Transnistria is a no-go to most government advisories, but when you’re an hour away in Chisinau and there’s the opportunity to take a Soviet tour and see some do the last remaining Lenin statues, you have to go for it.

I used a company called Transnistria Tours for my day trip and opted for a pick up & drop off because I’d heard the border could be tricky alone. As it turned out, some other people from the hostel were planning to go as well so we all shared the cost of the car.

Transnistria is a self-proclaimed state between Moldova and Ukraine, though no recognized countries recognize it (Transnistria is recognized by South Ossetia and Abkhazia, neither of which is recognized by the UN). Transnistria declares independence from Moldova in 1990 at a time when Moldova, a predominantly Romanian-speaking country, was looking to join Romania. The people of Transnistria speak Russian and use the Cyrillic alphabet and didn’t like the idea of being minorities in the new county so instead opted for independence. Moldova didn’t go for it and invaded in 1992, which lead to a several month long war that saw a lot of violence and many victims, particularly in the city of Bender. They reached a ceasefire later that year, but the territory is still controlled in part by Russian peacekeepers. Although no countries recognize it, Transnistria has its own currency (roubles), police force, passports, banks, and essentially functions like an independent state. 

Crossing the “border” into Transnistria was way easier than I’d read. You need a passport to enter but they can’t stamp it because they’re not officially a country. Instead they give you a little slip that allows you entry for 10 hours. And it’s that easy!

Our first stop was Bender, the second biggest city where we met our guide, Anton. He was born in Transnistria, and because at the time it was in the Soviet Union he has Russian, Moldovan, and Transnistria passports. Apparently if you were born after, it’s a lot more complicated for people. 

For the most part, Bender just felt like any other city. It felt a bit cleaner and even better developed than Moldova, and people were just going about their days as normal. But a few weird things did stand out. The Transnistrian flag was everywhere, and it features a hammer and sickle in the top right corner, which is just unheard of basically every where else.  It felt like being inside a history textbook to see the flag flying around on all the buildings and monuments.

Another weird thing was this company called Sheriff that seemed to own everything. Shopping centres, banks, gas stations, and everything else seemed to sport their logo. Anton explained that Sheriff owns pretty much everything in the country and has a total monopoly. They still price things fairly, but they can pretty much do what they want in the country. We visited one of their markets and exchanged some money for Transnistrian roubles. I bought some local cognac there as well called Kvint that we were told was good. (It was!).

Next we headed to Tiraspol, the capital. It was a really short drive and we passed lots of monuments commemorating the 1992 conflict. We eventually got out at the biggest monument, featuring a Soviet tank and plaques with the names of all those who died fighting for Transnistrian independence. Anton explained there were a lot of volunteers who came from countries like Russia, Estonia, and Latvia to fight as well.

Across the road from this monument was the parliament featuring a massive statue of Lenin out front. This was another one of those moments where I felt like I was back in my history class looking at old photos. I think because he is so iconic in history it feels surreal to see the statues in person just walking down the street. Transnistria is a Democracy, and so parliament houses all the elected officials. The last election has two main parties, one led by Sheriff and the other independent, and was observed by Russian peacekeepers. 

We walked down one of the main streets and visited some different monuments as well as city hall, which also featured a massive Lenin head. I asked Anton why there was so much symbolism left over from the Soviet era and he said it was about respect for their history. A lot of the people in the region were quite happy during the Soviet era – he told us his Dad preferred when Transnistria was a part of the Soviet Union, which was interesting.

Our last stop was lunch at a Ukrainian style local restaurant. It was delicious. We tried a local beer and I had amazing dumplings with spinach and cheese and I could have again every day for the rest of my trip. Cherries also seem to be quite big here so we had these amazing mascarpone and cherry crepes for dessert. 

Overall, it was an unreal day. Based on all the travel warnings, I was surprised at how normal life was in Transnistria. Besides seeing all the Soviet relics, it was so interesting to learn about the country and their fight for independence. Their hope is that Russia will recognize them as a country soon which may encourage others to as well, but for the time being they will continue as an unrecognized Republic.


 Chasing ancestry in Radauti, Romania

Genealogy strikes again! After two pretty successful visits to my ancestral villages in Slovakia, I could not come to Romania without visiting Radauti (pronounced Ra-Dowtz).  My grandma sent me with genealogical charts for Michael Bocz, my great great great grandfather, whose birthplace  in Laskar, Slovakia I visited two years ago. Michael and his family later moved here, to Radauti, before eventually coming to Canada in the 1890s and settling on a farm 17 miles north-east of Regina, Saskatchewan.

Michael, whose family was originally from Bohemia, was born in Laskar, Slovakia in 1837, but as Grandma’s charts point out, he was later married in Radauti in 1868 to Anna Matzko, who was born there and would have grown up in the town.  Although today in Romani, Radauti was at the time the eastern-most point of the Austrian empire.  Based on some research and conversations I was able to have in Radauti, the Austrian empire encouraged people in their well-established territory to move East to help secure and/or colonize the rest of the empire. In particular, poor families in the bohemian forest were offered incentives to move to this area, now called Bukovina, and establish settlements. This is my best (though unconfirmed) guess as to why the Bocz would have moved here during Michael’s lifetime. 

My grandma’s research found that Michael and Anna were married in Radauti when Anna was 17 and Michael was 31. They attended an evangelical church there with their children. Of the Germanic peoples who migrated to this part of the empire, evangelical christians were minority to Jewish and Catholic Germans, and their faith was treated as such. According to the Radauti ethnographic museum, evangelical Christians were allowed to practice their faith, but only in small churches whose doors did not face open to the street. Furthermore, after the Austrian empire lost control of the region, Romanians who had lived under their occupation were quick to take down any reminder of Germans in the region. This is perhaps why during my visit I was unable to find any standing evangelical churches dating back to their years in Radauti.

For my visit to Radauti, I had a general but pretty basic plan to visit all the churches I could find in the hopes that they might have some records or cemeteries of interest.  Failing that, I wanted to photograph everything dating back to 1850, when Anna Maztko was born. If I couldn’t see where they actually lived or went to church, I could at least get a sense of what they saw in their day-to-day living in the town.

Radauti was bigger than I expected. Getting off the bus, I was struck by a somewhat modern but also impoverished town. Unlike the villages of Transylvania where I came from, everything in Radauti seemed to have been built in the last 50 years, other than the few churches and monasteries sprinkled around, some dating back to the 14th century.  

My first stop was the Pentecostal church, the closest thing I could find to an evangelical church. It was a short walk but I quickly realized it would not provide any answers – the church was brand new and did not even have a cemetery. This was constant with the idea that they would have belonged to a small church that no longer exists. 

This hunt for any family remains was already harder than both visits I’d done two years ago in Slovakia. There was almost no English here and even when I could communicate, the Bocz name is not a recognizable one. The Matzkos, who were likely in Radauti earlier because Anna was born there, could also have migrated with the other Germans around that time, especially because her mother’s name Aschenbrenner is a German one. (Grandma, I’ll need your help on this one!).

With no luck at any of the other the churches in town, I headed to the Radauti Central Cemetery where four of the Bocz children were buried. According to my grandma’s charts, Gustav, Robert, Ida, and Wilhelm all died young before the family immigrated to Canada, so they should be buried here in Radauti. I was also on the lookout for the Matzko name, hoping some of Anna’s family may be there as well.

The cemetery was huge – I’ve never seen such a big cemetery – and it seemed to be a mix of orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Pentecostal graves. The Jewish cemetery, which made up a big part of the population here as well, was separate. I’ve only ever seen cemeteries in Christian-majorly countries connected to churches, so it was weird to walk through a central cemetery that brought together so many different denominations. 

In Slovakia I was faced with a much smaller cemetery and had helpers to go through the lines of headstones, but this one was much bigger and I was alone. I did my best going up and down the small lanes, but all the dates were too recent to correlate with any of the names I was working with. Wilhelm, the last Bocz death in Radauti, was in 1892, whereas the earliest births in this cemetery were around that time. I spent close to three hours scanning the headstones but with no luck. I learned in Slovakia that to make space some European cemeteries will remove older graves and reuse the space, so that is a definitely possibility here. It’s also possible that there is an older cemetery somewhere outside the town that got full so they opened this one I visited. Either way, this was another dead end.

My next stop was the Radauti Ethnographic Museum, a small display in an old building near the centre of town. The woman working here had limited English, like everyone else I’d run into so far, but I got lucky when she asked about French. There is so much French spoken in Romania, and it has saved me more than a few times. The woman hadn’t heard of Bocz or Matzko, but she did have some interesting information on the migration from this region to North America.  In the late 1800s, the economic opportunity that had attracted so many Germanic people to the region was starting to run dry. Around the same time, Canada and the US were both looking for people to populate their more rural territory and managed to advertise all across Europe, but especially in this region. The first group of immigrants from this region settled in Kansas, or in Regina, Saskatchewan. This all happened a few decades before the Bocz made the journey, but she said it was common for friends or family to write back to Radauti to tell of the opportunity in Canada. When the Bocz made the journey to Canada in the 1890s, they were following a well traveled path by other Germans in the area through a German port and then onwards likely to Quebec City, where they would have carried on to Regina. 

When Michael and his family settled on their farm 17 miles north east of Regina, they must have felt at home in the flat grassy prairies. The area surrounding Radauti reminded me so much of Saskatchewan, so it’s not hard to see why they would have ended up where they did.

Other than my grandma’s charts, none of this is scientific. But it was so much fun to visit the town where Michael spent much of his adult life and Anna the first half of her life and to imagine what it must have been like for them. Speculating on why they moved around and how they ended up in Saskatchewan felt like a live action puzzle, and I can’t wait to read more about the movement of these populations. One thing’s for sure – after following Michael’s footsteps from Laskar to Radauti, the next stop might have to be Regina. (Maybe instead I’ll go backward to Bohemia!).

Belgrade, Serbia

What was admittedly a brief stop in Belgrade gave me a taste of what Serbia’s all about, and I’d definitely like to come back. 

Driving into Serbia from Croatia, the landscape really starts to change, swapping rolling green hills with castle ruins for flat and somewhat grey (due to the weather) fields. Zagreb to Belgrade took about five hours, with several border stops along the way. The borders seem pretty relaxed here, which makes for quick passing on a bus.

I arrived in Belgrade midday on Sunday, and found out that the hotel I’d booked ($42 splurge!) wasn’t actually in the main part of town, but a ways out in a neighbourhood called Banova Brda. There’s very little English here and my phone was useless so it took a little while to figure out how to get there by bus, but eventually I found my way into the #37 which took me almost straight to my door.

Belgrade was once the capital of Yugoslavia, and is still the biggest capital in the Balkan region. You can see when you drive in that it sprawls out in all directions. I liked it immediately, I think because it has hills. After Zagreb, which was totally flat, I realized I like a city with some bumps. It’s interesting because in some ways Belgrade comes off like a modern city, but there’s lots going on under the surface (and not-so under the surface) that says otherwise. The war in this region was so recent, and Belgrade has been my first real taste of that. I went by the old federal ministry of defence that was bombed by NATO during the war. The building is still in ruins and there doesn’t seem to be any plans to take it down or rebuild it. The city has grown around it, and people just walk by it everyday.

The old town has less of a post war feel and looks more like other European capitals. I was there on a Sunday and it was packed! Crowds of people, mainly Serbians from what I could tell, all came to Republik Square which turns into a pedestrian street with shops and restaurants and bars. I went down there for a bit before carrying on to the Belgrade Fortress which is connected to the city.

The fortress is massive and has in part been repurposed for modern use. Walking through the main upper gates there were basketball courts and a bit of a sports complex using the fortress walls as boundaries.  The fortress itself was nice and had a beautiful view overlooking the two rivers in the city.  

My photos are coming – it’s been more complicated than it should be to get them off my camera!


For such a tiny country, Slovenia has everything. Mediterranean coast, Julian Alps, alpine lakes, midieval castles, winding cobblestone streets. I wish I had longer to explore it, but what I did see was unreal. 

I got into Ljubljana mid day after what felt like an unreasonably long train journey from Vienna. The scenery made it worth it – the Austrian and Slovenian countryside was amazing, with castles and churches perched on top of rolling hills and mountains. This city is tiny, like its country, and can be explored entirely on foot which I love. It’s made up largely of Vienna Revival architecture which is meant to emulate nature, so all the buildings are beautiful and detailed. The centre of Ljubljana is entirely pedestrian, a change that was made in 2007 (I think – my walking tour memory is fading). Apparently it was quite the adjustment for drivers and pedestrians alike, but now everyone loves it, and the city has won a few sustainability awards as a result. To smooth the transition they invested lots into bus routes and taxi services around the centre so that people could still get around easily. The pedestrian centre is amazing, and the fact that there’s no cars makes it even better. I think it’s so cool for such a small city to take on something like that.

Ljubljana is called the Dragon City, and as a recent Game of Thrones convert that’s pretty fun. All the tourist shops sell stuffed green dragons and there’s even a dragon bridge that leads into the old town. Supposedly a dragon was defeated here in Roman times and the name just sort of stuck. Our guide joked that it’s no wonder Slovenia has been under occupation for most of its history – it chose a slain dragon for a mascot.

My second day in Slovenia I took the bus out to Lake Bled, which is why most people know the country. Lake Bled is an alpine lake in the Julian Alps and naturally is stunning, but what makes it especially cool is the tiny island in the middle with a beautiful monastery. It was about 40 minutes by bus to get there from Ljubljana, and once I arrived I didn’t want to leave. I had hoped to kayak on the lake but the only boats allowed are these old wooden ones you can take to get to the island. Instead, I opted to walk the perimeter of the lake, which takes about an hour but took me more like 2.5 because I couldn’t stop taking photos or finding perches to enjoy the incredible view.

Lake Bled was unbelievable – I got the most beautiful day and felt so lucky the whole time I was there. All around, Slovenia surprised me. It was so beautiful and people were so nice – you can tell it’s on the up and up in terms of tourists so I’m happy I went when I did. 

Vienna, Austria

I really have to keep on top of this blogging thing because after two days in Slovenia, Austria feels ages ago. But what I do remember is that I love Vienna. I could live there. The architecture is so beautiful and the city is so musical, which I love. The night life’s not bad either, which made for a really fun few days.

I arrived in Vienna late at night after a change of plans in my travels that resulted in a €250 compensation voucher. Not bad. So I didn’t really start exploring the city until the next day. I woke up painfully early thanks to jet lag and headed out early too explore the city. It was Sunday so most things were closed and the city was relatively quiet, until I got to the more touristy area.

St Stephen’s cathedral is probably the most famous site in Vienna. It’s massive and so intricate and beautiful. Since I was there in a Sunday they were ringing the bells for what felt like 30 minutes, which was really beautiful. The inside is equally impressive, and since it was Sunday there was mass so I didn’t have to pay to get in. There was an amazing choir singing as well as a part of mass so I stayed and listened for a bit to get my fill of Viennese choir.

For the rest of the day my friend Davis who lives and grew up in Vienna showed me around town, so I pretty much had my own private guided tour. We went through some of the touristy areas but he also took me to some really beautiful more industrial areas and we walked along the canal for ages as well.

For the rest of my time in Vienna I just did lots of exploring, including the Schloss Schönbrunn which was an amazing old palace with acres of gardens to wander through.  The people in my hostel were great, so I did some wandering with them as well, and we ended up finding a makeshift “beach” bar along the canal, where they’ve brought in actual sand and beach chairs to sit a few metres away from the canal and sun bathe!

I’m so excited to be coming back to Vienna at the end of the trip. I loved it so much, and I can’t wait to see it in winter.

On my way!

I am off! Almost. I’m sitting at my gate at the Vancouver airport for my KLM flight to Amsterdam. I’ll have a quick stop before heading on to Vienna, where it all starts!

I only have a tentative plan for where I’m going and which countries I’m going to hit; I’m just planning to book as I go. Tentatively, I’m planning to go south-east from Austria through Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, and then over to spend some time in Romania before going south through Bulgaria and then back up through the Balkans. It’s a pretty ambitious plan for only two months, but if I’ll be happy if I finish even half of it.

Here’s to the first leg, a 9 hour flight to Amsterdam!