When I reply to questions such as “where are you off next” or “what weird place have you just got back from”, it sometimes elicits a response of “I’ve heard of that place on Eurovision”; the continent’s annual song contest that includes Australia! And so it was for Moldova and Ukraine.
The latter was more widely known to me. Obviously the ongoing dispute over the sovereignty of the Crimea; and European football championships being among the more recent bits of history that made this a good idea to visit. But more of that later.
The former, however, was fair more interesting prior to departure. Moldova, or Moldovia when first I heard of it. I was inspired to visit this former Soviet state by two of my favourite writers and broadcasters. The first was Michael Palin, former Python and man who in my opinion brought travel documentaries up to date. The Alan Whickers and Cliff Mitchelmores of my youth were good, but always on luxury yachts supping a glass of something; usually sitting aside ladies of a certain age in all their finery at ten in the morning. Palin made travel real. Whether it be sitting alone overhanging the end of a dhow contemplating the passing of something eaten, or following in the footsteps of Hemingway; he had a ‘one of us’ style of presenting. And whilst in Moldova, Palin took us to Transnistria; an enclave within Moldova seeking independence.
The other lure of Moldova was nurtured having read comedy writer Tony Hawks’ ‘Playing Tennis with the Moldavans’. Agreed, my choice of literature does not pass too much scrutiny but a jolly amusing read nonetheless.
Moldova’s capital is Chisinau. Like many cities of the former Soviet bloc, it has a fine display of recently renovated churches and more stoic utilitarian concrete edifices that served a purpose. Wide streets to allow grand military parades yet sprinkled with parks for leisurely Sunday strolls. The people, not overly familiar with tourism, bustle about there work and day with efficiency, polite but not overly conversive. This is probably a throwback to Soviet days. There was also a lack of young people, perhaps caused by the migration to other European countries that offer both glamour and prospects.
However, what other country would afford me the honour of being sung ‘happy birthday’ to by the principal soprano of the State’s opera company. Its quite amazing who can be the cabaret over dinner in a local restaurant! And outside the capital, the world’s largest wine cellar, Milestii Mici. With a total length of 150 miles (not all used for storage), no wonder every second bottle of wine opened in the former Soviet Union came from Moldovia as it was. Happy birthday indeed.
And on to Transnistra. Having fought a bloody battle against the rest of Moldova, peace was agreed on the basis of greater automony. Transnistrians have their own currency and internal border force. Papers are required by the hapless tourist wishing to visit or transit through. Transnistria aligns itself to Moscow and consequently not trusted by neither Moldova or neighbouring Ukraine. Moscow offers Transnistrians easy Russian citizenship but little economic support.
The ‘capital’, Tiraspol, is a wide boulevard with a tank constantly parked on it. Any atmosphere was wholly lacking, unlike when Palin visited during a national festival. One road in and one out. Just time for lunch. However the monastery complex at Chitcani and fortress at Bender outside Tiraspol are useful stop offs.
Moldova was quiet. It does not have the same tourist leverage, infrastructure nor economy as its neighbours; Romania and my next calling point, Ukraine.
Odessa had a romance to it. A port on the Black Sea. Tales of love and seafaring abound. The architecture of the world renown opera house was stunning; the cakes scrummy; the navy attractive (well, some at least!). it wasn’t Odessa; it was me. Although I searched hard for some chemistry between us, I failed. It’s not that I detested Odessa; more that I didn’t and couldn’t love her.
Moving forward, on quick inspection LVIV cannot be converted from Roman numerals to aribic with any degree of making sense. But I could live in Lviv. Unlike Odessa, Lviv had an inviting vibe about it. Small and charming; an easy meandering walk amongst side streets and alleyways, grand architecture, tree lined central plaza and cobbled squares. it felt more cosmopolitan, though probably wasn’t. it was intimate.
The opera house again called, as did that evening’s local performance of Aida…criticise my taste in literature but not music. Another bucket list item ticked off. The city hall with tower, the secret bar that requires a pass phrase of ‘Slavs Ukrayini’ or ‘Glory to Ukraine’ to get in, nooks and crannies; Lviv has it all. Cafe culture abounded. Just as I enthuse the merits of Lubljana as a week-end getaway, Lviv now shares that epithet.
And finally Kiev. A capital, a big capital with a big history. If Lviv is a weekend trip, then Kiev is a long weekend destination. Dating back to 482AD, and now with a population in the metropolitan area of 3.3 million (not far off the entirety of Moldova), Kiev is a major player. A good transport infrastructure including funicular transit supports commerce and tourism, but the city is walkable over two to three days.
Again, much reconstruction has taken place. The Soviets liked knocking down or repurposing buildings. St Andrew’s Church, St Michael’s monastery…there’s a theme here; have all gone through restoration. The Soviets did add the Motherland Monument and People’s Friendship Arch and whilst fascinating, do not match the older architecture.
The main Maidan Nezalezhnosti or Dignity Square is a large area featuring fountains (illuminated and orchestrated at night), statues, a mixture of architecture, and an all too recent history of violence. In 2014, pro democracy demonstrations were put down by riot police and ‘unknown’ marksmen. However, democracy won and the pro-Moscow President was ousted. It is believed that this gave Russia a excuse to invade the Crimea, citing the pretext of protecting people whom Moscow believed to be its citizens. There is still an edgy feel in the city, but this should not keep the tourist away.
And finally, Chernobyl. But wait. Chernobyl merits its own blog.