Not a terribly early start today--8:30am. We have a new Mercedes 20 passenger van--much like the one that we took from Bucharest to Tulcea-- except this one is just for us so we can spread out a bit more. We'll have this bus and driver for several days.
We drove about an hour north of Tulcea to a ferry where we crossed over to Galati, Romania, the border crossing with Moldova. Dris said it's always different at the border in terms of how long it takes to get through but we were lucky today--there was no one else in line so we had a pretty easy time. Once through the Romanian border and then the Moldovan one, we were able to change our Romanian Lei in to Moldovan Lei.
It took about an hour to get from the border to Valeni, our lunch stop. I have to say that the roads in Moldova are, in the history of worst roads in the world, some of the worst I've ever encountered. Deeply pot-holed and bone-jarring. I can't believe that the bus didn't just fall apart. It was impossible to do anything but sit and be bounced around from side to side. It was a relief to stop and get out for lunch. The bus parked on the main "road" and we walked a quarter mile down a dirt road to a lovely old traditional Moldovan home where we were met at the gate by Boonika, her husband and daughter. So Boonika is a world famous "drumming grandma" because of the 2005 Eurovision contest: "Boonika Bate Doba" ("Grandmamma Beats the Drum") was Moldova's entry in the Eurovision Song Contest 2005, performed in English and Romanian by Zdob și Zdub. You can see the You Tube video at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RWQCgSB_lpE. The entry came in 7th at the end (so not a winner) but made Boonika famous in her small area of the world!
Boonika looks just the same today as she does in the video 13 years ago. She, her husband and daughter run this tourist lunch/entertainment stop that I don't think sees a lot of business but they were very gracious and welcoming to us. We were first served a traditional Moldovan meal (which is a lot like the traditional Romanian meal: soup, fresh veggies, pork and polenta and potatoes. The dessert was fresh fruit.
Then Boonika and the family started the entertainment. They are a cute couple and clearly enjoy what they are doing. They sang 5 songs in Romanian which Dris translated and then they wanted to sing more but we really had to get on the road so we said our good byes and went back down the dirt road to the bus.
We are now in Gagauzia, an autonomous region of Moldova. Gagauzia was settled by a group of Turks via Bulgaria so they are a distinctly separate people from the rest of Moldova. They initially wanted independence, like Transnistria, but in the end settled for remaining within Moldova as an autonomous region. The Gagauz people remain fiercely defensive of their culture, and keen to preserve their identity within Moldova. In 2014, a majority voted for closer ties with Russia, and independence if Moldova entered the EU.
From Valeni to Comrat was about an hour drive. There's not a lot to say about Comrat: it's the capital of Gagauzia, has a population of around 20,000 and is situated in the southern wine zone of Moldova.
It is known for production of red wine and muscat. In Comrat and its suburbs there are about 10 wineries. Our hotel, the Hotel Altini Palace, is one of 2 hotels in town...it's not a huge tourist area! In fact, as the entry says, Comrat is the least visited city in the least visited country in Europe so it's got that going for it.
The room is clean and the bathroom nice and modern. Wi-fi is pretty good too.
After dropping our bags off in the room, we all met in the lobby for a waking tour of town. We started by going up a hill (of course) to the War Memorial with the eternal flame. Then we walked around town, looking at various statues and monuments, remnants of the Soviet era. You'll see in the pictures, a pic of a yellow tank with a women sitting under an umbrella. This is the old way of selling kvass, a Russian fermented drink made from rye bread. It's non-alcoholic and supposed to taste yeasty, like weak beer. It's very popular in Baltic and Slavac countries. Anyway, we didn't stop to try this particular one but Dris said we'd have an opportunity to later in the trip. While it's now available in bottles in the grocery stores, this tank is the traditional way of selling it.
We spent a bit more than an hour and half walking around town and Dris said we'd pretty much seen it all. There's a beautiful Orthodox cathedral in the middle of town.
We agreed to meet for dinner at 6:30pm and walk to Andy's pizza, a popular franchise in Moldova that serves more than pizza. Jef and I actually had the pizza, as did most of the others and it was very tasty.
After dinner, we all split up to do our own thing. We walked to the supermarket to get some water and snacks for tomorrow's bus ride. We also hit the ATM for Moldovan Lei but it would only give us 250 ($15). That was a bit frustrating but it was all we could get. We walked back to the hotel and found several of our group sitting in the outside bar area having a drink. When we told them about our ATM experience, they said there was another machine on the other side of the supermarket that gave more! Jef decided to walk back to that and get more Lei while I went to the room to try and get some blog work done.
The last thing we had to do before bed was to make our breakfast choices for the morning with the "breakfast nazi". You could see the old soviet system at work here. A woman (who spoke no english) was responsible for writing down people's choices so they would have a "head start" in the morning but Dris told us it usually takes at least an hour for them to serve it. One by one, we had to tell her our room number and name, then choose an egg dish from 4 choices, a pancake topping and if we wanted coffee or tea. If anyone tried to stray from the choices, she got all upset and banged her forehead with her hand. She could only handle 1 request at a time. It took forever! We'll see how breakfast turns out!
The ferry trip was nice, the lunch with the famous Boonika was an experience and just being in Gagauzia and Comrat is pretty cool--a good day :)