“ City: Soroca / Country: Moldova / World Region: Europe „
Travelling around the Black Sea in 2006 we kept spotting posters for a band called 'The Snails'; we had no idea who they were but we saw the posters so often they attained a mythological status for us. We tried to remember - but failed - to Google them the next time we were in an internet cafe and then in Soroca in northern Moldova we saw another poster for The Snails. By pure chance we had happened to arrive in this one horse town on the very same day as the Snails. Using a combination of dire Romanian, mediocre Russian and unrolling the poster we had taken from the notice board in the 'town centre' we somehow managed to find the town's community centre - where the Snails had already played that afternoon before heading off to the capital Chisinau.
This was the story of our brief trip to Soroca; we had made the two hour bus journey from Chisinau having read (spurious it turned out) claims that Soroca is the 'Roma capital of Moldova'. As an ardent Romaphile I couldn't wait to get there. Alas all the Roma were either on holiday or had followed The Snails to Chisinau. We did see some of their lovely big houses on the top of a hill that has wonderful views of the Dniestr River and over in to Ukraine but their inhabitants remained largely invisible.
A helpful lady in the flat rental agency in Chisinau told us, when we returned our keys, that there was one hotel in Soroca though she had no telephone number and no trace could be found on the internet. Armed only with the name we jumped in a taxi on our arrival at Soroca and asked to be taken to Hotel Victoria. It was a large place, almost entirely hidden by trees and right on the river, close to the border crossing with Ukraine.
The grounds were teeming with noisy school children but inside there was complete silence. The foyer was enormous but the reception desk was deserted. In the corner was a kiosk, I peered through the window to see a sumptuous display of two Coke bottles and some crisps.
Suddenly a sturdy-looking lady wearing a white doctors' coat appeared as if from nowhere. I asked her if she spoke English and she beckoned me to follow her. Himself waited with the rucksacks. She led me to an office where two other ladies were sitting. I asked about a room and they told me to sit down and they kept smiling at me. The white-coated lady sat next to me and started to stroke my arm. Feeling more than a little alarmed I stood up and asked for one last time - in Russian (OK, my version of Russian) and English if we might be able to get a room. Then, in case it might help, I asked in German too. The ladies continued to grin a disconcerting crocodile smile and so I went back to the entrance hall to tell himself it was time to go. However, another lady appeared, running after us, brandishing a key.
Two floors up and as far away from Moldovan school children as possible we waited for the floor manager to take her provisions out of our fridge before locking the door and looking at each other with horror stricken faces wondering what we had done. Maybe they sensed our desperation? Quite possibly since the £25.00 room rate was rather pricy for Moldova, even if we were in the modernised wing of the hotel. It didn't even include breakfast.
We walked the short distance along the river Dniestr to Soroca's most (read ONLY) striking tourist attraction, the fortress. A fortress was established by Stefan the Great in 1499 but the stone version that exists today was built some forty or so years later. It was used a as a defence against the Ottomans during the great Turkish War and later sacked by the Russians in the mid eighteenth century. The thick walls and five towers still stand and climbing the towers affords some wonderful views across the Dniestr but there's not really much to do other than remark on the thickness of the walls (three metres in parts, you know) and lean precariously out of the window spaces. A museum in town displays lots of archaeological finds from the site but was closed at the time of our visit. There was one staff member in attendance but she was being chatted up by a man with a bushy moustache and I didn't like to interrupt them so we left having learned essentially nothing about the fortress.
We found the 'main street' and did some window shopping. Our favourite was one that sold accordions. Or rather had sold them before the owner had died and nobody had wanted to take over the shop or clean his dusty display of instruments. Of the two other shops one was a ladies clothing store that was clearly servicing the sartorial needs of the whole demographic spectrum of Soroca so eclectic was its window display, the other was a closed wine merchants.
We found a park that appeared to have a cafe but when we went into the building there was children's birthday disco party in full swing and we were told to sit outside. From the menu I ordered a 'ginstonik'; the tonic was flat and the gin was a liquid that had perhaps once been near gin, or maybe not. Some children left the party to come outside and stare at us. If they stared at us I can only wonder what they must have thought about The Snails!
We found a pizza joint and watched a teenage girl flirt with two guys as we waited for our tasteless cardboard pizzas to arrive. At least the beer was cold. When one guy went to the toilet she would snog the other, and vice versa. I couldn't blame her - I think Soroca would derange anyone.
After dinner we went in search of the nightlife. We found the pool hall where some surly youths on motorcycles scowled at us as we entered so we gulped down our beers and headed to a shop where a kind lady rummaged around in a grubby fridge to find me some ready mixed 'ginstonik'. Armed with ginstoniks and beers we returned to the hotel where it seemed a 'last night' party was going on in the grounds as loved up teenagers slow-danced and snogged to Russian heavy metal music. I thought of joining in but the World Cup was on television and my ginstonik was getting warm.
The next morning we rose early and left quietly before matron could stroke my arm again. Silently we walked to the bus station and not until the spluttering bus had left the station did we look at each other and smile. What a wonderful place!
Soroca, Moldova, is situated on the Dniester River about 160 km north of Chisinau.