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Michael Palins New Europe

Episode 3 - Wild East

Wild East

Tiraspol is the capital of Transdniester, a breakaway state from the Republic of Moldova. It's from here, in the midst of Transdniester's National Day celebrations, that Michael starts his journey through the wilder reaches of South East Europe.

Unrecognised by any other country, Transdniester (literally, the land across the Dniester river) is only 4,000 square kilometres large with a population of half a million. Avidly pro-Russian and Russian speaking, it fought a short civil war with the Romanian-speaking Moldovans but now languishes in the half-life of a non-nation state, an anomaly in the New Europe. An hour's drive away, Chisinau (the capital of Moldova) is surprisingly pretty, as indeed are its inhabitants. Tatiana Tibuleac, a journalist working with Unicef, first takes Michael to her favourite park for Sunday ballroom dancing, before showing him one of the theatre in education projects she runs that try to warn youngsters of the dangers of being trafficked into prostitution.

Gloebus and Lica Saincuic are father-and-son artists who share a studio in one of the huge blocks that were provided by the Communists. While Gloebus entertains Michael with his surreal puppet show, Lica explains that there is little nostalgia for the days when Moldova was the sunny southern tip of the mighty Soviet Union and Communist Party ruled supreme.

In the heart of the rich black-earth farmland, Olga Maxim, an actress who left Moldova in her teens to pursue her career in Romania, returns to visit her mother with Michael in tow. Self-sufficient but tough as they come, Olga's mum is happy that the Communist days are past but saddened that so many of her children have left the ancestral village. Over chicken soup and home-made wine, Michael feels the full force of Moldovan hospitality. In a nearby village-top, Moldovan rock band Zdup zi Zdop rehearse in the farmyard of their gypsy muse, whom they affectionately call Grandma.

Crossing into the North of Romania, Michael marvels at the glories of Byzantine painted churches at the monastery of Moldovita, before experiencing All Souls Day at the 16th-Century wooden church at Ieud in Maramures province. At nearby Sapanta, he sees another side of these villagers' attitude to death at the Merry Cemetery. Over the years, Dan Petru has carved wonderful graves depicting the joyful and sometimes tragic lives of those who are buried. Wood and timber are the prime resources in Maramures, one of most underdeveloped parts of Europe. Boarding a wood fired steam train, he joins 80 lumberjacks as they trundle up the Vaser Valley to chop down trees. He doesn't sing!

Leaving the rural delights of Maramures, Michael Palin crosses into Transylvania and the old Saxon city of Sighisoara, where Ioanna Abur takes him on a Dracula-themed tour of her city and Bran Castle, famous as the location for Bram Stoker's reinvention of the real Dracula, local boy Vlad the Impaler.

In the capital Bucharest, he meets up with Bogdan Moncea at Castel Film, one of the success stories of post-Ceausescu Romania. He takes him to Ceausescu's Gargantuan folly: the so-called People's Palace. Second only to the Pentagon in sheer size and arguably even uglier, it was so detested that after Ceausescu was deposed the Romanians wanted to bomb it flat.

An intriguing conversation with 1970s tennis star Ilie Nastase revolves around the number of women he has slept with, but the numbers don't quite add up.

The last leg of his Romanian journey takes Michael to Drobeta on the Danube, the hometown of National Theatre and action movie actor Dan Badarau. Dan takes him on a boat through the impressive Iron Gate Gorge and on up the Danube towards the his next destination: Hungary.