Part 12: Chisinau (Days 28, 29 and 30)

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September 20th 2008
Published: September 20th 2008
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Moldova was a destination we had decided on more out of curiosity than a desire to see anything specific. It's skipped over by most visitors to the region because the small nation of about 4.5million people has little to boast about historically or culturally compared with neighbouring Romania or Ukraine.

We'd heard and read a few things about its celebrated wine industry as well as corruption and poverty, which are both supposedly rife.

Continuing our tradition of arriving at rush hour, the three of us waded through the hordes of incessant taxi drivers hawking for business, changed up some dollars for Moldovan leu and set off up the hill to our hostel.

Upon reaching the address at 69 b.dul Stefan Cel Mare, it took us about ten minutes to find the actual hostel. After trying to ask a Jeffrey Archer lookalike waiter at a neighbouring restaurant for directions without success, we circled the building twice before phoning the telephone number we had been given. It hadn't worked earlier, but this time there was a response and a friendly woman met us and led us through a back gate up to an apartment on the first floor. We would have been there all night trying to find it.

Moldova were playing Israel that night in a World Cup qualifier in the capital and we learned from a text service that claims to "answer any question" that the stadium was around the corner from our base.

Unfortunately, the aforementioned service doesn't necessarily "answer any question" correctly, as we discovered that the stadium was now utterly derelict. For the second city running, we had been thwarted in our bid to see some international football.

With England in action against Croatia, plan B was to find a bar showing that - an Irish bar just north of the stadium seemed the best bet. An American propping up the bar chatted to us and was interested in the Germany game showing on the TV in the hour or so before England kicked off. He celebrated all six of their goals against Liechtenstein - we hadn't the heart to tell him that it was actually a repeat of a game played four days earlier.

Sadly, the channel the pub had on was showing Italy v Georgia instead of England so we drank up and left. Later, via text updates and the hostel internet, we discovered that our national team we all love to lament had put in one of those once-every-five-years performances to trounce Croatia 4-1.

After the Irish bar we headed up to a deserted cocktail bar, where one drink priced at roughly a tenner was enough to persuade us to call it a night.

The city centre feels a little sleepy. Even during the day, the tree-lined, badly-paved streets off the main road don't see much action. Public transport is a popular option and buses squeezed people in until those at the back had their hands and faces pressed up against the glass like hungry kids outside a sweet shop. On Stefan Cel Mare, little stalls selling stationary and snacks line up alongside deserted western boutiques catering to the city's minority who are in the money. There are few places in Europe where the chasm between rich and poor is so wide.

Having split a hole in a rather sensitive area of my jeans on the night train from Minsk to Kiev, I had finally decided that Europe was not ready for the sight of my barely concealed lunchbox every time I opened my legs, so I raided the indoor market-style shops of Chisinau searching for a fresh pair. Unfortunately, while on the surface the average Moldovan male does not seem abnormal in terms of physical size, clearly a nation with disproportionally long legs has been bred as I found it nigh on impossible to track down a pair of jeans with anything shorter than a 34" leg. Patience while shopping is not a quality I have in abundance so it wasn't long before I accepted defeat. One pair of trousers would have to do for the foreseeable future.

Significant sights here are few. We had a brief nose around the city's "Arc de Triomphe" and a statue of the man himself, Stefan Cel Mare (prince of Moldavia between 1457 and 1504, apparently), which stands at the entrance to a pleasantly shaded park.

There was occasional evidence of the poverty that blights parts of this nation. A large amount of amputee beggars were a sad reminder of the country's fragile economic state, and the occasional stray dog roamed around freely. Hilariously, it seemed they have learned a healthy respect for the madcap Moldovan motorists - when crossing roads the switched-on canines look both ways and wait for the green man!

Tourism is in its infancy here so we had our hostel, only open a month, practically to ourselves. The staff were incredibly friendly and would do anything to accommodate our needs during our two-night stay (Chisinau Hostel, if you're wondering).

On our last night we had a few drinks in a hostelry called The Beer House, but couldn't see much action around that area so we opted against a night out in Chisinau. The nightlife is supposedly a highlight, so we were obviously looking in the wrong places.

Having seen everything we wanted, we mooched about on the last day and got some supplies for our onward journey including a 2litre bottle of Chisinau beer for scarcely over a pound. The trip into Romania was to take 13 hours, the highlights of which included stopping for two hours while the train had its wheels changed. During which time the toilets were off-limits - a factor we had not considered when drinking shedloads of beer beforehand.

We whiled away the time chatting to a Turkish kebab shop owner who had heard such bad things about Romania that he did not intend to leave the station in the four hours he was due to spend in Bucharest while waiting for his connecting train to Istanbul. I shared a compartment with an Israeli who sold cosmetics and told me he was astounded that Europeans did not believe the breast-enlargement cream he peddled worked. I didn't want to hurt his feelings.

What a way to spend a Friday night.


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