My travel pal and I stood on the side of an unpaved road in a dilapidated village, wondering which direction to head. On one side was a lavish monastery, and the other a few modest houses with free roaming chickens. We were only about 6 miles from Transnistria’s capital city of Tiraspol, but it felt more like 600.
We didn’t have a plan to get back to the capital after our trip to the Noul Neamț Monastery, so walked to the general area where a makeshift bus dropped us off a few hours earlier. Two babushkas stood on a corner looking as though they too might be waiting for a bus. We joined them.
They spoke no English and our knowledge of Russian and Romanian is limited to hello, water and vodka.
“Tiraspol?” we asked.
“Dah” they pointed as if to say “here” and that’s where we waited. About 20 minutes later the same van, likely older than the two of us combined, stopped and the two women flashed a mostly toothless smile and waved for us to board. We paid the driver the equivalent of about $0.50 for the both of us, and were back in Tiraspol 30 minutes later.
Welcome to Transnistria
The state, a tiny wedge of land bordered by the Dnister River and Moldova to the west and Ukraine to the east, doesn’t actually exist. While Transnistria considers itself a sovereign country with its own government and currency (the Transnistrian Ruble made of plastic), the rest of the world does not. The U.N. has treated it as a separatist regime since it declared independence from Moldova in the early 1990s.
However, those with a hankering for communist relics, Eastern European brandy, and a general curiosity about what life was like in the1980s Soviet Union will find it a fascinating and safe place to visit. I recently traveled there as part of Intrepid Travel’s 13-day Moldova, Ukraine & Romania Explorer trip, and highly recommend it to anyone seeking an off-the-beaten-path European adventure.
This place that clings to a retro Soviet-style existence isn’t really a destination for sightseeing as much as it is an experience in time travel…
What to see
The 25 October Street is the city’s main boulevard, and is marked with patriotic monuments and some of the last displays of hammer and sickle flags. A short walk down the street is a remembrance of things past for Soviet times. The Supreme Soviet building is a beige, brutalist beauty of a relic with a massive monument to Lenin (one of the few in the world still on public display) presiding over the block. Down the road an imposing City Hall building boasts (yet another) bust of Lenin.
Step a block or two away from the main boulevard, and rows of concrete, communist housing structures line the streets. As do vintage Lada cars that likely rolled off the assembly line when Duran Duran and Aqua Net hairspray were all the rage. Many taxi drivers still rely on the classic car, and passengers can feel the sputter of the engine in their bones as it strains up hills. It’s an experience only available in this part of the world.
From late spring to fall, take a short boat ride down the Dniester River. The river is small and the views aren’t all that impressive, but it’s well worth doing. For a few dollars we drank local wine and brandy like rockstars on a boat that blasted beats from the ’80s and 90s. With few, if any, tourists aboard, It’s a great place to mingle with residents, especially on weekends.
The jewel of the territory is the Kvint brandy distillery. While Transnistria is one of the poorest regions of Europe, the factory pumps out world-class spirits enjoyed by presidents and diplomats, and has since 1897. Take a tour, but make a reservation in advance. Keep in mind it might not be open even during advertised hours because, welcome to Soviet life.
One of the oddest moments of our trip occurred at the post office of all places.
To send postcards, we needed to buy Moldovan stamps with Transnistrian Rubles (because Transnistrian postage isn’t recognized outside of the territory, of course). The clerk performed the currency conversion on a machine last seen on an episode of Mad Men. Unfortunately, her math was way off, and our guide, fluent in Russian, walked her through the exchange rate – repeatedly. Surprisingly, those postcards all made it overseas in less than two weeks.
Take the scenic route
For a panoramic view of the countryside, we hopped on the bus to the Noul Neamț Monastery. When we asked a police officer which bus to take he simply replied “go to the bridge,” and that’s what we did. It’s not a bus as much as a van that leaves when it’s reasonably full. The vintage vehicle slowly crawled up the slight hill, jostling us as it hit potholes and swerving to avoid stray cats.
There were only two other tourists in the whole monastery complex, a lush and peaceful area with brightly adorned churches located in a rural village. And there’s certainly no formal guide for visitors. Walk in, find a monk, and ask to go in the bell tower. To reach the top, climb a narrow, twisting staircase to the first level, and then scale small ladders to the top. The view is worth it, even for someone as afraid of heights as I am.
Those that scale the tower, wobbly ladders and all, experience a sweeping vista that few in the world have ever seen.
And, really, this uniqueness is something that sums up Transnistria in its entirety.
A confusing culture and language barriers in a place stranger than fiction made for one my most memorable travel experiences to date.
Visit for yourself and I’m sure you’ll have your own one-of-a-kind adventure.
Tempted to visit this intriguing destination? Experience Transnistria on Intrepid Travel’s 13-day Moldova, Ukraine & Romania Explore trip.
(Car photo c/o Nir Nussbaum. All other images c/o Kristin Amico.)