CHISINAU, Moldova – In Chisinau, it must be impossible to keep a secret.
Everybody seem to know everyone in this small city of some 720,000 people - although the population numbers are never right in Moldova, where up to 25 percent of people permanently work and live abroad.
Capital of the former Soviet republic, Chisinau is small, green and pleasant to walk. In the three days I stayed in this city, I never used public transport or a taxi. The center is limited by several main streets, and walking the city is pretty much just wandering among them. Almost any meeting you have here and any cafe you are looking for ends up to be at 31 August Street, Bucuresti Street, Sciusev Street or Stefan Cel Mare Street.
When in Chisinau, prepare to get used to Stefan Cel Mare, or Stefan the Great. The statue of this Moldovan prince of the 15th century stands in the central park, also named after him, and the prince’s face is seen on the money, Moldovan Lei.
Before coming to Chisinau, check out the map app in your phone. Apparently, Apple Maps believes that Chisinau is nothing more than a crossing of two highways.
Chisinau doesn’t lack restaurants, but there are some key eateries. Local intellectuals are devoted to Propaganda cafe, a stylish eatery with a terrace. Another popular spot is Pani Pit - a restaurant that offers the quiet comfort of a courtyard terrace. A good place to try Moldovan cuisune is La Taifas, a ground-floor restaurant of a folk design. A dinner of two dishes without drinks starts at 120 Lei, or $9. A latte or tea in almost any cafe costs around 35 Lei, or $2.5. The best place for coffee is Tucano, a local chain of cafes.
When sitting on the terrace of a cafe - and almost every cafe has a terrace in Chisinau - one can be surprised to see other visitors peeking at the street all the time. That doesn’t mean that they are bored or have no interest in their companions. They are simply being attentive, trying to not miss any of the familiar faces passing by along the sidewalk.
In an hour spent at the outdoor cafe, a local citizen waves to and greets so many people that a visitor from a bigger city, like Kyiv, can be very surprised. Talking to acquintances at neighboring tables is also quite normal.
And it is indeed a strong habit. A person from Chisinau confessed to me that when he’s abroad, he can’t stop staring outside a cafe.
Fortunately for visitors to the city, after just a couple days in Chisinau they will probably have their own acquintances to wave to during lunch.
Nice as it is, it seems that Chisinau was not made to be photographed. Most of the old buildings in the city center are one-story and shabby. It adds a certain charm to the city, but it’s hardly a glamorous view that one can proudly share on Instagram.
As for the famous Moldovan wine, the best place to find it in Chisinau is Carpe Diem, a little wine shop-bar at 126 Strada Columna. In a small wood-decorated room with just three tables and a bar, the bartender will talk of harvests and Moldovan wine producers, and offer a glass of wine to drink, and a bottle to buy. A bottle of worthy red Cabernet from a small non-mainstream winemaker costs around $12.
Cricova, Moldova’s biggest wine maker, sells wines at 126 Stefan Cel Mare Street. A broad choice of wines is offered in the duty free shop in Chisinau airport, including the Soviet alcohol legend, Buket Moldavii - a sweet vermouth, sold for six euros.
Wine could be the best souvenir to bring from Chisinau, as there are hardly any other nice souvenirs to find. The souvenirs’ market near Organ Hall at Bucuresti Street is a disappointment. A score of booths sell the same kitchen magnets of several typical designs - a city view, a wine bottle, or a bunch of grapes.
How to get there:
Air Moldova and Ukraine International Airlines make daily flights to Chisinau. The prices start at Hr 1,200.
Where to stay:
In Chisinau, many prefer to rent an apartment rather than stay in a hotel. Booking.com offers many options of both kinds, with the price tag beginning at Hr 500 per night.
Where to eat:
Propaganda Cafe at 70 Sciusev Street.
Pani Pit Restaurant at 115 31 August 1989 Street.
La Taifas at 67 Bucuresti Street. Make sure to try traditional corn dish mamalyga with goat cheese.