LAST RESORT; Chisinau, Moldova

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The Independent Travel
Athens, Bucharest, Chisinau - an ABC of supremely ugly capitals tucked into the south-eastern corner of Europe.

Who should take the blame for these urban aberrations? In the case of the Greek capital, two millennia of neglect by the civic authorities has allowed the city to degenerate into a fume-filled sprawl. Romania's brutal dictator Ceausescu tore the heart from Bucharest before his people took their revenge in 1989. But it seems unfair to chide anyone for Chisinau being a singularly ugly capital city, since it should not really be a capital - or even a city - at all.

Chisinau's realm is Moldova, a not-unattractive shred of territory wedged between Romania and Ukraine. If you think you have heard of it, that's probably down to one of three reasons: because of its similarity to the Romanian region Moldovia; because of the armed conflict which flares up periodically within Moldova; or because it is where Chitty Chitty Bang Bang allegedly came to earth.

Just as that veteran film was made up, so Moldova is a made-up country. Apart from a brief flourish in the Middle Ages when other, grander nations paused between bouts of bickering over the territory, Moldova came into being only in 1924 as an Autonomous Soviet Republic. "Autonomy" was always a Leninist joke. But in order for the Kremlin's rule to hold fast in a wholly Latin region 800 miles away, a capital had to be invented. So the small town of Chisinau became the capital city of Kishinev, and although the name has now reverted to the original, the place has never fully recovered.

As you approach on the clumsy old railway from Odessa, faceless apartment blocks interrupt the rolling countryside. You are decanted at what seems to be a grubby railway station in some sleepy provincial town - not a terminus at the hub of a national railway system. The road into town is a staccato muddle of diminutive offices and square and shabby hotels. Some of the worst food in the former Soviet Union is dispensed at the stalls and cafes along the way, but fortunately the odd wine shop still stocks some excellent Moldovan wine to disguise the taste.

In the "city" centre, the Soviet build-by-numbers system really comes into play. Here is Victory Square, there is a grotesque sports hall resembling a giant casserole, and linking them across the filthy River Bic a crumbling concrete superhighway. Marooned above this coarse tableau is the only trace of delicacy, a tiny lemon-pastel Orthodox church. You pay your respects to the stoicism of the people who have to live here. As they say in Chisinau, "To be born Moldovan is to be born with bad luck."

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