This week’s dream
Three days in a country that doesn’t exist
A country that other countries won’t acknowledge apparently has to take border security very seriously, said Tim Johnson in The Globe and Mail (Canada). On the road into tiny Transnistria, a landlocked sliver of Moldova whose claim of sovereignty is not recognized by any other state, “the Cold War vibes are new again”—at least briefly. But the gruff border guards in furry Russian hats do let tourist groups through, which is how I recently managed to spend three days in its geopolitical limbo. Formed in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, Transnistria has its own flag, military, and national anthem. It even has its own currency, “complete with colorful plastic coins that look like Skee-Ball tokens.” But it’s also a wannabe Soviet state, “a place caught between the present and the past.”
Touring the Bender Fortress, a 1538 stronghold built of lime, clay, sand, and egg whites, we look out over a narrow river, the Dniester, that once marked the border between the Russian and Ottoman empires. Inside the fortress is a “curious collection of stuff,” including a catapult, a swing set, and a shooting gallery where I pay two rubles to try my hand with a crossbow. Later, I chat with our guide over a picnic table. “People think this is a closed, secret territory, like North Korea, but it’s not,” she says. “We want more tourism.” Not that Transnistria offers lots to do. Swimming in the river, she says, is one of her favorite pastimes.
“The place, it must be said, produces some truly excellent caviar.” Visiting the Aquatir Sturgeon Complex, we watch the massive fish thrashing about in round pools, then sit down for a tasting hosted by a stern-looking man with a thick Russian accent. Stepping outside, we all stop to take photos of a beautiful vintage Volga parked on the street until the elderly owner appears and offers to take a few of us for a spin, then drops us off at a large empty train station overgrown with weeds. “A weird and unexpected experience, to be sure—but it’s truly just another day in Transnistria.”
Intrepid Travel (intrepidtravel.com) offers a $2,128, 13-day tour of Moldova, Ukraine, and Romania that includes two nights in Transnistria. ■