Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Prepare to be Moldova

I don't imagine there was dancing on the streets of Chisinau the day that the Lonely Planet added the words “AND MOLDOVA” to the title of its Romania guidebook. But there should have been. Short of becoming a new EasyJet destination, nothing serves to officially sanction a region as the new place to visit quite like a tip-off in the backpacker bible. Surely this is more important to the Moldovan economy than ascension to the EU.

Like most people who have done a bit of traveling to the typical city-break destinations, I am constantly on a quest to find that ever elusive city “that hasn't been ruined yet.” A few years back, the cliché was to describe a place as the New Prague. Today, you can forget Prague. You can forget all of the New Pragues for that matter. Tallinn, Riga, Krakow, Split, Budapest, Ljubljana - you name the contenders - they have all been claimed by the British stag party set. In the search for authenticity, you need to go further afield.

One simple line in the Lonely Planet, then, was all it took to convince me that I absolutely needed to travel to Moldova. “Visit Moldova now,” it read, “before it is too late.”

That settled it! One flight to Bucharest and an overnight train journey in a Communist-era sleeper car later, and there we were. Chisinau. The new frontier. A city that a few weeks ago, I had literally never heard of.

There is something charmingly unrefined about Moldova as a tourist destination. I don't say this patronizingly (for Moldova is Europe’s poorest country) or retro-ironically (even though, in an age of Cold War nostalgia, the breakaway Moldovan republic of Transdniestr is still bona fide Communist). I mean that, for example, there is no tourist information office anywhere in the country. There are not even travel agencies that deal with Moldova, except for the ones helping you to LEAVE the country. This lack of refinement has two sides. On the one hand, there is great satisfaction in not hearing English spoken in every shop and café; on the other hand you also have to gesticulate wildly to communicate and endure being stared at like a Martian when you enter most rooms. On the one hand, meals and lodging cost pennies; on the other hand, the food and rooms are straight out of the USSR circa 1980. (We stayed in flat charitably advertised as a “hostel” that in the US or UK would be too dodgy looking for many crack dealers.)

In a place like this, there is a definite “what the hell are you doing here?” vibe you get from many people. Not in an unwelcoming way – just in a genuinely baffled sort of way. Most of the foreigners there are Mormon missionaries, Peace Corps volunteers, and the like. It is crazy to think that the search for authenticity takes us to this level – that in order to have a non-touristy experience, even for a weekend, you need to go someplace that is still receiving substantial foreign aid. But I suppose that I am basically after the same thing that the Church of Latter Day Saints or the US State Department are after: the opportunity to lay claim to a place “before it is too late.”

Was Moldova an enjoyable place to spend a long weekend? Well, it wasn't exactly Venice, but that's not the point. As Robbyn points out, some places you go because they are famously beautiful or important. Some places you go just to see the world from a strange and different perspective.

These days it is not merely enough to experience the world. You need to experience the world first, before anyone else. One day I'll be talking about visiting Moldova in '08 the same way that I like to casually mention seeing REM at the Wang Center in '86.

I give it 10 months before EasyJet starts flying to Chisinau. You'll be able to find me grumbling about Moldova back when it was still worth visiting.

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