Chisinau: From Exile to Evolution
Published: May 22, 2013 (Issue # 1760)
Hans Poldoja / Flickr
The Cathedral of the Nativity in central Chisinau, designed by Abram Melnikov, was built in 1830 and is the main cathedral of the Russian Orthodox Church in Chisinau, Moldova.
“The damned city of Kishinev” is how Alexander Pushkin described this once-small town in the territory formerly known as Bessarabia. The poet’s outburst is understandable: He was forced to spend three years in exile in a place which was, in his opinion, comparable to Sodom. “Kishinev cannot be compared with that lovely town,” he wrote, with no small degree of sarcasm.
But the settlement on the outskirts of the Russian empire, once considered a place of punishment, is now the economically emerging capital of the independent Republic of Moldova. Renamed Chisinau in Romanian after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the city still preserves its old name in Russian.
At first glance, the city may seem rural, even boring. Is this really the economic center of Moldova? In fact, Chisinau is a place that reveals its intricacies only to those who dig deep and are ready to be both surprised and fascinated.
The founding of the city dates back to the 15th century, when a monastery village was built around a small spring. In 1812 Chisinau was annexed by the Russian Empire, a result of the Russo-Turkish War, and it became the capital of the newly-formed Bessarabian region.
The city evolved thanks to an ambitious urban development plan. Railroads were built, new houses sprang up and the city turned into a wealthy and prosperous economic center, vital to the empire. Chisinau played an important role in the Russo-Turkish war of 1871-72, as a key staging area for Russian troops.
By the beginning of the 20th century, the city had attracted a substantial population of Jewish merchants and businessmen. The year 1903, however, would be one of the most tragic of the city’s history. During the notorious Kishinev Pogrom violent riots and demonstrations forced many of the surviving Jews to emigrate.
Chisinau was heavily damaged after an earthquake in 1940, and again during the Second World War. A team of architects headed by Alexey Shchusev developed a general plan for the reconstruction of Chisinau. Eventually the shapes of numerous nine- and twelve-story apartment blocks invaded the skyline.
But Chisinau has preserved a rural charm, despite its relatively new status as a capital city.
The unique contrast is best seen in the city center, where 20-story skyscrapers cast shadows over parks and the old-style architecutre of the city council building and central cathedral. The rural character is reinforced by the great abundance of shrubbery, trees and other greenery. This eclectic combination makes the downtown a favorite place to spend time for locals and visitors alike.
With more than 10 museums, 12 theaters, 24 universities and numerous galleries, festivals and nightclubs, the city has a serious foundation in culture. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, The National Opera and Ballet Theatre of Moldova was one of the few to hold its position as one of the leading ballet companies in Eastern Europe.
Moldovans, Russians, Ukrainians, Romanians, Bulgarians and enterprising expatriates from Western Europe and North America are helping to build Chisinau’s image as a fast-growing multicultural city. Foreign citizens are not only fascinated by the local culture and delicious cuisine — especially wines and baked goods— but are also attracted by the pleasant living conditions.
Residents of Chisinau maintain great pride in their ethnic celebrations. As with many cultures, the coming of spring brings a major feast day. Martisor is celebrated March 1, when locals exchange red and white jewels, which they pin to their clothes. The festivities now celebrate love and appreciation as much as they mark the changing seasons.
What to see IN two hours
With its calm, narrow streets, Chisinau is well suited for long and tranquil walks. Take a stroll through the 19th century Stephen the Great Park in the very center of the city. The park takes its name from Stephen III, who was Prince of Moldavia in medieval times. The main avenue in Chisinau also bears his name, a sign of the immense respect Moldovans pay to their history.
In the park, surrounded by acacias and lime trees, visit the Alley of Classics, wherein reside bronze busts of prominent Moldovan and Romanian authors and political figures. There is also a bust of Alexander Pushkin, in honor of his exile in Chisinau. At the far end of the park you’ll find a monument to Stephen the Great.
Cathedral Park is situated across the street. The Cathedral of the Nativity, one of the main churches in Chisinau, was built in the 19th century. The belfry was restored after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Right in front of the bell tower is a majestic triumphal arch, constructed in 1840 to commemorate Moldova’s numerous victories in Russo-Turkish wars.
Ion Chibzii / Flickr
Colorful folk traditions are alive and well in Chisinau.
What to see IN two days
Extra time will allow for visits to some of the city’s museums.
The National Museum of Moldovan History and Archaeology definitely merits a stop. The museum possesses a vast collection of archaeological items, history exhibits, arms and armor, ancient coins and other artifacts. In front of the building stands the famous Capitoline Wolf, an exact copy of the monument in Rome. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., with entry costing 10 lei ($0.81).
The National Museum of Fine Arts is on the same street. The Moldovan, Russian, European and Oriental masterpieces on exhibit there make it an attractive cultural spot. Visit the museum from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., except Mondays, also for 10 lei.
For those hunting for unique hand-made and vintage clothing and accessories, the “Yard Sale” flea market is a must. Though it does not specialize in souvenirs or traditional crafts, you may get lucky and find something local. This bright and colorful event occurs several times a year at different venues in Chisinau and is rapidly gaining popularity among local youth (you can find out more on the event’s Facebook page).
Taking a trip to the surrounding countryside will bring you even deeper into the local frame of mind. Old Orhei has become one of Moldova’s top tourist destinations. This ancient archaeological complex is located in Trebujeni, 60 kilometers northeast of Chisinau. It is famous for its cave churches and the Orhei Fort. Traces of different civilizations can be found there, including ruins from the Golden Horde period. A bus or shared taxi from the central bus terminal costs about 20 lei ($1.61). The safest way to organize a trip is to book with a local tour operator. Group excursions with Canonic Tur tour company are available for 97 to 1,600 lei ($7.79 to $128.80), depending on the size of the group.
On the way back you can visit the legendary town of Cricova, Moldova’s wine Mecca. Famous for its wine cellars, this destination attracts tourists from all over the globe. Sparkling wines are produced there in accordance with the classical French method.
Continue your Moldovan wine tour at Château Vartely, another winery near Old Orhei. Calling itself the “small Switzerland of Moldova,” its wine is exported to China, Germany, France, the United States and many other countries.
Milestii Mici, another winery 12 kilometers south of Chisinau, is also worth a visit. Its cellar holds the Guinness World Record for the world’s largest wine collection, comprised of 2 million bottles.
What to do with the family
Aventura Park is only a five-minute drive from the center and a good place to take the kids. While different from spacious European and North American amusement parks with their giant roller coasters, Aventura is still a great place to spend a day with the family. You can play darts, paintball, arcade machines or drive bumper cars. It is open Tuesday to Thursday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.; and is closed on Mondays. The prices for different attractions range from 10 to 30 lei ($0.81 to $2.41).
The new shopping center Malldova offers a wide range of typical mall attractions, including bowling and arcade machines.
A favorite for children is a visit to the local zoo. In 2007, the zoo welcomed Steven Seagal as a guest, though it is not clear if he had to pay the 20 lei ($1.61) entrance fee.
Where to eat
Moldovan national cuisine is similar to other Balkan cuisines, offering a variety of vegetable and potato dishes. The fertile earth of central Moldova has been excellent for the cultivation of grapevines, fruits and vegetables since ancient times. You can try the celebrated mamaliga (cornmeal porridge), bryndza (sheep’s milk cheese), mititei (grilled mince rolls), placinta (round-shaped cakes filled with soft cheese, pumpkin, apples, etc.) and other Moldovan specialties at La Taifas. The three halls of the cafe, popular with the local ruling elite as well as tourists and expats, invite diners with historical photos of Chisinau and tablecloths covered in traditional folk patterns.. An average meal will cost you about 300 lei ($24.10) per person.
Another establishment known for its sophisticated interior design and cuisine is the Loft Cafe Club. This restaurant offers Asian fusion and European cuisine. Dining rooms furnished by prominent European fashion houses, wall prints designed by Chanel and Hermes and chill-out music make this cafe a fashionable meeting place in the city center. Dinner without alcohol ranges from 150 to 200 lei ($12.07 to $16.06) per person.
Veni Markovski / Flickr
President Vladimir Putin’s private collection of wine at the Cricova Winery.
Chisinau is a great place to soak up national spirit as well as to see spectacular operas, ballets and plays performed by the most talented Moldovan artists. For high-end cultural experiences the National Opera and Ballet Theater is the place to go. There, one of Eastern Europe’s most prominent companies, stages productions of “The Nutcracker,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Eugene Onegin,” and “The Queen of Spades” that are sure to please. Ticket prices range from 30 to 180 lei ($2.41 to $14.46).
Partiers will enjoy a night out at the new Fashion TV Cafe Club. Its popularity among the local elite has skyrocketed recently. Michel Adam Lisowski (the founding father of Fashion TV), Tara McDonald (the British vocalist featured in the Armand Van Helden’s “My My My” single) and many other celebrities can be spotted there from time to time.
Where to stay
The five-star Nobil Luxury Boutique Hotel in the city center is one of the most luxurious and elegant hotels in Chisinau. It offers a business center, spa, gym, cigar lounge and two restaurants. Prices vary from 3,000 lei ($240.96) for a single room to 6,000 lei ($481.93) for an executive suite. It is the hotel of choice for jet-setting stars like the Scorpions, Garou, In-Grid, Seal and rap star Timati when they come through town.
Jolly Alon Hotel is another option. During the Soviet era, it served as the main hotel in Chisinau for official delegations. Situated in the heart of the city next to Stephen the Great Park, close to the Parliament and the Presidential Palace, the hotel has a business center, spa and restaurant. In 2006, Jolly Alon was honored as Moldova’s leading hotel by World Travel Market. One night in a single room will cost you approximately 1,500 lei ($120.48), while an executive suite goes for 2,800 lei ($224.90) per night.
How To Get There
Trains to Chisinau run once a day from Vitebskii station in St. Petersburg. The journey takes one day and 15 hours. You can purchase a roundtrip ticket for around 7,000 rubles ($224.05) in 2nd class, or from 10.000 ($320.07) to 12,000 ($384.08) rubles in first class.
Air Moldova and S7 operate flights three and four times a week from St. Petersburg to Chisinau out of Pulkova 2, with a transfer in Moscow, at around 6,000 rubles ($192.76) for economy and 13,700 rubles ($436.93) for business class, each way.
The National Museum of Moldovan History and Archaeology 121A, 31 August 1989 St., +373 (22) 24-43-25, www.nationalmuseum.md
The National Museum of Fine Arts 115, 31 August 1989 St., +373 (22) 24-17-30, www.mnam.md
Veni Markovski / Flickr
Honey being sold at Piata Centrala, the city’s central market.
Canonic Tur 10 Negruzzi Blvd., +373 (22) 27-27-28, www.canonictur.com
Malldova 21 Arborilor St., +373 (22) 60-32-55, www.shoppingmalldova.md
Zoo 50/7 Bulevardul Dacia, +373 (22) 76-37-33
La Taifas 67 Bucuresti St., +373 (22) 22-76-92
Loft Cafe Club 3 Nicolae Iorga St., +373 (22) 89-00-75
National Opera and Ballet Theater 152 Stefan Cel Mare Blvd., +373 (22) 24-51-04, www.nationalopera.md
Fashion TV Cafe Club 2/1 Decebal Blvd., +373 (78) 53-53-53
Nobil Luxury Boutique Hotel 49/1 Mihai Eminescu St., +373 (22) 40-04-00, www.nobil.md/eng
Jolly Alon Hotel 37 M. Chibotari St., +373 (22) 23-22-33, www.jollyalon.com
Additional information can be found at allmoldova.com