The Republic of Borduria, the Kingdom of Syldavia: if you grew up obsessed with the adventures of Tintin, like me (my granddad even taped the tv-series on VHS for my brother and me every week), you know what I am talking about. Borduria was even way ahead of its time, depicting a black hipster moustache on its red post-war flag, and the Syldavian national dance is called blushtika, meaning goat dance twisting, which is basically what every national dance comes down to. Modelled after south-east European countries, both fictional places are mountainous, struggling with authoritarian regimes and have Slavic-inspired languages. The only incongruity would be that Syldavians, much to Captain Haddock’s disgust, are very fond of a local mineral water called Klowaswa and less so of alcohol, which would of course never happen in this part of the world.
These countries, I imagine, are the fictional alter egos of one of Europe’s least-known states, or hidden gems, as you wish: Moldova. To give a more real-life and politically engaged justification for this article, Moldova has seen a lot of political protests lately, but few Western media bother to actually cover news from Europe’s poorest country. Yet with an influential figure threatening to release sex tapes of a prominent government-critical journalist, secretly filmed at her own home, we are sure many would actually be interested.
Growing tired of the corrupt political establishment, which is heavily controlled by oligarchs, both pro-Russian and pro-European groups took to the streets in January. Last year, about 1 billion euro worth of Moldovan lei, which amounts to a whopping 14% of the country’s GDP, ‘disappeared’ from three local banks. Bizarre. This doesn’t mean, however, that there is no point in going there. Imagine, if anything, they could use your sensibly spent tourist money more than ever!
Many people with a deviating idea of tourism go to Moldova only as a starting point for visiting the breakaway republic of Transnistria. Whichever motive you may have, there is still plenty of fun to be had in and around Chisinau, the capital of this former Soviet republic. No-Yolo loves Moldova and here’s why:
The wine! The food!
Gastrotravel is one of the healthiest motivations to travel. Moldovan wines, alongside the Georgian produce, used to be the most highly regarded in the Soviet Union. Still today, apart from remittances sent by Moldovan workers abroad, its economy heavily relies on agriculture and the export of wine to Central and Eastern Europe in particular. We were there. We tried it. We loved it. Moreover, the country sports some underground tunnels which function as wine cellars with massive collections, some of which stretch over a 100 kilometres and are accessible by car only. Vladimir Putin reportedly celebrated his 50th birthday in one of them, the grown-up and endlessly cooler equivalent of celebrating your birthday at McDonald’s.
The surroundings of the cave monastery of Orheiul Vechi need to be explored
We know Pippi Longstocking was made up by Astrid Lindgren and is supposed to be Swedish, but we found out where she actually lives. Miss Longstocking is known for her quirky sense of adventure and that’s why she chose to move her whole animal bonanza to Butuceni, the village right on the other side of Orheiul Vechi.
If mass tourism existed in Moldova, Orheiul Vechi is what would come closest to its star attraction. Up to a dozen tourists visit this ancient orthodox monastery cave site every day, with convenient amenities such as a permanently closed restaurant next to the cave and a spacious parking lot for the couple of buses and minibuses serving this national heritage site daily.
Opt out of being shown around by a guide and have a look at the monastery yourself, then walk to the village of Butuceni on the other side of the hill. Such an original way to describe a small picturesque village, but time really appeared to have been standing still here. Villagers still get their water from wells; small and colourful orthodox shrines are on display here and there; chickens and other poultry are freely rummaging around and grannies with floral headscarves can be found in the vegetable gardens in front of their brightly painted houses, peacefully harvesting tasty tomatoes as pink and misshapen as a seasoned alcoholic’s nose. Sure, the cave is impressive and everything, but this village is the true star of the Orheiul Vechi region.
You can get some cool insiders’ stories from the minority community residing in Chisinau
When your No-Yolo reporter was visiting Moldova, she was kindly invited to stay with a queer immigrant who was working at the university at that time. He was an amazing person: warm, kind-hearted, hospitable and funny. Telling many stories about his experiences living in Moldova, one of the stories impressing most was the one about the Gay Pride in Chisinau a number of years ago. We envisioned a sizeable parade of people in exuberant dress celebrating diversity, only to find out the truth was soberingly different. Basically it came down to a handful of bored dudes in a bar having a beer, with some buff security outside the entrance to make sure no malicious parties could enter.
You can take observing and being observed to the next level
Even the most well-willing enthusiasts will admit there is not that much to see in tiny Moldova. The main attractions are Chisinau (which, in itself, does not have that many sights actually), Transnistria, Orheiul Vechi and the Milestii Mici and Cricova wine cellars.
Congratulations! This is when you really appeal to your own creativity as a traveller. The best moments in Moldova were basically created out of boredom and took place in the most basic of situations: visiting a market and watching the people doing trivial every day things like buying fish and vegetables; and drinking serious servings of draft wine (the smallest glasses available were 0,5l) at the super-seedy pint-sized bar next to the market, where moustached men got their pre-shopping shot of vodka and accompanying pickle and elderly ladies downed their pints of beer faster then we did.
This is also when you find out about some cool but useless facts about the country. Did you, for example, know that they have an enormous assortment of different flavours of toothpaste in Moldova? Some of them seem to cost half the local monthly salary, but we sympathize with the fact that Moldovans are adventurous brushers and appreciate cocktails such as charcoal/pine needle and chilli/strawberry. They surely deserve some credit for that!
Last but not least, Moldova is also a good place if you like spotting T-shirts with interesting messages printed on them. Among the winners are “Very Likely To Steal Your Boyfriend”, “I Only Have Friends Because I Killed All My Enemies” and “I Do One-Night Stands”.
The parks have free wi-fi. Eat that, sceptics!
Moldova is not some sort of backwards country where people have never heard of digital technology (if anything, that would apply to yours truly) and are hanging out squatting down, chomping on cabbage all day. The centrally-located parks are actually worth visiting for many reasons, and the wi-fi thing is the least interesting one of them. They are nicely designed, clean and an ideal base for relaxing with a beer, enjoying some nice food and watching the intriguing-looking Moldovans walk by. One of life’s truest pleasures – no smartphone required.
Cliché alarm: people might seem distant or shy at first but are very welcoming
Apart from the good experiences we had on the spot, we found a charming offering accommodation and tours in Moldova. Run by a Moldovan lady residing in England, she offers people to stay in Chisinau with her mother Katherine and her partner Boris, who can be your personal driver on request. They appear in various pictures around the website, smiling and awkwardly waving at the camera, but even though “they are very lovely people, unfortunately, none of them speak any English”. Apart from the flat in Chisinau, which by the way does not have a computer with internet access but “a few open wi-fi connections can be received at the bedroom window”, on offer are also various tours, transfers and a flat in Transnistria with a 24-hour elevator and the access code to the front door stated on the website. The section that features feedback from guests has one message, written by ‘Frenchman’ and printed in red letters, saying it was the worst experience of his life. Though, to be fair, this was about him being denied at the Transnistrian ‘border’ and most likely has nothing to do with his host.
Anyway, we know and understand you aim to be as heroic, intelligent, adventurous and savagely attractive as Tintin. We all do. But as long as Captain Haddock is in rehab, Brussels is recovering from a lockdown, Herge is being accused of having Nazi sympathies and Borduria and Syldavia continue to be fictional: visit Moldova and create your own goat dance twisting, wi-fi ignoring, Pippi Longstocking-hunting adventure.