Imagine a normal country with borders, a democratically-elected government, sealed passports for the population, a president, and a flag flying—yet nobody recognises its existence. Welcome to Transnistria.
A small piece of land barely as big as Dallas, Texas, Transnistria once belonged to the Soviet Socialist Republic of Moldova. In 1990, when the Soviet Union fell apart, Moldova gained independence and planned its union with Romania. That caused Transnistria, with a Russian-speaking majority, to declare its own independence to break from Moldova. A four-month war followed, with some 1,500 casualties, ending by a ceasefire still held today. Since then, Moldova has no control over Transnistrian authorities, and likewise, Transnistria acts as an independent country even though no other nation in the world recognises it.
Local Anton Dendemarchenko, an urban sketcher and tour guide, says: “Showing my beautiful country to foreigners is my contribution to raise international recognition to my homeland. We do not officially exist, but when people visit us, we feel that somehow we do exist.”
For bold travellers interested in visiting this small and mysterious country, here’s what to see:
FIND THE BEST VANTAGE POINT: BENDERY FORTRESS
Just across the Moldovan “border” lies the city of Bender, the second biggest of Transnistria. Visit the almost 600-year-old fortress built by the Ottomans. Not only do the thick stone walls, outdated weapons, and impressive military construction illuminate layers of history, but the roof of the fortress also offers the best view of the whole region.
Lenin towers over the Parliament building in Tiraspol, the de-facto capital of Transnistria.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTHIAS SCHUMANN, GETTY IMAGES
STEP BACK IN TIME: CENTRAL TIRASPOL
Take an old Soviet trolleybus to October 25th Avenue to stroll the central street of the de-facto capital, Tiraspol. Here one can admire the leftovers of Soviet times that locals proudly memorialise as a glorious time. Transnistria is one of the only places in Europe where travellers can still see former communist symbols in their original place, like statues of Lenin in front of the Parliament, and streets and avenues named after Marx, Engels, and Yuri Gagarin.
GET CULTURED: KITSKANY MONASTERY AND PLATSDARM
Barely 6 kilometres away from Tiraspol, discover the domed Orthodox Monastery of Kitskany, founded in 1861. Closed during Soviet times, the beautiful complex of four churches is also home to monks that cultivate their own organic food between prayers.
TASTE LUXURY: KVINT COGNAC DISTILLERY
Then get a taste of the most important industry and main export of Transnistira. Living up to its name, a cognac called Divine is considered one of the world’s finest. One bottle can cost up to $1,700. More than 20 million bottles are sold every year to consumers around the world, representing a whopping five percent of the GDP. Visit the Kvint Distillery to understand the process, sample the spirit, and buy the perfect souvenir for a fraction of the price elsewhere.
SOAK IN A SOVIET SPA: SANATORII DNESTR
About a two-and-a-half-hour drive north from Tiraspol, explore this hidden gem built just after World War Two. The last remodelling was completed in 1976, remaining stuck in its glorious communist past. Imagine the meetings of the bigwigs of the Party, while enjoying professional spa treatments, meals, and accommodations for an affordable price.
Based in Barcelona, writer Oscar Vaello frequently travels to unexpected places like Transnistria, North Korea, and Chechnya.
Lead Image: Strolling through the central square of Tiraspol, tourists pause in front of a statue of 18th-century Russian military general Alexander Vasiliyevich Suvorov, who led troops in 60 battles and never lost. PHOTOGRAPH BY SANDER DE WILDE, GETTY IMAGES