SCORING a strike in a Transnistrian bowling alley at 2am is not something one does very often. Neither is sipping scorching cognac while observing the uber-muscly twentysomething men and their silent, scowling blondes as they hurl balls in neighbouring lanes.
It’s a surreal experience, all right, but then so is Transnistria in general. Located between Ukraine and Moldova, this teeny land declared independence from the latter in 1992. Alas, no other nations, bar fellow self-proclaimed states Abkhazia and South Ossetia, recognise its claim.
That declaration of independence followed the Soviet Union’s fall, explaining why Transnistria is Russian-run. While Moldova moved on, it stayed still, defiantly frozen in USSR time. At the border, under a hammer-and-sickle flag, I hand my passport to a fatigues-wearing official with cruel blue eyes. It’s 35C, yet I’m shivering a little. The strangeness continues. Purchases can only be made with Transnistrian rubles, irredeemable everywhere else in the world, or plastic coins akin to board games.
Clubs are named after Vladimir Putin, citizens drive Volgas and Ladas, and you risk prison by photographing anything but proudly displayed replica tanks or massive Lenin statues. Rumours persist of illegal arms and money laundering.
I’m here on a new Intrepid Travel tour of Romania, Moldova and Ukraine, which also takes in the bird-rich Danube Delta and the ghostly Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. It also offers something unusual. Where nearly all other operators’ itineraries to Transnistria loiter for half a day, time only for a token walk-around, Intrepid’s group stays two nights to enable full immersion.
Our troop of nine bonds easily, everyone chuffed to be somewhere quite so atypical. In main city Tiraspol, we try two Transnistrian staples: salty black caviar, having toured a gulag-sized sturgeon farm, and that same local cognac (divin), made at the Kvint distillery and dense with caramel flavour. One 50-year-old vintage costs £1,300 per bottle.
Much is mundane: that bowling alley, restaurants and Tiraspol’s sandy river beach, where residents bathe in green water. But in a nearby supermarket the taciturn cashier won’t even look at me, perhaps paranoid about engaging with an outsider.
Other Transnistrians are friendlier, pleased to offer lifts and directions. ‘People think there are Soviet spies everywhere,’ says one guide — who then asks not to be named. ‘It’s not true. Life is good here.’
Unconvinced, we return to Moldova, which suddenly feels very cosmopolitan. This, despite the United Nations ranking it as Europe’s third-least-visited country in 2016, with just 121,000 tourists. There’s clearly interest, though. Intrepid planned just two departures of this new tour last year but demand forced nine trips, with 16 scheduled for 2018.
Part of the reason could be an established wine scene that’s slowly gaining in profile. The most famous maker is Milestii Mici, chiefly because — according to Guinness World Records — it boasts the world’s largest wine cellar.
Containing more than 1.5 million bottles, the 125 miles of lantern-lit tunnels conjure up a Sean Connery-era Bond film. As our tour explores the musty maze and secret rooms, I keep expecting Blofeld to emerge from a disguised barrel door.
I later try the best Moldovan tipples — including ones by Purcari, whose clientele include Queen Elizabeth II — at freshly opened Columna 51 (glasses from £1.50, facebook.com/columna51) in capital Chisinau (‘kish-ee-now’). This bar repurposes a stripped-out stone house, fusing shabby-chic style with relaxed, ultra-knowledgeable service. The wines impress.
There are more epicurean treasures to unearth in the capital, such as the artisan banoffee doughnuts at new DC Donuts & Coffee (from 70p, facebook.com/dcmoldova), or popular restaurant Propaganda, decorated like a retro home with gramophones and slippers under radiators. Its beef tenderloin in creamy blackberry sauce is delicious (£6.50, facebook.com/propagandacafe).
I’m not so keen on the pickled watermelon (ugh) and kvass, a rye-bread drink (hmm) our group gets to try at Chisinau’s giant Piata Centrala market but I’m impressed with herb-scented gorge at Old Orhei, out in the fertile countryside, where we walk up to a 14th-century hilltop monastery. A wild-bearded monk studiously ignores us.
Back in Chisinau, the trip finishes with an impromptu dinner at Andy’s Pizza, Moldova’s ubiquitous fast-food chain, where diner teens, lovers and old pals have all apparently gathered this Friday night. We gleefully exchange memories over milkshakes and Margheritas, which is testament to the trip’s strong group element.
My already-packed bags include some leftover rubles and plastic coins — the ultimate strange-o souvenirs.