The first time my wife and I tried to get to Moldova, we weren't successful - the Moldovan embassy in Bucharest turned us down - because my Japanese wife required a Letter of Invitation (which was contradictory to what I was told by the Moldovan embassy in Berlin). So it took another year to give it another try. We were invited by the family of a Moldovan colleague of my father - the family lived in a small village in the middle of the country. Moldova is very rural, but that makes it a very charming place. We also used the time to see Transnistria - the unrecognized country that split from Moldova after a civil war in the 1990ies. And the visit there was like traveling back in time - to the Soviet Union. All in all, we enjoyed our stay a lot - Moldova is a fascinating and very friendly place.
|Moldovan Visa - good for 30 days
Except for citizens of the former Soviet Union, almost everyone requires a visa. Visas are issued at domestic Moldovan embassies as well as in the Consulate of the Republic of Moldova in →Bucharest, which takes a few hours only. Some people say that it's also possible to get the visa upon arrival at the airport and at major border crossings. Well, Moldovan visa regulations seem to change quickly, so I wouldn't rely on getting a visa upon entry.
Of course, the safest way to go is to obtain the visa in your country before you go. For many nationalities, the fee for a single visa, good for 30 days and the easiest one to get, costs around € 45. The embassy can fax the application form. After wiring the fee, send your passport, the remittance, a photo, the application form and a self-addressed envelope to the embassy. Usually, this procedure takes around two to three weeks. Most nationalities do not require a LOI (letter of invitation) but a valid address in Moldova! Usually, the Moldovan citizen stated in the application form will not be contacted by the officials. Nevertheless it should be a real address and not a made up one! Please do not ask me for an address! Rather refer to one of the links stated below! Of course you can also go to the embassy by yourself.
Attention: Visitors to →Transnistria do not require a double visa, since there's no Moldovan checkpoint at the border! (de jure you don't leave the country!)
If you want to avoid all the hassle at the embassy in your country, you might also obtain a visa at the consulate in Bucharest. Bring a photo, your passport and the fee (to be paid in Romanian Lei). However, check with the embassy first whether you need a letter of invitation. Here's the address:
Consulat Republicii Moldova
Blvd. Eroilor 8
Tel.: +40 (0)1-410 9827
Things might already have changed while you are reading this - some nationalities probably do not require a visa any longer, so it's definitely worth checking with the embassy before you go.
According to the embassy, everyone needs to register with the local authorities within three days. This is not necessary when you stay in a hotel. The hotel issues a sheet of paper confirming the accommodation. All of this paperwork needs to be handed over when you leave the country. So much about the theory. We stayed with a family in a small village for two days and after that in a hotel for a couple of nights. We didn't register with the police. The hotel issued a paper, but no one was interested in anything else than our passports (it was a minor border crossing used by locals only). Nevertheless it's advisable to follow the rules and keep all the papers.
At the border, everyone needs to fill in a foreign currency registration form. Again, this paper is important and has to be given back when leaving the country. When you have more money when you leave than you've had upon arrival, you will be in trouble - the money will be taken away. So much about the theory. But no one checked our personal finances or the registration forms.
As in Romania, the Moldovan currency is called Leu (plural: Lei), with 1 Lei = 100 Bani. Since the government has floated the money, the Moldovan Lei has become freely convertible. In May 2004, the average exchange rate was around € 1 = 14 Lei.
|Moldovan 100-Lei bill
The annual inflation rate seems to be rather low. Freely convertible doesn't mean that you can change the money outside the country. I've seen some exchange booths in →Odesa accepting Moldovan Lei, but the rate was quite bad.
Coins come in 5, 10, 25 and 50 Bani denominations, but coins are not very often used. Banknotes come in 1, 5, 10, 25, 50, 100 and 200 Lei. The 1-Leu bill is the most often used bill, and it's definitely advisable to built up a good stock of 1-Leu bill! As a matter of fact, this comes automatically. Attention: Moldovan money is not valid in →Transnistria, but it can be exchanged there.
There are some ATM's in the capital and in bigger cities such as →Bălţi and →Orhei. But don't expect ATM's in smaller towns. ATM's accept all common credit cards as well as Cirrus and Maestro cards. The usual fee per transaction is 4% but at least € 4. There are exchange booths everywhere, but it's wise to compare the exchange rate of several booths first.
Because of the rather poor economic situation of the Republic of Moldova, the country naturally appears to be a very cheap destination for western visitors. By far the most expensive item is accommodation - in the capital, visitors pay at least € 10 for a night unless you know someone there. Eating out is very cheap, too, but there are also some expensive restaurants. A main dish in more or less upmarket restaurants cost between 15 and 60 Lei (€ 1~ € 4), a cup of coffee is around 2 to 3 Lei. Public transport is extremely cheap - the ride from →Chişinău (Kishinev) to →Bălţi in the north (around 160 km) sets you back 24 Lei (€ 1.7) only. Marshrutkas (shared taxis) in the metropolitan area (a slight exaggeration) cost between 0.8 and 3 Lei, depending on the distance. Buses and trains to destinations outside Moldova are quite cheap, too.
If there's an admission fee, then it's a few cents only. Some cafés have internet access. The price for one hours is around € 1. As in every other CIS-country (except for the Baltic States), alcohol and cigarettes are astonishingly cheap.
It's no problem at all to get by on around € 20 per day, highly depending on the accommodation. When staying with a family or friends and buying food at the local market, it's also possible to get by on € 5 or so. Which doesn't come as a surprise - the average monthly salary is € 50 only.
When coming from the west by train or bus, it's inevitable to cross →Romania. One international train departs from →Sofia (Bulgaria), others from →Bucharest, running via →Iaşi to the Moldovan capital. Most of them continue via →Tiraspol to the Ukrainian capital →Kyiv (Kiev). Many of them are night trains. The gauge is wider than in the rest of Europe, since Moldova still has the old Soviet railway system. This means that the train stops at the border for around three hours to adjust the wheels. There are some direct trains to Voronezh and Moscow in Russia and to →Minsk in the →→Belarus.
It's also possible to go by bus or minibus. There's a daily minibus from Iaşi to Chişinău, which takes around 5 hours. The same bus continues to →Orhei in the north. The fare to the capital is 17 Romanian Lei (€ 4), to Orhei it's 20 Lei. There are also direct buses from →Bălţi in the north to →Suceava in the Southern Bucovina (north-east Romania). The fare is 57 Moldovan Lei (€ 4), and due to time consuming procedures at the border the ride can take up to 6 hours.
The main border crossings between Romania and Moldova include Sculeni (road) and a few kilometres to the south Ungheni (train), another one is the major crossing at Albiţa - all of them are quite central. There are a few more minor crossings: Lipcani in the very north, Costeşti (south of Lipcani), Cahul and Giurgiuleşti far to the south near the large city of Galaţi.
In contradiction to some reports and rumours, it's not a big problem to cross the border at one of the minor border crossings. As a matter of fact, the border guards seemed to be very surprised to meet us at the crossing near Costeşti and used the chance for a longer interview (about our trip and our opinion about the country etc), but all in all we haven't had any trouble.
There are numerous border crossings between Moldova and the →Ukraine. However, the biggest and most convenient crossing lies on the territory of →Transdniestr (PMR) near Первомайск (Pervomaisc). This means that foreigners might encounter several problems, which can only solved by a substantial amount of money. Experts call that bribes. I presume that the border crossing in the very north and in the south (the latter is on the road to Измаїл (Ismail) are less problematic, since they aren't in Transdniestr. However, it's almost inevitable to cross Transdniestr when using the road or the train from Chisinau to →Odesa. The latter is only 150 km away from the capital.
Moldova has around 1,300 km railway tracks, which is not really a lot. Additionally, the train is not very useful, since there are almost no direct connections between the bigger towns (actually it looks like the railway was built before the towns were erected - nothing fits!)
|Short-distance buses are rather old... but nice
It's also necessary to mention that the railway was built during the Soviet times - this means that some trains cross the Ukrainian-Moldovan border several times. It's no problem for locals, but a very big problem for foreigners without the appropriate visa.
Buses are much better to get around. Many of them are very old and might have been stolen from a museum somewhere. And they soon fill up. It's no problem at all to get from A to the capital. And from there to B. But getting from A to B without passing the capital sometimes proves to be difficult. Marshrutkas, the typical ex-Soviet Union shared taxis, are slightly more expensive than busses. They run along fixed routes and usually don't start before every seat is taken. But Marshrutkas stop wherever you want, and therefore they are very convenient (providing that you know the route). Marshrutkas as well as buses depart from the local autogară (bus stations), which are usually located in or near the city centre.
Food and drinks
See the chapter about food in →Romania. Very common are dairy products as for example Brânză (sheep's cheese), Caşcaval (cow's milk cheese), Smetana (the typical thick Russian sour cream), Tvorog (some sort of cottage cheese, often served sweet with sugar and/or fruits) and so on. Almost everything is self made and really fresh - there's no large food processing industry and not much is imported. Quite interesting is the Moldovan way of eating Mâmâligâ (the famous Romanian corn mush): The corn mush is first dipped into melted bacon, than into fresh garlic and finally into grated sheep's cheese. Very simple, very tasty and very filling.
Needless to say that Russian dishes such as Pelmeni and Co are very common, too. Basically there are two types of restaurants - one category serves traditional Romanian/Moldovan food, the other one Italian cuisine. Both are almost equally present. There's also a McDonalds in the capital. However, there's a lack of restaurants in smaller towns in the country, but it's possible to buy your own food at the Alimentari (grocery) or at local street markets.
Vin (wine) is cultivated almost everywhere. The most famous place for the wine production is the small town of Cricova less than 15 km north of the capital. There, the barrels are stored underground inside an almost 60 km long tunnel system. The Cricova dry red wine (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and more) as well as the white wine are definitely worth a try. If there's wine, there must be brandy as well. See →Transnistria for some information on Moldovan Brandy. Of course, Moldova also produces Bere (beer), as for example the brands "Chişinău", "Vitanta" and "Premium". The latter is really good. Last but not least the infamous vodka, which is called Rachiu in Moldova. Better stick to the wine - the Moldovan vodka is not the best...