Moldova, Moldova, Send Randy Right Ova
Moldova was probably the trickiest stop on this twelve-nation European trek during the heart of the Corona virus pandemic. I’d hastily booked a ton of flights: I assumed these nations would open based on a handful of unofficial blogs I’d read. While the intel was correct about some countries opening, it was dead wrong about others. Thankfully, I’d just about figured out every single stop except one: Moldova was the thorn in my side that seemed to be the impossible. My arrival was scheduled for July 5th – and although the country’s current border “lockdown” was only in place until the end of June – they made it clear that they would “re-assess” the situation for July 1st, and not necessarily “open” then. It was a pretty big gamble and as the July 1st date drew closer, I was on pins and needles wondering what would be my fate.
As (bad) luck would have it, the closure was indeed extended, this time to July 15th. I was hosed. I’d have to skip Moldova this time around, and I was pretty bummed about it. But I hadn’t given up. I learned a long time ago that you’ll never receive what you don’t ask for, so I asked! I emailed the border police in Chișinău and not only were they responsive, but they were helpful. I’d lucked out and reached someone there who actually cared. He asked me my purpose of visiting and I explained I’d come to visit radio stations…which was true – I often visit radio stations in foreign countries, it’s kinda my thing. The officer responded with a suggestion that I come with an invitation letter from the radio station, and that I would quite possibly fall into their “business travel” exemption. What was risky about this proposition, was that I couldn’t apply beforehand – I was instructed to just “show up,” and I’d either be let in or sent away. Kinda scary, but it’s the kind of adventure I love! So after a wonderful two nights in Minsk, it was on to Chișinău with my invitation letter in hand – a sort of real-life Amazing Race. I went in with high hopes but realistic expectations. It seemed too easy.
I approached the female officer with documents in-hand and a warm greeting, doing my best to show my smile underneath my mask. Luckily, all my paperwork was in order and only after about two minutes, I was fully stamped in and welcomed. The process was uneventful, but successful! I breathed a huge sigh of relief. I’d officially checked off another country that was sealed up tight – galavanting around the world like a diplomat, while the rest of the general population was confined within their borders. Even other Europeans were not being let in to Moldova. I don’t say this to brag – I say this with immense gratitude. How lucky I was to be able to travel here, now!
Chișinău…Ask Me How!
I grabbed a taxi and headed to my hotel/apartment where I met a nice young girl who knew absolutely zero English. She must have been 19, with bad skin but a beautiful smile. She nervously giggled while we did our best to communicate using her translator app. Once we settled on payment details and WiFi access, I was off to explore the city. It was already 6PM, but I’d still have hours of that European summertime sun.
Out of all twelve stops on this crazy European trip, Chișinău was, without a doubt, the most chill city of them all. I’m not sure if the town is tranquil by its sheer DNA, or if it was just overly quiet due to folks quarantining at home – but it was super mellow. Then again, it was also Sunday night, so I’m sure that had something to do with it. Whatever the case, I didn’t mind. I started out exploring the handful of famous buildings, churches, parks and monuments, which took less than 40 minutes to complete. After I experienced the formal stuff, I trotted down a few backstreets to see what the neighborhoods looked like. I finished the evening’s city tour with a stroll down the long pedestrian path, Alexander Diordita Street. What cool little city.
Eatin’ Good in the Neighborhood
Dinner and drinks that night were probably my most memorable and enjoyable experience while in Moldova. I happened upon some big building that housed some sort of artisinal/hipster food court. I liked the vibe – the place buzzing with excitement. Sushi sounded good – definitely nothing authentically Moldovan, but it sounded good at the moment. What impressed me the most at this joint was the music pumping out from the overhead speakers: deep funk from artists like Midnight Starr, Whispers, SOS Band…even Tom Browne and D-Train. I was floored and flabbergasted that these somewhat-rarer funk grooves were getting play in Moldova of all places in the entire world! When I approached the counter for a drink, I asked the bartender who was spinning. It was him, I realized, as he showed me his phone from behind the counter. It was plugged into the building’s PA system, running mp3s of this guy’s absolutely funktactular playlist. I was so impressed! I would have never imagined!
After Dinner Drinks
To add to the handful of sweet little surprises in Chișinău: Right next to the food-court building stood a charming little bar that served nothing but fresh Moldovan cherry liqueur. The old yellow building featured classic details and two wooden saloon-type doors that were propped wide-open, underneath a big sign which I could not read, featuring four big cherries underneath the letters. Stacks of wooden barrels inside the dark room were lit up and glowing – an invitation that drew me in with no hesitation. I didn’t know what I’d find inside, but I was instantly lured in. It was a great ending to a special day.
Fun fact: I would later discover that Piana Vyshnia is actually a Ukrainian chain/franchise. Who woulda thunk it?!
My second day in Chișinău was really busy, starting with that “important” business meeting that had afforded me entry into Moldova. My new friend Marius was nice enough to invite me over for a tour and meeting at his radio station, Aquarelle FM, conveniently located right down the street from my apartment. I toured the studios and facilities, met with Marius and his staff, and talked radio for a good 45 minutes or so, before taking some photos and saying our goodbyes. The studios were really cool, and Marius and his team were very hospitable. Afterwards, I grabbed a great breakfast at a neat little French café close to my apartment. A productive morning – but we had just begun!
I Go Weird Places
The disputed territory of Transnistria was close by, how could I pass up a chance to take a look? Transnistria is not a recognized by the UN nor any UN nation as its own dependent country, but rather a “breakaway republic.” Russia has an embassy inside the state, so you can do the math on your own here. Either way, Transnistria has its own borders, police, government and even currency. I couldn’t wait to check it out.
The sweetheart back my hotel/apartment spent plenty of time arranging a ride for me, including negotiating a price. By 11AM Andre and I were off! I enjoyed the hour car ride through the wide-open Moldovan countryside, as we left the city and sped between green vineyards and farmland. We eventually arrived, first passing through a Moldovan checkpoint, across the Dnister River and up to the Transnistrian border gate. This geography nerd was so excited to be here! Sadly, after checking my documents and some conversation with my driver, the border guards would not allow us entry. We tried a total of three different points of access and unfortunately continued getting denied. Andre didn’t know much English, and I knew zero Romanian – but somewhere along the way I was able to understand that Transnistria was simply sealed shut because of Corona – no foreigners allowed. There was no way we were getting in. It was difficult to be too upset: I managed to get into so many closed countries thus far on this trip, and since Transnistria wasn’t included in the UNs standard “193 nations” list–the list I’m trying to finish–I wasn’t too heartbroken. If Transnistria was my only rejection during this whole trip, I’d certainly consider it a success.
I’d hoped to spend the night in Transnistria – my next flight wasn’t until the following evening. The obvious plan now was to turn around and stay another night in Chișinău. But while I really did adore the town, I reckoned I’d already seen all I could see the previous day. I couldn’t picture spending another 24 hours there – not when there were other places nearby I could easily get to. So I had Andre run me directly to the airport and snatched up the very last seat on that 9:30PM flight to Istanbul. My original itinerary had me on this very flight the next day, for an overnight layover at the Istanbul airport before heading to Macedonia. This quick pivot would get me into Istanbul a full day early to enjoy the city for 24 hours.