The next layer of tourism in Moldova

What we’ve done as tourists up to this point

As you know, we’ve stepped slowly and lightly into tourism in Moldova. We spent a lot of the spring travelling Europe in our spare time and meeting up with friends. It wasn’t until our friend Colin agreed to come to us in Chișinău that we attempted any tourism in our own country. With Colin we visited some of the most accessible and well-known tourist spots which I’ve decided to call the ” first layer of tourism”.

Now, we have begun to delve into the “second layer of tourism.” For me, the second layer includes the quirkier, harder-to-reach spots as well as the things I’m certain I would not have appreciated as a newbie in this country. As always, our thoughts, experiences, and questions grow as we delve into all that Moldova has to offer.

A little critique on Moldovan museums

Our first stop in our “second layer” adventures was the National Museum of Ethnography and Natural History. We often walk by this building on our way to and from the Student Center, but we had never been inside. I’ll be honest – part of our hesitation was that museums in Chișinău are rather lackluster.

The main entrance to the Ethnographic Museum

I did not appreciate great museums until I visited some average ones here in Moldova. Great museums take you on an immersive journey in which exhibit items, dry facts, and a compelling background story are all woven together seamlessly. Unfortunately, in Moldovan museums, exhibits consist of items with placards that merely state the date and a brief descriptions. That is all. There is no overarching story or any connection to modern society.

For example, we previously visited the National History Museum in Chișinău. There they have an exhibit room dedicated to the Cucuteni people. I had never even heard of the Cucuteni people prior to this museum visit, and sadly, I still know nothing. We saw pieces of pottery, statues, etc in glass cases with their little placards, but I could find no information about the culture as a whole. When exactly did they live? How did they live? How did they die? Did they influence later Eastern European cultures with their legacy?

The museum does employ men and women to stand in each of the exhibit rooms, but they function as rule maintainers (i.e. don’t take any pictures unless you have paid the extra fee to be able to do so!) and not as historical experts on the exhibits themselves.

I have been told that this particular museum style is Soviet in nature. I’ve never been to other Soviet museums to verify that claim. Perhaps the museum set-up has nothing to do with the Soviets and it’s simply the style that Moldovans like. Or perhaps this country is too concerned with more pressing matters (1 billion dollars stolen from the government, or the mass immigration of its citizens) to have the time or money to invest in revamping its museums.

The National Museum of Ethnography and Natural History

In any case, we didn’t have super high expectations for this particular museum when we entered. But we did have a couple things working in our favor. The first being all that I described above: we did not go in expecting an experience like The Field Museum in Chicago or The Natural History Museum in London. The second being that we are starting to love Moldovan culture and we don’t need every bit of it explained to us in order to “get it.”

As a result, we enjoyed a pleasant hour or two exploring this quirky museum in Chișinău’s center. We snapped a couple of pictures (yes we paid the extra 1 USD fee to get photo privileges) that highlight some of the weirdest and most interesting parts of the museum.

The building itself is something to consider

The building itself is really lovely. The architecture on the outside is almost middle eastern looking. The inside boasts vaulted ceilings, ornate detailing, and large windows. Visit their official website for the best pictures of the interior. I am amazed that something this beautiful survived the communist regime without being drastically altered.

But as it’s still a museum in the poorest country in Europe, we certainly saw dilapidated portions juxtaposed with the lovely stained glass and vaulted ceilings. The picture above is a side entrance to access some of the downstairs exhibits. As we see often, parts of the building are meticulously maintained whereas other parts seem forgotten.

The decor was both confusing and thought-provoking

The first couple rooms in the museum had the classic exhibits: taxidermied animals native to Moldova, and really old rocks and fossils. But we ventured farther and found one room that was totally empty; it’s only decoration being that the walls were entirely covered in artistic paintings. Some of the paintings looked like they should be in a new-age religious setting; I’m not quire sure what to make of the glowing alien deity or the shimmering castle on the hill surrounded by a crowd of beings. Other paintings could easily have graced the walls of a child’s room. The jury is still out for me on these paintings. Do I like them? Do they belong in a museum of national history and ethnography?

When the museum does try to make a point, they don’t sugarcoat it

The second to last exhibit before departing focused on the impact of chemicals and fertilizers on the well-being of the natural ecosystems in Moldova. The exhibit was both grotesque and painfully clear. Do you see the two conjoined animals in the right of the picture?

Again, I wish the museum planners had connected some dots for us – taking us on a journey that ended with a call to action to reduce the negative impact of humans upon the natural world around us. Instead, we got this somewhat terrifying mic drop from the museum. Effective…but not as much as it could have been.

Kayaking the Nistru River

Just a week or two after our visit to the Ethnographic Museum, I (sans Daniel, who was on a work trip to the states) went on a little kayaking adventure with an American couple we know in Chișinău. For a girl who bought a canoe before she bought a car, this trip was a fun and perfectly appropriate way to explore Moldova.

Our landlords here in Chișinău knew of a kayaking company located in Vadul lui Vodă – about a 30 minute drive from Chișinău. It is located on the Dniester River – the blue snakey line that you see in the map below. And although not far from a security checkpoint to enter the breakaway region of Transnestria, we stayed along the part of the river that remains within official Republic of Moldova borders. [I did initially have some concerned thoughts that we would accidentally stop for a rest on the wrong side of the river and find ourselves in Transnestria without the permission to be there. Thankfully my fears were totally unfounded.]

We spent 4 or so hours lazily paddling down the calm river. We passed horses grazing and locals swimming or fishing. It was especially serene after life in the city. I don’t give Chișinău nearly enough credit as an urban center. Often the city seems sleepy to me. But there truly is a huge difference between life in Moldova’s capital city and life in the countryside.

What is more, the countryside is beautiful in its own way. Sure – it’s not the snow-capped mountains of Berchtesdgaden or the rocky cliffs of the Mediterranean coast in Spain. But if you look around you will quickly realize that Moldova is wild and yet gentle at the same time. It is both forgotten and proud.

If you were ever to consider a trip to Moldova, I would highly recommend the kayak company we used. They have 2 day trips that combine outdoor kayaking/camping with authentic cultural experiences in Moldovan villages. And the best part are the founders who are the kind of people you instantly want to be friends with. They are super cool.

Segway Tour

Our final “second layer of tourism” activity was interesting for two reasons. One is that it was a long time in coming. Marcus and Jennifer actually purchased an online gift card for 2 segway tours before we even arrived in Moldova (just over a year ago). Major props to them for their advanced planning and for their bravery in navigating a Moldovan website to buy an international gift card.

The second reason is that segway tours are generally considered a “first layer” tourist activity in most of the world. Think of the segway tours you’ve seen in NYC or Chicago. The participants of said tours scream “tourist” with their running shoes and fanny packs and cameras at the ready.

In Moldova, things are a bit different. Large segways in general are not a common occurrence. In fact, we got a fist pump and a happy shout of “SEGWAY!” when we passed a guy on the street. (Interesting side note – I do see those little segway platforms without the handles pretty frequently.)

But even more interesting is that we actually did not have a tour. We received quick instructions, handed over our IDs as collateral, and then we struck off on our own. We went wherever and however we wanted for the hour that we had. Boy – sometimes I love the lack of structures in this country. (Though other times it is appalling.)

I had a surprising amount of fun touring the downtown by segway with a Moldovan friend. We laughed a lot over how awkward we felt, but we also had some great conversation. And then of course we had the adventure of jumping curbs, and avoiding potholes, and simply joining the cars on the roads when the sidewalks got too bad. I must say it was classic Moldova.