Oops! We Did It Again!

Monday, April 16, 2018 Road Junkies 0 Comments


Balkans & Beyond, Days 21 & 22:  Bucharest, Romania to Chisinau, Moldova.  Two weeks ago we arrived in Bratislava on Easter (the Catholic/Protestant version) followed by the Easter Monday national holiday.  Last Sunday we flew into Cluj, Romania, and learned that it was again Easter Sunday (by the Orthodox calendar) followed by the Easter Monday holiday.  And, though we laughingly assured ourselves it couldn't happen again—yes, it did.

Yesterday we flew from Bucharest to Chisinau (KEESH-eh-NOW), capital of the Republic of Moldova.  When we reached our hotel, we learned that we had arrived on Memorial Easter and that the next day was—a national holiday, Memorial Easter Monday, or Parents Day.  (Of course it is, because we're just so good at it by now.)
A cemetery on Memorial Easter Monday (photo from 326nfranklin.blogspot.com)
In Moldova, where 93% of the people are members of the Moldovan Orthodox Church, Memorial Easter, also called Easter of the Dead, is a very big deal.  And on this special Monday, thousands of Moldovans, dressed as if they're attending a wedding, flock to the cemeteries where their ancestors are buried, bearing gifts and food.  To honor the deceased and ensure that they are resting in peace, relatives and friends eat and drink graveside and celebrate the lives of their deceased loved ones.  The city provides extra buses and opens hundreds of parking spaces near cemeteries on this day to accommodate the throngs of cemetery visitors.

As mentioned, we had no idea about any of this until we were enlightened by the hotel staff when we checked in.  Meanwhile, we had booked a guided tour of the city today through a Canadian-based website called ToursByLocals.com.  We had mixed results with their agents last year—perfect in St. Petersburg, pathetic in Minsk.  In fact, we booked this event on a credit the agency issued us last year because of our atrocious experience in Belarus.
Nativity Cathedral, Chisinau
In all fairness, the city of Chisinau (the one called "the most boring capital in Europe") does not offer that many wonderful places for our guide Valery to choose from.  We compounded his challenge by showing up on a day when all the museums and government buildings were closed.  But he made the best of a difficult situation and even threw in a private concert at his alma mater where he earned a degree in music.
Valery shares some of his musical compositions.
His second university degree was in international relations and English, and it showed.  He was quite knowledgeable about the history of his country and many others.  His willingness to talk openly about Moldova's past and current situations made for a fascinating three hours.
The cathedral was built of local limestone.
First stop on our tour was the Nativity Cathedral near our hotel.  Valery explained that before Moldova was absorbed by the Russian empire in the early 1800s, Chisinau was a city of wooden and clay buildings which were regularly inundated by an overflowing river.  An ambitious building program by the Russians brought stone and masonry construction to the city as well as flood control and improved streets.  The orthodox cathedral was part of this building boom.
Christ is Risen, the LED lights proclaim on Memorial Easter.  
During the Soviet period, the cathedral, like most other religious buildings, was repurposed as an art gallery.  The city's only church allowed to continue functioning was St. Theodor Tiron Church, whose construction was financed by two brothers in the mid-1800s.
Situated near the cathedral, the Triumphal Arch was built to commemorate the victory of the Russian Empire over the Ottoman Empire in Moldova in the early 19th century.  Like most countries of Eastern Europe, Moldova has been occupied and claimed by any number of imperial kingdoms over the course of many centuries.  According to Valery, a bit of baksheesh to the Ottoman rulers had bought Moldova a degree of autonomy, which ended after the country was "liberated" by the Russians, the event memorialized by the arch.
After 100 years in the Russian Empire, Moldova was joined to Greater Romania after World War I, surprisingly the only time the two countries have been united, despite the fact that their people share a common ancestry and language.  The Romanian union lasted only until the country was occupied by Germany in World War II.  Moldova was delivered from German bondage in 1945 by the Soviet Union, which then insisted that it become the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic and built a large park with numerous Soviet Brutalist monuments celebrating Moldovan "liberation."
Jewish Cemetery
At our request, Valery took us to an old Jewish cemetery at the outskirts of town.  Like in so many parts of Europe, the Jewish population of Moldova shrank from 270,000 before World War II to about 15,000 today.  As a result, this large Jewish cemetery with more than 25,000 graves has fallen into disrepair.  Some graves were damaged by bombing in World War II and others have been swallowed up by thick vegetation.
Chava insisted on taking our photo.
We also stopped by one of two small synagogues still in Chisinau.  Before the Holocaust, there were 77, according to Chava, an Israeli woman we met who serves as a volunteer at the synagogue and helps to organize outreach programs.  After the disastrous condition of the cemetery, seeing the enthusiasm and hearing about the many activities and publications organized by this small organization left us quite encouraged about the local Jewish community.
The bus station
When we leave Chisinau tomorrow, the next stop on our journey is Odessa, Ukraine's seaport on the Black Sea.  Our research indicated that daily train service runs between Chisinau and Odessa.  But when we talked with the hotel concierge today about helping us book a ticket, she contacted the Moldovan railway and flatly stated that the train to Odessa operates only on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.  (Later we learned from Valery that the daily service, which travels a different route from the weekend fast trains, has been suspended while a bridge is under repair.) 

Knowing there was nothing to keep us in Chisinau for three more days, we asked about alternate modes of transport.  We already knew air was out of the question with no direct flights between the two cities, only 112 miles apart.  With connections, the minimum air travel time—through Istanbul or Moscow or Kiev or Vienna—was 15 hours, and the fares were exorbitant.  A rental car was out of the question because no rental company would allow us to take the car across the border and into Ukraine.
Moldovan marshrutka
With a straight face, the concierge suggested we could take a bus.  That sounded fine until we probed about the schedule.  Was it available online?  They leave every hour, she assured us.  Just go to the bus station and you'll find a bus going to Odessa and leaving soon.  But there's no schedule?  Well, it's a small bus, she finally conceded.  "Are you talking about a marshrutka?" we asked.  "Yes," she smiled in response, "a maxi taxi."  

If we were 30 years younger, we probably wouldn't hesitate to jump into one of these questionable rust buckets, with their reputation for reckless drivers, just for the sake of adventure.  But to ride five hours at our age across what we hear can be a difficult border crossing without an English-speaking driver?  We could go on about the reasons we had to pass on the marshrutka experience.  Suffice it to say, we finally settled on booking the transfer through the hotel, with the same type of car and English-speaking driver who delivered us from the airport.

So tomorrow we'll be moving on to Odessa for a few days, looking forward to seeing whether the Black Sea is really black.  (Having seen the Red Sea, we have our doubts.)

By next Sunday, we'll be in Bulgaria.  We think there's a 50-50 chance it'll be Easter!

    •  Started in:  Bucharest, Romania
    •  Ended in:  Chisinau, Moldova
    •  Miles flown:  222
    •  Miles walked:  11.97
    •  Weather:  43° to 72°, sunny to partly cloudy
    •  Marshrutkas around town:  388
    •  Shops closed today:  92%
    •  Schools closed today:  100%
    •  Easters we've experienced this year:  3 (so far)

Loved:  The experience of meeting and spending quality time with a local.

Lacking:  Attractive options for getting from Chisinau to Odessa.

Learned:  That Easter still ain't over until it's over where you are AND where you're going next Sunday.

Romanian triskaidekaphobia:  Apparently it wasn't enough that we arrived in Bucharest on Friday the 13th and then were targeted by con men, the city took one more shot before we left.  While sitting in the gate area awaiting our flight from Bucharest to Chisinau, we were notified that there had been an equipment change and I had been upgraded to business class.  Unfortunately Ken was reassigned to a seat on 13, the last row on the tiny plane.  We were dismayed.  The number 13 has done us wrong so many times we assiduously avoid row 13 or even flying on the 13th. 

As it turned out, we were one of at least six couples who had been split in the seat reassignment jumble.  Once everyone boarded, all the mismatches negotiated a fruit basket turnover to reunite with our flight partners, and I joined Ken in row 13.  

Thankfully, we didn't have long to fret on the one-hour flight.  As the pilot enjoyed landing the small plane on a long runway in Chisinau, taking his sweet time to brake, I found myself repeatedly chanting the names of three people dear to me who were born on a 13th:  Mother, Cathy, Karen. Mother, Cathy, Karen.  Apparently the mantra worked because we were soon inside the terminal going through passport control.  Maybe the experience will make me a little less fearful of 13—until it bites me again.

More Photos
The busy Bucharest airport
Security screening, the universal experience of the 21st century flyer 
The entire interior of our plane to Chisinau
With a plane too small for a jet bridge, we bussed to the terminal again.
Loved the "Family Lane" at passport control in Chisinau
Nativity Cathedral interior
A special place just for love locks in Chisinau's Cathedral Park