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.