Chernivtsi's distinctive green-domed railway station gives a hint of the city it serves. It is a stylish station, one that well befits what is a gem among Ukrainian cities. Of course, for many travellers Chernivtsi is merely a place to change trains. There are connections far and wide. A daily train heads south across the nearby border into Romania. There are fast trains, and some that are not so fast, to Kiev. There are grand expresses north to Minsk and Moscow. And there are crowded trains that travel east to the Crimea.
But the most interesting train of the day from Chernivtsi is the morning train to Moldova. Devotees of the absurd would love this train, and it just deserves to be much better known. It is one of just a handful of trains in the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable that are shown as conveying fourth class carriages.
When was the last time you travelled fourth class? For us the very thought evokes images of migrant workers travelling in open wagons through Manchuria a hundred years ago. Austere Prussia certainly had fourth-class carriages for the workers, but they were scrapped in 1928. Travel writers of yesteryear took care to ensure that they enjoyed the bourgeois comforts of second class while travelling on routes through Prussia, but often commented on the merriment of life in the densely populated fourth class part of the train. Wordsmiths have always been quick to add a little colour and romance to peasant and proletarian affairs.
The train to Moldova turned out not to have the elaborate social structure of Prussian trains, where each had his or her place according to his rank in society. It was pure and simple fourth class, just as the illustrious Mr Cook advised in his timetable. On Russian trains we have run across fourth class where it is called 'obshchi' - the very name suggests a mobile version of the muddy peasant villages of pre-Revolutionary Russia which were called 'obshchina'.
Well, there were a few folk with mud on their boots on Train 610 at 8.45 in the morning from Chernivtsi to Moldova, but these were no peasants. Most were traders who spent part of the journey counting the money they had made over the previous few days at the market on the edge of Chernivtsi. This is a huge open air bazaar that sprawls over a muddy 30 hectares and is a mecca for cross-border sellers and buyers. Even if you don't have the shopping gene, it is an intriguing place just to wander — pure theatre in fact. Just as the train journey to Ocnita in Moldova is pure theatre. The 173 km run takes over five hours, crossing the border between Ukraine and Moldova several times along the way, giving scope for some fine bureaucratic antics as passport checkers and customs folk go about their business on the train.
And fourth class or obshchi? Absolutely fine. True, there was no samovar at the end of the carriage and no-one to turn down the bed. Hard seats, dirty windows and a lot of diesel fumes. But really not much different from one of the less loved local trains that you might find on a branch line in western Europe. Just a whole lot cheaper. We could even become fans of fourth class.
This article was first published as a hidden europe e-brief.