In a strange city you’ve never heard of, in a country you won’t find on the map, Soviet Union heroes are still worshipped and a night out costs a fraction of dining in a popular tourist city.
Welcome to Tiraspol, capital of Transnistria.
The number of trains stopping at Tiraspol’s station is limited – just like the number of tourists passing through. The train from Moldova’s capital Chisinau has just arrived in capital of the breakaway state of Transnistria.
From here, the train will continue on towards the Black Sea – but we’re one of the rare few tourists getting off.
Following the break-up of the Soviet Union, Transnistria immediately declared independence from Moldova, a country sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine, and which itself had just gained independence at the time.
But the small south-eastern territory is not recognized by Russia and most other governments and many regional travellers are still reluctant to go there – or would never even think of it. Staying for a few days in Tiraspol, however, might help to overcome prejudices.
None of the four foreigners who arrived at the station this morning has to wait more than 10 minutes at the counter for their visas, which are also available at the border roads.
The people on the street nearby seem reserved but friendly. But the bathroom attendant at the train station remains adamant and can’t be persuaded to open the door for a euro coin.
Luckily the lady at the exchange counter helps, exchanges euros for Transnistrian rubles, brightly coloured coins you may want to take home as souvenirs. This makes it possible – and for tourists, extremely cheap – to use cabs, buses, markets and restaurants.
The inner city of Tiraspol doesn’t have the typical sights to offer, but resembles an open-air museum full of Soviet accomplishments (tanks, parade grounds, busts and statues of Lenin and other heroes of Communism) – in short, quite unique. The communist hammer and sickle can meanwhile be seen on countless flags.
Tiraspol can be easily explored on foot in three hours. In the streets bearing the names of Marx and Lenin there are blocks of flats
with well-kept greenery and playgrounds, with children on swings and climbing about.
At a central promenade named after Oct 25, the date of the Russia’s October Revolution, flowering shrubs and conifers decorate the paths. There is no litter to be seen anywhere.
Shops, supermarkets and a big “Cyber Shop”, official buildings, restaurants and cafes line the avenue. In front of the famous Mafia restaurant, with its socialist grandeur, numerous customers are enjoying lemonades, beers, Blini, steak and chocolate on this sunny Saturday.
The city’s central Suvorov Square, lined with green areas, flags, administrative buildings, monuments and statues, has an atmosphere of military parades.
The founder of the city, Alexander Suvorov, greets the visitor from his stone horse. Close by, a father takes a picture of his child on a Soviet T-34 tank, part of the memory site in honour of killed soldiers.
At the Zeleny market, local farmers offer melons, apples, spices, tomatoes and potatoes. A kilogram of walnuts costs the equivalent of a little under US$3 (RM12).
Just a few steps away loom the golden cupolas of the Russian Orthodox cathedral, only 20 years old. Music resounds from one of the few pleasure boats on the river Dnister, where the banks are lined with couples.
At the modern soccer stadium of FC Sheriff Tiraspol another surprise awaits. All ticket offices are closed. But the locals still go through the turnstiles and bag checks.
A steward sees us helpless tourists, opens the turnstile and shouts loudly: “Free, free!” The home team wins 5 to 0. They are champions of Moldova and are good enough to compete in the Europa League.
From the point of view of the government in Chisinau, Tiraspol is still part of Moldova. And the footballers from FC Sheriff are happy that they do not have to play against Transnistrian rural clubs. In sports, the world is easier here than in politics. – dpaHow to get there: By plane to Chisinau (Moldova), then by train, bus or cab to Tiraspol.
Entry: Visas are available at road crossings to Transnistria and at the railroad station of Tiraspol. Moldova does not require a visa for EU citizens, but a passport is necessary.
Currency: 1 euro (RM4.90) is about 19 Transnistrian rubles.