Chisinau and a mini-rant

My site is apparently coming up in searches about Chisinau.  People, I was in Chisinau once and didn’t like it.  My site is not useful for anyone seeking serious information about it.  Kindly refrain from clogging my moderation queue with your complaints that I am not an encylopedic fount running o’er with information about the capital city of Moldova, or that I didn’t write about it in that fake jaunty way so beloved of tourist brochures.  I’m not selling anything and I don’t have to write promotional copy about the places I visit.

If you don’t like it, feel free to start your own blog.

Travel quote of the day: Dirk Bogarde describes a French cathedral

Cathedral Notre Dame de Puy, Grasse, Provence.  Source

Cathedral Notre Dame de Puy, Grasse, Provence. Source


I’ve been reading Dirk Bogarde to get my mind off things.

The bells summoned us over the hills and little valleys, across the groves and fields. Turning the last corner before climbing up to the town, the cathedral suddenly burst upon the astonished eye lit all over, glowing amber and gold, standing high on the ramparts like an enormous galleon, except galleons don’t have towers and belfries; but it had a sailing splendour about it.  Inside the great doors, the huge stone pillars soared into the shadowy vault of the roof with a faded coat of arms painted on to the planked ceiling.   The scent of incense, of hundreds of years of incense, loitered and meandered about, mixing with the fatty smell of melting tallow, as a thousand candles guttered and glittered in the draught, throwing dancing shadows across the rough stone walls, all gold and silver.  Honey-light on the limestone pillars, cracked and gouged here and there from a distant, devastating fire which had almost once destroyed the cathedral.

Dirk Bogarde, Le Pigeonnier

Dirk Bogarde’s got a pretty impressive website.

So you’re throwing a dinner party in space….

…and you want to comport yourself with the grace and dignity expected of a well-bred astronaut.  What do you do?

Astronaut Don Pettit has the answers.

Don Pettit

You can’t not love a guy who can write from the viewpoint of a zucchini

“The image of an insect sucking the juices from some lower insect may come to mind, but in space it is considered impolite to give voice to such imagery.”

“Zero-g cups, unlike bags with straws, are better for social rituals like toasting, and will bring a smile to the faces of your guests.”

“In space, catching food in your mouth is considered polite. Opening wide and making a clean catch will most always bring cheers from your guests. In one impressive gulp, you can leave them with the image of some sea creature inhaling another.”


Read his entire blog at NASA and understand why I have a little crush on him.


Blue sky and blue water at Barra, the Western Isles of Scotland

Yes, I still have that !@$^!$!! Drunken Sailor song stuck in my head and can’t write anything, so here are some lovely photos from a place my ancestors called home:  the Isle of Barra, one of the Western Isles of gloriously beautiful Scotland.

Traigh Eais, Isle of Barra

Traigh Eais, Isle of Barra, by Macgruff

Wish I were here!

A golden beach and silver sea in Scotland

I still have that Drunken Sailor song in my head and am useless as a blogger.

At least let me show you some more photos from Scotland in the Gloaming that will make you understand why I love that site so much.

Red Point, Scotland

Red Point, Scotland by HighlandArt13

And this one:

Beach on Isle of Harris, Outer Hebrides, Scotland

Luskentyre, Isle of Harris, Outer Hebrides by Flambard.

My ancestors (half of them, anyway) are from one of the most beautiful places in the world.  They never would’ve left it, but they got bashed in the head and dragged aboard an emigrant ship by force.

Four generations later, my child self who knew nothing of her history had strange poignant dreams full of green grass and rain.

Bouncing towards Brasov: Chisinau – Brasov by bus

It’s an uninspiring blog title for an uninspiring, slightly weird, but mostly painless bus trip between two uninspiring countries, Moldova and Romania.

The Chisinau youth hostel arranges a taxi for me to the South Bus Station for 30 Moldovan lei.  (about $3) (And they look a little offended when I express a touch of anxiety about the possibility of being ripped off by the cab driver.  To be fair, the driver turns out to be honest).

The cab drives me south of town and drops me off at what looks like a bunch of shacks.   I wander around a bit while some men leer and hiss at me.  (This is how men try to attract women in this part of the world, and it’s more than a little creepy.)  Ignoring them, I go inside a round building and try to find the ticket counter.  Ticket weirdness ensues:

The only counter open is labeled domestic tickets only.  I go to ask the woman there where I can buy a ticket to Romania, she speaks no English but a bit of befuddled Russian.   She sells me a ticket to Brasov for 190 lei (about $17), but the ticket doesn’t look like a ticket – it looks like a tiny cash register receipt.   The kind you’d get if you stopped at a gas station mini mart and bought a soda.  Nevertheless, she claims it is my ticket, and doubtfully I take it and go search for the bus platform, which she told me was 2.

Not that bad

Not that bad

No bus is at platform 2 and it looks utterly abandoned.  I wonder whether to sit and wait and hope the bus shows up in half an hour, or go look around the other platforms.  I am dragging all of my stuff with me and I have to pass by these creepy hissing men again to look at the other platforms, but I do it anyway.  It’s a good thing too because I find the bus I am looking for at platform 13.  I am relieved to see it is a full sized bus, very old but reasonably comfortable looking.  Also, it has a little shrine in one corner.

Bus superstition

Should I be worried or reassured by the religious icons?

Now more ticket weirdness:  some guy I think is the driver looks at my ticket, shows me my seat, which is 2, and puts my bag in the under-bus luggage rack.  I get my stuff settled and he comes back and wants to take my ticket, so I give it to him.  Maybe 10 other people are around, loading their luggage or smoking.  He collects all the tickets and disappears.  Ten minutes or so later he comes back and returns our tickets, which have a little tear in the middle now.

People gradually start drifting into the bus but it’s nowhere near full, I’m relieved to see, as I’m a selfish pig who wants both my seat and the one next to me.    Then another guy comes, a bald irritable one who yells at the first guy and comes around wanting our tickets too.  So I give him my ticket again.  Young guy takes stack of tickets and disappears for a really long time.

Finally he comes back and gives us back our tickets.  But now the numbers on the tickets are different.  (I had to give my passport number to the ticket seller and it’s actually on the ticket I bought).  It’s the same seat number but now it has a different passport number on it.  Weird.  I have no idea why, but it didn’t lead to any problems.

He, a co-driver, and a girl all get on and we get ready to leave.  We seem to spend ages driving around Chisinau before we finally get out of the area and on some road leading westward.

Moldovan countryside

Moldovan countryside out the bus window

We bump and rattle into the softly sloping hills in a pale gold evening light.  The two-lane road is really too narrow to be called that; to fit on it, the bus has to drive down the middle of the white line.  We pass a horse-drawn cart, the horse shying at the sight of the bus.

The Moldovan countryside is far more interesting than Moldovan cities, for sure.  But the road is so deeply rutted that the bus is going maybe 20 miles an hour.

After a few hours, the sun is almost gone.  We stop at some kind of roadhouse.   Even in the middle of nowhere, American capitalism has found its way.  Bleh.


Bus of the Year. What year? 1973?

The driver yells something I don’t understand.  But I know that when everybody else gets off I should too, so I follow the others.

Bus outside roadhouse

Our bus looks so modern when you’re not in it.

People are lining up at the side of the roadhouse, at a tactful distance from a shed out in the back that serves as a lavatory.  I join them.   When it’s my turn, I discover it is utterly dark and there was no light, (Electricity?  Sink?  HA)  But if stench can have corporeal form…you feel like you have to push through it to get in.  I leave the door open just a crack but had I left it entirely open it wouldn’t have let in any light anyway.

In these cases you just have to aim into the dark as well as you can contort yourself into doing.   (Curse you men for having it so much easier.)  Paper?  Ha, but I was expecting this, so there’s a big wad in my pocket.

Back on the road again, I try to sleep but naturally, can’t.  The bus is OK as far as comfort, but sleep is unreachable because of all the road jolting.  Bonus though is that all the vibration instantly gives a Lomo-effect to all photos taken inside the bus.

Bus Lomo

Who needs a Lomo camera when you have a jolting bus?

It’s about 10:30 pm when we reach the border.   On the Moldovan side,  everyone has to get out and take all their luggage out from under the bus to go through customs.   They stamp my passport (in the endorsements section, which they aren’t supposed to use)  and then I go to customs, where some people’s bags are being searched.  But the customs people don’t speak English and just look at my passport and wave me on.

After this wearisome process, we drive a few hundred meters to the Romanian border post and do the whole thing over again.

The Romanian customs guy is giving everybody a long lecture as they go through his line.  When he gets to me, I discover he speaks English.  He doesn’t want to search my stuff at all, but he warns me in great detail about keeping any money or credit cards I might have away from thieves and scammers.    This is the only border crossing I have ever been through where they were actually warning people like this.

We all get back on the bus, somewhat irritated, and a few meters on the driver pulls up at a duty free shop.   Everyone else gets off the bus, but I think to myself, “Screw that, I’m not getting off this bus again,” and I wait.


Waiting outside the damn duty-free shop

Twenty minutes later they come back and finally we are off.

We pass through Iasi,  just a blur of neon-lighted betting parlors in the darkness, and a string of other, smaller towns.  Romania appears to be flashier but just as depressing as Moldova.  It has better roads, some of which resemble Western ones, so the bus is able to go faster.

We stop at some miserable little bus station to use the toilets.  I make the unpleasant discovery that they cost money in Romania and I haven’t any Romanian lei.  I’m standing next to a young man and his lady friend, and the man gallantly pays for me.    Chivalry isn’t dead.  It’s just hiding.  In a grimy, unisexed, Romanian bus-station toilet.

The shriveled old man in charge of the toilets hands us each a wad of paper (brown, linty, but adequate)  and we go into a single room with  four tiled stalls and we each take one.  It’s the standard Eastern European squat toilet, not too horrid.  But I am struck by this weird feeling of  intimacy that comes when you are pissing in the same room with strangers of both genders that you were just on a bus with.   They don’t seem bothered by it.   I guess it is normal for them, but so weird to me.

I’m one of two English speakers on the whole bus, which has maybe 20 people in it, and I am the only American, and I don’t understand what anyone is saying or what is happening really.  Everyone’s been tolerant of my idiocy in their midst, but sometimes it’s hard to tolerate myself.

This is adventure traveling, after all.  It’s not supposed to be glamorous or even comfortable, and I can sleep when I get to Brasov.

Next stop: the town of vampires and church spires, and the truth about Romania.  Stay tuned.

Chisinau has no reason to exist

I know you.

You’re looking to go off the beaten path.  You’re looking for mystery.  Adventure.   You want to discover fascinating unknown places not listed in guidebooks.  You’re a TRAVELLER who sneers at mere tourists.

You thought you’d go to Moldova, because nobody really goes there and that must make it an interesting place.  Right?  You’ll regale your envious friends with tales about your wild times in a place they’ve never heard of.

Before you buy your ticket, take a moment to read about just why nobody ever goes to Moldova.

Chisinau Arch

Triumphal Arch in Chisinau. What Moldova has ever had to feel triumphant about remains a mystery.

You’ve heard of Transnistria, the country that doesn’t exist.

Moldova, the country that Transnistria has seperated from, at least in its own mind, has a similar if slightly different existential problem:  it technically exists but its capital, Chisinau, has no reason to exist. You have no reason to come here, except to take some form of transport to someplace worth going.

Come to Chisinau and treat yourself to spectacular sights like:

Moldovan Sidwalk

Dirt!  And a bonus: broken glass!

  • Dirt!
  • Brutalist architecture!
  • Betting parlors!
  • Orthodox churches!
  • Crumbling buildings!
  • A shiny new mall that’s just as hideous and overpriced as a Western mall, even though Moldova is the poorest country in Europe!
  • Tacky advertising everywhere!
  • Grimy buses coughing out diesel fumes!
  • Filthy cars coughing out exhaust!
  • Trash!

To be fair, people were pretty nice.  A lot nicer than in Romania.  And out in the country there’s some pleasant scenery, though nothing dramatic.  It’s just the overwhelming awareness that there’s nothing special about Moldova and no reason to visit here.  Believe me.  I looked for a reason.  I couldn’t find one.

Moldovan architecture has its own special charm

Oh wait, here’s one:

It’s on the way from Odessa to Romania, if for some reason you want to go to Romania.

cheese pie

At hostel. Moldovan food. Some kind of cheese pie. It was OK.

I stayed at the Chisinau Hostel, a nice modern building, friendly staff, etc. but I absolutely hated the beds.  They are hard plastic-coated mattresses and even the lower bunks have BARS on the sides.  Non-adjustable bars.  They don’t look insurmountable in the pictures, but believe you me, crawling into your bed is quite difficult without bruising yourself.   And then you lie there feeling imprisoned.  When you want to get out, you have to contort yourself like a pole vaulter and you end up bruising yourself all over again.   Just unnecessary, and unfortunate because otherwise the hostel is pretty good and nicer than it looks in the pictures.

baby penguin

At least there’s a poster of a baby penguin to cheer visitors to Chisinau

To get out of Chisinau by bus, you have to cab it to the Southern Bus Station, inconveniently located far from anywhere else and off the public transport routes to be as annoying to tourists as possible.   You’ll have to search for your bus, because no one will tell you where it is.  (Platform 13 is the bus to Brasov, in case you’re going there.)

A bus to Brasov (Romania) costs 190 Moldovan lei, or about $17.


Somewhat nice building in Chisinau

Wild Ride from Odessa to Chisinau

I have just one thing to say about taking a minibus from Odessa (Ukraine) to Chisinau (Moldova):


Oh, sure.  It only costs $10.  And it runs multiple times a day, versus the train that only goes once a day and gets you there at 10pm, a really inconvenient time to be stuck in a strange new city where you know nothing of the language and (if you’re anything like me) your debit card doesn’t work for withdrawing money.

There are full-sized buses plying this route which have got to be better than this 6-hour hayride from hell.  Get someone (maybe from your hostel) to check which kind of bus it will be for you, because you really don’t want to be stuck on this bus.

This one left at 2:45 pm from Odessa.  I had to take it because I missed the 10:00 bus.   If you’re stuck on this bus, take Dramamine.  You’ll need it.

If you think I’m exaggerating, or being a wimp, and you long for a minibus adventure on the backstreets of Moldova, look no further than this actual footage of my ride:  (mute the sound)

I rest my case.

Odessa, Mon Amour

I almost didn’t go to Odessa.  I could kick myself for that.

Orthodox Church in Odessa

Orthodox Church in Odessa

My object was to get to Kiev and do the Chernobyl tour, then get home the cheapest way possible.  Absolute cheapest (without relying on hitchhiking) would have been overnight train back to L’viv, and retracing my steps west and south back to Croatia.  But I really didn’t want to do that.  I wanted to see more new places and countries I had never seen before.

Going to Odessa would leave me with no choice for getting home except going through Moldova, Romania and Hungary (Hungary especially annoying because its trains are slow and all go through Budapest to get anywhere else), and I was concerned about how much it would all cost, and how much time it would take.

Park near Potemkin Steps

Park near Potemkin Steps, Odessa

But L’viv Hostel Guy told me I couldn’t even think about missing Odessa.  He was right about everything else, so I took his word for it and booked a night train.

All I can say about Odessa is:


Don’t judge Odessa because it’s a bit grotty around the train station.   Just walk north to the old town.

There you will find:

A relaxed, airy city that almost seems to belong more on the French Riviera than Eastern Europe.

Amazingly beautiful old buildings, parks, monuments,  the Potemkin Steps, the Black Sea.  Colonnades.  Museums.  PONY RIDES.  (yeah, okay, I’m too old to ride a pony, but it was fun to watch).

Potemkin Steps

The artist’s first sight of the Black Sea

I saw a bald eagle close up; the most magnificent of birds.  I could have held it and had my pictures taken for 20 grivna ($2.50) but I was a bit intimidated – it was almost as big as I was.

Lion's head

Lion’s head ornament


People selling everything and anything.  Walking the beautiful streets at all hours of the day and night, feeling perfectly safe.  Art Deco banisters.  The best pizza I’ve ever eaten in my life.  Great beer.And it’s all cheap, cheap, cheap.

I never had a meal that cost more than $10 and usually it was more like $5.

I saw a ballet for $6 (and that’s only because I paid extra for a better seat; I could have sat in the cheap seats for $2):

Odessa Opera House

A mere $6 got me a row to myself at the opera house

People are friendly and nice, even the ones who didn’t speak English.  The men are polite;  I never felt uncomfortable around them.

My bed at the TIU Front Page Hostel.

I stayed at the TIU Front Page Hostel, which is conveniently located near the old town.  The hostel is run by Adam, a very large Australian guy who very kindly helped me find my dropped lipstick by pushing those bunk beds around like they weighed nothing.  Probably best not to armwrestle with him.

The view from my hostel bed!

The prices were reasonable, the facilities good.  Big rooms, nice big kitchen – multiple people can cook at the same time.   Laundry available for a small fee – I think it was a couple of dollars.

The only quibbles I have are pretty minor: the showers are upstairs, quite small and turning around in them is awkward – I solved this by showering when no one else was around and leaving the door open so I could maneuver.  Also, the sheet/pillowcase fabric didn’t feel good to me – too much polyester in it.

Other than that it’s a really good hostel and I recommend it.  Not for party animals, because Adam enforces the rules strictly, but I appreciated that because I like peace and quiet.

Adam was very helpful with information about  Odessa and how to get to other cities like Chisinau or Bucharest.

There’s also a cute kitty at the hostel (for some reason almost every hostel I stayed at in Ukraine had a cat).

Best pizza ever

Best pizza I ever ate in my life at Olio

I ate at Olio Pizza on Bunina Street in the old town, a place I highly recommend for excellent food at a reasonable price.  You can eat cheaper in Odessa but probably not better than this.  Pizzas cost from $5-$8 and some of them are very imaginative:  I saw one with duck, blue cheese and pears.  I went for the Meat Supreme, which has 6 different kinds of meat on it for about $7.  It was so good I went back the next day and the next.  It’s easy to find – Bunina street goes through the old town and it’s near the park.


Park in the old town

Drawbacks of Odessa are the usual for Eastern Europe:  poorly ventilated, stuffy buildings, crowded chaotic markets (even in the supermarket, which was designed by some idiot), and the difficulty of deciphering Cyrillic.  But my bank card worked fine here and I never got ripped off by any store, restaurant or any other place.  I felt perfectly safe walking around at all hours of the day and night.   The bus station area was a bit depressing, but that’s typical of Eastern Europe.

Grapevine banister

Grapevine banister

Old town at dawn

Odessa at dawn


Promenade near Potemkin Steps

Odessa pier

Sunset over the Black Sea

I wish I could live here.  Sadly, the rents in the old town start at something like $800 a month, well out of my price range.

If you are thinking about visiting Odessa, drop everything and go there now.

Chernobyl travel tips

Chernobyl sign

Welcome to Chernobyl!

As you know, I went to Chernobyl on my birthday, as part of a tour.

I’ll write more of my personal thoughts about this later, but here is some basic information for anyone who is interested in taking a similar tour:

There are different companies (I used this one) but the tours themselves are pretty similar.

The tour must be booked at least 11 days in advance, because the rules are stricter now and permission to visit must be applied for this early.  So you can’t just show up in Kiev and expect to go to Chernobyl on the spur of the moment.

The tour costs about $150-400 depending on how many people go.  My group had five people.  I paid $169.  I paid two small deposits beforehand, and the rest on the day of the tour in cash.

The tour takes about 8 hours.  It takes 2 hours each way to drive to the exclusion zone and back to Kiev.

In the summer it is very, very hot.  Still, you need to wear closed shoes (hiking shoes are best), long pants, and bring a long-sleeved shirt.  Wear sunscreen. And bring bug spray!  I forgot it, but luckily someone in my tour group let me use hers.  The bugs are incredibly diverse and numerous and many of them bite.   Biggest mosquitoes I have ever seen.  Maybe they’re mutants.

I brought my sun hat, and was I ever glad I did.  The sun is brutal and you’ll be walking around outside during the hottest part of the day.

Don’t worry about bringing water, snacks, et cetera, as the van will stop at a gas station along the way where you can get anything you need.  Also, the one we stopped at had the best toilet paper I ever found in the Ukraine.  True fact.

You won’t meet your tour guide until you actually get to the exclusion zone.  That’s because the guides actually live in the city of Chernobyl in a special hostel.

Hole in Chernobyl Floor

The hole that got me.

After the guide is picked up, she will bring you to some houses outside of Chernobyl, one of which used to be a House of Culture or something… step very carefully, because the floor is rotten.  If you see a big hole near the door on the right, that’s the hole I made falling through!

Then you’ll go on to the city of Chernobyl, where the guide will show you where the guides live, and some photos of the exclusion zone, and talk a bit about what happened.  (Our talk was a bit on the garbled side actually, but pretty much everybody knows what happened in Chernobyl).

You might not know that people still live and work in Chernobyl: the workers who are building the new sarcophagus for reactor #4 and the tour guides, as well as a few stores, pubs and restaurants.

Then you’ll drive to Pripyat, a town that was built in 1970 for the workers at Chernobyl and abandoned after the accident.  This is the longest and most interesting part of the tour by far.  On the way, you’ll pass the power plant and see reactor #4, but you won’t be allowed to take photos, yet.

Then the bus will drive along a heavily forested road and stop in a heavily wooded area, and you’ll get out and be amazed that this forest is actually a town.  Or used to be one.


There’s a town in there somewhere

Visitors aren’t actually allowed inside the buildings any more.  At least not officially.  Unofficially, you’ll be able to go into some of the less important buildings and take pictures. There are so many interesting places in Pripyat I can’t list them all, but the main square of the town, the school, and the playground are the highlights.  You’ll also stop outside of town and take pictures of the Pripyat sign.

After this, you’ll go to a place where you can take photos of reactor #4.  Possibly the most boring part of the tour, because you can’t go anywhere near the reactor and you’re only allowed to point your camera in one direction or you get in trouble (seriously).

Chernobyl Food

Barfrageous borscht



After this is lunch:

You will eat at the Chernobyl worker’s cafeteria and you will pity these people for having to eat food like this.  Hopefully you will have bought extra snacks at the gas station earlier.


After lunch, you’ll go to feed the giant radioactive catfish that lives in the cooling pond of reactor #4, visit some monuments, and as a last hurrah, tour a really creepy abandoned orphanage.

The last place you’ll go is to the Chernobyl sign where you can take more photos.

Radiation detector

Going through radiation detector

Then you’ll go through a radiation detector (again), the tour guide will leave, and you’ll be driven back to Kiev.