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Travel Guide: Discover Moldova

12th Oct 2011 1:54am | By Editor

Part of the journey’s lengthy time is due to customs. Passports disappear for a disconcertingly long time, while every bag, compartment, nook and cranny on the train is searched for drugs and illegal immigrants.

But most of it is because of the train itself. Moldovan railways are not the same size as Romanian ones — evidence of the Soviet era when Stalin wanted to delay possible invasion from the West — so the entire undercarriage has to be changed. It’s a noisy mix of lifting, shimmying and whacking things with spanners that would be good fun normally, but not in the middle of the night.

I’m sharing a compartment with Andrei, a Moldovan studying in Germany, and Josh, an American Peace Corps volunteer who is working just outside of Chisinau. And it soon becomes apparent  the train isn’t the only throwback to the Soviet days.

Communists are still in charge of Moldova, with President Vladimir Voronin saying he wants to make the country the Cuba of Eastern Europe. All he’s succeeded doing so far is making it the poorest country in Europe.

Andrei illustrates some of the problems by talking about the farm his father owns. “The land is good, but there is no one to work it,” he says. “Everyone is leaving the countryside. And anything we make, someone will take — they don’t see it as stealing.”

Josh also has an indicative tale to tell. He says the village he lives in was given a substantial grant to improve its infrastructure. Half of the money disappeared, and the mayor turned up in a new Mercedes. He was re-elected, with the justification being someone else might take a bigger percentage of the cash.

When we finally get to Chisinau it’s something of an eye-opener. This is the Eastern Europe that masochistic Slavophiles dream about. It couldn’t be further from the sanitised, westernised options like Prague and Budapest. There are dank, terrifying tower blocks and the streets are more often than not paved with mud.

There are some areas of greenery  — the two central parks near the cathedral are rather nice, but it’s not the sort of place you go for postcard images.

Chisinau is well off the tourist trail for a good reason, but it redeems itself with its utterly mad restaurants and clubs. Believe it or not, Moldova’s capital is a great place to eat out.

Top spots include the Cactus Saloon (Wild West regalia with American Indian photos in a bizarrely modern setting), the Beer House (with suits of armour and a crossbow on the wall) and the Green Hills Café (a mattress fabric roof and four trees in the middle of the room).

And once you’ve finished eating, you may as well get trashed on the cheap wine and vodka that’s available. It appears as though  the Moldovans are a hedonistic bunch, and the drinking and dancing continues until the sun comes up.

As Andrei says: “The country is fucked. But we’re not going to let that stop us having a good time.”