What to do in Cahul – getting off the beaten track in Moldova
To quote a friend of ours who wrote a comment on our Facebook page when we published some photos of Moldova’s second city, “Cahul rocks!”
He’s not wrong, in fact we think that this small, landlocked Eastern European country is generally a “rocking” place to visit. We spent eighteen days in Moldova in July 2019. Combine this with the five days we spent there in the summer of 2016 and that tallies to more than three weeks in a country that is consistently listed as one of the least visited countries in Europe along with San Marino and Liechtenstein.
Bogdan Petriceicu Hasdeu State University in Cahul
Economically, Moldova suffered greatly after the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and another list it tops is that of the Poorest Countries in Europe. Without wanting to sound like the idiot rich westerner (we aren’t rich!), we always find that there is a vibrancy in poorer countries that you don’t find in more affluent ones and Moldova is no exception to that observation. In each of the four cities we have visited in the country (Chisinau, Cahul, Comrat and Anenii Noi), life revolves around the central market. This is especially true in Chisinau, the capital and most cosmopolitan city in Moldova. The central market there is always rammed with all manner of people, ranging from babushkas selling fruit and veg, spivs (petty criminals who deal in black market goods) trying to get rid of their knock-off gear, and smartly dressed office workers looking for a bargain. It’s a great place to get a coffee at one of the numerous standup bars and watch the goings-on for an hour or two (plus, if you are self-catering, it’s a cheaper place to buy your food!).
All things considered, we like Moldova and its people a lot.
Central Park in Cahul
Not forgetting the hardship that the majority of the Moldovan population have to endure, a knock-on effect of being the poorest country in Europe is that Moldova is an inexpensive country to visit. A small apartment in the centre of Chisinau, for example, costs around €25 a night. A combined pedicure and manicure (that’ll be Kirsty, not me!) is about €10, a meal out for two about the same, and a beer in a bar costs in the region of €1 a pint, depending on where you go. And getting around Moldovan cities on local buses is also very cheap. At just €0.10 cents a ride, this is one hangover from the Soviet times that more developed countries really should take note of if they want people to get out of their cars and use public transport more.
Between 1940 and 1991, Moldova was known as the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic (Moldovan SSR) and was part of the Soviet Union. For those of you who follow our journey, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that ‘hangovers from the Soviet times’ was our main reason for visiting Moldova, both the first time around and also this one. We first wrote about Communist-era architecture in Chisinau after our time there in 2016 (the has had a massive overall and update following our latest visit) but on this more recent trip, we wanted to visit some other destinations in Moldova besides the capital.
Cahul appeared on our radar for two reasons. Firstly, we knew we would be visiting the Danube Delta/eastern region of Romania before heading to Moldova and, looking at a map, the most logical place to cross the border between the two countries at that point was from Galați in Romania to Cahul in Moldova. The second reason we decided to visit Cahul was down to the fact that we are members of a Facebook group that focuses on travel in Eastern Europe, the Balkans and the countries that once formed the Soviet Union. It is a very active group, where you can find out lots of travel information about each region and have your queries answered. Every Saturday there is a photo-sharing thread and one of the members of the group, Hillary, posted a fantastic shot of a large mosaic on the side of a building in Cahul. I showed it to Kirsty and we both wanted to see it. So, I asked politely if Hillary minded if I befriend her on Facebook (I don’t do that sort of thing normally with people I don’t know, it’s a bit creepy!) in order to ask her more about it.
Hillary was fine about this. It also transpired that she was living in Cahul and her enthusiasm for remnants from the Soviet times was similar to ours. She also turned out to be incredibly generous with her knowledge of Cahul and offered to give us locations for way more than just the mosaic. We had struck Soviet-era gold and soon had a nice long list of locations to visit in the city.
Cahul City monument with the Monument to Soviet Pilots Liberators in the background
Where is Cahul?
Cahul is situated in southern Moldova. It has a population of 30,000 (2014 census) and is 160km slightly southwest of Chisinau. As the crow flies, Romania is 6.5km to the west of Cahul and the city is either the fifth or seventh largest in Moldova depending on your view about the breakaway state of Transnistria (*).
(*) Seventh largest if you include Tiraspol and Bendery (Bender), both in Transnistria, and fifth if you don’t.
Why visit Cahul?
Cahul doesn’t see many conventional tourists. Indeed, the first thing the owner of our hotel asked us when we checked in was if we were with an aid agency or something like that.
That’s not to say that people don’t come to Cahul; they do. The city is known for its mineral springs, which are enriched with iodine and bromine, and the large Sanatorium Nufarul Alb on the eastern edge of town was pretty busy with guests milling around and walking in the grounds when we passed through it on route to somewhere else.
As well as a lack of conventional tourists, there is also a lack of conventional sights in Cahul. I’m not saying it is an unpleasant city, it isn’t, but there are three solid reasons to come here in my opinion and none of them focuses on what I would call mainstream sightseeing attractions (churches, museums, archaeological sites, that sort of thing).
The first reason to visit Cahul is simply because nobody else does. Discovering a place that is completely non-touristy is motivation enough in our books but the second reason is that Cahul is a good place to break the journey if you are travelling between Galați and Chisinau and, finally, if you are interested in seeing several Soviet-era mosaics and memorials in a relatively concentrated area then Cahul is an ideal destination to include in your itinerary.
If none of the reasons above appeal then I would probably skip the city and head elsewhere.
What there is to see and do in Cahul
Our suggested walking route mainly focuses on Cahul’s Soviet relics. Contrary to what I’ve just said, there are a few lowkey ‘regular’ sights in the city (just not enough to warrant a visit in their own right) and they have been incorporated into the circuit. Anything not Soviet-era is marked in green on the map.
With reference to my comment above about markets, life in Cahul revolves around its sprawling central one and this is a good place to start the tour. Heading east, first cross over the road from the market and take a look at the Bogdan Petriceicu Hasdeu State University before walking towards the Palace of Culture. On the way, there is an impressive Soviet-era apartment block on the righthand side of the road. As for the mosaic on the side of the Palace of Culture, I can’t figure out if the Soviet soldiers are heading off or returning from battle but, either way, it is an excellent piece of tiled art that is full of detail (*).
(*) Generally, I can find little information about any of the mosaics in Cahul. In contrast, there is quite a bit of detail online about some of the mosaics we found in Chisinau.
Palace of Culture
Next, head down to the Sanatorium Nufărul Alb. Unlike the Soviet-era sanatoriums we saw in Jūrmala, in Latvia, this particular one isn’t that interesting architecturally but it makes sense to walk through it en route to the Cahul City monument and the MiG aircraft entitled Monument to Soviet Pilots Liberators. Both monuments are right next to each other and after you’re done admiring them, it’s a downhill stroll to the bus station and the Monument to the Liberation of Cahul. It’s worth poking your nose inside the station waiting room for a glimpse of Soviet kitsch but, whatever you do, don’t go anywhere near the toilet block located at the rear of the station. Bad doesn’t even begin to describe them!
Monument to the Liberation of Cahul
The next place of interest is the wonderfully atmospheric Lipovean Church. We are pretty sure it is abandoned but then again, when we were admiring it (and looking for a way in!), an old lady approached us and said, in Russian (so there is a strong chance that we interpreted her incorrectly!), that if we were to come back tomorrow then we would be able to get inside, which implies that it is still used as a house of worship now and then. On the opposite side of the street from the church is the Theoretical High School Sergei Rahmaninov and the second of Cahul’s oversized mosaics. Although not as detailed as the one on the House of Culture, we thought the colours on this one were especially appealing.
Kirsty on the steps of the Theoretical High School Sergei Rahmaninov – lucky girl!
Heading back towards the market, that’s the bulk of the legwork over as everything else is more or less in the centre of the town. The third and final large mosaic is on the side of Cahul’s Sports School. Depicting various sports (funny that!), this is the only one on which I can provide additional information. It was created in 1989 and we only know that because it is engraved on the mosaic itself!
The Monument to the Underground Workers is close by and on the edge of Cahul’s main park is the Monument to the Defenders of Cahul (Eternal Flame). The centrepiece of the park itself is the Church of St. Michael and if you look around the back of the ESCOBAR cafe (good name!), you’ll see a couple of nice pieces of street art, including one of the Columbian patrón himself.
Finally, walking north of the park, there is a lovely mosaic on the side of an apartment building just near the market and that’s more or less it – you’re back where you started.
Mosaic on the side of an apartment building near the market
The only other place we found of interest was a Kindergarten that was just a little bit further north of the apartment building mosaic. Inside the grounds of the school are four medium-sized mosaics that are in very nice condition along with one other one that is damaged. We were lucky in so much that we asked for, and were granted, permission to enter the building and photograph them. If you also want to see them and there are children on the premises then I would suggest doing the same i.e. ask for consent rather than just head in uninvited.
An example of one of the mosaics inside the Kindergarten
How long is needed to see Cahul?
Four to five hours is enough to see all of the above but, as I said, Cahul is a pleasant city so I would recommend having one full day there.
Where to stay in Cahul
We stayed at the Hotel Marco Polo. The four rooms are a little dated but perfectly acceptable for a night or two. The location is good (close to the market) and there is a downstairs restaurant attached to the place where breakfast (included in the room rate) and other meals are served. Our only concern was that we could hear the music from the restaurant in our room but the owner, who speaks very good English (unlike any of the younger staff), assured us it would be quiet by 11pm and he kept to his word. If you can, request one of the two rooms on the front side. You might get a little traffic noise but won’t be able to hear the music.
Where to eat in Cahul
Two words – Andy’s and Pizza! You’ll find this chain restaurant in all Moldovan cities of any size as well as in Tiraspol and Bendery (Transnistria). The food is good (not just pizzas), the beer is cheap and the service is decent. Each one we have been in has always been packed and it’s a wonder that any other restaurants in Moldova survive! The one is Cahul is opposite the university and has a pleasant, shaded outdoor area as well as an air-conditioned interior.
There are other restaurants in Cahul, including the one at the Hotel Marco Polo and also the nearby Pizza Grill (which comes up as number 1 on TripAdvisor), but we didn’t try any of them.
How to get to Cahul on public transport
There are regular buses as well as marshrutkas (fixed route minivans) between Cahul and Chisinau. Because plenty of stops are made along the way, the 160km journey takes about 3½ hours to complete. To save going to the bus station in Cahul, if travelling by marshrutka, you can pick it up outside the MoldTelecom building (marked on the map) in the town centre. We went to the bus station to get ours and we were pleased we did because by the time everyone had jostled on at the central stop there was standing room only and I doubt if our jostling skills versus those of a local would have been up to scratch and an already cramped journey would have been even worse.
In Chisinau, buses and marshrutkas depart and arrive at the Southern Bus Station on the outskirts of town.
There is plenty of regional public transport departing Cahul as well, including two buses a day to Comrat, the capital of the autonomous region of Gagauzia which is another place in southern Moldova that is worth visiting.
Schedules for buses departing Cahul can be found here.
And finally, did I mention not to go anywhere near the toilets at Cahul’s bus station!
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