Before you think I’ve joined a cult, I’d like to clarify what the ‘Friendship Train’ is, lest you have concerns for my sanity or wellbeing. The aforementioned train connects the capitals of two countries which have at times in their histories been joined as one, and which still have much in common, including an almost identical language and a very similar flag.
Twice a day The ‘Prietenia’ (in English, friendship) makes the journey between the capital cities of Romania and Moldova, onboard a train that was (possibly) the height of modernity during the days of the USSR, and which has not changed much since. It’s not a very busy route but it is popular with adventurers who like to travel not only between physical places, but also back through time, for a bite-sized taste of life behind the Iron Curtain, circa 1965.
Below: A few shots of the train, operated by Moldovan Railways. The bottom image is the departure board at Bucharest’s Gara de Nord Station, which has the old-school plastic letters and numbers which flip around when the times and trains change.
Moldova and Romania are probably the most scapegoated countries in Europe, in terms of Daily Mail headlines at least. If the tabloids (and various internet forums) are to believed you’ll be robbed in your sleep, your children kidnapped by gypsies, ripped off everywhere you go and be served horse meat when you order chicken.
Part of this ridiculous hearsay might come from the fact that these countries are infrequently visited by Western Europeans, more so Moldova, which I’m fairly sure most Brits couldn’t locate on a map. Moldova is also the poorest country in Europe (I can clearly remember packing Christmas shoeboxes for Moldovan children when I was a child, and being shocked that such abject poverty existed on the same continent), and as a mostly soviet-era, concrete city its capital, Chisinau (or Kishinev as it’s known locally) gets a really bad rap. I read one blog post from someone who had visited which went so far as to question why the city even existed. How nice.
Please read on to have your pre- and mis-conceptions blown out of the water as far they’ll go, and whilst we’re at it let’s incinerate every copy of the Daily Mail on the planet, in one big, glorious bonfire of misinformation.
Brilliant Bucharest: like Paris without the hordes of tourists and insanely high prices.
Where I stayed:
Hostel 1, which has very nice, upmarket facilities, and was spotlessly clean.
Delicious, breadcrumbed fried cheese (called cașcaval pane) with vegetable rice and a side of pickles, from the restaurant at The Dimitrie Gusti Village Museum, where you can try Romanian specialties served in a traditional wooden inn, set within the beautiful grounds of the museum.
Triple cooked fries from a place called Cartoffiserie, which only serves fries and about 20 different sauces. They were so crispy and delicious, and I’ve been longing for their mouthwatering deliciousness ever since.
What I did:
- The Bucharest Municipal Museum, a great introduction to the history of the city. The permanent display ‘Time of the City’ is presented in reverse order (from the communist era backwards), an interesting technique inspired by a unique ‘backwards clock’ which forms part of the museum’s collections. Find out more
Below: The museum’s rather Parisian-looking exterior.
- The Museum of Romanian Kitsch, a slightly overpriced novelty affair that is probably over stretching the term ‘museum’. Categories include ‘Vampire Kitsch’ and ‘Religious Kitsch’. There wasn’t much context as to why some Romanians love such extravagant, over the top designs but I gathered that it was probably due to the lack of consumer goods available under communist rule, and a backlash against the socialist ideal of everyone having the same products/looking vaguely the same. Find out more.
Below: A few of the kitsch exhibits. The newspaper called ‘Dracula’ is a tabloid and the Romanian equivalent of the Daily Sport (i.e. mostly made up conspiracy theories).
- The Village Museum, the absolute highlight of my visit to the city. It’s an outdoor museum with hundreds of traditional buildings rescued from across Romania. The buildings are grouped according to the geographical region they came from, and many are open to peek inside, with traditional wooden furniture and whitewashed walls. The whole museum is very well kept and there’s a real sense of love and passion for the place amongst visitors and staff alike. There are also animals including sheep and a donkey, and several chubby cats who loitered around the restaurant. It’s a huge place, and with a lovely restaurant and several shops selling traditional crafts it’s definitely somewhere for a whole day out. Find out more.
Below: Some of the gorgeous wooden buildings and their recreated interiors.
- Art Safari, an annual art fair showcasing contemporary Romanian Art. This was totally unplanned, I just happened to stumble on it on my last day. The tickets was fairly pricey by Romanian standards, but it was worth it to see some amazing pieces by Romanian artists, including installations created especially for the event. There were also rarely-seen works from the collection of a big Romanian bank, and from a collection which once belonged to the infamous dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. Find out more.
Below: Adverts for the art fair around the city. Apparently it’s Eastern Europe’s biggest art event.
Most awkward moment:
Taking a taxi to the hostel with a driver who was playing ‘Je t’aime moi non plus’ loudly in the cab. There is nothing weirder or more awkward than listening to Jane Birkin’s moans and groans whilst you’re in the back of a taxi at night on your own. Creepy.
The blurb in guidebooks often likens Bucharest to Paris and Berlin, and this description is absolutely true. Certain streets and areas of the city look and feel utterly Parisian, and there’s a definitely a young, hip Berlin-like vibe, perhaps part of a similar post-communist cultural rebirth.
As for the question of whether I got mugged or kidnapped? I’m writing this now from the very same phone that I had when I arrived, and generally kidnappers take umbrage with their detainees blogging whilst in captivity. At no point did I feel any more unsafe than I do in London, or any other big city.
I’m certain that Bucharest will become a city break favourite soon, somewhere to explore once you’ve ticked the usual suspects of Budapest, Berlin, Barcelona and Vienna off the list. It’s cheap, friendly, filled with museums, and the city centre and main sights are easy to reach on foot or by metro. I know it’s high on my list of cities to revisit.
Below: Lovely Bucharest: you can probably see from the pictures why it’s likened to Paris! The bottom image is the Palace of the Parliament (originally Ceaușescu’s House of the Republic), an absolute beast of building which is still unfinished. Photographs can’t really demonstrate just how enormous it is!
Seeking out the gems in Chisinau, and spending a day in a country that doesn’t exist.
Where I stayed:
Amazing Ionika Hostel, a riot of colour run by a really friendly and enthusiastic Italian expat. There were chickens and a fluffy white cat in the yard, which made me happy.
Awesome places to eat & drink:
Propaganda, a restaurant with cosy, nostalgic decor which serves a range of traditional dishes and Moldovan wines. Think comfy armchairs, shelves of old books and the odd portrait of Lenin. The veggie options were slim, so I opted for a cheese platter which, whilst not very traditional, was certainly tasty washed down with a lovely glass of Moldovan white. I finished up (somewhat inebriated, cheese not being hugely filling) with a blueberry cheesecake served with chocolate ganache, which was delicious.
In Transnistria I ate at ‘Kumanyok’ a popular choice with tourists. It has slightly kitschy traditional decor, and serves dishes from across the former USSR. I opted for Ukrainian Borscht and Pelmeni, both of which were filling and delicious.
Special mention goes to Chisinau canteen Galbenus, with its pastel yellow, 90s decor and extremely cheap canteen-style food of the no-frills variety. The dessert looks like cream or mousse but it is in fact an extremely sweet and claggy marshmallow like substance, which I’ve discovered is quite common in cakes in this region. Perhaps because it lasts better than cream? Another special mention goes to the kitsch salt shakers they use there. I have to find myself one on eBay.
I was surprised to find quite a few trendy coffee shops in Chisinau, none of which would look out of place in Shoreditch. My favourites were:
- Toucano Coffee, a chain with stores around the CIS, with two in Chisinau. They serve amazing cheesecake and really good coffee. The cold brew tonic with lemon was particularly good.
- DC Donuts and Coffee, with industrial-chic decor, hipster baristas and lots of tasty treats.
- Folk’s Croissants, another hipster hangout which specialises in filled croissants (including unusual options such as melon). I was very boring, and just ordered one with melted cheese in. Sometimes simple is best!
What I did:
- Wandered around the city checking out the socialist-modernist architecture and socialist-era public art. My absolute favourite is the now somewhat dilapidated circus building (the bottom images), which has sculptures of acrobats adorning the facade. If you’re interested, you can read more about socialist-modernist buildings in Chisinau here and here.
- Climbed the spiral staircase of the water tower building for a panoramic view of the city.
- Took a minibus to Transnistria for the day, a small breakaway state between Moldova and the Ukraine. The state has its own currency, government, flag and state institutions, but it is only recognised as a state in its own right by a handful of other states (all of which are also breakaway nations). You have to pass through border patrol to enter, and you have a limit of 10 hours without having to register (although if you stay overnight a hostel or hotel will do this for you). The Transnistrian currency is only available inside Transnistria, and you can’t exchange it back outside the state, so don’t exchange too much! You can get to the capital, Tiraspol, either by minibus from the main bus station in Chisinau (regular, but note that the sign on the front will be in cyrillic, as Russian is the official language) or on the train route from Chisinau to Odessa (only once daily, I think). There aren’t a whole lot of attractions in Tiraspol, but it is quite an experience. The state has close ties to Russia and has maintained many of its soviet features, including Lenin statues and the obligatory Lenin & Karl Marx Streets. There’s also a House of the Soviets and huge banners around the city with a distinctly USSR look about them, as you’ll see below (look closely and you’ll see Lenin outside the parliament building, which I don’t think you’re supposed to photograph, hence how far away I took it..!) . Once you’ve had enough of gawping at the architecture and statues you can stop into one of the Kvint cognac factory shops to buy some obscenely cheap alcohol, then head back on the minibus. Chisinau certainly isn’t the most gloriously attractive and colourful city in Europe, but compared to the grey bleakness of Tiraspol it could be Paris. If you’re interested in the history of Transnistria Simon Reeve made a documentary about it a few years ago which is available on youtube: ‘Places that don’t exist’.
- Boarded the sleeper train to Kyiv from the soviet-era station. Can you spot where the hammer and sickles/communist stars have been chipped off the plasterwork? Most random moment:
Watching Eurovision in a naff British-themed pub, complete with Mr Bean and Pippa Middleton pictures on the wall. We then ran to the big screen in the park for the results, and much cheering when Moldova was awarded points (which was far more frequently than the UK).
Chisinau certainly isn’t going to win any European City Beauty Pageants (oh wait, that isn’t a thing), but that doesn’t mean you should leave it off your itinerary. The city has had a tough time and the architecture reflects that. If you like socialist-modernist buildings you’ll be in luck: for a concrete-lover like me it’s an absolute dream. It’s also a good base to make day a trip to Transnistria or to the Old Orhei Monastery and various Moldovan wineries, neither of which I had time for.
Above all it’s a lived-in city rather than one which has been cleansed of all signs of poverty and real life, to create a fairytale, touristic idyll. For me this makes it more appealing: the bustling market, the chaotic bus station and the pensioners selling produce on the street make this city feel real and authentic, rather than a simulacra created for the entertainment of outsiders. Riding ‘The Friendship Train’ is also a great (thought not particularly luxurious) experience, and given the age of the trains I can’t imagine it will be one you’ll be able to enjoy for too much longer.