Is This Land Cursed? – The Road To Olesko Castle (On The Trail Of The Golden Horseshoe: Part Two)

The bus for the Golden Horseshoe Tour slowly made its way out of Lviv. Over the public address system the tour guide, a petite woman with dark black hair and eyes to match began speaking in Ukrainian. Incredibly, she would continue her monologue the entire seventy kilometer length of the ride from Lviv to Olesko castle. The tour participants all stared straight ahead. There was never any question and answer or back and forth banter between the guide and passengers. As for me, I noticed that after about ten minutes the guide’s voice had become the equivalent of elevator music, something I heard but never really listened to. I had opted out of having an English speaking tour guide accompany me. My experience of Eastern European tour guides is that they give a mind numbing recitation of facts. Usually the information is given in rote fashion, as though it has been totally memorized. On this trip I was hoping to get the full effect of being an outsider. I had also brought along a travel guide that gave the basic historical details for each castle. This was my first time on a historical tour that I was unable to understand anything the guide said. It made for a fascinating experience. This state of affairs made me focus less on what was being said and more on what I saw.

The E40/M06 highway in western Ukraine

The E40/M06 highway in western Ukraine – The road To Olesko (Credit: Yuriy Syrota)

Is This Land Cursed? – Survival At The Highest Cost
For me this tour was as much about seeing the countryside of western Ukraine as it was visiting castles. This was an area I had spent countless hours reading and learning about. Most of my reading focused on what had happened here during the World Wars and their immediate aftermath, which might be summed up with two words, “nothing good.” Once while discussing the violence of this period with a friend of mine in Lviv, she asked rhetorically “Is this land cursed?” That question fascinated me. More than any other area in Europe, this had been a deadly playground for empires. The area of present day western Ukraine was overrun by no less than five empires during a thirty year period. Most fascinating of all is the fact that none of them exist today. First the Austro-Hungarian and German Empires fought the forces of the Russian Empire here during World War I. Then just twenty five years later, two of the most lethal empires in human history, Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, wreaked havoc upon the entire region. Western Ukraine’s distinct multi-cultural nature was totally eradicated during this time. The Poles, Jews and Germans who had lived here for centuries were either expelled or exterminated. Between 1939 and 1945 this was one the most dangerous places in not only the world, but also in human history. That is an extraordinary and horrifying thing to say. I was interested to see what this cursed land looked and felt like. What had been left behind? What was the area like today?

From what I could see through the window of my tour bus, the landscape was unexpectedly benign. The area was rural, pastoral and generally well kept. The villages were not especially run down and did not look impoverished. I did note that most of the buildings appeared to have been constructed from the mid-20th century onward. I had expected everything to be made of wood or stone and look much older. The relative newness of many homes was a bit shocking. We were traveling through old Europe, but where was the old. Suddenly I recalled that this area had been part of the swath of destruction cut by advancing and retreating armies. Both World Wars went on much longer here than elsewhere. The First World War did not end here in 1918, it continued until 1920, with the Ukrainian-Polish War and the Polish-Soviet War. The same was true of World War II, where partisan and guerilla warfare continued as late into the early 1950’s as Ukrainian Nationalist forces fought the Soviets to the bitter end. Considering the destructiveness and length of these conflicts, it is a wonder that anyone or anything survived at all.

Countryside of western Ukraine in Lviv Oblast

Countryside of western Ukraine in Lviv Oblast (Credit: Gryffindor)

The Unreality Of It All – Run-on Guides, Run-on Roads & A Forgotten War
The luminous green fields, pastoral scenery, people going about their business and the sheer normality of the landscape, left me with an odd impression. I began to understand the resiliency of humanity, the ability to not so much overcome, as to continue on. This was a place of endurance. People just kept on going, somehow. What they built here was not memorable, but matter of fact. The area had progressed from a state of survival to just getting by. That in itself was quite an achievement. These impressions occupied my thoughts for much of the drive to Olesko, accompanied by the run-on enunciations of the tour guide. She had become less a person than an endless stream of words, a voice moving as fast as our transport. She went on non-stop for over an hour. Everyone else was silent, but they had no other alternative. Getting a word in would have been next to impossible. She provided a monologue, unbroken, without pause. From what I could see, she had zero notes, took no sips of water and stared straight ahead out the front window, perhaps at something deep in the past or more likely at nothing in particular. I felt there was something unreal about her.

There was also something unreal about the fact that the bus was proceeding smoothly down the road. I expected a ride filled with the usual bumping, jarring, and shaking that one experiences from bus travel in the former Soviet states. Instead the road was in near perfect condition. This was not the usual Ukrainian highway where a single pothole can incapacitate a car. This road, the M06/E40 (Ukraine Highway M06/European route E40), looked brand new. It had been recently resurfaced, likely because of infrastructure improvements done for the 2012 European Soccer Championships. This was a major highway corridor in Ukraine, the main route between Lviv and Kiev. It was nice to know that despite war in the eastern part of the country, this part of Ukraine was functioning just fine. That thought also made me feel uneasy. It was very difficult to imagine such a thing as war going on in the same nation on such a bright, blue sky day.

Olesko Castle

Olesko Castle (Credit: Mykola Swarnyk)

Prosperity As A Historical Phenomenon
The bus surged deeper into the countryside, offering glimpses of gardens and small houses in Zapytiv, Disyliv and Kisliv, Busk and Yanhelivka, places that people either left for good or stayed forever. Soon our destination appeared. I thumbed through my guidebook, finding the section on Olesko. The text made the village sound like a happening place, advising the prospective visitor “to see all the architectural and cultural sights it offers, you might want to stay for a day or two in a small hotel in the downtown area.” From what I saw, there was hardly a downtown to speak of, let alone a hotel. I would like to say that the village had seen better days, but that would imply a modicum of prosperity. From the looks of it, prosperity in Olesko was a historical phenomenon that had last been realized centuries ago. The village looked tired at best, in terminal decline at worst. A bit of a contrast to other places we had passed on our way here. If not for its castle, Olesko may well have never existed. The castle loomed on a prominence above the village. It was not massive, nor especially striking, but first appearances proved deceiving. Olesko Castle had a deep, glorious and crumbling past.

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