Moldova Visiting Europe's least visited country

The night before flying out, I was having my usual pre-holiday haircut. When my hairdresser discovered the reason for my visit, I got the predictable question:

"So, where are you going on holiday?"



"No, Moldova"


"No. Mol-doe-vah. Moldova."

"Never heard of it."

Given it's officially the least visited country in Europe, I can perhaps forgive her for not knowing where the country is. There is certainly scope for the Moldovan tourist board to improve its brand awareness. Particularly amongst British hairdressers.

Orheiul Vechi

Moldovan immigration officials don't help increase the number of visitors to their country, either. I know my passport photo isn't great. Five minutes with three Belarussian immigration officials a couple of years ago had already made that clear to me. But this was the first time that I'd been told to smile to see if it made me look more like the person in the photograph. It didn't, but apparently refusing me entry was more hassle than it was worth.

Cathedral Park, Chisinau

There's no way to sweeten this. Chisinau is not the most visually exciting city. The 1940s weren't kind to the city. The damage done by a devastating earthquake in 1940 was finished off by the Nazis and Soviets as they turned Bessarabia into their private battleground.

You also find yourself continually having to remind yourself that Chisinau was a part of the Soviet Union. It feels resolutely European in a way that cities like Kyiv and Minsk don't. Still, the buildings do a good job of acting as a mental trigger. There's a lot of Stalinist and Khrushchyovka architecture around Chisinau.

The architecture is a reminder that Chisinau was in the Soviet Union

But the parks are amazing and full of life. Electric toy cars are rented by families so their children can spend five minutes driving them around. Mothers sit in the shade rocking their babies to sleep. Everyone, and I mean everyone, appears to be eating an ice cream.

Park life, Chisinau-style

Away from the parks there was some interest. But no one is ever going to claim that Chisinau is a beautiful city.

Around Chisinau

The following day I headed to Tiraspol, the capital city of the breakaway republic of Transnistria.

Getting there was an experience in itself. Moldova's public transport is served by marshrutkas, minibuses that operate as shared taxis on a fixed route. Timetables exist but are more of a rough guide. Instead, the driver will do everything to delay leaving until his bus is full. Which is fine until you realise that they also pick up passengers en-route. So within five minutes, what started off as merely full now resembles a Guinness World Record attempt on the number of people you can fit inside a Mini.

Chisinau-Tiraspol marshrutkas

This being Moldova, there is an added twist. The busses are not exactly in their prime. My Volkswagen marshrutka had started its life twenty years ago in Germany and had done 350 thousand kilometres since. And this was one of the more modern ones.

The central bus station, Piata Centrala, was a chaotic hive of decrepit buses and minibuses. Finding the right one was a bit of a lottery. Looking at the state of some of the options, it was a lottery with a lot of booby prizes.

Bus station and not, despite appearances, a bus graveyard

Given the problems that I had with the Moldovan immigration officials, I was a little concerned going to Transnistria. After all, Transnistria is frequently portrayed as the closest you can get to 1980s Soviet Union without a time machine. A Soviet theme park, if you will. There was no way that Soviet austerity was going to ask me to smile.

"How many days are you staying?"

"Just today."

"OK. Enjoy your stay."

And that was it. I was given my immigration card and allowed into the breakaway republic of Transnistria. Armed with twenty euros worth of Transnistrian Roubles that I exchanged at Tiraspol's train station, I set about exploring somewhere that has fascinated me since first reading about it in Tony Hawks's book "Playing the Moldovans at Tennis".

Transnistria immigration card
Changing to the Cyrillic Alphabet in Tiraspol

The first stop was the Tourist Office where I was left in no doubt as to culture of Tiraspol. The first two things the assistant marked on my free map of the city were "Big Lenin" and "Little Lenin".

Little Lenin and Big Lenin and not, despite appearances, Bat Lenin

As I left, she asked me where I was from.


Puzzled look.

"United Kingdom."



"This is even better, I think."

I should've realised that being Scottish would go down well in a de facto country that resolutely refuses to acknowledge that is actually part of another country.

Tiraspol immediately felt different to Chisinau. It was certainly quieter. Eerily so. The Soviet iconography was hard to miss. And, of course, not only did the language change but the alphabet, too. Instead of the Romanian alphabet, everything was in Cyrillic. The Cold War baby in me still finds that thrillingly subversive.

Tiraspol reminiscing about its Soviet past

Walking around, camera in hand, I turned into a bit of a curiosity. More than one local stopped me just so that they could welcome me to the city. I chose to continue stressing that I was Scottish. Well, sometimes you just have to play to your audience.

The city is filled with an interesting juxtaposition of atheist Soviet symbolism and religious architecture. Often side by side. The benefit Tiraspol has over Chisinau is there is a greater sense of space, allowing these buildings and monuments room to breathe and be photographed.

Religious Tiraspol

The rest of the city is the usual eastern European mix of ugly housing blocks with pretty neo-classical public buildings. The Transnistrian "McDonalds" was an interesting curiosity.

Around Tiraspol

There was one issue left before getting my bus home. How to get rid of the last of my Transnistrian Roubles.

I had stopped for an excellent lunch and then had a second visit to a bar for a beer. That had got through seven of my twenty euros. So I decided to buy a gift box of their highly thought of 10 year old brandy.

That got me through another six.

Even after buying my bus ticket home and some drinks for the journey I was left with four euros worth of what has been dressed up as "presents" for people back home. And I'm not sure about the coin worth €0.002 (yes, that is the correct number of zeros). Surely it costs way more than that to produce?

Apparently, the farthing is still a thing in Transnistria

My last day was spent taking a trip to Orheiul Vechi.

Having found my bus with plenty of time to spare and reserved my seat in the Moldovan tradition of putting my bag on it, I sat on the pavement watching the street theatre of the bus station. There was a frequent service to Orhei, a reasonably large Moldovan town about 40 kilometres away, with two large, middle-aged men drumming up trade by shouting Orhei. Over. And over. And over.

Some random Moldovan man sat beside me and started parodying them, mimicking their Orhei chant. He looked across at me, started giggling, gently tapped me on the shoulder and wandered off again. Moldova Piata Centrala, straight to the top of my list of favourite bus stations.

The Butuceni marshrutka

Once we set off, it was clear that the previous day's marshrutka experience had put me into a false sense of security. It does feel rude complaining about a sixty minute bus journey that only cost you €1.20. But I strongly suspect that this minibus failed its roadworthiness test in 2001 and hadn't seen a garage since. It certainly hadn't seen working suspension since then.

Orheiul Vechi and the Reut River

Orheiul Vechi is a complex of religious sites in a beautiful setting around a bend on the Reut River. There's not much there but what is there is pretty. The church is in a cave and I spent a happy twenty minutes just sitting admiring the view as the kids selling souvenirs took a break and played in the river. The fact that I was sitting in the only bit of shade for miles around was entirely coincidental.

Ohreiul Vechi and the Reut River

Because there wasn't much to do and the next bus back wasn't for another couple of hours, I decided to walk the ridge round to Trebujeni. Despite the fact that it was the middle of the day, it was about 33 degrees and there was no shade on the walk. I had my water bottle with me, I'd be fine.

In the end, it wasn't that bad, but when I got to Trebujeni I had a raging thirst and so hit the local shop hard. Two bottles of water. A bottle of some fizzy juice that claimed to taste like Mojito and came in a shade of green not found in nature. And a coconut ice cream. All for €1.50. I was going to miss Moldovan prices.

The ridge to Trebujeni

The last adventure of the trip came on the way back. The bus turned up about 15 minutes before it was due and bore no indication that it was Chisinau bound. Only some sign with the word "Introscop".

"Chisinau?" I asked in my best Moldovan accent. The driver nodded and I climbed aboard. I quickly started to become suspicious that this was a works bus. It was filled with middle-aged women who seemed to know each other too well. Even without understanding what they said, the conversation seemed suspiciously like workplace banter.

My suspicion was confirmed when the driver pulled up at some random roundabout on the edge of Chisinau that I had never seen before. Every face on the bus turned to look at me. This was clearly my stop. A quick check of my map showed that I was still about 5 kilometres from my hotel. My desperate hope that the road would be on a trolleybus route was quickly dashed.

So, my trip to Moldova would end with a long, random walk in the scorching heat down a broken pavement. Somehow, it seemed entirely appropriate.


Flyfifer Photography