Magnificently Conflicted – Olesko Castle: From The Top Down (On The Trail of the Golden Horseshoe Part Three)

The birth of a great king calls for the setting of a memorable scene. I have scarcely found a more dramatic introduction to a life or a castle than the following excerpt from Janusz Wolinski, “a severe thunderstorm was approaching the lofty Olesko Castle; bloody blazes of conflagration kindled by a prowling unit of armed Tatars turned red the massive walls of the aristocratic residence. Amid the torrential rain, the cold flashes of lightning, the whole area was reverberating with moans of people murdered or driven into Turkish captivity, occasionally disrupted by throaty shouts of Tatars from the camp, routed by Polish companies galloping in a violent chase. In the raging elements and the turmoil of war, the future King of Poland Jan Sobieski was born in a quiet, secluded corner of one of the castle rooms sometime between 2 and 3 o’clock in the afternoon.”

Whether this actually happened or not is beside the point, great lives lead to great legends. John III Sobieski is considered by historians to be one of the greatest Polish kings. It makes sense that the beginning of his life would be shrouded in legend, a legend that manages to live up to the life of a man who saved Poland and most memorably Vienna from the Ottoman Turks. This legendary life of John III Sobieski began at Olesko Castle. The castle is a place that does not look legendary, but its present day appearance hides a remarkable past.

Olesko Castle

Olesko Castle -commands a formidable height on the Voroniaky ridge  (Credit: Igor Kosovych)

A Commanding Position – Coming Into The Country
The tour bus pulled up to the curb below Olesko Castle. The early morning chill had just about burned off, yet autumn hung in the thick, heavy air. I joined the rest of the tour group in peering up at the castle. From a distance, the 50 meter high hill on which the castle stood had not looked so steep, up close it was a much different matter. Even today, with the aid of a smoothly surfaced entrance road, the walk up left people panting as each successive step became increasingly difficult. This gave me a healthy respect for what besieging armies had to overcome. During the bus ride across the Busk lowland, my view had been horizontal, now it was vertical. I immediately discerned that the castle had been built here because of the hill’s commanding defensive position. The castle stood at the beginning of the Voroniaky ridge, a formidable strategic point.

Seven hundred years ago this made up part of the border between the principalities of Galicia and Volhynia. Right from the start, Olesko Castle was placed in the path of history. As such, it bore scars from the past. From the look of its current condition, the suffering was still ongoing. The exterior walls of the castle were chipped, with whole sections of the plastered siding missing. The castle looked as though it was slowly turning into a ruin. In this case, appearances were deceptive. Olesko Castle was in its best shape since the late 18th century. It had been restored largely due to the fact that its glorious and important past could hardly be ignored.

Courtyard at Olesko Castle

Courtyard at Olesko Castle (Credit: Igor Kosovych)

A castle says a lot about what a region has been through. The further eastward in Europe one travels, the more likely that the façade will have hundreds of cracks, be missing a tower or entire wing and the interior rooms will be barren or completely reconstructed. The chateaux style Olesko castle that stands today is a far cry from the original fortification which saw its share of battles long before John III Sobieski was born there.  A tumultuous early history where Poles, Lithuanians, Hungarians and Tatars fought for this border fortress – possession of which meant they would also control the region – reduced the fortification to ruin.

The golden age of Olesko Castle began in 1590 when it underwent a massive overhaul. The restoration also brought a host of famous figures to the area, the likes of which have never been seen before or since in this rural and remote land. When the powerful Danilowicz family of Polish nobles took ownership of the castle in 1605, they employed the father of Bohdan Khmelnysty. The son, who would gain fame as creator of a Ukrainian Cossack state, spent several of his formative years in the shadow of Olesko Castle. Jan Sobieski was not the only Polish King who was born within the walls of the castle. The future Polish ruler Micheal I (Michal Korybut Wisnowiecki) was also born there. How many out of the way, long since forgotten castles can claim two kings and the creator of the first Ukrainian state?

Large scale painting of King Jan III Sobieski leading troop at the Siege of Vienna in 1683

Interior room at Olesko Castle with large scale painting of King Jan III Sobieski leading troop at the Siege of Vienna in 1683 (Credit: Антон Супруненко)

In The Footsteps of a Great Man & The Medieval One Percent
As for the castle tour itself, a fuller view of the petit, middle aged female guide showed that she was dressed to impress or depress depending on one’s perspective. She wore black clothes and black shoes to go with her black hair and black eyes. She was more like a drill sergeant than a guide as she led the group to room after room filled with reliquaries and paintings connecting Polish nobility to the castle’s history. I wondered what these Ukrainians made of all this Polishness. They wandered about, snapping photos, listening indifferently and trying to stay warm in the chill draft rooms. In a sense, this was no more their history than it was mine. Their ancestors would have been working the fields, as would have the overriding majority of ethnic Poles living near Olesko.

The history featured at the castle was from the top down. Nonetheless, it was intriguing all the same, a window into a world of elitism, a sort of medieval one percent. There is something still to be said for standing in the footsteps of a great man. In this case the savior of Christian Europe, John III Sobieski. Not only had he been born here in 1629, but over a half-century later he would purchase the castle. Along with his wife Marysienka (Queen Maria Kazimiera), the couple oversaw a splendid revision of the castle and surrounding gardens, making it their preferred royal residence. For several years after his monumental victory at Vienna, Sobieski spent some of his finest days here. The furnishings, while not original, brought back the aura of royal refinement that once pervaded the castle.

Interior furnishings in Olesko Castle

Interior furnishings in Olesko Castle (Credit: Natalia Vlasenko)

The end of Sobieski’s reign began a centuries long, slow decline at Olesko. One badly reproduced, faded black and white photo told this sad story best. It showed the castle in the mid-1950’s close to ruin. I assumed that the World Wars had brought about this damage, I was wrong. Unlike so many castles in Ukraine and Poland, this decline had less to do with war and everything to do with nature. It turned out that the castle not only straddled geo-political fault lines, but also natural ones. In 1838 an earthquake shook the castle for 15 straight minutes, creating cracks in the walls that a person could walk through. Several fires badly damaged the castle. The worst of which was the last one in 1951. Another “severe thunderstorm was approaching the lofty Olesko Castle, bloody blazes of conflagration” were once again kindled. This time it was not from Tatars or the literary imagination of Janusz Wolinski, but by a blinding bolt of lightning that struck and seared the castle. The ensuing blaze came close to turning six centuries of history into ashes. A twenty-four year reconstruction resurrected Olesko Castle to its current status.

Staircase on the exterior of Olesko Castle

A magnificently conflicted approximation of the past – Olesko Castle (Credit: Nataliya Roy)

Recreating The Real Thing
Realizing what had been lost and then regained, made what stood before me that much more impressive. I did not need a guide or knowledge of the local language to realize that Olesko Castle, with its cracked cobblestone courtyard, badly fraying façade and smoothly worn statuary was still something of a miracle. It had stood the test of time, nature and humanity. What remained was an unforgettable impression of a hilltop chateaux castle battered by the past and restored to a rough approximation of its former grandeur. This impression was much more powerful than any legend, because Olesko Castle as it stands today is a reflection of this borderland’s past, magnificently conflicted.

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