Chisinau, the capital and largest city of the Republic of Moldova, will not win any prizes for architectural attractiveness, but this is hardly surprising, given the city’s recent history. A huge earthquake, measuring 7.3 on the Richter scale, devastated the city in November 1940. What was then left of it was further brought to the brink of annihilation by the onslaught of World War II. German air bombardment and ground assaults by Axis forces, including the Romanians, ensured very little was left of Chisinau by the time the Red Army entered and took the city in August 1944.
Step in the Soviets, who assigned Alexey Shchusev to formulate a plan and oversee the gradual reconstruction of the city. Shchusev was an acclaimed Russian architecture, whose work included Lenin’s Mausoleum and the Kazansky railway terminal in Moscow, and the Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute in Tbilisi (now the Biltmore Hotel). He was also responsible for the rebuilding of Novgorod, one of Russia’s most historically important cities, after its total destruction by the Nazis during World War II. Not surprisingly, Stalinist Empire style heavily influenced Shchusev’s architectural approach and between 1947 and 1949 he laid out plans and began to implement the reconstruction of the city formerly known as Kishinev (Russian name).
During the 1950s, the city’s population expanded and in addition to building grand constructions in keeping with the era, the authorities also erected large-scale, high-rise housing estates to accommodate the influx of people. These huge buildings changed the visible landscape of the city, a legacy that has remained to this day.
Soviet redevelopment of Chisinau continued right up until 1991, the year Moldova obtained its independence, with the early 1970s and beyond being the heaviest years of the city’s urban reconstruction.
Truth be told, there isn’t a great deal of conventional sightseeing attractions in the Moldovan capital. The Orthodox Cathedral and the Arc de Triomphe (Holy Gates) are attractive enough, while the city’s main park (Stefan cel Mare Central Park) is good for strolling and a bit of people-watching, but it’s the aftermath of decades of Soviet-influenced construction that is the most compelling reason to visit Chisinau, in our opinion. There are currently plenty of new developments in the city and many of the Communist-era buildings are either in a state of disrepair, abandoned or waiting to be demolished but for the time being, Soviet-era architecture is still a sizeable feature of Chisinau’s urban appearance and a must-see for anyone with an interest in that particular style and period in history.
Chisinau is a compact city and most of the buildings and monuments listed below can be seen on foot. The notable exceptions are the Romanita Collective Housing Tower and Victory Memorial And Eternal Flame, which are more conveniently visited by marshrutka (fixed-route minivan). To get to the Romanita Collective Housing Tower, it is best to leave from the central bus station (also the central market). There is no Tourist Board in Chisinau, but there is a transport information booth at the central bus station and the staff there will be able to put you on the right marshrutka.
Once you’ve seen Romanita, you either need to retrace your steps to the central bus station and get on another marshrutka to the Victory Memorial and Eternal Flame or alternatively walk between the two. We did the latter but it was a long walk, about 4km in total and not especially pleasant. Furthermore, we would never have found our way without GPS. There are probably marshrutkas linking the two destinations but our Moldovan/Russian was not good enough (read nonexistent) to figure out this information.
From the Eternal Flame, you can take any marshrutka heading in an easterly direction along the main road (Strada Pantelimon Halippa) back to the centre of the city or again, walk. The distance is approximately 3km.
Once the tallest building in Chisinau, Romanita was built as social housing in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s to accommodate small family units. A socialist experiment in community living, the tower is still used for that purpose today but is showing definite signs of decay. What is more interesting, however, is the onslaught of development that surrounds the tower. This was the main reason why the walk to the Victory Memorial and Eternal Flame wasn’t very pleasant – modern housing estates and smart villas are being built all over the place and it was like walking through a construction site for the first couple of kilometres at least. The district in which Romanita is situated is definitely on the up.
The Victory Memorial And Eternal Flame, on the other hand, is situated in a manicured, peaceful and well-kept park, that is an agreeable place to relax for 20 minutes or so. The flame is dedicated to Chisinau’s unknown soldiers who died in World War II. Time your visit with the top of the hour and you will witness the changing of the guard which involves plenty of goose-stepping.
Victory Memorial and Eternal Flame
Victory Memorial and Eternal Flame
Soviet-era walking tour of Chisinau (approximately 4 hours)
The best place to begin a Soviet-era walking tour of Chisinau is outside Government House, the giant hulk of a building opposite the Arc de Triomphe. Facing the building, walk along the first block to your left and you will reach the National Palace Concert Hall.
National Palace Concert Hall
Heading towards Stefan cel Mare Central Park, you will notice Library Din Hol, which has a pleasant café on the ground level should you be in need of liquid refreshment (Chisinau is very hot and humid in summer).
Library Din Hol
Once you reach the park, head across to the other side (in the direction of Parliament House) and you will soon discover the abandoned Stalus Bar, which is very ‘80s in design.
Former Stalus Bar/Guguta Restaurant/Restaurant Noroc inside Stefan cel Mare Central Park
As you leave the park, heading towards the junction of Stefan cel Mare Boulevard and Mitropolit G Banulescu Bodoni Street, you will come across a strange lotus/eternal flame-looking monument made of concrete.
Fountain inside Stefan cel Mare Central Park
It is then necessary to walk in a northeasterly direction along Mitropolit G Banulescu Bodoni Street (past the flower market) until you reach the National Bank of Moldova. Located on Grigore Vieru Boulevard, the bank is a fine example of Post-War Modernism architecture.
National Bank of Moldova
National Bank of Moldova
Further down the same street you will see the Soviet Memorial to Communist Youth and directly to the left of it, the Hotel Turist. In their Eastern Europe guidebook, Lonely Planet suggests staying at the Hotel Turist ‘for a kitsch blast of Soviet past’ but it didn’t look open when we passed by in June 2016.
Still heading along Grigore Vieru Boulevard, cross the Bic River and walk up the hill to the Chisinau State Circus. Officially opened in 1981, this once state-of-the-art circus building used to be the country’s premier entertainment venue and could accommodate nearly 2,000 spectators. It is now in a state of abandonment and can only be viewed from the outside but of all the circuses we have seen in the former Soviet Union, and we’ve seen quite a few now, the one in Chisinau is probably one of the finest. Visit the circus in the morning if you want to photograph it in the best light.
Chisinau State Circus
Chisinau State Circus
Retracing your steps back over the bridge that spans the Bic River, walk in a southerly direction along Strada Albisoara. Eventually, you will reach the Hotel Cosmos on Negruzzi Plaza, but if you want to see a good example of the high-rise housing estates mentioned earlier detour off Strada Albisoara towards Mazarache Church. Near the church (you won’t miss it) is what must surely be one of the largest estates in Chisinau. It’s a worthy detour, as is Mazarache Church itself, which is considered to be the oldest in the city.
1980s residential complex
Back on track, the Cosmos is a fine example of one of those oversized, rather rundown Communist-era hotels that you still find all over the former Soviet Union. With plenty of retro touches, a reasonable lead-in price of €32 per room per night and a strapline stating that ‘You will come as a guest and leave as a friend’, the Cosmos has to be a more enticing option for anyone looking for authentic socialist-era lodgings than the Hotel Turist.
From the Hotel Cosmos, continue the short distance to United Nations Square. Here you will find several buildings harking back to Communist times, including the derelict, and very modernist, National Hotel, which was built in the late 1970s and city’s Intourist (in other words its best) hotel for more than a decade. By all accounts, the attached restaurant was amongst the most popular in town and the ground floor of the hotel was the location of the city’s state-run Beriozka store (*).
(*) Situated in a number of cities in the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (SFSR) during the Communist period, these shops sold goods for hard currency only. I knew of them as Dollar Shops and remember visiting one or two in China in the early 1990s. There, they were called Friendship Stores.
Former Moldova Tur office on United Nations Square
Also in the same location as the National Hotel is the former Moldova Tur Office as well as a selection of other buildings from the same era that are in a poor state of disrepair. Across the road, on Liberty Square, you will see the Monument of the Liberation and the Hotel Chisinau (*). The latter is an excellent example of Stalinist Empire style architecture and I’m assuming the property was part of Alexey Shchusev’s original post World War II blueprint for the city but I can’t find any evidence to back this up. Indeed, this part of the city must have been very grand at one time but that is not the case nowadays. It is, however, in a transitional state and there was evidence of renovation and a facelift when we visited in June 2016. By the time you read this and/or get there, the facelift may have well have already happened.
Monument of the Liberation
(*) Clearly another hotel that has thought about its marketing strategy. The Chisinau Hotel encourages you to book with the superb strapline; ‘It’s like visiting your granny, not modern, but clean, warm and relaxing’!
The final destination on the suggested walking tour is the Moldtelecom Building, which is located on the corner of Stefan cel Mare Boulevard and Strada Ismail. While walking in a northwesterly direction to get there from Liberty Square, you will notice another enormous housing complex to your left. More accessible than the estate near Mazarache Church, this one is also decorated with art deco-like statues on the high surrounding wall.
The very Soviet-looking Moldtelecom Building dominates the city’s skyline and when you are done admiring it, there is an alfresco bar on the opposite size on the plaza (on which Moldtelecom is located), that serves very cold beer and has a good selection on tasty beer-snacks.
There is a fair bit of walking involved on this tour, so this is a great spot to end your exploration of Chisinau’s Communist-era architecture!
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