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Castles and chateaux of Ukraine


In childhood, a castle is a place where a beautiful princess is waiting for an enchanted prince to shake off his guise and come on a white steed to take her away to another castle where they will live in a happy marriage to the end of time. In adolescence, the castle is a place in whose donjon a beautiful lady is immured while noble knights besiege it to set her free; a castle is also a place where lovers are locked in love so passionate that they just can’t help dying at the height of it. At maturity, a castle is a ruin from a dusty book of history or a site to visit and pretend admiration, or at best a curious reminder of the times long gone by. But there are some grown-up individuals for whom a castle is still a magic place.


There are quite a few castles in various degrees of preservation or ruin to be found in Western Ukraine. They are witnesses of the historical links of Ukraine with Western Europe, and at the same time they make you wonder at their indestructibility, particularly in view of all the invasions and wars that Ukraine had lived through — the Huns, Goths, Mongols, Turks, Poles, Hungarians, Austrians, Swedes, Russians, Germans tried at one time or another to establish their rule over the western part of Ukraine or over the whole of it, bringing war and destruction.

In the medieval times, the fortified towns and castles were the places the local population fled to when an invasion threatened. Constant danger led to even houses of worship, be it a church or a synagogue, monasteries, bell towers, or big mills, being fortified to withstand a siege for some time. The sturdy walls had loopholes and battlements and bastions and other structures to increase their defensive capabilities. The construction of such fortifications stopped only as late as in the 18th century.

Some of the castles of Western Ukraine which have been preserved more or less intact were lucky to have been given the status of museums of “architectural landmarks protected by the state.” The ones that are museums are maintained in a more or less presentable condition (the state being a miser as far as culture is concerned provides very meagre financing, and it is the local authorities or patrons of art that provide additional funding). Tourism could be of a considerable financial help but the tourist infrastructure needs a complete overhaul, and what little is being done is done with an enormous amount of effort and time spent and wasted in overcoming bureaucratic obstacles and passivity. In the areas where most of the castles are, the roads are in a very poor condition, hotels are either absent or are of the kind that only the most hardened and least demanding could risk to spend a night in; and tourist services are a thing unheard of. On the one hand, it makes the castles almost inaccessible to the average tourist but on the other, paradoxically, this lack of mod cons helps preserve the environment around the ruins and castles in a condition most suitable for “getting the feel” of these places which retain an appearance of something real, without acquiring that unfortunate Hollywood or stage props look.

Probably, the most frequently visited castles and fortified towns in Ukraine are: Kamyanets-Podilsky, Khotyn, Lutsk, Mukacheve, Bilhorod-Dnistrovsky, Zolochiv, Olesko, Pidhirtsi, Svirzh, Zhovkva, Dubno, Medzhybizh, Terebovlya, Sataniv, most of which are to be found in the lands of Lvivshchyna, Volyn and Podillya.

Depending on how much time you will have in Lviv on a visit there, you can go and see the Olesko Castle, Pidhirtsi Castle and Zolochiv Castle. With more time available, you can explore further and see the castle in Stare Selo and in Svirzh. If you are not prepared to camp in the field for the night, it is best you return to your home base in Lviv after the tours of the castles.


The Olesko Castle is the oldest and the one in Pidhirtsi is the “best looking.” The Olesko Castle has an additional advantage of sitting right next to a highway that connects Lviv with Kyiv and thus can be easily accessed. The Olesko Castle, as well as the ones in Pidhirtsi and in Zolochiv, are placed under the jurisdiction of the Lviv Arts Gallery whose curator, Borys Viznytsky, is a great castle enthusiast who has made the preservation and restoration of the castles in that region his life’s work. In fact it was he who was instrumental in having the Olesko Castle restored — or rather raised from the ruins. It was thanks to his efforts that exhibits pertinent to the castle in particular and medieval life in general were brought to the castle and placed on view in the castle’s halls and corridors. It was thanks to his enthusiasm that the park around the castle has been brought back to life.

The Olesko Castle is believed to have been founded in the 11th century, probably at the time when the Crusades began. Halychyna in Western Ukraine began to experience pressure both from the west — crusading knights — and from the east — the nomads. Later came the crushing weight of the Mongol invasion. The Olesko Castle was built on a hill commanding a marshy area and controlling the hub of the trade routes from north to south and from east to west. The then mightiest powers of the region — Poland and Litva — vied for making the castle their own.

The Olesko Castle is mentioned in many Western European documents of the 13th–16th centuries, including the chronicles, royal orders, papal bulls, official messages and private letters, but it was in the 17th century that the castle was firmly put on the European map — in the year 1629, a baby boy of royal parentage was born under the protection of the castle’s mighty walls. The boy was destined to become one of the most remarkable Polish rulers, King John (Jan) III Sobieski (1629– 1696). When still commander in chief of the Polish army rather than king, he engaged in plotting against Poland but retrieved himself by defeating the Turks in a decisive battle at Khotyn in 1673. He was elected king in 1674 and marched to Vienna with 20,000 Polish troops to relieve the Austrian capital of the Turkish siege. His army reinforced, he then successfully drove the Turks back and was acclaimed as “Hero of Christendom.” It was the climax of his royal career. In addition to being a successful general (and not a very successful Polish king, the political conditions in Poland being wretchedly out of control), he was a patron of science, literature and art, a man of vast and refined erudition.

His birth was surrounded by circumstances the romantic writers of the early nineteenth century would surely pounce upon — as his mother went into labour, the castle was attacked by a marauding detachment of the Tartars. The defenders , aided by a violent storm, beat the attack off. One of the lightnings of which many hit the castle’s towers, struck the marble table, from which the happy “puerpera” had been removed minutes before — the marble top was split in two. This table with a marble top “cleft in twin by the bolt of heavenly fire” was kept in the castle for many decades afterwards and was shown to all the guests.

The Polish king’s life-long love for his wife Maria-Marysenka is an integral part of the story of this extraordinary person. Such faithfulness in the licentious 17th century was a rarity and a king without a host of “official” and unofficial lovers seeking favours was an oddity. Louis XIV, who held the lead in the number of “favourites,” received the chaste Polish queen at his court and was even godfather to her first son (altogether, she had fourteen children, of whom only five survived to live to mature age).

Love for Marysenka was the guiding light of all Sobieski’s life. His letters to her are full of gentle sentiment declarations of love: “O the light of my eyes and sovereign of my heart, if by God’s grace I return home from the war safe and sound, I swear to God I’ll kiss my beloved wife who is the sunshine of my life, a million times and remain her most humble servant for as long as I live…” Though his long letters are written in the convoluted style of the time, there is no mistake about the true feeling and passion their express. In our age of short e-mails, no one seems to be writing letters like this anymore. King Sobieski would be an oddity and maverick in the twenty first century as he was in the seventeenth with his unroyal-like fidelity.

But there was one obvious personal shortcoming in this lovelorn royal personage — he was unpardonably jealous of his beautiful wife. When his jealousies became unbearable, she would flee to her native Paris where she would stay for some time, long enough to have him crawling up the wall — he would start sending her messages imploring her to return as soon as possible. And she did. After the king died, she attempted to put one of her sons on the Polish throne (Polish was not a hereditary monarchy — rulers were elected by the assembly of Polish nobles), but failed even though she turned to the Russian Emperor Peter I for help. She died in France, lonely, sick and forgotten.

But that is not the end of this romantic tale. Can a love story end on such a sad note? It did not. On a stormy night in May several months after Marysenka’s death, the Capuchin friars in Warsaw were woken up by loud knocking on the gate of the place where they were spending the night — close to the church where King Sobieski was buried. The gate was thrown open but there was no one there — in the wet darkness, the frightened friars saw only a coffin, containing as it turned out the remains of the Polish queen, Sobieski’s wife. It remained a mystery who had brought the coffin from France. The friars had the queen buried side by side with her faithful and loving and jealous king. A white rose is regularly placed on her gravestone — she was known to have greatly loved white flowers.

The Olesko Castle is a haunted place. Unmarried girls have a chance of meeting a ghost. This spirit is that of a nobleman, Adam Zholkevsky who was in love with a most fair damsel named Martsiana. He kept proposing to her but his proposals were turned down by her father, and once, driven to despair by the refusal and his unquenchable love, he pierced his breast with a dagger right in front of the implacable father. As a suicide, he was denied burial in the cemetery and his body was thrown into a nearby bog. Since then, he is said to be prowling around at night, revealing himself only to single women, sighing pitifully and making feeble noises with the silver buttons of his ancient surcoat.

But meeting the wandering spectre is only one of the reasons you may wish to pay a visit to the Olesko Castle, maybe even not the most compelling one. There’s a lot to see in the castle — paintings (a huge canvas showing the Battle of Vienna; portraits of Sobieski, his wife Marysenka, of owners of the castle) — and the castle itself is a romantic sight in its own right.

The castle in Pidhirtsi is much closer to what in French is called chateau rather than a castle proper. In the eighteenth century it was a royal residence on a par with other European royal residences, and though it is much smaller than, say, Versailles, it is a worthy rival in handsomeness.

The first known written mention of “a castle in Pidhirtsi” dates to the year 1431. In 1633, commander in chief of the Polish army Hetman Stanislaw Koniecpolski, one of the most highly born noblemen of Poland, bought the estate of Pidhirtsi from a descendant of the noble but impoverished Pidhorecki family, and commissioned architects, artists and gardeners to change a fortified castle into a civilized chateau complete with a groomed park.

A French nobleman who visited Pidhirtsi in 1687 wrote later that “the cheteau is a most distinguished edifice, one of the most striking architectural creations in the whole of Poland and of the kind that any royalty in Europe would be proud to possess.” Later, the Pidhirtsi chateau was acquired by King Sobieski but his wife Marysenka preferred Olesko and stayed there rather than in Pidhirtsi most of the time. In 1711, the Russian troops of Peter I were billeted in Pidhirtsi and it was then that Marysenka who wanted to promote her son and get the Polish throne for him, had the sculptures, the work of Italian sculptors, from her park taken to the Summer Garden in St Petersburg. This gesture of not so much “good will” as a vain attempt to get the Russian tsar help her son climb onto the Polish throne, denuded her park but failed to earn the grace of the northern tyrant.

In 1720, Pidhirtsi changed hands and Waclaw Zhevuski, the son of the new owner, eventually turned the chateau into a private museum, among whose prized possessions were the black marble baptismal font in which Jan Sobieski was baptized and trophies captured from the Turks in the Battle of Vienna. Among the trophies was the lavishly decorated tent of the Turkish sultan himself. It is worthy of note that the owner let the general public come and look at his treasures, much earlier than, for example, the Louvre collections which opened to the public only in 1793. Among the distinguished visitors to Pidhirtsi were prominent statesmen and culture figures from Austria, Poland, Germany, Ukraine and Russia. The guest book, now in a museum in Krakow, contains hundreds of signatures, the one of Franz-Joseph Hapsburg, the Emperor of Austria-Hungary, among them.

In the 19th century, Leon Zhevuski, the impoverished owner of the chateau, realizing that he did not have enough means to maintain the chateau in a proper order and yet not wishing to see Pidhirtsi neglected and dilapidating, sold it to the Prince Sanguszko for a very low price but on condition that the restoration work would be done, and the chateau and collections therein would be properly taken care of. Everything was done as promised and a Polish historian wrote an article published in 1912 that what he had seen on a visit to Pidhirtsi made him proud of the architectural achievements of the past and that the chateau was in an excellent condition, and its collection in perfect order.

But two years later the first world war broke out; civil war followed with the area where the chateau is located changing hands nine times; the western Ukrainian lands were “joined to the Soviet Ukraine” in a fraternal and stiffing embrace in 1939 right after Nazi Germany invaded Poland. The Sanguszkos were wise to save at least the collections from the Pidhirtsi chateau and took most of them all the way to Brazil where they are kept in safety at the Sanguszko Foundation in San Paulo. A small part of the collections belongs to several museums in Lviv — the rest disappeared without trace or was destroyed. In 1956 a big fire devastated the chateau — the panelling, murals and mosaic floors were destroyed beyond repair. In fact, only the architectural carcass survived. This “carcass” was repaired in a typical Soviet slipshod manner and the chateau began to be used as “a TB sanatorium.”

However, the Soviets put the chateau still to another use — the Soviet film makers used it as a backdrop in shooting sequences of historical movies, or when they had to film a scene from “Western life.”

With Ukraine’s regained independence, the chateau was first planned to be revamped and made into “a presidential residence” but later a better decision was taken and the chateau was placed under the jurisdiction of the Lviv Arts Gallery. The Gallery lacks funding support from the state and the restoration work is moving very slowly. The park is also being taken care of, but the lack of funds allows only for a slow progress. In spite of the fact that there is very little to see inside the chateau and that the usual tourist services are virtually non-existent, busloads of tourists, predominantly from Poland, keep coming to see the chateau from early spring to late fall.

Those of more adventurous disposition may try their luck and stay in the chateau until late at night — they may chance to see the White Lady, a ghost of a woman slain by her much too jealous husband a couple of centuries ago. Having murdered her, he bricked her in in one of the walls. Ever since, the White Lady has been regularly spotted taking walks through the corridors; the candle light has been seen appearing and disappearing in some of the windows, and the rapid patter on the floors — a light tapping sound as though made by a woman’s footsteps — has been heard.


In the land of Podillya, two most attractive places worth paying a visit to are Kamyanets-Podilsky, a fortified town, and the fortress of Khotyn.

Kamyanets-Podilsky stands at a place which is hard to access in a narrow valley that has been cut by the River Smotrych in the Medobory Mountains. The town sprang up several centuries ago as a fortress strategically placed to prevent the Turks and Tartars from passing into Podillya on their frequent incursions. In fact, there are some archaeological evidence that suggest that the town had been founded long before it became a bulwark against the Turkish and Tartar raids — the Romans may have been there defending their Eastern border from “the barbarian onslaught.” They even built a bridge of a kind that is represented on the famous Trajan’s Column in Rome. The little town has absorbed influences of many cultures which are still evident everywhere you go. The narrow medieval streets of the town have changed by little through the centuries; a Gothic church has a minaret standing close by — a curious combination of the Christian and Muslim faiths and a reflection of the time when the town found itself for a short period under the Turkish domination.


Only 25 kilometres away from Kamyanets-Podilsky we find another fortress, Khotyn, which features in many swashbucklers of the Soviet and post-Soviet times when film crews shot its battlements, curtain walls, towers and the donjon from all possible angles. The fortress was founded at least a thousand years ago and sat at the hub of the trade routes. Probably because it was a very pragmatic place, there are no romantic ghosts walking around and sighing at night. But the place still retains an impressive appearance; besides, many caches were unearthed in the town itself and its environs, most of them containing coins of the times long past and thus unsuitable for shopping today but good for giving to museums — at a price, of course. Treasure hunters keep digging but with diminishing luck.

The fortress has witnessed many a battle in its lifetime but the biggest and most portentous one was fought in 1621. The Christian army made up of 35,000 Poles and 40,000 Ukrainians and commanded by the Ukrainian Hetman Konashevych-Sahaydachny clashed with a 200,000 strong Turkish-Tartar army, which had four war elephants, untold number of camels in addition to three hundred cannon to intimidate and destroy the enemy. One of the witnesses of the battle that was fought on September 2, wrote in his account of this momentous event: “The cannon kept firing with no respite, the balls split the rock, splintered the trees and mowed down the foot and mounted troops, the ground shook, the skies grew dark with smoke and dust — but the valour and determination of the Cossacks prevailed over the numbers.”

The battle was not decided in one day and the fighting continued for almost a month but the Cossacks who turned out to be the most valiant and battleworthy among the Christian troops, never gave ground and finally overwhelmed the foe. The Turks were forced to sign a peace treaty which prevented the Turkish Empire from pushing further into Poland and into Muscovy, and in fact effectively curbed the Turkish conquering drive into Europe for sixty years. Jan Sobieski defeated the Turks under Khotyn again in 1673 and the next year dealt a crushing blow to the Turkish army under Vienna… Here we’ve come a full circle — remember the Olesko Castle we have begun our story with, and the lightning and “Hero of Christendom”?


History comes alive at our bidding.


Nataliya Kosmolinska, a fair lady-journalist, escorted by a courageous knight-errant, photographer Roman Shyshak, goes on a tour of castles of Western Ukraine.

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