Moldova: Have the fortitude to stay a while and this place really will grow on you

Sometimes you just have to take a bet. Two years ago, following a futile argument about my tennis-playing talents while watching England play Moldova at football on TV, I took on a bet that I would be able to track down the 11 members of the Moldovan team we had just watched, get them to agree to play me at tennis, and then beat them. It was agreed that the loser of the bet would have to strip naked in Balham High Road and sing the Moldovan national anthem.

Sometimes you just have to take a bet. Two years ago, following a futile argument about my tennis-playing talents while watching England play Moldova at football on TV, I took on a bet that I would be able to track down the 11 members of the Moldovan team we had just watched, get them to agree to play me at tennis, and then beat them. It was agreed that the loser of the bet would have to strip naked in Balham High Road and sing the Moldovan national anthem.

So it was that I found myself checking in for the Air Moldova direct flight to Chisinau, capital of this small land-locked country sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine, which does not even benefit from a page or two in the Lonely Planet guide to Eastern Europe. I was pretty damn ignorant about what would be awaiting me at the other end.

By the time I'd arrived and negotiated a ride with a grumpy taxi driver, darkness had fallen, so I couldn't see much as we bounced our way along uneven roads to my hotel, but to my right I could make out some shabby-looking high-rise blocks of flats. Come to think of it, that was pretty much the view on the left as well. Finally, we arrived my hotel that was situated alongside further ranges of shabby-looking high-rise blocks of flats. How should I describe it? Well, it was shabby-looking, tall and closely resembled... a block of flats.

The hotel reception was huge, empty, dimly lit and Spartan. The owners of this place were strangers to the world of interiors. Flaking paint covered the walls on which an occasional faded drab painting hung apologetically. Grey linoleum scarred by decades of discarded cigarette butts spread itself over the wantonly ample floor space. The words "Mmmm, this is nice," were an awfully long way from the tip of my tongue, and I certainly didn't know them in either Romanian or Russian, the two languages spoken here.

After a long struggle checking in with an unhelpful receptionist, I lumbered up to my room and let myself in. Until that moment I had no idea what prison life might be like, but suddenly I had a vivid glimpse of incarceration in a cell. I slumped onto the bed, a little shocked. My first impressions of this country had left me some way short of relishing the days ahead.

In the coming weeks, I was to learn that life is tough in the little-known East European state of Moldova. Yet, against the odds, I slowly grew to like it. I liked the capital, Chisinau. Much of it was destroyed in the Second World War and, as a consequence, I found it a city with a muddled and eclectic architecture. Charming 19th-century two-storey buildings adorned with ornate porticos were flanked by 1960s box-like structures, and many new buildings were under construction, a sure sign that western companies were moving in to exploit a new market.

The area of "old Chisinau" had a pleasant feel with tree-lined roads, free of traffic jams. How long before these streets would be grid-locked, I wondered? In the new capitalist system which this fledgling country was now openly embracing, owning a car was surely going to be the way citizens would announce to the rest of society that you were doing all right.

The hub of life in the capital centres around a main street called Boulevard Stefan cel Mare. At one end stand all the government buildings, at the other is the main shopping area. The people go about their business looking uncompromisingly stern, and the atmosphere, though not hostile, is hardly one of geniality. A privileged few sit outside cafés sipping coffee and basking in the winter sun, but laughter and frivolity are not the order of the day. I guessed that the years spent living under an oppressive regime kept afloat by secret police and informers had left the population favouring a cautious approach to any public display of emotion. Deadpan is big here. Talk without frills.

The nightlife isn't too jolly either. One evening I chose a simple bar in which to sit and ruminate on the complexity of the task which I'd managed to set myself. The bar was grim and stark, and initially I was its sole drinker until an old man ambled in. There was a short exchange at the bar and a vodka was poured. He took hold of the glass, threw the drink down his neck, turned around and walked straight out of the bar again. The whole transaction had taken no more than 30 seconds.

Other imbibers followed at regular intervals. The fastest time was set by a big bloke in a leather jacket who managed to order, down his drink, and be out of the bar in 17 seconds flat. I had been there 15 minutes and was still only half way through my beer. No wonder I was getting funny looks from the barmaid. This was not a place for social drinking, more a bar in which you ingested alchohol. Nurse, give me something to dampen the pain.

I don't want to make it sound like Moldova is a terrible place. It isn't. The people are friendly and warm once you get past their initial reticence, but there is no denying that the place has little to offer the regular tourist. I made one trip by bus to the northern town of Soroca and I was able to note the country's impressive list of shortcomings. It has no mountains, no coastline, no efficient transport, no quaint little villages, no night-life and no streetlights. It has occasional gentle rolling hills which are pleasant enough, but mostly what I saw from the bus were flat expanses of dull brown farmland. Villages were set back from the road, their names emblazoned in garish blue and yellow on large columns by the roadside.

From time to time the bus would pull out to overtake a farmer riding in a horse and cart, untouched by new technology. Then we would splutter to a halt at a bus-stop to exchange one set of life-weary passengers for another. No-one needed to tell you that village life was hard. The faces said it all. No plumbing, no hot water and in many cases no electricity. Bearable in the summer maybe, but during the Moldovan winter? No thanks.

My translator Iulian told me that the people here were worse off now than they were under Communism. When I asked how that could be, he replied: "Under the old system everyone could have what they needed but there was no choice. Under the new system, everything is available but no-one can afford it."

I thought of my friend Arthur back in comfortable, centrally heated London sipping on his pint in a jovial pub atmosphere, and I wondered for a moment if I'd lost my mind in accepting this bet. Little did I know that the next few weeks were going to enrich my life and provide me with some unexpected feelings of warmth. You shouldn't judge a book by its cover or, in the case of Moldova, by the first chapter. If you have the fortitude to get beyond that point you may just sense the distant prospect of a happy ending.

'Playing the Moldovans at Tennis' by Tony Hawks is published by Ebury Press (£6.99).

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Sport
Alexis Sanchez has completed a £35m move to Arsenal, the club have confirmed
sportGunners complete £35m signing of Barcelona forward
Voices
Poor teachers should be fearful of not getting pay rises or losing their job if they fail to perform, Steve Fairclough, headteacher of Abbotsholme School, suggested
voicesChris Sloggett explains why it has become an impossible career path
Sport
world cup 2014
Sport
Ray Whelan was arrested earlier this week
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
In a minor key: Keira Knightley in the lightweight 'Begin Again'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg, best known for Each Peach Pear Plum
books
News
peopleIndian actress known as the 'Grand Old Lady of Bollywood' was 102
News
Wayne’s estate faces a claim for alleged copyright breaches
newsJohn Wayne's heirs duke it out with university over use of the late film star's nickname
Life and Style
It beggars belief: the homeless and hungry are weary, tortured, ghosts of people – with bodies contorted by imperceptible pain
lifeRough sleepers exist in every city. Hear the stories of those whose luck has run out
News
Mick Jagger performing at Glastonbury
people
Life and Style
fashionJ Crew introduces triple zero size to meet the Asia market demand
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Sport
Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini of Arsenal launch the new Puma Arsenal kits at the Puma Store on Carnaby Street
sportMassive deal worth £150m over the next five years
Arts and Entertainment
Welsh opera singer Katherine Jenkins
musicHolyrood MPs 'staggered' at lack of Scottish artists performing
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
Arts and Entertainment
Currently there is nothing to prevent all-male or all-female couples from competing against mixed sex partners at any of the country’s ballroom dancing events
Potential ban on same-sex partners in ballroom dancing competitions amounts to 'illegal discrimination'
News
business
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sales Manager (Fashion and Jewellery), Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Volunteer Digital Marketing Trustee needed

    Voluntary, reasonable expenses reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: Are you keen on...

    Java Swing Developer - Hounslow - £33K to £45K

    £33000 - £45000 per annum + 8% Bonus, pension: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: ...

    Corporate Events Sales Manager, Marlow,Buckinghamshire

    £30K- £40K pa + Commision £10K + Benefits: Charter Selection: Rapidly expandin...

    Day In a Page

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice