The train to Chisinau

After a day of sightseeing in Bucharest, our group set off on an overnight train to Chisinau, the capital and largest city of Moldova. While overnight trains are still fairly common around the world, this particular one has some quirks.

For one, the train is straight out of a former age - literally. The one we took was manufactured in East Germany during the Cold War era and had seen better days. With wood paneling, stuffy cabins, and questionable toilet facilities, riding this route is a blast from the past.

Another oddity is that because Romania and Moldova use different rail gauges, the train has to stop and change wheels at the border. This is accomplished by separating the cars and then lifting each up individually. You can watch a video here (enjoy the jazz in the background). It sounds like a complicated process, but you actually can’t really even tell when it’s happening unless you look out the window. Given that our change took place after a relatively thorough customs and immigration check in the wee hours of the morning, I didn’t actually see it happen on the way into Moldova.

After setting off and as we lumbered down the rails toward Moldova, we made some new friends in the dining car of the train, where surprisingly decent dinners of sausage were on offer. After a few hours of sleep (interrupted by dual customs and immigration checks leaving Romania and entering Moldova), we arrived in Chisinau.

Ironically, one of the things Moldova is best known for is being the least-visited European country: each year, fewer than 100,000 tourists enter and spend at least one night. As a visitor roaming around with a camera, you definitely get a lot of strange looks, even in Chisinau. We happened to arrive on a national holiday to celebrate the Romanian language in Moldova (called Limba noastră), so there were actually some other tourists around.

Perhaps due to it being a holiday, we saw a lot of Moldovan flags, too. As an American, this phenomenon doesn’t strike me as odd - we're certainly not afraid to let the stars and stripes fly. However, next to almost every Moldovan flag was a European Union flag, despite Moldova not being a member of the EU. According to our guides, there is mixed sentiment as to whether striving for EU membership is the right option for the country, and the government’s official stance change between each administration (again, sounds very similar to what we’re used to at home).

After enjoying a brunch of sorts (alas, no bottomless mimosas), we set off for a city tour, during which we saw a beautiful Moldovan Orthodox monastery, a large WWII monument, and a military history museum. In the evening, we went to a free outdoor concert for the holiday, which featured a local rock band called Alternosfera that put on a good show. We capped off an eventful day with beers and shots at the Rock and Roll Cafe, a smoky underground joint whose logo bears more than a passing resemblance to a certain international chain of themed restaurants.

Welcome to Bucharest!

Hello from Bucharest! I’m in the city for the day before heading out on a train to Chisinau, Moldova as part of a trip organized by Young Pioneer Tours. Here’s the itinerary if you’d like to follow along; I’ll try to post updates as close to real time as possible. 

I arrived in Bucharest yesterday in the early evening and caught a bus that conveniently dropped off at the main train station (Gara du Nord), right down the street from my hotel. Both the bus and the metro system are very cheap, up-to-date, and clean, with the metro being perhaps a bit easier to navigate.

The Memorial of Rebirth remembering the victims of the Romanian Revolution.

The Memorial of Rebirth remembering the victims of the Romanian Revolution.

Bucharest is a large city of over a million people and has experienced tons of growth and new building projects in the past 20-30 years. During our city tour today, we heard a lot about recent Romanian history, which is centered around the fall of Communism in 1989 in an abrupt and violent revolution that ended with the execution of president/dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife by gunfire. After this event, Romania has seen several boom and bust periods, but has experienced a period of enviable economic growth that contributed to its acceptance into the European Union in 2007. According to our local guide, there’s a widespread belief in Romania that the sudden downfall of the Ceaușescu regime was actually part of a bigger plan by his associates to prolong their power in the country in acknowledgement of Communism’s coming demise. Indeed, many figures central to the former Communist government remain involved in the Romanian political system which has led to an increasing number of investigations and criminal charges in recent years. As our local guide put it, Romania is trying hard to advanced as a democratic state, but old habits die hard.

Bucharest’s central core contains, among other attractions, a well-preserved old town with many historic churches and other buildings that show off beautiful architecture of old next to the not-so-beautiful style of the Communist era. One of the primary attractions is the Palace of the Parliament (formerly known as the Palace of the People or the People’s House), a hulking building that is now the largest parliament building in the world but was originally built by Ceaușescu as a central hub for Communist-era workings. The construction of the ornate 3100+ rooms nearly bankrupted the country and was likely a contributing factor in the collapse of Communism here.

The Palace of the Parliament as seen from one of the grand boulevards surrounding it.

The Palace of the Parliament as seen from one of the grand boulevards surrounding it.

An interesting side effect of the Communist plans for the palace and the planned grand boulevards surrounding it was the forced relocation of many people and churches from the areas that these gleaming streets now occupy. After people became upset at the simple destruction of churches that lay in the construction’s path, the government instead made a conscious effort to relocate them whole via elaborate engineering efforts involving temporary railways and lots of time and money. As a result, it’s common to encounter beautiful, well-preserved churches on otherwise humble Bucharest streets- a reminder of a bigger vision for the city that, despite changes in government and public opinion, continues to advance today, albeit in many different forms.

During a stroll in one of the city’s many parks with some of my fellow travelers, we chatted with a sidewalk vendor about life in Romania and our initial impressions of Bucharest. He clearly spoke with great pride about his country and was genuinely interested in making sure our visit was positive. This attitude was reflected in most of the other people I’ve met here so far - caring and cautiously optimistic for what I’m sure is a brighter future for this beautiful country.