Oh, to be back in the USSR

David Whitley finds the Soviet spirit alive and well in this Eastern European time warp.

There is a perverse breed of traveller that revels in going back 20 years to when the Iron Curtain was still up and Eastern Europe was largely unchartered territory. They moan that the likes of Prague, Budapest, Poland and the Balkans have become too easy - just Westernised adjuncts to the well-trodden European trail.

They'll love Moldova, then. Often dubbed the poorest country in Europe, with about 80 per cent of the population thought to live below the poverty line, it still has a Communist leader: Vladimir Voronin, elected in 2001, as voters chose to partially go back to the old ways, despite gaining independence from the USSR 10 years earlier.

Voronin wanted Moldova to be the Cuba of Eastern Europe and in many ways he's achieved his aim. Alas for the locals, it doesn't include salsa music and great rum.

The overnight train from Bucharest is an eye-opener. It's a sweatbox test of endurance that lasts about 13 hours, almost half of that covering about 100 kilometres from Iasi, just over the Romanian border, to Chisinau, the Moldovan capital.

Passports are collected by border police on both sides for a disturbing length of time and the train is searched extensively for drugs and illegal immigrants. Then there's the two-hour process of changing the train's undercarriage.

It's an extraordinary ride involving shunting, clanging and lifting that harks back to the Soviet days: Moscow men ordered all railway tracks to be changed to a different gauge measurement to slow down any invasions from the West.

I am sharing a carriage with Andrei, an enormously friendly Moldovan who has escaped to study in Germany. He comes from a village and the way things work there sums up the parlous state of the country. "We were given a big grant for improving infrastructure but only half of it got done," he explains. "The rest of the money disappeared and the mayor got a new Mercedes."

He adds that the mayor got re-elected - he at least put half the money where it was supposed to go.

Andrei also explains the problems in the countryside. "Moldova has the best agricultural land in the old USSR but there is no one to work on it. Look at the villages - half of the houses are abandoned. Anyone who can get out is gone or going, whilst anything worked for and worth having is 'taken' by other people. They don't think of it as stealing."

Chisinau (formerly Kishinev) is hardly a sight for tired eyes emerging from such a journey. It is a horrendous example of Soviet architecture and city planning. The city was pretty much levelled in 1940, as World War II bombs and a catastrophic earthquake wreaked havoc. It was rebuilt in predictable concrete tower-block fashion and it's a wonder some of those blocks are still standing.

They look like pure misery - grey, crumbling, polluted. The roads - even the main boulevards through the city centre - are potholed affairs. The footpaths are even worse, with potholes giving way to dirt that turns to mud in the rain.

A lake slightly west of the city - billed as the locals' favourite escape - appears to have been drained and is overgrown with thick grass, while stray dogs bark the night away outside often horrendous hotels.

It's safe to say the tour groups won't be pouring through here any time soon and thus those twisted Slavophiles wanting a proper Eastern European experience will be in heaven.

But sometimes a grotty cover can contain a surprisingly good book. After an hour or so of thinking I've landed in the world's biggest dump, I start to notice a few oddities. First, there are some seriously swish shops sprinkled around. A Benetton store jumps out unexpectedly, while provocatively dressed young women are clad in the latest designs as they stroll past a legless beggar.

The city is also surprisingly leafy. If the weather is grey and overcast, you tend to focus on the evident poverty but the moment the sun comes out the riches become a little clearer. The two parks in the centre of the city would be pretty and chilled out anywhere, while nearly all the main streets are lined with trees.

But the main treats are inside. As unlikely as it sounds, Chisinau is great for eating out. The restaurants and cafes are like the swish stores - they suddenly jump out of nowhere - but the food is almost universally good and the service excellent. None of the surly Eastern European standard wait staff here - which probably says a fair bit about the Moldovan character.

The restaurants have their own little quirks. The vast Beer House is a lot classier than it sounds and the chicken in cognac sauce is fabulous (and cheap, by Western standards). But it's the vibe that strikes - friendly waiters and a bizarre medieval theme, complete with a suit of armour, wall painting of feasting knights and crossbow hanging above the table.

The Cactus Saloon is equally odd, offsetting a Wild West theme (saddles, saloon doors, photos of smiling Native Americans) with a chic, urban ambience. The cool set clearly hang out here and the massive wine rack, slick decor and inventive menu somehow work with the John Wayne-esque touches.

The Green Hills Cafe takes the biscuit, though - among a ludicrous array of pot plants, four trees venture through a billowing fabric roof.

The real secret, however, is the wine. The wines here are some of the best in the world - even a French expert has admitted that Moldova can pull off a better pinot noir than anywhere else.

Tours are available to some of the major wineries - of which Cricova is the most popular. The smartest option, however, is Milestii Mici, with over 200 kilometres of cellars housed in a limestone mine. Tours have to be done by car and even they only cover a fraction of the wine stored. Guinness World Records report 1.5 million bottles and local murmurs claim more than two million.

Those lovers of the "real" Eastern Europe won't be impressed by such Western decadence but for the rest of us, it's something that makes venturing to the ungentrified depths of the continent worth considering.

TRIP NOTES

Getting there

The train from Bucharest cannot be booked online - only at Bucharest's Gara Nord. Don't expect great comfort, air-conditioning or windows that open, just a memorable experience. Air Moldova flies to Chisinau from Bucharest as well as bigger international hubs such as London, Moscow, Istanbul, Vienna and Frankfurt.

Staying there

Those wanting to stay somewhere half-decent should try the Hotel Flowers (hotelflowers.md). Those wanting a truly horrible, Soviet-style experience can try the Hotel Chisinau (chisinau-hotel.md). Expect no hot water, rooms in dire need of renovation and harridans at the end of the hallway insistent on inspecting the room every time you pass.

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