Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Travel Update II: Yerevan, Armenia

Greetings!

Again, apologies for the infrequency of these updates; Blogspot's crazy security policy of demanding that you receive a text message from them everytime that you're out of your hometown. I tried to complain but you're not allowed to send them a direct email; grr...

Since my last update, we've been to another country, That is for sure but what is less certain is which country it is that we went to. My world atlas tells me that it was Azerbaijan but on the ground everyone considers it to be Nagorno-Karabagh. Yes indeed, it's another of those countries that aren't quite countries that I so adore. Two years back it was Transnistria, the breakaway region of Moldova, now it's the Armenian-populated piece of Azerbaijan that doesn't like its rulers and, like with Transnistria, got a little help from Russia in settting up on its own. And the newspapers are all pretending that Crimea + Eastern Ukraine is some sort of new phenomenon, but it's far from the case. That's also most likely the reason why the West won't recognise the place; for some inexplicable reason they just don't trust the Ruskies...

Nagorno-Karabagh Flag


But anyway, Nagorno-Karabagh is very nice. Its name means "Mountainous Black Garden" and it is more than a little mountainous. We visited a fabulous monastery high in the hills called Gandzasar but for me the highlight of the trip was driving past Aghdam, a city of 100,000 souls totally obliterated by the 1994 War of Independence,, every building bar the mosque destroyed and burnt out carcasses of tanks still littering the fields. It was like a scene out of a computer game or Stalingrad film. Eeerie and thought-provoking.



Aghdam

Now we're back in Yerevan, the most beautiful city of the former USSR where we've been spending our time drinking with both the locals, (some cool, football-obsessed lads who could not pass by on the opportunity to speak to a supporter of the world's greatest - and second-oldest - club), and a couple of Czechs whose appetite for travel matches mine and whose appetite for alcohol sadly, exceeds mine by a mile. Must be getting old. Still, at least I wasn't the one whom we had to stop the car for so that he could empty his guts...

Garni Roman Temple

Geghard Cave Monastery

As well as the alcohol, we're still hitting the sights; desolate and haunting Lake Sevan, the Roman temple at Garni and the incredible cave monasteries of Geghard. But that is all for Armenia, tonight we're travelling first class all the way back to Tbilisi. Must be getting bourgeouis as well as old. Damn.

Anyway, to finish off, since it worked well as a cheap ploy to get hits on my blog, here's another picture of some Yerevan girls.



Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Friday, 11 April 2014

Travel Update I: Sisani, Armenia

Greetings!

It's been longer than I expected sending an update on my travels for two simple reasons. Firstly, Google didn't like the fact that I was signing into my account from somewhere strange and so needed to send an SMS to a mobile to check that it was ok, and secondly, there aren't many internet cafes round here. Shock horror, does this mean I'll have to enter the modern age and buy some kind of mobile with internet (everywhere is offering wi-fi)!?

Paul and I started our travels in Amsterdam where we had a night's drinking before jetting off to Tbilisi. Then it was over the border to Armenia, a country that I've long wanted to explore.



What can I say about this place? It's a beautiful, bleak, friendly little country with the most beautiful women in all creation. What do I mean by this? Well, you know that famous person who's famous for being famous with her equally famous for being famous sisters? Well, she's ethnically Armenian. Imagine a country full of the Kardashians, (and I mean, with full figures like the Kardashians), and you're in Armenia!

Everyday Armenian scene...

But if the girls walking the streets are beautiful, then so too are the streets themselves. Yerevan, the capital city, was rebuilt completely between the 1920s-50s and the result is one of the most harmonious cities that I've ever been to. Highlights for me have to be the Cascade art complex and the dancing fountains in Republic Square every evening.

The Cascade


Dancing fountains

As well as the capital, we checked out the Holy See in Ejmiatsin, the home of the ldest Christian church in the world, the Khor Virap Monastery on the slopes of Mt. Ararat, (where Noah's Ark is said to have rested), and a stone circle 6,000 years old.
Khor Virap

Karahunj Stone Circle

Tomorrow though we leave Armenia for Nagorno-Karabakh, another country that isn't a country, carved out of the war of 1994 with Azerbaijan. I've heard there's lots of landmines there so here's hoping this isn't the last update to this blog...


Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Friday, 4 April 2014

The Missing Link: Part 3.3: Suceava

world-map romania

Greetings!

Well, the camping didn’t happen last weekend, not that the weather failed us, but instead Son and Heir gets hit by a stomach bug. Oh well, c’est la vie!

However, not even a bug can stop this week’s trip. I’ll be taking a few weeks off posting ‘The Missing Link’ whilst I am off on this year’s big expedition, a trip around Armenia and Georgia. Of course I’ve been to Georgia before in 2010 and Tbilisi where that trip started is where this one shall too, but instead of heading west to Turkey, now I – and a friend – am heading south to Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia is a country that has fascinated me for many years now, ever since I taught an Armenian girl at the George Byron School in Bulgaria, whereas Nagorno-Karabakh, well, read my postings on Kosova or Transdniestra, or watch my V-log on the topic and you’ll get why I am so fascinated by countries that aren’t quite countries. Anyway, as ever, there’ll be regular updates on Uncle Travelling Matt so stay tuned.

And in the meantime, let’s check out Suceava in Northern Romania…

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all parts of the travelogue

Introduction

Ukraine

1.1: Konotop

1.2: Chernobyl and Pripyat

1.3: Kiev

1.4: Kiev to Odessa

1.5: Odessa

1.6: Bolgrad

Moldova and Transdniestra

2.1: Bolgrad to Chisinau

2.2: Chisinau (I)

2.3: Tiraspol and Bender

2.4: Chisinau (II) 

Romania

3.1: Iasi (I)

3.2: Iasi (II)

3.3: Suceava

MLM08

Suceava (I)

The journey of one and three-quarter hours from Iaşi to Suceava was rather uneventful, through wide open plains with the occasional sheep grazing on them, a landscape more akin to the vast open spaces of Ukraine than the intimate, almost Mediterranean valley that I’d travelled along from Chişinǎu to Iaşi a couple of days previously.

I felt better too than I deserved to. A German victory couple with a significant quantity of the best Romanian beer should conspire to make a man quite ill and miserable indeed, but they did not and, perversely, I felt fine. Who knows why? Perhaps it was the strong coffee that I grabbed in the station before boarding the train or perhaps it was the station building itself, a glorious Italianate folly modelled after no less an original than the Doge’s Palace in Venice.

ML109 Doge’s Palace + Dacias = Iaşi Railway Station

Suceava also has an incredible rail terminal building but confusingly it is called ‘Iţcani’ rather than ‘Suceava’ and so I almost failed to alight at it.

One reason why Iţcani station could be so named is that it is actually a couple of miles out of Suceava itself in a suburb, (which one presumes is called Iţcani), so I took a taxi to my pre-booked accommodation, Villa Alice, one of a new generation of boutique hotels which have sprung up to meet the needs of the influx of travellers who have floated to the region ever since it was embraced by the EU family.

My room was not ready, the hour still being early, so I left my bags at reception and went out to explore the city. Higgins describes it in the following terms during his visit in 1969:

“Suceava, a town with a number of important buildings of its own which have become lost in industrial confusion. It is a busy and noisy place which carries all the through traffic to Russia and Poland and is in danger of losing all its character. Certainly it has nothing to do with the atmosphere of the fields and woods of Moldavia.”[1]

Now whilst one must take into account that forty-three years have elapsed between his visit and mine, I have to differ. Admittedly too, I had chosen precisely the wrong time to visit as the whole of the centre around Piaţa Unirii was torn up and being remodelled, (although afterwards it would probably be a big improvement), I still say that he was excessively harsh. Yes, there is industry around the edges, but Suceava is nonetheless a rather pleasant place in a low-key way and still very much in touch with the fields and woods of Moldavia since within only a few metres of the chaos of Piaţa Unirii I found myself right in them.

I’d decided to check out Suceava’s castle which lies across a small valley from the town itself. The walk to it was a pleasant one, through a wooded glade although with a steep climb of two hundred and forty-one steps which finished before a ridiculously large statue of that old friend, Ştefan cel Mare. He is there because Suceava had been the capital of Moldavia from 1388 to 1565 and the castle I was about to visit had been the seat of power from which the great man himself had ruled.

Well that and the fact that Ceaușescu liked to build stupidly big statues, particularly if they depicted ancient rulers of Romania who he saw himself as the modern incarnation of.

ML110 Oh no! Another statue!

Having recovered my breath I continued on, but was very soon distracted by the sound of chanting in the forest. Just ahead of me, through the trees, there was an exquisite little wooden church and, it being Sunday morning, there was a Mass in progress. Always one for a bit of spiritual food, I wandered on in and stood at the back. A young priest tended to a small congregation of peasants. The church itself was intimate and cosy with wooden walls, rugs on the floor and hand painted icons. It was as a church should be and, according to Blacker, the Romanians evidently think the same for, as he explained when talking about his local church in the Maramureş:

“The church in Breb was small. God liked small churches. He had after all allowed Constantinople to be destroyed because it had grown too big, or so it was said. Romanians therefore thought it best to build themselves modest churches.”[2]

I could only agree; I love intimate spaces of worship and gain far more from visiting places such as Demir Baba in Bulgaria and the Holy House in Walsingham[3] than any of the great cathedrals no matter how artistically brilliant they may be. But here it was not just the setting and the ambiences, for although I couldn’t understand a word of it, the liturgy itself was exquisite, and I spent over an hour crossing myself, kneeling and immersing myself in it all.

ML111 Inside the wooden church in Suceava’s skansen

After exiting the church, I noticed that it wasn’t the only aged peasant building around. Dotted around the meadow were a variety of traditional Moldavian cottages and a watermill. I realised that I had stumbled into a skansen[4] through the back gate which had been opened to allow people in to attend Mass in the church. Never one to turn down a free lunch, (the guidebook quoted the entrance fee as 4 lei), I wandered around the reconstructed homes of Moldavia’s peasants before exiting through the main gate past confused ticket seller who looked sure that she couldn’t recall actually selling me one of her tickets.

There were crowds milling around outside Suceava Castle, enjoying beers and barbequed meats, but inside it was fairly deserted. The circular fortress which Ştefan cel Mare once ruled from was, if I am perfectly honest, a bit of a disappointment. It was very ruined and hard to visualise how it would have appeared in its heyday although that childhood fascination over clamouring over walls and investigating dark dungeons could still be enjoyed to my heart’s content and restoration works going on might mean that for the next generation, history might come alive a little more easily.

ML112 Suceava Castle: under repair

I returned to the city but by now my late night and early morning coupled with the midday heat were beginning to take their toll. I still had a short time to go before I could enter my room at Villa Alice so I popped into the city’s Ethnographic Museum housed in an 18th century inn and, after perusing the usual collection of antique furniture, folk costumes and farming implements[5] I retired to my little rooftop room for a rejuvenating siesta.

I awoke just after five and headed out to an internet café to catch up with the wider world and update my travel blog. After much searching I found one in the basement of a house. The service was provided by a bored-looking teenager who was far more interested in gaming than actually doing his job and so I was left standing for some time whilst he zapped aliens, but it was cheap and the crap customer service was compensated for the fact that I eventually got chatting to the gaming teenager whose name was Sebastian and whose girlfriend Delia was about to leave for London. Excitedly, he contacted her on Facebook and she asked me a variety of questions on UK living, most of which I was able to answer satisfactorily, before the hour for football fast-approaching, I bid both of them adieu, promising to meet up with Sebastian for a drink on the morrow before I left town.

The match was a hyped-up encounter between Italy and Spain which finished a dull 1-1 draw.[6] Afterwards I searched for somewhere to have my tea, but only McDonalds was open, so McDonalds it was and I sampled the delights of the McBavarian Sausage with mustard, (or something like that), and took away a complimentary Euro 2012 glass. Full of junk food, I then retired to Villa Alice to round off the day by uploading all of my photos to Facebook, thus clearing a little space on my camera’s memory card for the vast amount of photographs that I anticipated taking over the coming days.


[1] Travels in the Balkans, p.76

[2] The Enchanted Way, p.37-8

[3] See my travelogues ‘Balkania’ and ‘Nazareth in Norfolk’ respectively

[4] A skansen is a park of reconstructed historical buildings unique to a particular country or region. We have them in the UK, the Avoncroft Museum of Building being one. The name comes from the very first of these which is called Skansen and is in Stockholm. Founded in 1891, I visited it in 2008 and was very impressed.

[5] For an explanation, see the rant about ethnographic museums in my travelogue ‘Albanian Expeditions Part II’.

[6] They later met again in the Final and that match was a little more exciting, with Spain running out worthy 4-0 winners in what was arguably the best performance by a side in a major international football tournament.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

The Missing Link: Part 3.2: Iasi (II)

world-map iasi

Greetings!

I’m on tenterhooks today. Will it, won’t it… I’m on about the weather of course. According to the stereotypes, we British usually are. The thing is that spring is here and that means the time for camping is approaching. I promised my son that, if the weather permits, I’ll take him before I head off to Armenia and Georgia and that trip starts on the 6th. So, it’s all in the hands of God, will it rain or won’t it. Let’s hope for his sake it won’t.

The campsite that we go to is absolutely brilliant. True camping, not glamping. What I mean by that is no amenities save for a toilet, but stunning scenery, I river to wash your plates, (and keep your beer cool in), campfires at night and stunning scenery. If you’re ever in Snowdonia, check it out!

Tan Aeldroch Farm (Camp Snowdonia)

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all parts of the travelogue

Introduction

Ukraine

1.1: Konotop

1.2: Chernobyl and Pripyat

1.3: Kiev

1.4: Kiev to Odessa

1.5: Odessa

1.6: Bolgrad

Moldova and Transdniestra

2.1: Bolgrad to Chisinau

2.2: Chisinau (I)

2.3: Tiraspol and Bender

2.4: Chisinau (II) 

Romania

3.1: Iasi (I)

3.2: Iasi (II)

3.3: Suceava

MLM07

iasi monastery map

Iaşi (II)

I’d decided that day to do a bit of a walking tour. My guidebook told me of three monasteries just out of town that could be reached on foot and I knew that I needed the exercise, both physical and spiritual. But before doing that I wanted to find out about moving on to Suceava, the next stop on my trip.

Iaşi’s tourist information centre is situated on Piaţa Unirii and despite being a smart little place and Iaşi being a fascinating little city, it was strangely devoid of any tourists seeking information and indeed the young lady behind the desk seemed pleased to actually have a customer to serve. Her name was Delia and she turned out to be the best member of a TIC staff that I have ever come across. And I mean ever.

I started off with the standard stuff: train times onwards and booking a hotel in Suceava, and then moved onto something a little more obscure. About a year before I’d watched an excellent Romanian film on Film 4 called ‘California Dreamin’’ and I wanted to buy a copy to take home and delight all the little Romanian cherubs in my ESOL class.[1] Did she know where such a work of art could be purchased? She told me about a new shopping centre on the far side of the Palace of Culture that might be a good place to look and furthermore, was en route to the monasteries.

ML102 California Dreamin’

Business done and Delia still extremely friendly and chatty, I started to ask her about some of the deeper issues that had been niggling at me since arriving in Moldova, the first and foremost concerning the relationship between that country and hers.

All around the city I’d seen stickers plastered on walls or lampposts proclaiming ‘BASARABIA E ROMÂNIA!’ (lit. ‘Bessarabia is Romania’ – i.e. the Republic of Moldova is part of Romania), and I’d read an account by an American journalist of a visit to Iaşi shortly after the 1990 Revolution in which everyone he met was extremely nationalistic and clamouring for unification between the two countries, the very same urge that was worrying the Gagauz and Transdniestrians at the same time. Yet twenty-two years down the line and Moldova and Romania haven’t united and travelling through them, they seemed like completely different countries altogether. So what did Delia think of it all?

What she thought was that there should be no union. Yes, Moldova is Romanian culturally, and their “language” is naught more than a dialect of Romanian in much the same way as Macedonian is really a dialect of Bulgarian labelled as a separate tongue for political reasons, but nonetheless a union was never going to be a population. The nationalists condemn the Russians for trying to dilute the Romanian population in Moldova but in fact those claims are true and the Soviet experiment of racial mixing was very successful. Moldovans today are different to Romanians, and one of the main differences is their greater exposure to Slavic culture. Interestingly on the same note, I later bought a DVD of a Romanian-Moldovan co-production entitled ‘Nuntă în Basarabia’ (Wedding in Bessarabia) in which a Bucharest boy marries a Chişinǎu girl and they travel to her hometown for the ceremony and party. It’s a brilliant comedy with gangsters and drunkards, patriots and poets, but it also explored in a humorous but in-depth fashion the contradictions of the Moldovan identity which is both Romanian plus Slavic plus something unique as well. On top of that, being shot at famous locations in and around Chişinǎu, it’s the perfect film for any visitor to Moldova to check out.[2]

Afis A0_sponsori_RO Nuntă în Basarabia

We then moved onto the subject of the Romanian language and the shift from Cyrillic to Latin script which I’d learnt about when visiting the Museum of Old Moldavian Literature. Delia explained that it was all very much connected to the split from the Greek Orthodox Church and the establishment of an independent Romanian Patriarchate in 1872.[3]

Finally, prompted by her telling me that she had attended a tourism event in Veliko Turnovo, the ancient capital of Bulgaria, which she had really enjoyed, I asked Delia about the main mystery of her homeland: Is Romania in the Balkans? She considered her answer carefully for a while before replying, “In some ways, yes, but as a Romanian woman I would say that I don’t feel Balkan.”

I began my walking tour, stopping briefly at a bookshop where I bought a tome on Ceaușescu’s Palace of the People and the very Classical cathedral (1833-1877) where there was a long line of the faithful queuing to kiss the remains of Iaşi’s patron saint[4] before then heading to that modern Cathedral of Commerce, the huge new shopping centre behind the Palace of Culture that Delia had told me all about. It was an incredibly swish and sophisticated place, more Barcelona than Bucharest with carefully manicured lawns and security guards whizzing round on Segway PTs. What’s more, they had a shop which stocked ‘California Dreamin’’ which I purchased along with the aforementioned ‘Nuntă în Basarabia’. In celebration at having got what I wanted I enjoyed a coffee by the manicured lawns with a fine view of the Palace of Culture. It would have been perfect had not the service been the slowest that I have encountered outside of Laos, although in such a setting I minded little.

ML104

ML105 The Palace of Culture and the new shopping centre

The first monastery on my walking tour was Galata, built in 1582 and situated on a hill to the south-west of the city. Out of the centre, the Western European feel disintegrated and communism returned with rows of drab apartment blocks, a market of unrivalled scruffiness next to railway lines and old men playing chess in a park.

Galata Monastery itself though, was neither communist nor Central European. But it wasn’t Balkan either; it was a fine example of the Moldavian vernacular, a style which is unique to the region, defies any kind of classification seeming to be part-Armenian, part-Ottoman, part-Slavic and part-something else but is altogether most pleasing to behold. Surrounded by a high defensive wall, with well-tended lawns within the compound, it was obviously restored but still atmospheric.

ML106 Galata Monastery

Moldavian churches all seem to have the same plan, differing only in style and size. You enter at the back into a small area, the exonarthex, where candles and icons are sold. Then, it’s through a door into the main body of the church, the narthex, which corresponds to the Western nave and chancel. This is divided into two parts, both of which has a tower although the tower nearest to the altar is usually slightly higher. The altar itself is, of course, screened off by the iconostasis, as is the case in all Orthodox churches. These temples are dark, quiet, reflective places and I enjoyed sitting and meditating in one of the chairs that line the sides of the narthex until I was unceremoniously shooed out by an elderly female attendant.

I retraced my steps down the hill to the Land of Concrete Blocks and then headed east to Frumoasa Monastery. This was built much later than Galata, erected between 1726-33 and it showed for it is far more Classical in style as if the fashions of the day were trying to ape the glories of Austro-Hungary but the necessities of ritual dictated that the Moldavian floor plan remained the same. My guidebook described Frumoasa as “ruined” but that was wholly untrue although it was somewhat dilapidated. I liked it considerably less than Galata for its interior was rather baroque which is a style that I’ve never appreciated[5] and it seems particularly incongruous in Orthodox churches, but it was quiet and no one shooed me out as I sat there meditating, the classical pillars of the interior making me think of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.

ML107 Frumoasa Monastery

After all that walking I was thirsty and hungry so I popped into a shop and purchased some cake and some yoghurt, (which was slightly fizzy), to steel me for the next leg.

Cetățuia Monastery is on the top of a large hill to the south of the city. The climb was a stiff one through wooded parkland where locals picnicked to the sounds of chalga emanating from their car stereos, but in the end it was more than worth it for I had saved the best till last. Larger than the others, again protected by ancient walls, Cetățuia was quiet, peaceful and holy. I prayed in the church (1668) and bought a beautiful icon of Our Lady cradling Christ as a memento of my mini-pilgrimage and the moving temple where it had ended before walking back down the hill and, at the foot, catching a bus back into the city centre.

ML108 Cetățuia Monastery

That evening I again made my way into the heart of Iaşi to catch the football. After a surprising 1-0 victory for Denmark over the Netherlands, normal service was resumed with a 1-0 win for the Germans over Portugal. Still, all was not lost since my Stoke City shirt caused comments from the bar staff in the late-night establishment where I ended up and resulted in a lengthy chat on the Beautiful Game in general and it’s most incredible – and 2nd oldest – club in particular, returning back to Casa Bucovineana later than I perhaps should have done considering that I had an 8 o’ clock train to catch in the morning.

Next part: Suceava


[1] Released in 2007, this 155 minute epic was the piece de la resistance of director Cristian Nemescu who died before editing could be completed, (one of the reasons why it is so long). Based on a true story from the 1999 Kosova Conflict, the film follows a group of US soldiers who are being escorted from the Black Sea Coast to Kosova through Romania by their Romanian allies. En route their train is stopped in the village of Căpâlniţa by the stationmaster, Doiaru, who is corrupt and routinely steals goods from the trains which go through his station. He forces the train to move onto a secondary track until the correct paperwork is produced. The Americans try in vain to get the Romanian government to sort out the paperwork, but the responsibility is passed from one ministry to the other and as a result, their departure is delayed.

Meanwhile periodic flashbacks take the audience back to Doiaru's childhood, when his parents, who were factory owners, awaited the coming of the Americans at the end of World War II. As his father was considered a German supporter, Doiaru's family knew that if the Red Army got their first, then they were in trouble, but trusted in the promises of the Americans on the radio to rescue Romania. However, the Soviets arrived first and they took away Doiaru's parents and he never saw them again. The first Americans to arrive in the village after the war are the very soldiers on the train in 1999. Therefore Doiaru has an axe to grind against the USA.

But whilst all of this is going on, there are several other events afoot. Doiaru's daughter, Monica, develops a crush on an American soldier, but as she knows no English, she uses the help of a local geek, Andrei, who is in love with her. Meanwhile the Mayor of Căpâlniţa, a rival of Doiaru, tries to woo the Americans to boost his own power and popularity and the American captain incites them all to rise up in revolt against Doiaru, promising to assist as soon as the first bullet is fired. But then the paperwork arrives and the Americans leave as the village descends into a bloodbath killing several including Doiaru. Nemescu meant it partially as a symbolic attempt at portraying how the US, (and other Great Powers), get enmeshed in local situations that they barely comprehend and then after creating chaos leave as if nothing has happened.

The film ends with a note saying that the radar was installed two hours after the ceasefire with Yugoslavia was signed.

It is in my Top Five films ever.

[2] And as an aside, my student who lives in Chişinǎu because it showed lots of places he was more than familiar with, including the shop where his wife bought her wedding dress, (the heroine tries on her gown there), and the very street on which his apartment stands. “I feel quite upset watching this,” he admitted to me, “it reminds me too much of home.”

[3] There was a similar situation in Bulgaria which I discuss at length in Balkania.

[4] St. Parascheva, an 11th century ascetic.

[5] For my rant about the Baroque, check out my travelogue ‘Poland 2012’.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

The Missing Link: Part 3.1: Iasi (I)

world-map iasi

Greetings!

And now into Romania, the final country visited on ‘The Missing Link’. This was my third trip there and it had long caused me to puzzle, for one third seemed very Balkan whilst the other, very Central European. So what is Romania exactly? Perhaps a visit to the third piece of the country, Moldavia, (not to be confused with Moldova), might tell me something. And so I find myself it the province’s beautiful capital city, Iasi.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all parts of the travelogue

Introduction

Ukraine

1.1: Konotop

1.2: Chernobyl and Pripyat

1.3: Kiev

1.4: Kiev to Odessa

1.5: Odessa

1.6: Bolgrad

Moldova and Transdniestra

2.1: Bolgrad to Chisinau

2.2: Chisinau (I)

2.3: Tiraspol and Bender

2.4: Chisinau (II) 

Romania

3.1: Iasi (I)

3.2: Iasi (II)

3.3: Suceava

MLM07

iasi-city-map-harta-orasului

PART THREE: ROMANIA

FLAG ROMANIA

Iaşi

Iaşi (pronounced ‘Yash’) is the capital of Moldavia. Moldavia is a province of Romania and is not to be confused with Moldova which is a completely separate country. Except that in Romania, Moldova is also called Moldavia, (although they add ‘Republica’ to denote the difference), and indeed before it was called Moldova that separate country was referred to as the Moldavian SSR, (not the Moldovan SSR). All these names stem from that of the Moldova River which runs through Moldavia, (but not Moldova), as that gave its name to the mediaeval Principality of Moldavia which encompassed the lands of both the modern-day Moldova and the modern-day Moldavia and whose most famous ruler was one Ştefan cel Mare whom we have already met and so you can see that whilst Ştefan is the national hero of Moldova, he is also a Moldavian hero and thus a national hero of Romania as well.

Confused?

Me too.

But in a nutshell, that afternoon found me checking into the Casa Bucovineana which translates as ‘Bucovinan House’ which is not actually in Bucovina at all but in Iaşi which, as I have already told you is pronounced ‘Yash’ and is the capital of Moldavia, and whilst Bucovina is a part of Moldavia, (but not Moldova), it is in another bit of the province to Iaşi which is where I now was whereas that morning I had woken up in Chişinǎu which is the capital of Moldova which is also called Moldavia by some people, particularly those in what we call Moldavia which is a different place entirely and… oh, I give up!

Whatever the case, Iaşi was a nice place and markedly different in appearance and atmosphere to Chişinǎu, Tiraspol or indeed any of the other towns or cities that I’d visited so far on my trip. It was pretty, it was higgledy-piggledy and it was very European and, despite spending forty-five years in one of the harshest communist dictatorships on the planet, unlike all those old Soviet towns, you’d never have guessed that it has once been Red. I was in Romania now, (and Moldavia…).

But what is Romania? Now that is surely the million dollar question that was my main reason for visiting the country again. I’d been twice before you see – in 1998 I’d flown into Bucharest en route to Bulgaria and in 2003, travelling from Bulgaria to Hungary with the Sibling, we’d stopped off in Bucharest, Braşov and Sighişoara en route – yet despite those past encounters I could not say what the essence of Romania was. Bucharest I’d found to be a large, dusty and somewhat bland city with only Ceausescu’s megalomania giving it any unique character, (although even that was directly copied from Pyongyang), whilst Braşov and Sighişoara were picture-postcard Mitteleuropean towns straight out of a Brothers Grimm fairytale.

One of my big passions in life is exploring the history and cultures of the Balkans[1] yet one of the first problems that any student of that region encounters is what exactly constitutes ‘The Balkans’? Many writers include Romania within it yet many more use the Danube as its northern frontier whilst a few state that Wallachia and Dobrogea, Romania’s southernmost provinces, are Balkan but Moldavia, Transylvania and Maramureş are not. Certainly, when I’d passed through a part of Wallachia in 2003 it had looked pretty similar to Northern Bulgaria but conversely Transylvania, (the area around Braşov and Sighişoara), I’d found to be not very Balkan at all and instead extremely Germanic but then again that impression could be a misleading one since I’d stayed mostly in the towns and a dip into the history books will tell you that in the Middle Ages when it came under the sway of the King of Hungary in the 11th century Transylvania, which was then entirely rural, was settled by Germans from the west and so all the towns there are Germanic in origin and design whilst the villages all around, (which I did not visit), where the Romanian peasants lived, retained their culture instead. This German – and Hungarian – colonisation is a feature reflected across much of Central Europe[2] but not the Balkans which fell under the Ottoman sphere of influence and had Turkish, not German, settlers. Thus it is that the towns appear like fairytale German towns because that’s exactly what they were and indeed one of the most famous of those fairytales, ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’ in which the Saxon town’s children are lured away by the magical piper is thought by academics to be about the period referred to as Ostsiedlung when the young people of what is today Germany, were lured away to the east by the promise of making huge fortunes in the new areas of settlement like Transylvania.

ML097 Braşov 2003, Romania or Germany?

But if Transylvania was very German and Wallachia far more Balkan, what of Moldavia, the third of Romania’s three major provinces. Was that different again and if so, in what ways? Was it perhaps more like Moldova which it used to be joined with or did it have more in common with the rest of Romania? In some ways it should have; they’re all part of one country for a reason and they unified for a reason, but conversely that unification is something that is still quite new: the three provinces only became one country as recently as 1918, (Wallachia and Moldavia united in 1859 with Transylvania finally joining after the end of World War I), so perhaps they still haven’t had time to blend together properly?

Whatever the case, my first impressions of Iaşi were of a country and a city very different to the ones that I’d left behind that morning. They may share a language and a name but 2012 Romania is noticeably richer – and thus smarter – than Chişinǎu, (or Tiraspol, Bender or the Ukrainian towns and cities that I’d visited). More than that though, to me it had a totally different atmosphere. Those cities had all worn their former communist status on their sleeves with concrete everywhere and Lenin statues in each park, yet in Iaşi one could be forgiven for thinking that socialism had never reached those parts. With ornate, bygone era buildings and higgledy-piggledy streets it was all very West European. Not Germanic though like Braşov and Sighişoara, but more like a French or Belgian provincial city. Not quite what I had expected at all.

After checking into my hotel, I set out to explore Romania’s second city. I headed first for Iaşi’s most famous landmark, its enormous Gothic Palace of Culture. On the way I saw a building which disturbed me immensely. It was a hideous concrete monstrosity but that wasn’t the problem. The sign on the front stated that it was the Peter Andre University. Now, I’m all for taking some things from the West, but dedicating a seat of learning to the man who inflicted the song ‘Mysterious Girl’ upon the earth! What on earth do they study there? Still, every cloud has a silver lining; we should be grateful at least that it doesn’t have a sister institution named after his ex-wife.

ML098 Peter Andre University: flavaly

Completed in 1923, the Palace of Culture was originally an Administrative Palace, a glorious Palace of Westminsteresque edifice for the new Romanian state built in its spiritual heart, the former capital of Ştefan cel Mare on the very site of his palace. The symbolism was unmistakable but these days its function is purely cultural , housing four museums. When I visited though everything was shut. Renovations they said. Bloody typical!

Across the road though, there was a museum that was open. The Museum of Old Moldavian Literature is housed in the 17th century house of the former Orthodox Metropolitan Dosoftei, the man responsible for printing the first church liturgy in Romanian in 1679. Despite not being able to read any of the literature on display there, (mostly Bibles to be fair), I found it all rather interesting. The house itself was very Ottoman in style, reinforcing the view that Romania is perhaps Balkan, whilst the works on display were in Arabic, Cyrillic and Roman scripts. Interestingly, I learnt that the Romanian language only started to be written in the Latin alphabet in the 19th century, before that it was usually in Cyrillic, which explains why it is the only Orthodox culture that does so, although that then begged the question as to why did they change alphabets in the first place? The answer to that I later learnt, was that it was all down to that old devil who so bewitches the Balkans with his black magic presented as goodness and light: Romantic Nationalism.

ML099 The Museum of Old Moldavian Literature

In the 18th and 19th centuries people began to look at languages and wonder how they came to be. Those early philologists soon picked up on the curious fact that the language spoken by the uneducated and uncultured, (in their eyes), Orthodox peasants in the villages of Moldavia, Transylvania and Wallachia was remarkably similar to that most educated and cultured (and Catholic) of all languages, Latin. Indeed, many considered it to be the closest of all the living languages to Latin. So how did this come about?

After a little digging around they found the answer: Dacia. The area now occupied by Romania was once a kingdom called Dacia which was defeated and occupied by the Romans in 106. It was clear what had happened: the Romans had settled there and mixed with the locals who had then adopted – and later preserved in the face of Slavic, Hungarian, Teutonic and Turkish onslaughts – their language. This idea was seized upon by nationalists who revelled in the fact that they were now no longer uncultured and uneducated peasants but instead Latins and thus ethnically and culturally superior to all the Slavs that surrounded them and the Hungarians, Germans and Roma who had settled in their lands. They started spelling their country’s name as ‘Romania’ to emphasise the Roman connection as opposed to ‘Rumania’ as it is pronounced and is spelt in Cyrillic, (and previously in English), whilst the labels Dacia and Dacian became ones of pride, (hence the name of the car company which has its factory in the town of Mioveni), whilst in line with all this Latinness, the script was increasingly written in Latin rather than Cyrillic letters so much so that in 1850 it was standardised and made official.

The Romans in Dacia theory is the one that is still held by most academics but in fact it struggles to hold up under scrutiny. The Romans were only in Dacia, a province right on the fringe of their vast empire, for a hundred and seventy-five years, (as a comparison, they were in Britain for around three hundred), and many of their soldiers were foreign who would not have spoken Latin as their first language. How come then they managed to alter the local tongue in a way which they did not manage in other places where their rule was much longer and in depth?

To answer this another theory has been put forward which I was told about the following day by Delia, the lady in the Iaşi Tourist Information Centre. The theory goes that rather than Romanian being derived from Latin, instead Latin is derived from Dacian which is a Pre-Latin language and was the original language of the tribe who, originating in Central Asia, dumped some people on the way in Dacia with a remnant continuing on to settle in Central Italy. Is this the truth instead? It certainly seems more plausible to me but then I’m no expert on the matter. We shall have to wait and see as it is seriously analysed in academic circles over the coming decades.[3]

After the Museum of Old Moldavian Literature I then headed to Iaşi’s other architectural gem, the Church of the Three Hierarchs, a 17th century edifice which is renowned for its intricate exterior carvings.

Except that it was covered with scaffolding and no intricate exterior carvings could be seen.

Ho hum. I went inside and it was nice, but overall I was annoyed. I’d really wanted to see this building as I’d read a lot about it and how its design was influenced by Armenian church architecture, (certainly its octagonal towers looked rather Armenian), but I had been thwarted.

ML100 The Church of the Three Hierarchs: nice towers, shame about the rest

Undeterred, I decided to press on in the same vein and explore some of the other religious sites of the city. Not being able to see the copy properly, I headed for the real thing, Iaşi’s Armenian Church which, built in 1395, is the oldest building in the city. That however, was shut so I walked on to the 1843 Bărboi Monastery which was mildly interesting and rather less crowded than the more central institutions. Whilst there I purchased candles as I always do in Orthodox churches but unlike in Moldova, Ukraine or indeed anywhere else that I’ve been, I could find nowhere to offer them. Confused, I asked the attendant who led me out of the church and round a corner to a greenhouse type building full of candles burning brightly for both the quick and the dead. It was the same in every church that I subsequently visited in Romania and although I never found out why they follow a different system to everywhere else in the world, my guess is that it has something to do with Health and Safety Legislation.

ML101 Bărboi Monastery (the domed building to the right houses the candles)

My final stop on this initial Iaşi exploration was the nearby 17th century monastery of Golia which is surrounded by a high wall and a tower which is quite spectacular and gives it the impression more of a mighty fortress than a place of prayer. The church inside was beautiful too, in the Moldavian style which I was now becoming accustomed to and I sat in prayer for some time there. After that though, what with the long journey earlier in the afternoon and all the walking in the sun, I was shattered so I retired to an internet café to reconnect with the world and then my hotel where I recuperated whilst watching the first game of the 2012 European Championships, a drab 1-1 draw between the co-hosts Poland and Greece. Then suitably refreshed, I headed out once again, to Piaţa Unirii for a couple of beers in a new country, watching the world go by in a city which I was beginning to like rather well.

Next part: Iasi (II)


[1] See my travelogue ‘Balkania’.

[2] See my travelogue ‘Slovakia and Hungary 2008’.

[3] If this subject is of interest to you, these two websites explain the theory well in English:

http://www.unilang.org/viewtopic.php?t=6171

http://www.dacia.org/carpatho-danubian-space.html

Friday, 14 March 2014

The Missing Link: Part 2.4: Chisinau (II)

world-map chisinau Greetings!

Congratulations to Uncle Travelling Matt for passing 50,000 visits this week. The site is ever-growing in popularity and I thank everyone who visits for that. And whilst thanks are the order of the day, a special mention to Hotel Cosmos in Chisinau, one of the very few establishments globally that I recommend wholeheartedly. If you’re ever there, please, try it out. A huge hotel that’s friendly: unique.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all parts of the travelogue:

Introduction

Ukraine

1.1: Konotop

1.2: Chernobyl and Pripyat

1.3: Kiev

1.4: Kiev to Odessa

1.5: Odessa

1.6: Bolgrad

Moldova and Transdniestra

2.1: Bolgrad to Chisinau

2.2: Chisinau (I)

2.3: Tiraspol and Bender

2.4: Chisinau (II) 

Romania

3.1: Iasi (I)

3.2: Iasi (II)

3.3: Suceava

MLM06

Chişinău (II)

I was a miserable man when I arrived back in Chişinău. Not miserable because I’d left Transdniestria mind; take away the whole surreal “I’m in a country that’s not on the map” thing and Transdniestria is, I’m afraid to say, not the most arresting place on earth. No, I was miserable because I discovered on the bus back to the Moldovan capital that I’d lost £60.

“How on earth can you just lose £60?” you may ask. Well, if you’re me then it’s very easy to do, and if you’re in the most impoverished corner of Europe where £60 equates to half the average monthly wage, then it is no doubt even easier. But even so, the fact was it probably hadn’t been stolen, it was more likely that I had just lost it. I lose everything you see; I always have – bankcards, coats, a passport, money, wallets, even a car once, (although I knew who’d taken that). I am terrible at stuff like that but even so, it doesn’t make it any easier. On the road £60 is a lot of money, money that I didn’t have. I frantically searched everywhere – pockets, wallet, between the pages of my book – but no, it had gone, well and truly lost.

Seeking spiritual solace in this time of need, I walked to the Monastery of St. Tiron, a beautiful 19th century blue onion-domed building just up the road from my hotel. There was a service on but the church was virtually empty, just the priest and a layperson chanting the responses. I stood by an icon and meditated, letting the Divine Liturgy flow through my veins and clarify my thoughts. I was miserable because of the £60 yet that was only the superficial cause, dig deeper and there was a greater spiritual malaise which affects the soul with a continual dull ache of worry. And like the £60 it was all about the money. It was debt.

ML093  St. Tiron’s Monastery

My parents didn’t believe in debt and nor do I. Consequently, save for the standard student loans and such, I’ve always steered clear of it, (and even those loans were paid off promptly). But then in 2010 I went through a divorce and overnight the costs soared whilst the income dwindled. At one point I realised with horror that I was spending £1,000 more a month than I was earning. It was unsustainable.

Nowadays I more or less break even, but there’s still the legacy of those dark days that I’m struggling to shift. I realised as I meditated that this wasn’t really an issue that I was addressing, instead I was just ignoring it. I’d already been away to Poland and to the Netherlands that year. One trip is fair enough, but three? I made some resolutions, not only to forego anymore foreign trips this year but also to use my time in Romania where I hoped to be visiting a few monasteries, to meditate and contemplate more on this problem and some others such as unaddressed anger to do with corruption at work and a focus on my vocation.

I left St. Tiron’s feeling refreshed and rejuvenated. Both there and in the cathedral the day before “Sweet Orthodoxy” had begun to seep into my soul in a way that it had not back in Kiev and Odessa. I wondered what Romania would bring.

And as I walked out I thrust my hand into my coat pocket and felt some crisp papers therein. I pulled them out: three £20 notes. Was it a miracle or had I just not looked properly before? Knowing me, it was probably the latter, but I felt glad nonetheless and so rushed back to the church and deposited a 20 lei note in the donations box.

Sometime later I went down to the railway station to enquire about onward trains to Iaşi, the Romanian city and former capital of the Principality of Moldavia that was my destination for the morrow. But there was only one a day and that didn’t leave until five and besides, it took five hours whilst the bus took only two and a half,[1] so bus it would have to be. Still, the trip was not a wasted one since the station building itself was a really beautiful Stalinist building, true socialist realist style where classical architectural principles are merged with the vernacular. The result was most pleasing indeed.

ML094 Chişinău Railway Station

On this, the last night of my Moldovan minibreak, I sauntered into town again and dined at a restaurant in Parcul Catedralei, washing down my meal with a couple of beers as I mused upon what I’d seen and experienced since crossing over the border at Bolgrad the day before. I’d visited Moldova because it is there, a country to tick off on life’s list, the main draw card for me being the weirdness of Transdniestria. Yet having gone there I’d found to my surprise that I rather liked the place and wanted to see more. I fancied staying a night or two in Comrat and exploring the Gagauz more, heading up to the castle in the predominantly Roma town of Soroca, or the cave monasteries of Orheiul Vechi. I liked it more than Ukraine and that was because it is manageable and understandable. Small countries like Moldova, Albania, Bulgaria and Bosnia-Herzegovina, I can get my head around. Vast places like Ukraine I get lost in and overwhelmed by.

Not that it had all been brilliant. Transdniestria had been, if anything, a slight let-down. The reason to head there is that it is a slice of the old USSR pickled in vinegar. Yet not even vinegar can preserve forever and leave it too long, particularly with the top unscrewed, and the taste changes. I felt that I took the trip to Tiraspol too late. Yes, Transdniestria still fiercely preserves her independence in the face of the world, but capitalism has made serious inroads over recent years and it was clear that Transdniestria – and her relationship with Moldova – is changing. Many of the flags these days, including those on all the car number plates, omit the hammer and sickle and both rhetoric and formalities are much toned down. Yes, she still wants to be independent, but she no longer wants to be completely isolated. That is perhaps why less than 25% of the electorate voted for Igor Smirnov in the 2011 Presidential Elections and why his more conciliatory rival Yevgeny Shevchuk is now in power. The Transdniestria of Soviet fantasy is no more which, whilst bad for the tourist like me, is probably good news for her people. The Transdniestria or today is just like the rest of Moldova only with a different language and flag. In short, she has grown-up.

But if that is true, then what exactly is the rest of Moldova like in 2012? Well, it’s poor, that is for sure, with a “Wild East” economy of the type that typified the rest of Eastern Europe during the 1990s. It clearly hasn’t adapted well to the fall of the Soviet Union and is not going to get significantly better anytime soon. But whilst all of that is true, at the same time Moldova with certain particular charms and enough cultural and geographical assets to give her a sure future one day. Just so long as she tackles corruption, sorts out her differences with Transdniestria and, most of all, does not succumb again to the spectre of nationalism which tore her apart so viciously in the first place.

As I strolled back to the haven of Hotel Cosmos, I saw an example of that nationalism, an advertising hoarding with a poster declaring the words ‘Moldova patria mea’ (‘Moldova my country’), the writing suspiciously like that of a Marlboro cigarette packets and the background a blue sky with yellow flowers and red grapes. On a billboard in amongst a sea of soul-destroying grey concrete apartment blocks and an abandoned hotel, it seemed more like a cry of despair than a boast of pride. Yet I know too well that those two emotions are brother and sister to one another and the former can often produce a lot more positive change than the latter which often results in the opposite. Let us hope therefore, that those Moldovans who see it take from it what I did and use that emotion to change their country for the better rather than cement its position at the bottom of Europe’s league table with even more nationalistic madness.

ML095 Moldova my country!

Next Part: Iasi (I)


[1] One of the reasons why the train took so much longer is that Soviet tracks were built to a different gauge to those of the other countries of Europe and so at the border there is a lengthy wait as the wheels on all the coaches are changed. An account of when I experienced this first hand at the Kazakhstan-China border can be read in my travelogue ‘Across Asia with a Lowlander’.

Friday, 7 March 2014

The Missing Link: Part 2.3: Tiraspol and Bender

world-map chisinauGreetings!

This week’s post is so me! What do I mean by that? Well, it involves travelling to a country that is, well… not quite a country. Transdniestria looks like a country, acts like a country and issues currency like a country. It even has its own flag and anthem. But for some strange reason, no one else believes that it is a country so it doesn’t get invited to all the UN shindigs. Which is a shame cos the gangsters that ran it liked big shin digs full of rich and influential people full of money to give away. And so poor little Transdniestria got forgotten about by everyone… well, almost everyone.

Uncle Travelling Matt did not forget though. Instead he went there and doubled the tourist tally for the month. What’s more, for some sad reason, I keep seeking out such countries that aren’t really countries. Check out my V-log on it, my travelogue of Kosovo and, coming soon, my forthcoming trip to Nagarno-Karabakh. Wanna know where that one is? Well, don’t look on a map…

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all parts of the travelogue:

Introduction

Ukraine

1.1: Konotop

1.2: Chernobyl and Pripyat

1.3: Kiev

1.4: Kiev to Odessa

1.5: Odessa

1.6: Bolgrad

Moldova and Transdniestra

2.1: Bolgrad to Chisinau

2.2: Chisinau (I)

2.3: Tiraspol and Bender

2.4: Chisinau (II)

Romania

3.1: Iasi (I)

3.2: Iasi (II)

3.3: Suceava

MLM06

Excursion: Tiraspol and Bender

My day trip to the country that isn’t started in Chișinău’s Central Bus Station, a labyrinth of market stalls, cheap clothing stalls, fast-food eateries and bus stands. There are buses from the Moldovan capital to the Transdniestrian capital/Moldova’s second city, but there are many more shared taxis which leave when they are full and since one of them almost was full when I arrived, that is what I took. With a prized front seat in a boaty aged Mercedes, I set off on the journey of around 70km to Tiraspol.

The first point of interest was on the very edge of Chișinău. The Gates of Chișinău is a mammoth apartment complex built in the 1970s which looks, as the name suggests, like an enormous pair of open gates through which visitors arriving from the airport must pass before they can enjoy the delights of the city.

ML079  The Gates of Chișinău

After that there was the airport itself with an old Aeroflot jet marooned on a plinth out front and then it was a pleasant but uneventful drive down the lush Byk Valley until the “border” near to the city of Bender.

We’ve covered some of the story of Transdniestria already when we looked at Gagauzia. The same factors caused the establishment of that autonomous entity – excessive Moldovan nationalism, a fear of union with Romania and a hankering for the security of the Soviet past – also fuelled the fire that led to the creation of Transdniestria. The only difference is that on the east bank of the Dniester River they took things one step further.

Like Gagauzia, after the nationalist measures of the Moldovan Supreme Soviet caused the Transdniestrians to proclaim their own sovereignty and then ask to be reattached to the USSR as a separate Soviet Socialist Republic. This of course did not please Chișinău one bit and on the 3rd November, 1990 the first clashes between the Transdniestrians and the Moldovan authorities occurred when Moldovan police attempted to cross the bridge over the Dniester at Dubǎsari, the main road linking Chișinău with Kiev which the locals had barricaded for if the bridge were taken, Transdniestria would be severed in half. Fighting broke out and shots were fired and three Transdniestrian citizens were killed but the bridge was held and Transdniestria remained intact.

ML080  Maps showing Transdniestria in relation to the rest of Moldova. Note the location of Dubǎsari. If it had been taken Transdniestria would have been split in two

The next change came in the August of 1991 with the Putsch in Moscow which the Transdniestrians, like the Gagauz, had supported. When it failed Moldova claimed full independence from the USSR and declared the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1940 to be null and void. This is important since it was this pact which brought the Moldavian SSR into being as the Soviets seized the territory of most of modern-day Moldova off Romania as part of its terms. This however, presented a legal problem for Chișinău’s nationalists since prior to 1940 whilst most of today’s Moldova was in the Kingdom of Romania, the lands on the eastern bank of the Dniester were already part of the USSR and designated as the Moldavian Autonomous SSR (MASSR) which had its capital in Tiraspol. After the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact these lands were lumped together with the lands seized off Romania and thus the Moldavian SSR was born.

ML081  Map showing the historical region of Moldavia. Under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1940 Romania ceded Northern Bukovina, Bessarabia and the Budjak Region (where Bolgrad is) to the USSR. The Moldavian Autonomous SSR was already part of the USSR. After the pact, the MASSR was split, the area around Balta being transferred to the Ukrainian SSR whilst the rest (modern-day Transdniestria) joined with Bessarabia to form the Moldavian SSR

So you can see where the Transdniestrians are coming from. Dissolve the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact if you like and most of the old Moldavian SSR either goes back to Romania or becomes an independent Moldova, but the territory that formerly belonged to the MASSR was never affected by the pact anyhow and so that should either revert back to its original status as an autonomous region of the USSR or, since the USSR was now no more, an independent Pridnestrovskaya Moldavskaya Republika (PMR – i.e. Transdniestria).

But legally questionable or not, like with Gagauzia, Chișinău wanted all of what it saw as its territory as the successor state to the Moldavian SSR and so on the 13th December, 1991 a second attempt on the Dubǎsari Bridge was made. Again it was unsuccessful. At this point the fledging republic had no military whatsoever, so the powers at Chișinău decided instead to wait. Then, in the summer of 1992 when an army had been built up, (with Romanian help), it all started.

The flashpoint was the arrest of Igor Smirnov, the President of Transdniestria, in Kiev. Enraged, the locals blockaded the railway line at Bender, Chișinău’s route to Odessa and the sea. Put under pressure, the Moldovan authorities gave in and Smirnov was freed.

On the 2nd March, 1992 Moldova, with a force of between 25,000 and 35,000 men attacked. Their assault was two-pronged. The first was again around Dubǎsari and again it failed although this time the village of Cocieri, situated in a bend in the Dniester just south of Dubǎsari armed itself against the PMR. A bridgehead was made at Coşniţa and so Moldova had a foothold across the Dniester. However, it did not manage to capitalise on it and instead a trench war developed in the area.

The main Moldovan assault however, was to the south on the city of Bender. The second-largest city in Transdniestria and fourth in Moldova with almost a hundred thousand people, this prize was especially tempting since it was the only bit of Transdniestria which lay on the west bank of the Dniester and thus was afforded no natural defensive protection. The Moldovan troops marched into the city and then attempted to take the bridge over the Dniester which, if it had fallen, would have left Tiraspol, itself only 11km away, wide open to attack.

News fled back to the city and the Transdniestrians rallied. The Soviet 14th Army was stationed on their territory and its commanders were sympathetic to the ambitions of their fellow Slavs whilst most of its soldiers were local. They rushed to the front and the bridge was held. Later bender itself was retaken and the Moldovans, realising that this was a war that they were losing rather than the easy victory they had hoped for, halted their offensive and the Russians brokered a truce. The war ended on the 21st July, 1992 claiming the lives of around a thousand soldiers and civilians with a further three thousand wounded. As a student of mine who lives in Chișinău and whose mother-in-law has an apartment in Tiraspol said to me, “The river at bender ran red with blood. So many people died in that battle.” Ever since then Transdniestria has been free from Moldovan control and defended by Russian peacekeepers although not a single country on earth – including Russia – has recognised its independence and so as a consequence it appears on no maps.

It was just outside Bender, where the Transdniestrians pushed back the Moldovan army, that we crossed over the “border”. On the Moldovan side there was nothing of course – after all, in their eyes you aren’t leaving their territory – save for a watchtower to spy on the pesky rebels, but on the Transdniestrian side, past the Russian tank in camouflage, there is a fully-fledged border post with stern officials in Soviet-style uniforms and a flag flying from the top with the hammer and sickle resplendent in the corner.[1] All the other travellers in the shared taxi were locals who obviously made the trip regularly, but I was a special case and so I was hauled into the office.

I’d read numerous horror stories about the Transdniestrian border police and so I’d come prepared with some dollars ready in my pocket should a bribe be necessary, but in fact it was all (rather disappointingly) everyday. Yes, they scrutinised both me and my passport carefully and yes, I had to fill in a form stating that I was a Transit Visitor here for touristic purposes, but that was it. Hell, they didn’t even stamp my passport, let alone give me a good old Soviet-style grilling. I felt cheated![2]

Something strange happened when we reached Bender. After driving through the centre we headed down some backstreets until our driver stopped outside a door in a high wall where a lady and her daughter got out. It was the local prison. What’s so strange about that you may ask? A lady living in Chișinău goes to visit her husband in gaol in Bender. Perhaps he committed his crime across the border in Transdniestria or maybe they are Transdniestrians and she only moved to Chișinău after his incarceration? No, that’s not the strange thing; what I couldn’t fathom out was why the prison had the Moldovan and not the Transdniestrian flag flying from its roof and the legend ‘Republica Moldova’ emblazoned above the door. What was a Moldovan gaol doing in Transdniestria? Despite scouring the internet I’ve never found out for sure, but my student from Chișinău, (who knows a thing or too about prisons as well as Moldova), has perhaps provided the answer. Despite outward appearances and rhetoric, he tells me that things are changing between Moldova and Transdniestria. The Moldovan national team now play their home games in Tiraspol, (where the only decent stadium is situated), and recently the two countries have signed a deal whereby their police forces are unified which he reckons may have affected the prisons as well. Perhaps it also explains why the border is also so hassle-free as well?

Having been to gaol (just visiting) we were off again, trundling over the bridge that had been the focus of so much fighting during the 1992 conflict and on to Tiraspol. On the outskirts I spied one of the city’s most famous “sights” that Tony Hawks had written about: the Sheriff Stadium.

The President of Transdniestria until 2011 was Igor Smirnov, a somewhat shadowy figure with outrageous eyebrows, a kind of ex-Soviet politician cum gangster who ruled the country as his private fiefdom. Spend any time in the country or reading about it and his is the name that crops up the most, but close on his heels is that of his mate, an ex-KGB officer, Viktor Gushan. Gushan is famous – or infamous – as the owner of Sheriff[3] and Sheriff owns Transdniestria. From factories to supermarkets, luxury hotels to petrol stations, its name and cheesy wild west sheriff’s badge logo is everywhere. But the Sheriff Stadium is Gushan’s showpiece, the home of FC Tiraspol Sheriff, the football club that his company bankrolls and, as a result, has won the Moldovan Championship, (Transdniestrian teams still play in the Moldovan league), for eleven out of the last twelve years.

ML082  The Sheriff logo

When we finally arrived in Tiraspol city centre I thought that the driver was conning me. We had stopped on a nondescript residential street with no sign of a bustling centre to be seen. “Where’s the bus station?” I asked. “Just down there,” the driver replied pointing down a side street. And it was too, only 200m or so away and 200m or so beyond that was pl. Konstitutii, the very heart of Tiraspol and Transdniestria.

II stood there and drank it all in: the Presidential Palace, an enormous placard declaring ‘PMR 1990-2011’ and a statue of the equestrian Generalissimo Suvorov, Transdniestria’s answer to Ștefan cel Mare.

ML083  Celebrating twenty-one years of Transdniestrian independence in pl. Konstitutii

Suvorov was an 18th century Russian general who founded the city of Tiraspol in 1792. He was Russia’s most successful general with a battle record of sixty-three fought and sixty-three won, (compared to Ștefan cel Mare’s paltry 46-2). He is remembered in Transdniestria for his part in the Russo-Turkish War of 1787-92 in which the entire region was wrested from the hands of the Ottomans and added to the Russian Empire.

ML084  Suvorov on his horse riding into pl. Konstitutii

Here were the glories of a state that does not exist laid out for all to see, defiantly proclaiming to the world, (which by and large doesn’t either notice or care), that Transdniestria exists, that it wants to be independent and so it will be independent regardless of whether the UN grants it a seat in its chamber or not.

I walked down ul. 25 Oktober, Tiraspol’s main drag, looking for things to spend my Transdniestrian roubles, (notes adorned with a portrait of Suvorov), on. There was however, very little. The Oxford Street of Tiraspol ul. 25 Oktober may be, but it seemed more like the High Street of a nondescript provincial city, (which, if you take Transdniestrian independence out of the equation, it is), with fast-food outlets, a couple of banks and photography shops.

ML085  Ul. 25 Oktober, the bustling heart of Transdniestrian commerce

I stepped into a bookshop and found what I’d been after. There, in amongst the school textbooks and romantic novels, I spied some cheesy Transdniestrian national merchandise, namely miniature flags and a poster featuring that flag, the national emblem and the words of the national anthem. I bought both naturally and then continued on my way up the street.

At the eastern end of ul. 25 Oktober is the House of Soviets, a great Stalinist edifice which I suspect was built to house the Soviet of the Moldavian Autonomous SSR. There was a statue of Lenin parked prominently in front and so I parked my portly figure in front of them both and after recording the none-too-impressive scene for future generations, I crossed the street to examine a photo exhibition of famous Tiraspol residents. They were a mixed bag: scientists, military men, even an astronaut, but I’d only heard of the first of them. It was, of course, Igor Smirnov.

ML086  House of Soviets, Tiraspol

I started to walk back down ul. 25 Oktober and mused on the surreal little country that I was in. The most striking difference that it has in comparison to its neighbour that it is officially part of, is the total dominance of Russian. That shouldn’t come as a surprise of course, since Transdniestria is a country founded on the fact that its Slavic-majority population felt threatened by an aggressive Moldovan nationalism, often symbolised by the Moldovan language, but even so the total absence of any Moldovan language at all is noticeable since in Chișinău a fair amount of Russian can still be seen.

I popped into the post office for another dose of Transdniestrian quirkiness. In Tiraspol Post Office you can buy two kinds of stamps. There are the Transdniestrian ones with ‘PMR’ and a picture of adorning them, but as the country is unrecognised it is thus not a member of the Universal Postal Union and so these stamps ae only of use within Transdniestria itself. Therefore, also on sale are Moldovan stamps for letters to anywhere else. I bought both since I needed to send some letters, I fancied the Transdniestrian ones as souvenirs and I still had loads of roubles to get rid of and I guessed that even Chișinău’s many bureau de change shops would refuse to convert them back into lei.

Halfway down the street I passed a small building with two flags displayed above the door. It was the joint foreign embassy of the Republic of Abkhazia and the Republic of South Ossetia. Like Transdniestria, you won’t find either of those two on any map, but like Transdniestria, both exist. They are breakaway republics of Georgia who have, unlike Transdniestria, at least being recognised by Russia, (whose troops freed them and guarantee that the Georgians don’t come back), even if no one else has followed suit.[4] Together with Nagorno-Karabakh, (a breakaway region of Azerbaijan), they form the Community for Democracy and Rights of Nations and all four share excellent relations. Beggars can’t be choosers I suppose.

ML087  The Embassy of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two other countries that most folk fail to recognise

At pl. Konstitutii I turned off and walked down by the river, the waterway which divides Moldova in two and provides a natural defensive frontier for Transdniestria. Here though is one of the few places where the Tiraspol government controls both banks. I didn’t bother crossing over to the other side but I did stand in the middle of the footbridge which spans the waters and wonder at the sheer stupidity of nationalism.

Just up from pl. Konstitutii is Tiraspol’s War Memorial with a T-34 tank and a glistening new chapel. It commemorates not only the dead of World War II and the Afghanistan War but also those who perished in the 1992 “War of Independence”. I photographed both the memorial and the Presidential Palace across the road, (which graces the back of most of the banknotes), before then popping into the Tiraspol National United Museum, the nearest thing that Transdniestria has to a national museum.

ML088  The T-34 tank with the Presidential Palace behind

ML089  At Tiraspol’s War memorial I was overcome with love for Transdniestria and burst into song

To be fair, Transdniestria probably does state-building better than it does museums, as this one was nothing to write home about. But the staff were friendly and gave me a guided tour explaining in detailed Russian everything from art of a dubious quality to World War II battles. For me though, the most interesting section was that which covered the 1992 conflict in which Transdniestria lost over four hundred men, with lots of photos and explanations of the crucial battle for the bridge over the Dniester at Bender which I’d crossed over earlier. And since I still had half a day left and had more or less exhausted what Tiraspol had to offer, after finishing my tour of the museum, I hopped on a marshrutka and headed straight for that very bridge.

The bridge though, was not the only reason why I wanted to visit Bender. Moldova’s banknotes feature pictures of famous sights in the country and two of them in particular caught my eye. They both portrayed impressive castles that looked well worth checking out. The first, on the 20 lei note showed one Soroca Castle whilst the second, on the 100 lei note portrayed Tighina Castle. I dipped into the guidebook to see if visiting either was practical. Soroca definitely wasn’t as it was miles away in the far north of the country but Tighina was rather more mysterious since neither the castle nor the town were mentioned. However, research on the internet soon revealed the key to the confusion: Tighina is the Moldovan name for Bender.

And the third reason for going there? A town called Bender. Is that not reason enough?

ML090

  ML091 Two banknotes featuring Bender Castle: the top one you can use there, the bottom one you can’t

The marshrutka dropped me off in the centre of the city and I walked down the street towards both the bridge and the castle. At the head of the bridge is a large roundabout adorned with a military post and Transdniestrian flags whilst on the bridge itself, a Russian tank lurked menacingly. Having stared at and photographed the scene of the greatest battle in Transdniestria’s extremely short history, I headed for the castle, a fine and impressive Ottoman citadel, a relic from the days before General Suvorov made everything Russian. It looked just as impressive in real life as it did on the banknotes but impressive or not, it suffered from a serious problem: no way in. I walked along the walls for the best part of a kilometre till I was out of the city and in a suburb of grimy tower blocks and builder’s merchants before I realised that there was no entrance because it was off limits, occupied, (unsurprisingly if I’d thought about it and its location), by the cream of the Transdniestrian military machine. So I had a drink at a roadside stall and thought about what to do. Castle and bridge ticked off, what more was there to keep me in Transdniestria? Nothing at all, and so I returned to the road to wait for the next passing marshrutka or bus to Chișinău. Unfortunately, despite the fact that I waited for a bloody long time, none came so eventually I crossed over the road and took the first marshrutka back into Bender itself and then wandered through the ho-hum streets of the most humorously named town since Bottesford until I reached the bus station where, to my delight, the Chișinău service was just pulling in.

ML092  Bender Bridge

Next part: Chisinau (II)


[1] The Transdniestrian flag is that of the old Moldavian SSR. It is identical to that of the USSR save that it has a green band running horizontally across the middle.

[2] One reason behind the relaxation of attitudes with the Transdniestrian border police may be the European Union Border Assistance Mission to Moldova and Ukraine (EUBAM), something I’d been given glossy leaflets about at the European Village in Kiev. The official blurb is that ‘EUBAM is a European Union structure, created to control the traffic on borders between Moldova and Ukraine. The mission was established in November 2005 at the joint request of the Presidents of Moldova and Ukraine. The mission scope is assistance on the modernisation of management of common border of these countries in accordance with European standards, and to help in the search for a resolution to Transdniestrian conflict of the Republic of Moldova.’

[3] Although rumours abound that Smirnov is the real owner.

[4] Both of these are discussed in my travelogue Latvia, Georgia and Turkey as well as the 2008 war which was fought between Russia and Georgia over their independence.