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A trip to the and of Rivnenshchyna opens up much more than the traveller expected to see
Natalya Obolenska shares her impressions of a trip to north-western Ukraine.
We, a group of journalists, looked forward to going on a tour which was organized by the National Tourist Organization of Ukraine, and we expected to see a lot of wonderful things. The marvels that I saw in the Land of Rivnenshchyna by far exceeded my expectations. I have come to know Ukraine and its people better, and my appreciation of my country has grown.
The National Tourist Organization of Ukraine organized this tour for Kyiv journalists to promote the tourist potential of Rivne Oblast. We were shown the most important historical and architectural landmarks, we visited three towns, in addition to Rivne — Korets, Ostroh and Dubno which in guide books are referred to as “The Golden Ring of Rivnenshchyna.” We paid a visit to the site of the Battle of Berestechko which was one of the major battles in the seventeenth-century War of Independence. We saw for ourselves what a great tourist potential the Land of Rivnenshchyna has, and I vowed to do my journalistic best to promote tourism there.
At the border of Rivne Oblast we were met by a delegation of local officials and journalists and greeted with a traditional loaf of bread and salt — in Ukraine, giving bread and salt to guests is an age-old sign of hospitality and respect. The huge, fragrant, ingeniously decorated loaf turned out to freshly baked — soft inside, it had a marvelously crispy crust. It was an auspicious start of our journey through the Land of Rivnenshchyna.
Our guide was Oleksandr Bulyha, one of the curators of the Oblast Museum of Local Lore, History and Economy, a learned person of a considerable personal charm who had answers to all of our questions, and who loved his land. His enthusiasm was contagious, and his vast knowledge was most impressive. Wherever we went, we were welcomed by local officials who tried hard to make our visit both pleasurable and edifying.
Nine-hundred-year old Korets
Our first stop was in the town of Korets which is, to be precise, eight hundred and fifty years old — or may be older. The first written mention of it can be found in one of the early medieval chronicles, which says that the town sat on a trade route from Kyivan Rus to Western Europe. In 1258, Danylo Halytsky, the first king in the Ukrainian history, fortified the town against the Mongols who had overrun much of the territory of the Kyivan State. In the middle of the seventeenth century Korets was involved in the War of Independence led by Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky. In the eighteenth century, Korets became known for the furniture made there, leather and porcelain. One of the porcelain services made in Korets was presented to the Russian Empress Catherine the Great (now it is exhibited in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg).
There is a castle located on an island that was created by rerouting the river. It was built after the local ruler Prince Fedir Ostrozky had been given the town of Korets as a present by the Lithuanian ruler Jogaila in 1386. Fedir had the castle built as soon as he came into possession of the town. Later, Korets belonged to the Princes Korecky and Chartoriysky. The town was under siege many times, was ruined only to be rebuilt. The fire of 1832 proved to be so devastating that Korets lost its strategic importance, but the castle, even in ruins, is a magnificent sight. The castle’s central tower can be seen on Korets’ coat of arms. I saw a black raven sitting in one of the loopholes of the tower staring at the tourists in some annoyance and our guide told me that the raven had been living there for quite some time, and was one of the local attractions.
From the top of Zamkova Hora (Castle Mount) opens a wide panorama of Korets, or “Mecca of Volyn” as it has been dubbed. 12 churches of different Christian denominations can be found in Korets and in its immediate vicinity. With a population of only eight and a half thousand people, religion in Korets must be “real high” on the local priority list.
The Heorhiyivska Church made of wood is the oldest; the Mykolayivsky Cathedral, the Church of St Anthony and the Svyato-Troyitsky Nunnery are probably the most attractive from the architectural point of view, the nunnery being an architectural gem.
The nunnery is unique in the sense that it was never closed down, no matter who was in power in Korets. Even the militantly atheistic Bolsheviks spared it for some reason. Founded in 1620 by Prince Samuyil Korecky, the Svyato-Troyitsky Nunnery is among the biggest nunneries in Ukraine as far as the number of nuns is concerned. The most revered relic of the nunnery is an icon of the Virgin Mary, known as Sporuchnytsya hrishnykh (Intercessor of the Sinful) which was donated to the nunnery as long ago as in 1622 by Prince Yan-Karl Korecky. On religious feast days, thousands of pilgrims and the faithful come to the nunnery to worship the icon.
The nuns keep a busy apiary in the nunnery garden; a pile of chop wood I saw in a corner was evidence of their industriousness. But it is not only the direct, everyday needs of their religious community that the nuns occupy themselves with — the nunnery is known for producing beautiful gold-thread embroidery, excellent gold plating and beadwork. Also, precentors of church choirs are trained at the nunnery in numbers sufficient to meet the requirements of many churches in Ukraine.
Culture tourists may find it interesting to have a look at the grave of Anna Olenina-Andro — it is to her that Alexander Pushkin, the remarkable Russian poet of the first half of the nineteenth century, devoted his arguably the best known poem, Ya vas lyubil tak iskrenne, tak nezhno (“I loved you so sincerely, so tenderly…”). She was buried in 1881 at a church in Korets, with permission for burial having been given by the top church authorities — her charity work and donations to the nunnery earned her a grave in a church.
A former palace of Princes Chartoriysky, a cute creation of the eighteenth century, houses a litsey, secondary school of advanced studies. Among the prominent cultural figures of the past who visited Korets we find the peripatetic philosopher Hryhory Skovoroda, the prophetic poet Taras Shevchenko (a picture he painted of the castle is extant), the lyrical poet Lesya Ukrayinka and the versatile author Ivan Franko. Art contests and music festivals are held in Korets to maintain the cultural continuity and promote new talent. There are plans to restore the castle in order to attract more tourists.
Amber in Korets
When in Korets, we were invited to see a factory, Burshtyn DAK Ukrayinski Polimetaly, that makes jewellery using amber and silver. A small museum at the factory shows the history of local amber deposits, ways of using this “sunny stone,” pieces of jewellery and decorations made of amber, as well as the best and biggest pieces of amber discovered in the Land of Rivnenshchyna. Some of the amber pieces exhibited contain prehistoric insects and even lizards, encapsulated in petrified fossil resin for millions of years.
I did not know there were amber deposits in Ukraine and I was excited to see the museum’s collections — and I felt proud for some reason too. The colours of the amber varied from whitish to dark reddish, and the amber of yellowish-greenish is recognized by experts to be unique — amber of such colour has not been found anywhere else. Ukrainian amber thanks to its wide range of colours, was used in the restoration of the famous Amber Room in the Empress Catherine’s Palace in St Petersburg.
Traditionally, amber was used for making charms and amulets — it was believed that amber could protect the wearer against evil spirits and illness. At present, amber is widely used for making decorations which enhance women’s attire.
From Rivne we proceeded north to the Susk Forestry. On our way we stopped at a sports school which specializes in horse riding. Some of the former students of this school have won prizes and awards at various equestrian contests. It was the forestry that bought the horses for the school and though the school is situated about twenty kilometres from Rivne, the distance does not intimidate the eager students who regularly turn up for their equestrian classes. Iryna, one of the coaches, took us on a tour of the school, providing stories about each young jockey we saw and about his steed. We were invited to take a ride too, and we gladly accepted the invitation. Since for all of us it was the very first horse riding experience, we were given gentle horses. Besides, there were experienced riders escorting us. We enjoyed the ride immensely.
On the banks of the lakes in the Susk Forestland we saw summer cottages and cafes that sit by the water side and cater to the holiday makers. A big family of wild boars live in the forest. They were allotted a hectare of the forestland fenced on all sides. The forest was filled with singing of birds, and closer to the water the chirping was drowned by the loud croaking of frogs. It was an excellent place to come to unwind.
For the night, we were taken to a sanatoriy, a health-improvement centre and rest home combined, situated in the vicinity of the village of Zhobryn, 45 kilometres from Rivne. The Chervona kalyna (Red Guelder Rose) sanatoriy sits in the forest, close to a lake. The central building of the sanatoriy looked more like a palace than a rest home. The quiet of the place, the wonderful forest scents, the singing of birds and the croaking of frogs had a wonderful soporific effect on me, and put me to sleep in no time.
In the morning, I enjoyed a great view that opened from the window of my room. Mykola Syvy, Chervona kalyna’s director, took us on a tour of the place. Local mineral springs with two kinds of mineral water give the sanatoriy a status of a spa. One kind is good for the heart and joints, and the other one is good for the organs of digestion. But the general curative and health improving effect is provided mostly by the beauty of nature, the quiet, comfort, and attention lavished on those who come to stay at the sanatoriy by the medical personnel. Mykola Syvy is much more than a director — he is the founder of Chervona kalyna. It was his idea to create a health spa at that place; he took part in working out the project and design (incidentally, in 1994, the Chervona kalyna sanatoriy was awarded a state prize for the excellence of its architecture); he supervised the construction. When it was completed, he hired the best specialists available and purchased state-of-the-art equipment. Chervona kalyna boasts gyms, tennis courts, swimming pools, a VIP section, a big hall with a fireplace, a cottage in the middle of the lake. In the ten years that have passed since its foundation, the sanatoriy has received almost 80,000 guests, many of whom were the children from the areas affected by the 1986 Chornobyl nuclear plant disaster.
Later in the day, we were taken to see the Sosnovy bir (Pine Forest) rest home, to which, incidentally, the ambassador of Republic of South Africa to Ukraine often comes to chill out, and then to a war veterans’ hospital, also situated in the forest. The hospital was recently revamped and provided with little cottages for patients.
Our next stop was at the Svyato-Troyitsky Mezhyritsky Monastery (Holy Trinity Monastery in the Interfluve) which is situated between the rivers Zbytenka and Viliya. The monastery was founded in 1240 by the monks of the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra Monastery who fled from Kyiv after it had been captured by the invading Mongols. In the 17th century, the monastery became Roman Catholic, but in 1866 it was transferred back to Orthodoxy.
The Troyitska (Trinity) Church of the monastery, built in 1454 to replace an older wooden one, can be seen from afar. The interior is decorated with murals, the designs for which were made by the prominent Russian nineteenth-century religious painter Viktor Vasnetsov. The gilded wood carving is another remarkable feature of the interior.
The most revered relic of the monastery is an icon of the Virgin Mary which was painted in Byzantium probably in the 14th century and later presented by the then patriarch to Prince Ostrozky who donated it to the monastery. The icon, known as Zhyttyedatelnytsya (Life Giving) and another icon, that of St Anthony the Great, are believed to possess healing properties.
In the seventeenth century defensive walls with towers were built around the monastery, the earthworks strengthened the monastery defences. The monastery withstood several sieges; the stove on which the monks heated tar or boiled water to be poured down from the walls on those who tried to take the monastery by storm, is still extant.
When the Bolsheviks seized power, they closed down the monastery, and it was only ten years ago, after Ukraine’s independence, that the monastery resumed being a religious community. Later, a religious school was opened at the monastery which attracts a lot of pilgrims, on religious feast days in particular.
Ostroh Academy and book printing
At Ostroh, we were invited to a press-conference at which local authorities, without any pomp, informed us of the achievements and problems of the town and of the Raion (Oblasts are administratively divided into Raions) of which Ostroh is the centre.
The earliest written mention of Ostroh dates to 1100. By the fifteenth century the town had become a considerable educational and cultural centre, and characteristically, it was often referred to as “Athens of Volyn.” It was in Ostroh that the first school of higher learning, Slavonic-Greek-Latin Academy, was opened, and it was in Ostroh that Ivan Fedorov, “the first printing pioneer of the Slavic lands,” printed The Greco-Slavonic ABC Book, and the Bible which later came to be known as The Ostroh Bible. Many leading figures of Slavic culture and politics were educated at the Ostroh Academy — Petro Kanashevych-Sahaydachny, Iov Boretsky, Melety Smotrytsky, Herasym Smotrytsky, Severyn Nalyvayko, and Demyan Nalyvayko among them.
Ostroh boasts quite a few architectural and historical landmarks that date to the mediaeval and later times — the Murovana Tower; the Ostrozky Castle; the Svyato-Bohoyavlensky Cathedral; the Nova Bashta Tower; the Lutsk Nadbramna Tower; the Tatarska Tower; the Uspensky Church, a synagogue. The castle is a museum which shows the history of the place and exhibits icons and sculptures created by the talented artist T. Sosnovksy. Those with culture on their mind can also visit the Museum of Books and Book Printing.
The Ostroh Academy was revived in 1996 and soon it gained a status of a national university. Our group of Kyiv journalists was received by Ihor Pasichnyk, Academy’s president, a person of a great verve and vitality. He evidently takes pride in his school with an enrolment of two thousand students. In addition to telling us the story of the Academy, he took us around the school.
Ostroh is a tourist centre with about 120,000 tourists visiting it annually, and a potential of receiving more.
The Historic and Memorial Preserve Pole Berestetskoyi bytvy (Field of the Battle of Berestechko) is situated at the intersection of three Oblasts — Lviv, Volyn and Rivne, in the land of Male Polissya.
In early July (end of June, by the old-style calendar) 1651, the 150,000-strong Ukrainian army led by Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky clashed with the 170,000-strong Polish army on a field between the villages of Plyashev and Ostriv in the vicinity of the town of Berestechko. The battle raged for several days, and at the time when the Cossack victory seemed to be within reach, the Crimean Tartars who were Khmelnytsky’s allies, broke down under heavy artillery fire and fled, capturing Khmelnytsky who tried to stop them, and carrying him away. The Cossack army, left without its supreme commander, continued fighting but was surrounded. A total defeat was prevented by the Cossacks escaping through the marshes which the Poles thought were impassable. The losses were heavy — 30,000 Cossacks killed and 28 (out of 115) cannon lost but the army was not destroyed and was soon back in the field in a fighting condition.
In 1914, the architectural complex, Kozatski mohyly (Cossacks’ Graves) to commemorate the heroic Cossacks who fell in the Battle of Berestechko, was opened. The centre of the complex is the Heorhiyivska (St George’s) Church built in the style of Ukrainian Baroque with the iconostasis and some of the murals painted by Ivan Yizhakevych. A wooden church, St Michael’s, dating from 1650, was moved from Ostriv to the Kozatski Mohyly complex. The church in which the Cossacks used to have their weapons blessed, was taken apart, transported and then reassembled at the new place.
St George’s and St Michael’s are connected by an underground passage in which the graves of some of the fallen Cossacks can be seen. A local museum exhibits artifacts unearthed in archeological excavations — flintlocks, cannon and cannon balls, footwear and other things which were preserved well in the marshy ground.
On a hill in a pine wood, we saw ancient crosses at the graves with the date 1651 carved into them. We visited a place called Kozatska Yama where Bohdan Khmelnytsky’s army’s gold is popularly believed to lie buried. We did not find the gold but we were treated to a dinner, true Cossack style — pshonyany kulish, or thick millet soup, and hrechanyky, or buckwheat cakes. Both proved to be very delicious.
The town of Dubno sits on a hill overlooking the river Ikva, with marshes all around. The earliest known mention of Dubno dates back to 1100. Its history is full of dramatic events. At the end of the eighteenth century, the town flourished as a commercial centre when fairs began to be held there.
It is rich in architectural landmarks — a sixteenth-century synagogue; the seventeenth-century Spaso-Preobrazhenska Church; Carmelite and Cistercian monasteries of the seventeenth century; the Illinska and Heorhiyivska Churches of the twentieth century make Dubno an architectural bonanza.
The Dubno Castle was built by Kostyantyn Ostrozky in 1492 and over the centuries has lost but little of its impressive and somewhat forbidding grandeur. Many sieges were laid to the castle but it was never captured by force.
There is still a moat running around the castle with a bridge over it leading to the central gate. It is a peculiar feeling you get when, after walking along a modern street you suddenly come to a bridge crossing which takes several centuries back in time. The buildings inside the castle were built at different times and exhibit a variety of architectural styles. One of the towers of the castle, Beatka, is a symbol of Dubno. The views that open from the top of the curtain walls are breathtaking. The general impression was much enhanced by the stories our guide Natalka told us.
After the tour was over and we returned to Kyiv, I, running the impressions of what I had seen and heard through my mind, realized that I wanted to go back to the land of Rivnenshchyna with my children and my friends and stay there longer. The members of our group had the same feeling.
We express our thanks to the Derzhturadministratsiya (State Tourist