Romania & Moldova June2008
Cluj Napoca is a nice introduction to Transylvania, nice streets, easy going atmosphere. After a brief wander and a much needed nights sleep i got the train to Sighisoara. This is a medieval town famous as the birthplace of Vlad Tepes, aka, Vlad Dracul, aka, Dracula! Although the real life character was no vampire the real dude is famed for impaling his victims with a wooden skewer up the anus and out near the shoulder blade in such a manner that it did not puncture any major organs and so the victim did not die straight away but perished in the most agonizing slow manner imaginable. So many people were killed this way and he is known to have had mass impalings on a hilltop as he ate his breakfast. Nice guy! Now he has a novelty tourist castle which has nothing to do with him (the real him i mean), the building he was born in is now an expensive restaurant and there is much unnecessary kitsch applied to his name (the fictional him i mean!). The old streets of the town are colourful, topsy turvy and multi angular, though with quite a few more ‘historic monument’ signs and more restoration than a few years ago. At the hostel i made a few friends and arranged with them a tour for the next day taking in a few of the many medieval Saxon villages and fortified churches in the surrounding countryside. A number of these are designated UNESCO world heritage sites. After Sighisoara i took a train to Brasov, an increasingly large little town which has become much more cosmopolitan and a vibrant tourist hub, for all of the advantages and disadvantages there are to that, over the last few years. Again it was nice to revisit a place I first went to 5 years ago and take some photographs of the sites, streets and overlooking the town square from the top of a funicular ride. From Brasov I got a bus to Chisinau, capital of Moldova. Having arrived after 22:00 I found myself wandering around with no money, no bearings, credit cards not being granted cash withdrawals, dark streets and not particularly inconspicuous with my 2 large bags! After a while I said bugger this and managed to negotiate a taxi ride to my hostel using Romanian money. When i arrived to this small hostel (actually a small apartment with 8 bunk beds!) I met an Irish guy who said they were expecting me and i was whisked off for some food, drink, chat and an ATM that worked! How things can come around so suddenly! It turns out that most of the banks in this country haven’t yet updated to chip and pin cards. Pleasant evening. Next day was dedicated to wandering around the city. Not a particularly attractive city. Not unattractive either, just lacking in anything of particular interest. Though it makes up for this by its fresh, leafy, tree lined streets. Although it is of classic soviet rectilinear street design, it is perhaps the most verdant city i have ever seen, with a number of large parks and lakes (though the largest one has been drained due to environmental issues, now taken over by wild plants. I hear they aim to allow it refill and restore the popular beach area when they eventually complete some work there.) The next day i managed to hook up with a small private excursion as public transport and road conditions in Moldova make the task visiting its main sites rather arduous. We spent the day visiting Old Orheil (a very popular and isolated underground functioning monastery), Topiva (largest cliff-side monastery in eastern Europe), a small waterfall and another more modern monastery called Saharna. It was very pleasant and nice to get an insight into rural Moldovan culture. There was an orthodox ceremony on in the Old Orheil and the people were very welcoming. They handed out painted eggs and sweet offerings to each other and us, somewhat like a cross between hand shaking, holy communion and Easter in Catholicism as far as I could tell, but more personal and warm. It was very rewarding to arrive there at such a time. The road conditions away from the main connections necessitate driving skills more akin to dodgeball, an unfortunate fact considering that oncoming traffic is subject to the same hurdles! Most if these roads teetered off on the sides so that they were not stictly wide enough for 2 lanes of traffic. Nobody seemed to notice though! It’s probably not just coincidental that there are lovely colourful and ornate roadside crosses scattered throughout the Moldovan countryside! The following day I tried to take an excursion into Tiraspol, capital of Transdniestr, a breakaway soviet republic in eastern Moldova. It is a place renowned for its mother russia inclinations and in your face corruption. I took all the necessary precautions, bringing the minimum of money required (else run the high risk of having to bribe my way out of some fictional infraction!), left all my valuables behind and didn’t bring my big camera (for reasons, see above!). When we got to the ‘border’, i was of course taken off to one side as the only tourist there and I prepared myself for the inevitable! Sure enough, I was told the ‘visa’ fee was a hugely inflated exaggeration of the actual fee, which I got down to $10 (lucky I only brought $20 and some Moldovan money). While this was going on my bus driver got impatient and after they slammed the door on him he left without me! Once given the clear, I was then called by another official who helped me with a customs declaration (a frequent scam is not declaring all your money and items of any value, after not being told to do so, then getting done for a ‘fee’, ie bribe, when you exit the region for not declaring all your goods). Sure enough, he then demanded a further $10 for the privilege of the customs declaration. I wasn’t having this, I told him I already paid an excessive fee (though of course linguistic communication was pretty much a waste of time) and I only had enough money to get to Tiraspol and return later that day. He wouldn’t budge from his blatant scam and so 10 minutes later I was on another bus returning to Chisinau! Bastards!!! This ape of an official didn’t even look at me, he just pointed me to the bus and grunted, clearly put out by not getting his slice of the pie! I avoided arguments and just accepted it wasn’t to be. Ah well, the ‘quirky’ border experiences of this region are famous, even a novelty as long as you don’t lose too much! This region is the main issue preventing Moldova from being considered for entry into the EU, at least for those who want EU membership more than Russian. Upon returning to Chisinau I found myself with a free afternoon to stroll around, investigate travel options to Bucharest, buy a ticket for an overnight sleeper train (ah luxury, 13 hours in a cabin alone with a bed and a book!) and say farewell to this little known country. Having dodged the touts at Bucharest train station early this morning, finding my hostel, having a much needed shower and some breakfast, all that remains to do now is to ramble around the ‘Paris of the East’ or the ‘Balkan Moscow’ (Bucharest!) and arrange transport for my 06:00 flight home tomorrow.