmade caves or bunkers in the area as well…but there’s no telling what they are or how they may have been used.
I imagine that hiring a guide is really the way to see this. However, I’m not sure even the most fascinating information about the area and the history would make this worth whatever price you pay the guide or the time it would take the get there. This is all an issue that leads me to my next gripe….
Visting Moldova: Lack of Infrastructure
As I mentioned earlier, the nation of Moldova has been and continues to be victim of a corrupt governance. Oligarchs have lined their pockets with funds from both Allies to the east and EU alike. Hence, the country, it’s people, and cities have been victims of of neglect and struggling to find a foothold. The country lacks infrastructure. While most of Chisinau’s roads and thoroughfares are nice, wide, smooth pavement…it’s just that the roads lack lines separating the lanes. Consequently, there’s a fair bit of chaos on the roads. This seems like a super basic government function and probably only scratches the surface of the lack of services being provided by the government.
Chisinau does have a very present bus system. Intercity buses run as well. Don’t expect nice new coaches running frequently or on time between cities or towns.
It seems to us that the people of Moldova are kind, educated, happy and deserve better. They are welcoming, but when they encounter tourists, the common question for the visitor is, “Why did you come to Moldova?” Which speaks to the lack of tourism infrastructure. The country doesn’t have much to offer. Why go to Moldova? I have no idea.
IT’S KIND OF DEPRESSED PLACED
Moldovans don’t have much in the their country keeping them there. The country averages about a 6.5% unemployment rate and the average salary is about $350 per month. Outside of Moldova, their Leu doesn’t go along way. As a result, the economy sucks and people covet “foreign” currency.
With an economy like this, very few natural resources or natural features, the corrupt government, the tourist industry remains lacking. Therefore, it’s hard to find information about the country. There are not many tour agencies offering excursions…partly because there isn’t much to see or explore. As a traveler, you really have to think of Moldova like a blank canvas. You are going to have to make almost anything you want to see or do happen. However, even open minded, ambitious travelers, like ourselves, come to find out very quickly that you hit the ceiling of Moldova’s potential rather quickly. For crying out loud, the highlight of Chisinau for us was the comic relief provided by the cleverly named “MallDova”.
Needless to say…we probably won’t go back.
In conclusion, Moldova and Transnistria are off the beaten path for a reason. There’s nothing to see or do here. I hate to say that. I really do. But that’s the truth. I’m not expert. And, I’m not saying it’s impossible to enjoy yourself or find something interesting during a visit to this region. I’d just like to state that, In my opinion, visiting Moldova and Transnistria are a total bust and not worth your time of effort to visit….Sad face.
If you are for some crazy reason you, or someone you know that’s crazy, isnplanning to visit Moldova, having your own wheels is a good idea. Check out how we saw Moldova and number of other countries in Europe in a brand new Renault Hatchback! Sounds awesome, right? It is…AND it’s very affordable! Check out our blog on Leasing a Car in Europe.