Sunday, 24 March 2013

Day 295 – Chisinau. (Moldova)

The overwhelming image we got of Chisinau was how ex-Soviet everything seemed. The buildings were a collection of matching grey concrete blocks, the roads were beautifully laid out but had not been maintained for 50 years, the piping was all overground, and there was a general sense of grey blandness. This is in no way an attack on the Moldovan people, or even my impression of them; it’s just a result of Communism’s harsh hand laid on the country for such an extensive period of time.

The first item on the agenda for our self-tour of Chisinau was the Chisinau Brewery, brewer of “Bere Chisinau” and owned by Efes. Our directions were vague but we found our way, hoping we’d be able to land one of the guided tours that we had heard existed. As we pulled up in the car park we noticed that everything looked very closed up, but when the two sets of automatic doors at the front entrance opened as we approached, we thought “oh, maybe it is open after all”. A smiley grey-haired lady and a sturdy balding man sat behind a desk in the foyer, behind which hung a huge map with the location of each Efes brewery in the world lit up with a small globe. We asked about having a guided tour but without a word of English it was made quite apparent that this would not be possible. At first we thought they were being dismissive and rude, but the lady then went on to explain why it would not be possible. First she pointed at the next few days on the calendar, crossing her arms in front of her chest in the universal sign for “no” at each day. Then visibly impressed at herself for having such a brain wave she scuttled around the edge of the desk and gestured at a pot plant. By crouching down, then raising her arms and standing up straight she imitated the plant growing, and by opening her hands and waving her fingers she acted out the sun beating down on the plant. We realised that she was saying that in summer the tours run, and when she showed the plant dying she was telling us that in winter the tours don’t run. We were thoroughly impressed by this show of common sense and her insistence at doing everything within her power to communicate with us. All too often we try to communicate with people and with only a little will on their part we would manage, but so many people are not interested in making the slightest bit of effort. This lady was the perfect example of how anyone can speak to anyone else; convey a basic message, with a little bit of thought and effort.

We went searching for the National Museum, this time with an exact address which matched up with the map we had. At this address though was a small boarded up brick building, the type of building that in most places you’d assume hadn’t been in use for several decades, but in this ex-Soviet setting could easily still be home to a museum. We did a block around it to see if we could find an entrance but no, this building really was completely dilapidated and out of use. We were just going to drive down the street assuming that we’d probably been given the wrong street number and hopefully the street name was correct, but then we realised that just across the road was a very National Museum looking building. We parked on the icy pavement outside and approached the stately pre-Soviet stone structure.

It was a surprisingly informative and extensive museum housing an unusual variety of artefacts. There was a lot of Soviet propaganda – both pro and anti, some of it was specific to Moldova or Chisinau, some was relevant to the entire region. There was a huge selection of personal items that had been owned throughout the past few centuries; everything ranging from furniture to razors, paintbrushes and books to car accessories. A wide variety of different styles and periods of artwork led onto a room dedicated to fine china and ceramics. Even a tee-pee was set up as part of a display about various war uniforms, weapons, tactics and stories. Probably the most impressive part though was the very detailed 10 or so metre wide war diorama depicting WWII. That we could have spent hours looking at, observing all the tiny details that together told the grand story.

The Moldovan national monument, a structure that closely resembles the Arch de Triumph only on a much small scale, is opposite the Government building, separated by a wide boulevard designed for military marches and displays. As it was mid January most of Europe’s Christmas markets had closed down weeks ago, but Chisinau’s one was still running at full pelt on this wide expanse of road. Queues of families waited to have their photos taken in one of the Christmas/Santa/winter scenes that were set up in a line of booths. Several Mr and Mrs Clauses meandered around the market speaking with children and handing out goodies. One Mr and Mrs Clause were even running a miniature train on wheels.

We had lunch in a fine example of a Russian/Eastern European canteen, which like so many places we found completely by accident. This style of eatery is part of the culture of this region that we have really grown to love and enjoy. They tend to be very basic and relatively cheap (although not necessarily the absolute cheapest option), but the food is tasty and filling and much more varied than what you’ll find at a lot of other cheap restaurants. This type of eating probably isn’t for everyone – it’s certainly not very luxurious, but the down-to-earth comfort and anonymity that we found became something we really appreciated.

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