A Fantasy That Exists Only In The Mind -Svirzh Castle (Lviv Oblast)

Of the famous castles near Lviv, Svirzh Castle is the one most likely to be overlooked by visitors. This is a bit astonishing since the castle is only 44 kilometers (27 miles) from the city center. It is also unfortunate since the castle and its immediate surroundings offer an excellent example of the seamless integration of nature with architecture. Just below the castle lies a lake which makes for a fabulous photo opportunity. The fortress-like walls of the castle loom above the placid waters which often reflect a mirror image. While this makes an enchanting scene for visitors, the lake along with marshes and swampland was once a vital part of the castle’s defenses, surrounding it on three sides. These natural elements were utilized in the 16th and 17th centuries as necessary security measures, but are now viewed as a hallmark of beauty. This is an excellent illustration of the difference between the historical Svirzh Castle and how it is perceived today. The castle’s past was marked by calamity and insecurity. For many of its earlier inhabitants, the idea of being entranced by the lake’s beauty would have seemed just as foreign as the invaders besieging the castle walls. Today the major threats to Svirzh Castle are more benign, questionable administration and a lack of financial resources.

Svirzh Castle - the integration of nature and architecture

Svirzh Castle – the integration of nature and architecture (Credit: Sviatoslav I of Buyanova)

Natural Defenses – Security & Anxiety at Svirzh
What exactly is the point of visiting Svirzh Castle? Is it to learn about the past? So we can take many impressive and beautiful photographs? Or is it to relive a fantasy that never quite existed? The latter question probably comes closest to the truth. The perception of Svirzh Castle as it exists today in the Ukrainian countryside is more fantasy than historical reality. One stands at the shore of the lake, looks up at those venerable stone walls, imagining a magisterial and glorious past, if only that were true. There is the fantasy of what we want to believe and there is the reality of what actually transpired. While the castle looks formidable, those stone walls were not enough to fend off invaders. The defenders at Svirzh relied more on its commanding natural position, atop Belz Hill, surrounded on three sides by lake and marshland. These natural defenses were a better defense than any castle walls. Attackers could drown in a watery grave or become bogged down in an impenetrable, fetid muck swarming with mosquitoes.

As for the walls, these were rebuilt and the castle’s defenses modernized by none other than Pawel Grodzicki, the same general who conceived the Arsenal complex in Lviv. This was done after the castle was captured and put to the torch by the Tatars in 1648. Bohdan Khmelnytsky’s Cossack forces occupied what was left of the castle on multiple occasions in the ensuing years. The castle did later withstand sieges by Turkish forces in 1672 and 1675. Thus the castle offered protection in fits and starts, depending on the foe. When it did not, the consequences were horrific for the defenders, with slavery or murder awaiting them. Looking at the present day romantic, dreamy landscape of Svirzh Castle makes it is hard to connect past with present.

Entrance to Svirzh Castle in winter

The entrance to Svirzh Castle in winter (Credit: Сергій Криниця)

The Vanity of Preservation – Reimagining Svirzh
Reading through the history of Svirzh Castle brings up another fascinating question, what is the point of the numerous preservation efforts to reconstruct and restore Svirzh Castle? The answers have varied over time, from the vanity of aristocrats, recognition in popular culture and the passion of preservationists.  The fact that the castle still stands at all is nothing short of miraculous. It ceased to act as a fortress in the 18th century and became a residence for one wealthy Polish magnate after another. An assumed magisterial past may have existed, but it is hard not to see Svirzh Castle’s 19th and 20th century history as a constant struggle against the forces of degradation, destruction and poor administration. In 1907 a thorough overhaul of the interior was undertaken by its aristocratic owner, Count Robert Lamezan de Salins. It was given new furnishings, with fine art and furniture, valuable paintings and a large library stored within its walls. This was more an update than a restoration.

Within the walls of Svirzh castle

Interior Design – within the walls of Svirzh castle (Credit: Denis Vitchenko)

This refurbishment lasted all of seven years, as an invading Russian army at the outset of World War I, did as thorough a job of destruction on Svirzh as the Tatars carried out in their own time. The Russians set an all-consuming blaze that left nothing but the castle walls standing. Count Lamezan de Salins did not give up though. He returned after the war to start the reconstruction process anew. This was stopped once and for all, by the Soviet invasion of the area in 1939. It also signaled the end of over four hundred years of Polish aristocrat’s calling Svirzh their home. The nobility was swept away by war, occupation and finally communism. The same could have happened to Svirzh Castle, instead it suffered mostly from neglect. It was not until the late 1970’s that it came back into the public consciousness after playing a starring role in a Soviet film version of the Three Musketeers. The Union of Soviet Architects began yet another reconstruction which ended with the Soviet collapse.

Svirzh Castle at dusk

Svirzh Castle at dusk – its future is cloudy (Credit: Олександр Бистріков)

A Future Forever In Doubt
Such preservation efforts take passion and patience. The rewards are few. Despite such dedicated efforts the main continuity to be found in Svirzh’s history is that its future is constantly in doubt. Though tourists can now walk the grounds and are given access inside its historic walls, the past decade has shown that the future of Svirzh will continue to be in flux. In 2007 a Law On Concessions was passed in Ukraine allowing private investors tax advantages if they put financial resources toward the preservation and maintenance of certain castles. Svirzh was one of these. Payments do not have to be made until the property shows a profit. It is doubtful that Svirzh can make enough a profit from tourism to cover preservation costs. What then will become of the property? Will the state regain control? That brings up a final question, who should profit from the past? The answer might be everyone, but only when preservation work on the castle continues.

Darkness at Zolochiv Castle –The Never Forgetting (On The Trail Of The Golden Horseshoe: Part Five)

Leaving Pidhirtsi behind was not easy. The tour group was on the verge of slumber. Many had partaken of a snack bar that was conveniently situated close on the castle’s parking area. It also allowed everyone to get a taste of the local flavor, which in one notable case had little to do with food and much to do with drink. As we were loading up to head off to our final destination, Zolochiv Castle, a middle aged local man, unwittingly tried to board our bus. The bus driver stopped him just in time. The man was confused, protested mildly and then headed to another bus filled with school kids. It was obvious by his stumbling gait that he was badly inebriated. He stepped into the next bus, getting past the driver who was busy filling out paperwork. The kids onboard began laughing heartily and cheering on their new passenger. A female teacher saw this and alerted the bus driver, who then went about trying to get the man off the bus. The man was so drunk that he did not understand that this bus was not a local one. He pulled out some money and tried to pay. When this was refused, he got even further confused. Why could he not pay to ride the bus? After a couple of minutes he was gently coaxed back outside. He then wandered past the covered local bus stop and disappeared. The entire incident was harmlessly cute, yet it also reminded me how few times I had seen public drunkenness in Ukraine. Alcoholism is said to plague the rural areas of Ukraine. Maybe it does, but in my limited experience, it seemed no worse than anywhere else.

Zolochiv Castle complex

Zolochiv Castle – the Grand Palace where scenes of unspeakable horror took place is to the right (Credit: Jan Mehlich)

From Ashes To Glory – A King & Queen At Zolochiv
Zolochiv Castle was the third and final stop on the Golden Horseshoe Tour. Scheduled immediately after lunch, with a warm mid-afternoon sun heating up, this led to perpetual yawns and a lapsed attention span. At first glance the castle seemed to be just as sleepy. It was laid out as a rectangular fortification. Oddly the major buildings were unconnected. It felt more like a park than a former royal residence. The complex included a “grand palace” that was a bit less than grand and the eclectic Chinese Palace, a rotunda with one story wings on either side. The castle did not seem all that interesting, but I could not have been more wrong.  Zolochiv had a shocking, frightening history that reminded me of just how violent and conflict ridden the past really was and this included relatively recent times. The violence that occurred at Zolochiv was obscured by the castle’s most glorious era when it had been graced by the presence of King Jan III Sobieski and his beloved wife Marysienka (Queen Maria Kazimiera). Yet even this golden age was tainted by violence.

The castle was laid out and constructed in 1634. Less than forty years later, the Turks put the town of Zolochiv to the torch, burning it to ashes and leaving the castle in ruins. Sobieski’s military prowess soon turned the tide of warfare against those same marauding forces. Turkish prisoners of war were then forced to rebuild the castle they had ruined. Thus vindication followed violence and from ashes rose the glory days of Zolochiv. King Jan III and Marysienka spent many summer days at the castle. When the King was away on campaign, Marysienka made a second home for herself here.  She had the Chinese Palace built. The name “Chinese” is something of a misnomer. The architects had no useful knowledge of Chinese architecture. Instead they built it in an imagined, exotic oriental style. Unfortunately, I was unable to go inside as it was closed for renovations. I especially wanted to see the palace’s famous toilets.  Stylistically they are reputed to be some of the finest Renaissance era toilets in Europe, whatever that is supposed to mean.

Cherubs and the Chinese Palace at Zolochiv Castle

Cherubs and the Chinese Palace at Zolochiv Castle

In The Name Of Ideology – Descent Into Darkness
The first and only building I entered was the “Grand Palace.” A multi storied structure that looked more utilitarian than fantastical. Soon after entering I broke away from the rest of the group. Once again I would be on my own trying to discern what the exhibits meant and each room had been used for. Since there was no text in English almost all the exhibits and explanatory panels on this tour were lost to me, except for one.  There was an exhibit on the ground floor of the Grand Palace that dealt with one of the darkest moments in Zolochiv’s (known at the time by its Polish name of Zloczow) history. After the Soviet takeover of the area in 1939, the NKVD (precursor to the KGB) had rounded up Ukrainian and Polish nationalists, politicians and intelligentsia. They were imprisoned in Zolochiv Castle, where they were interrogated and liquidated. Interrogation was a byword for torture, while liquidation meant murder. One exhibit was an original wooden door from the prison. How many desperate and bloodshot eyes had stared at this door? How many prisoners had listened through this door as boots walked across damp stone floors? How many perpetrators had opened this door? How many victims passed it on the way to their execution? In front of the door were several strands of barbed wire. Zolochiv had been a human holding pen for those awaiting execution.

At least 649 people were murdered at Zolochiv by the NKVD. One part of the exhibit showed the victim’s faces. There were women, young men, older professionals, intelligent and honest looking faces, handsome and rugged, gentle and beautiful, they were marked for death because of what they believed, what they did, what they had accomplished. Each of them was a mother, son, father, daughter, brother or sister. They had died in this castle, murdered in the most bestial of manners. The largest massacre took place right after the Nazis invaded in late June 1941. As the Soviets fled the area, the NKVD carried out mass executions of prisoners. This happened all across western Ukraine. The same exact thing took place at Lontskogo prison in Lviv. There I had learned that prisoners were murdered in horrific acts such as having grenades tossed in packed cells or mass bayoneting. These atrocities were committed in the name of an ideology. A diabolical evil had possessed this land throughout World War II, the depraved power of Stalinism. This was an ideology that could murder countless innocents while transforming Zolochiv Castle into a house of unfathomable horrors. Darkness fell over me in this room. Here was a truth from which there was no escape. Incredibly, worse was to follow.

Victims - faces of those murdered by the Soviet NKVD at Zolochiv Castle

Victims – faces of some of the 649 people murdered by the Soviet NKVD at Zolochiv Castle

A World Gone Wrong – Masscares At Zolochiv
After that exhibit as an introduction, I wandered numbly from room to room, scarcely noticing much of the palace.  The royal chambers, antique furnishings and a wall sized painting that showcased Sobieski’s forces in battle, while well done, were overshadowed by the massacre exhibit. I decided to step outside for a respite. Trying to distract myself I took some photos, which considering my mood turned out rather good. I had another half an hour left to myself. What was I going to do? While looking at the exhibit on the NKVD massacres, I had started to wonder what happened to the Jews of Zolochiv during the war. I already knew that they had been killed, but was there a link with what happened at the castle. The coming of the Nazis may have swept the Soviets suddenly away, but it also brought another regime of pure evil. In Lviv, the Nazis had opened up the prisons to the public. They wanted them to see firsthand what the Soviets had done and then blamed these atrocities on the Jews. This had led to thousands of Jews being murdered.

Prison cell door from Soviet occupation period at Zolochiv Castle

Prison cell door from Soviet occupation period at Zolochiv Castle

What about in Zolochiv? I decided to do some research using my phone. The castle offered free wi-fi access. I used this to go online, googling “Zolochiv Jews Holocaust.” In the search results, I found an article that had appeared in the August 24, 2006 edition of the International Herald Tribune written by Roald Hoffmann, a native of Zolochiv who went on to win the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1981. He was one of the few, lucky Jewish survivors from the town. In the article he described his experiences during the war along with his thoughts on revisiting Zolochiv years later. The castle played a part in the narrative. As I stood in the middle of Zolochiv Castle I read the following, “I traveled to Zolochiv in Ukraine, the town I left as a small boy. I was returning for the first time in 62 years, to remember. Remember whom? The people who lived there and are forever gone from us – the Jews of Zolochiv. They were there for centuries, as their gravestones once testified. There are no gravestones left.”  This information was tragic, but sadly it did not surprise me. I expected as much. What came next in the article was startling. “In the first week of the war, the SS Einsatzgruppe C shot 2,000 Jews at the castle, the same place where the Soviets had killed many Ukrainians days before. By the end of the war, there were no more than 200 Jews left. I was one of perhaps five children who survived.”

The difference between Hoffman’s wartime memories and the present day peaceful environment of the castle was startling. Perhaps because there was no one else outside with me or the fact that the weather was beautiful with a blue, sunny sky overhead, made Hoffman’s words particularly arresting. Beneath the silence, I imagined voices of screaming and wailing in unspeakable torment. Looking around, I suddenly noticed in front of me a playful sculpture of three cherubs, behind which stood the Chinese Palace, a cruel irony. I had been at the castle less than an hour, in which time I learned of 2,649 murders committed there in the space of several months. I did not want to be at Zolochiv anymore. There was nothing right was this world.

Roald Hoffmann

Survivor and Nobel Prize Winner – Roald Hoffmann (Credit: Chemical Heritage Foundation)

The Never Forgetting
My adventures in Eastern European history have taken me to many tragic places, secret police dungeons in Budapest and Vilnius, the ghetto site in Krakow, the abandoned city of Pripyat on the edge of Chernobyl, the ravine at Babi Yar, and cemeteries from the Yugoslav War on the hillsides above Sarajevo, to name just a few. I would have to say that Zolochiv Castle was the most disconcerting of all these places. I was unable to make sense of what had happened there. In that serene and placid environment, I felt the pain and horror of war most acutely.  I felt a sense of relief when the tour group reappeared. On my way to the bus, I noticed a couple of plaques mounted to the walls. I had failed to notice them when we entered. One commemorated the Ukrainian and Polish victims of the NKVD massacres, while the other memorialized the Jews murdered by the Nazis. I was comforted by the fact that there was commemoration of what had happened at Zolochiv Castle, because I was pretty certain I would never forget. These plaques reminded me of what Roald Hoffmann had written at the end of his article, “Ukrainians, Poles and Jews – we need to remember, together. To put the horrors of the past truly behind us.”

Lost In A Lost World – An Unexpected Guest At Pidhirtsi (On The Trail Of The Golden Horseshoe: Part Four)

Upon leaving Olesko I was filled with anticipation. My main reason for taking the Golden Horseshoe Tour was to see one castle, Pidhirtsi. As far as appearances go, it is renowned as the preeminent castle in Ukraine. Austere and forbidding, Pidhirtsi is the very definition of brooding. I had spent many hours studying photos of the castle and also wrote two long blog posts on its history, both factual and legendary. For me, Pidhirtsi Castle became the world’s greatest haunted house. Not because of the legends surrounding it, but because of its ominous, gloomy appearance. A photograph of it at dusk was enough to make my imagine run wild, conjuring up terrifying events happening within the walls. Every window seemed to have someone or something peeking out from it. There was a magnetic decadence about the place. The castle was both dream and nightmare. I was drawn to it by fear, but also vanity. This had become my must see, less for historical or architectural interest than personal vanity. The fact was that I had to visit Pidhirtsi, to take photos of this magnificent architectural monstrosity. I could not leave western Ukraine without showing hard evidence that I had been to Pidhirtsi Castle. Like all objects of vanity, it meant more to me personally than to any real or imagined audience. Pidhirtsi was the only thing that would make this trip complete, or so I assumed.

Paved With Potholes – The Road To Pidhirtsi
The ride from Olesko to Pidhirtsi was not far, only 13 kilometers (8 miles), but I felt every inch of it. I was not surprised that this secondary road was laden with crater sized potholes. This is what I had expected from the start, but it was still a jarring and deeply unsettling experience. There was no use trying to read my guidebook and catch up on a few facts before we arrived. I nearly got motion sickness after a couple of minutes trying to make it through a single sentence. The teenager beside me was not still altogether comfortable with my presence. His head had been hugging the window since we started. Unfortunately for him, each time the bus struck a pothole, which happened about every 50 meters, I was thrown into him. He winced, I expressed a condolence, he half-heartedly smiled and the process was repeated every half minute.

For some reason, this road reminded me of another horrible one I had been on in eastern Kansas two months earlier. The difference was that in Kansas the road was dirt, while this one was paved, sort of. For me, there is nothing worse than a bus ride on a bad road. An incredible amount of energy is wasted trying in vain to steady myself. The twenty minutes of shaking, jolting and jarring, seemed much longer than the hour and a half it had taken to get from Olesko to Lviv.  The one thing I dread in the farther reaches of Eastern Europe, much more than corruption or fears for my personal safety, are bad roads, That is because bad roads combine both of these. Corruption, since the roads are bad because the transport funds to fix them were stolen. Personal safety, as vehicle accidents often result from the terrible roads. Fortunately this ride was short in length, if not in experience.

Roman Catholic Church of the Exaltation and St. Joseph in Pidhirtsi, Ukraine

Roman Catholic Church of the Exaltation and St. Joseph in Pidhirtsi, Ukraine

A State Of Slow Ruin – A Church In Pidhirtsi
As I eagerly looked out the window, anticipating a first glimpse of Pidhirtsi, another large and dilapidated building came into view. My gaze fixed on a church in a state of slow ruin. This was the Roman Catholic Church of the Exaltation and St. Joseph, a crumbling pile that bore the scars from successive World Wars. To say that the building was worse for wear would be a dramatic understatement. The church looked as though it were one stiff breeze away from total collapse. It made for a magnificent set piece juxtaposed with its rural setting. Looking like the last remaining vestige of a lost civilization, left stranded and forgotten in an empty field. The words neglect, desertion and abandonment immediately came to mind. Yet there was something magnificent about the edifice, with its front portico held up by fourteen columns, atop which stood weathered statues of saints standing as silent, holy sentinels. Attached to this was a Baroque style church topped with a form fitting dome. The church had been constructed by order of the Polish magnate Waclaw Rzewuski and was built as a tomb. By the time of its completion in 1766, construction had taken fourteen years. The effort had been worthwhile.

The church had somehow managed to withstand multiple wars where one army after another shot, pillaged and tried to destroy it. The impression of the church in its decayed and degraded state was fantastic. It drew my attention away from Pidhirtsi Castle, which the Church was meant only as an accessory. Between the church and the castle ran a 300 meter (984 feet) long path lined with linden trees. As the tour guide began chattering on in Ukrainian I quickened my pace in order to get my first full view of the castle. Maybe it was because we approached from the back side, but the structure was not nearly as awe inspiring as I had imagined. The reality could not match the image I had built up in my mind. The sheer size of the castle was disconcerting. It was hard to grasp that one building could be so large. Unlike castles that incorporate a range of buildings, Pidhirtsi was a castle, fortress, palace and manor house, a truly one size fits all concoction. Being a bit of everything had its drawbacks, making it less interesting than I imagined.

Pidhirtsi Castle

Pidhirtsi Castle

Disneyland For The Polish Nobility – A Castle In Pihirtsi
While impressive, it was hard not to see Pidhirtsi as just that, something built mainly to impress. And that is just what it did, especially during its glory days in the 18th and 19th centuries under the ownership of the Rzewuski family. Festivals were held at the castle that went on for weeks. These affairs mixed the light and the serious, with military parades and weapons firings, fireworks and formal balls. The castle was home to world class paintings, rare birds, a voluminous library and rare furnishings. An inn was built on-site to house guests that came to frolic for days at a time. They could attend performances at the castle theater which had its very own orchestra. Pidhirtsi was a sort of early modern age Disneyland for the Polish nobility. Unfortunately, due to restoration work we were not allowed to go inside. I was a bit suspicious of this, since from the looks of it, Pidhirtsi could have easily housed a small town. Then again, I have no idea what kind of danger may have lurked within, not from the well-publicized ghosts, but from falling beams or collapsing floors.

By the time I made my way around to the front of the castle I was a bit irritated, I had two cameras and neither could capture the size or scale of Pidhirtsi. I finally settled on a series of frontal shots that portrayed less drama than I had hoped for. My greatest thrill came from taking photos of stone steps that looked to have been placed haphazardly, one atop the other. There were also balconies missing parts of their banisters. The closer I got to the castle, the more I feared an accident. This was history without rules, regulations or interpretation. Here was a castle for the taking, unfortunately that could mean the taking of great risk with one’s personal health and safety. Pidhirtsi was a scary place, but not for the reasons I had imagined. It was no house of horrors. Instead, the castle was big, brash and falling apart. Up close and personal, the exterior looked and felt dangerous, an accident waiting to happen. A place made for slips, trips and falls. The castle, at least externally, did not feel like the home of apparitions, it felt more like a super large building with structural deficiencies. Not what I had imagined. My dreams of Pidhirtsi were very different from the reality.

Crumbling staircase to the front balcony at Pidhirsti Castle

Crumbling staircase to the front balcony at Pidhirsti Castle

Falling Apart & Still Standing – A Church, A Land, A People
I made my way back towards the bus a good half hour before the allotted time was up. I found myself once again walking over to the crumbling church. I stared at it for quite some time and then took several more photos, almost as many as I had taken of the castle. It had become the center of my attention. The church drew me in closer. Why was this? What did it mean? I could not come up with the answer in that moment. All I had was a feeling, of being lost in a lost world. Only upon later reflection did I discover a meaning. For me, the church in all of its devastated deterioration was a reflection of this land and its inhabitants, a symbol of civilization, forever falling apart, and somehow still standing.

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.

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.

The Real Ghosts Of Galicia – Pidhirtsi Castle (Part Two)

Paradoxically it was the loss of Polish sovereignty that brought the longest period of prosperity to Pidhirtsi and its inhabitants. A long era of peace set in after the Austrian acquisition of southeastern Poland in 1772. By the end of the 18th century Poland had ceased to exist, but the Polish aristocracy remained. It was during this time that Pidhirtsi thrived as a residence par excellence. Visitors could enjoy a private zoo, several gardens and parks on the grounds. The castle’s interior was an exquisite series of eye popping chambers, including the Knights Hall, Golden Hall, Chinese Room and others named after a full spectrum of colors. The Green Room functioned as a virtual art museum unto itself with over one-hundred paintings covering its walls. The castle’s interior also held several hundred portraits. Floors were covered in marble tiles and each had a fireplace built from the same. Wild parties took place with an orchestra and theater on offer to entertain deep into the night. A guest inn on the castle’s west wing housed the visiting gentry. The glittering glory of Pidhirtsi later attracted such famous visitors as Emperor Franz Josef and Kaiser Wilhelm to the castle. Pidhirtsi was an immaculate conception of style, grace and culture for the Polish aristocracy of Galicia. Like everything else in this land, the First World War would prove its undoing. The long period of peace was lost forever to the outbreak of war. The grand balls and famous denizens at Pidhirtsi were forgotten in a matter of months as the echo of artillery grew louder by the day. This ominous manmade thunder shook everything in the area to its very foundations. Was the castle to be sacrificed on the altar of a worldwide conflagration?

A Path To The Past - Pidhirtsi Castle and surrounding grounds

A Path To The Past – Pidhirtsi Castle and surrounding grounds

Conflicted History – A Modern Thirty Years War
Pidhirtsi’s location in the borderlands of Eastern Europe had nearly been its undoing in the 17th century. The long period of peace as part of the Habsburg ruled province of the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria turned out to be the golden age of the castle’s existence. When Austria-Hungary entered the First World War, Pidhirtsi was suddenly at the very center of conflict in Galicia. An era of unprecedented tumult was now inaugurated in what would become one of Europe’s deadliest regions during the first half of the 20th century. Thirteen of the next thirty-one years would be consumed by war. The castle was directly in the line of fire, quite literally. The Austro-Hungarian Army converted it into a headquarters for its 5th corps at one point, but this was not before the Russian Army had thoroughly looted the castle. The castle straddled the front lines for long periods of the war’s first two years. Amazingly it somehow avoided being shelled into ruin. That did not keep the Russians from knocking the insides of the castle out. Tiles were pulled up and walls torn down. Incredibly, despite the destruction Pidhirtsi suffered, the castle was re-occupied by a Polish aristocratic family following the Soviet-Polish War, that little known conflict whereby Poland saved Europe from a widespread communist revolution.

The years between the wars were a period of disquieting, uneasy calm. Seen in retrospect, this period was a last, final grasp at restoring the castle’s former greatness. This could not last. Pidhirtsi was part of inter-war Poland, caught between the hammer of Nazism and the anvil of Communism. To further complicate matters, its own backyard was a simmering cauldron of Ukrainian nationalism. When the Second World War broke out the owner of the castle, Prince Roman Sanguszko did the most prudent thing possible, he made himself and the last treasures of the castle scarce. They ended up in the safest place possible, half a world away in Brazil. When the Nazis took over the area, they found Pidhurtsi useful, as a place for their sick to convalesce. This may have healed physical wounds, but not the self-inflicted ones of an evil ideology. Fortunately the Nazis became like everything else at Pidhirtsi a thing of the past, only to be replaced by Soviet totalitarianism.

The Past Is Not What It Used To Be At Pidhirtsi

The Past Is Not What It Used To Be At Pidhirtsi

A Wayward New World
The German Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt famously theorized that German Nazism and Soviet Communism had more in common than not, both were equally tyrannical. When it came to their utilization of Pidhirtsi their commonalities were eerily similar. The Soviets also used the castle as a sort of hospital for those with tuberculosis. A trivial detail perhaps, then again it seems quite telling. The fact that both totalitarian systems could find no better use for what had once been an unparalleled palace of art and culture than a home for the wounded, sick and infirm says more about these two ideologies than any number of history books. They were trying to build a whole new world, but compared to what had once inhabited Pidhirtsi, it was nothing more than a decadent and depraved shadow world.

Try as they might, the Soviets could not totally destroy the essence of Pidhirtsi, but nature and neglect nearly did the job for them. In 1956 a bolt of lightning set the edifice alight. Flames of impure fire burned the structure for three weeks straight. And yet the castle survived, albeit with innumerable scars. Now a mere shell of its former self, Pidhirtsi still maintained enough presence that its preservation was proposed by citizens of a new nation that would inherit this grandiloquent semi-ruin. Ukraine was born from the ruins of the Soviet Union, now Ukrainians would try to resurrect a past that had never been their own. It was decided in the late 1990’s that Pidhirtsi was a heritage worth securing for posterity.

Many Windows Into the Past at Pidhirtsi Castle

Many Windows Into the Past at Pidhirtsi Castle

The Ghosts of Greatness
For the first time in its 350 year history the castle was turned into a museum, the Lviv Gallery of Painting, named for that famed city, ninety kilometers to its southwest. Restoration work began in an effort to restore the castle to at least a semblance of its former glory. The problem is that there is too little money in Ukraine to ever truly recreate Pidhirtsi in the image of its former glory. Perhaps this is best, since the aged, beaten look of the structure communicates the depth of history the castle has endured. The fact that it has outlasted every one of its owners and all of its conquerors is astounding. Unfortunately the depth and breadth of its past is often overlooked, obscured by a popular fixation with the legendary “Woman in White.” The tale is taken seriously by many. If only the rest of Pidhirtsi’s history could engender the same interest and recognition. The castle may be informed by myth and legend, but at its core is a history of both light and darkness much more fascinating than anything supernatural. The spirit of Pidhirtsi goes beyond ghosts, to a profound past that tells the story of a region, its struggles to survive and a beautiful, lost legacy.

Click here to read Ghost Stories: Pidhirtsi Castle (Part One)

Ghost Stories: Pidhirtsi Castle (Part One)

There is hardly a better symbol of the chaotic upheaval brought about by 20th century warfare in the far eastern reaches of Europe than Pidhirtsi Castle. The castle somehow survived the maelstrom of war and occupation intact. Amazingly, it still stands today, the same cannot be said of those who looted or retrofitted it for their needs. They are ghosts of a more recent and disturbing past. Pidhirtsi was also a cursed property for those political entities that had armed forces occupying it. Each of those entities, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Russian Empire, Second Republic of Poland, Nazi Germany and Soviet Union all eventually ceased to exist.  Their troops would come and go, finding Pidhirtsi as elusive to hold as the accursed region it was a part of. The castle now sits silent and austere in the Ukrainian countryside of Halychyna (Galicia), a contradiction within itself of crumbling grandeur. Partially restored, but still badly scarred, the castle has an otherworldly air about it. The fact that it survived decades of war and a three-week long fire is testament to both its usefulness and stout construction. Despite the abuses that the castle’s structure has suffered its greatness continues to endure.

Pidhirtsi Castle in western Ukraine

A lavish nightmare of the past – Pidhirtsi Castle in western Ukraine

Entertaining Myths & Harsher Realities
If ever a place looked like it was haunted, than Pidhirtsi Castle in western Ukraine would certainly be it. A gigantic architectural concoction of grandiose dilapidation, part castle, part fortress, its rustic, battered exterior looks like the kind of place conjured up by the most nightmarish of imaginings. Only a ghost would care to call this place home. Visitors to the castle are not disappointed as the castle is reputed to be haunted. As legend has it one of Pidhirtsi’s 18th century owners, Waclaw Rzewuski was driven to murder his wife due to insane jealousy. He was said to have had her walled up in the basement of the castle where she eventually died. As these stories often do, the legend has taken on a life of its own, with several variations. One has Rzewuski murdering his wife and then burying her body within the castle walls. Another says she was walled up because she was unable to bear Rzewuski any children. Even if such a murder did occur within the confines of Pidhirtsi it is doubtful the truth was really that colorful. Then again besides being a high ranking military leader and nobleman, Rzewuski was also a writer of drama, perhaps he did have something to do with the intertwining of legend and reality.

The "Woman In White"

The “Woman In White” hangs around for the tourists to see during visiting hours at Pidhirtsi

The tale(s) spawned what has famously come to be known as the “Woman In White.” This shadowy apparition is supposedly seen haunting the halls of Pidhirtsi. A group of 20 Ukrainian psychics recently agreed that the place was filled with ghosts. Measurements of the electromagnetic field of the castle were off the charts, a pseudo-scientific sign for many that Pidhirtsi is most certainly haunted. The white woman has wide entertainment appeal. Shows such as the “Ukrainian Psychic Challenge” and “Ghost Hunters International” have filmed inside the castle. The story is also a lucrative sideshow for the tourism authorities allowing them to charge an extra fee for those wanting to visit the castle’s basement where the murder was said to have occurred.

Wealth Without Peace – Pidhirtsi: The Early Years
All of this is entertaining, but overlooks the true history of Pidhirtsi, a place where the past could best be described as a lavish nightmare instructive of mankind’s excess and depravity. Considering all that happened here and in the surrounding area from 1914 through the 1950’s the deeper past of Pidhirtsi takes on a whole new meaning. Pidhirtsi’s initial years could not have been more different from its later history. From the outset it was the scene of martial successes. Perhaps that is why a Latin inscription which says, “A crown of military labors is victory, victory is a triumph, triumph is rest” is inscribed on a plaque at the entrance gate. This quote was certainly true during the 17th and 18th centuries at Pidhirtsi for nearly everyone but its founder. The castle was more fortification than residence, the scene of triumphant military labors. It saw off multiple attacks by Cossacks, Tatars and Turks in the half century following its construction.

Pidhutsi Castle's hilltop location offered protection and warning of possible invaders (Credit: Denis Vitchenko)

Pidhirtsi Castle’s hilltop location offered protection and warning of possible invaders (Credit: Denis Vitchenko)

The Polish Grand Crown Hetman Stanislaw Koniecpolski who commissioned the castle had originally envisioned Pidhirtsi as a place of rest. Its location meant otherwise. While the military victories must have been satisfying for Koniecpolski, the battles fought at or near Pidhirtsi were near constant. Koniecpolski seems to have had it all except his original vision for the castle and its surroundings. He owned entire districts, over 300 settlements, 18,000 households, a private army and commissioned the Koniecpolski Palace in Warsaw which today acts as the presidential palace of Poland. The only thing Koniecpolski did not have at Pidhirtsi was rest.. He never would. Koniecpolski was long dead by the time peace and quiet came to Pidhirtsi. In the years that followed, later owners would get to enjoy the fruits of his military labors. Only the ghosts of Koniecpolski’s greatness lived on through the castle he bequeathed to empires, nations and peoples he could scarcely have imagined.

Click here to read: The Real Ghosts Of Galicia – Pidhirtsi Castle (Part Two)

Traces of Transcarpathia’s Progress: Nyalab & Kankiv Castles

There is a clear line running through the history of Transcarpathia during the early Middle Ages. That line is the Mongol Invasion of 1241 – 1242. From the time period preceding the invasion very little castle architecture exists, nearly all fortifications were destroyed by the Mongols. In the years that followed the invasion and ravaging of Transcarpathia, Hungarian King Bela IV (1235 – 1270) issued a decree that “castles be built on suitable sites where the people may find refuge if they have to retreat from threatening dangers.” This policy led directly to the building of hilltop, stone fortresses for defensive purposes across the Kingdom of Hungary. Castles soon began to dot strongpoints in Transcarpathia, a critical region for securing Hungary’s eastern frontiers. This construction program was a matter of national security. These castles also provided security for something just as vital to the interests and welfare of the Kingdom’s inhabitants, salt.

Nyalab Castle

Nyalab Castle – one of the strongest defensive fortifications along the Salt Road during the Middle Ages

The Salt Road
Salt was one of the most important commodities in medieval times, literally a matter of life and death. Salt allowed for the preservation of food. Without preservation and the resulting ability to store foodstuffs, one bad harvest could doom a village to starvation. Salt also made travel possible. Without a sustainable supply of food, it was impossible to travel far afield. For these reasons, a plentiful supply of salt was of the utmost necessity. Central and Eastern Europe’s source for salt was Transylvania, which held bountiful reserves. After mining, the salt would then be transported westward via rivers systems. The Tisza River was an integral part of this route. The Kingdom of Hungary had to ensure that the transport trail was secure. Castles were constructed on hilltops along the salt road of the Tisza. Remnants of a couple of these castles can still be seen today.

A series of ruins stands atop a 40 meter high hill overlooking the Tisza River valley close to the town of Korolevo, Ukraine. In Slavic, Korolevo means “king’s house.” This name is derived from the original Hungarian name for that same place, Kiralyhaza. It was on top of this hill where the Hungarian King Stephen V erected a wooden hunting lodge. Later the hill was fortified with what became known as Nyalab castle, guarding the salt road along the nearby Tisza. Today the castle ruins do not look like much, little more than a few rough walls and stone stubs. They could easily be mistaken for natural rock formations if they garner any notice at all. This is historically deceptive. For centuries Nyalab Castle was one of the strongest defensive fortifications in the region. This eventually led to its downfall. The Habsburg emperor Leopold ordered it blown up in 1672 so that rebellious Hungarians could no longer use it to defend against his forces.

Painting of St. Francis Assisi Church and the adjacent tower at Nyalab Castle

Painting of the church and adjacent tower at Nyalab Castle from the 16th century

A Fight From Start To Finish – Kankiv Castle
Further down the Tisza lies the small city of Vynohradiv in Ukraine, with the ruins of Kankiv Castle standing nearby on Chorna Hora (Black Mountain). Enough of the castle’s remnants still exist to give some idea of what the original structure looked like. The castle was built in the shape of a square with a tower on each corner. Unlike other castles in Transcarpathia that enjoyed relative peace until the 16th century, Kankiv Castle was nearly ruined not long after it was first constructed. This was due to a succession fight for the Hungarian throne after the Arpad Dynasty collapsed at the beginning of the 14th century. The castle was sacked by the troops of the eventual victor King Charles Robert. Fortunately the new king had it restored and gave Kankiv as a gift to his wife. The Perenis, a powerful family of nobles gained ownership of the castle in the 15th century. During this time they allowed Franciscan monks to build a Gothic Church known as St. Francis of Assisi’s along with a monastery on the grounds. The entire complex was enclosed by defensive walls. In the 16th century the head of the Pereni household converted to Protestantism and forced the monks out of Kankiv. Before their eviction, the Franciscans placed a curse on the castle. Either by coincidence, superstition or happenstance the curse turned out to be ominously prescient. Not long afterwards Kankiv was reduced to ruins by the pro-Catholic Habsburgs in their war against rebelling Protestant nobles throughout the region.

Kankiv Castle

Kankiv Castle – the ruins that are left today can still stir the imagination

Relegated To Ruins – Transcarpathia’s Past
Very little is left of either Nyalab or Kankiv Castles. Casting a glance back through the history of the region it is easy to see why they were relegated to ruins. The region they were located within served as a proto-typical frontier. The Mongols may never have come back in force, but Transcarpathia experienced the violent excesses of invading Turks, Tatars and Transylvanians, Hungarians, Poles and Austrians. These peoples were fighting for power, land and resources. The legacy of centuries of struggle left scars on the landscape, but these are now barely noticeable. Today hardly anyone in Transcarpathia gives a second thought to the ravages of the Mongols, the salt road or the ruins of Nyalab and Kankiv. Some might say that is a shame, but it also illustrates how far the remoter reaches of Europe have advanced beyond the day to day struggle of life and death. Progress has been made, even in this forgotten netherworld, if only someone would stop and recognize it.

The Last Place To Look First – Borzhava Castle, Vary Ukraine & Deep History

Travelers looking to visit the castles of Transcarpathia will not likely consider a trip to Vary. This small village with a population of 3,100 inhabitants, situated on the Ukrainian side of the Ukraine – Hungary border, would probably be last on a list of possible attractions for the traveler, if it was on any list at all. This is not surprising since Vary at first glance has very little to see concerning castles. It is deceptive because actually this dusty and forgotten village should be the first stop on a castle tour of the region. Paradoxically, this means the traveler will be looking for a place with very little remaining of its once prominent existence.

Vary, Ukraine

Vary, Ukraine – a forgotten place with a deep past (Credit: Gyure Fricy)

Protecting An Eleven Hundred Year Legacy – Hungarians & Transcarpathia
Vary may officially be in Ukraine today, but both its past and present like so much of the eastern fringes of Transcarpathia is informed by Hungary. Eighty percent of the Vary’s inhabitants are ethnic Hungarian, it has been this way for well over 1,100 years. Ever since the Hungarians first arrived in the Carpathian Basin around the year 896 they have dominated the area. Not long after their arrival the Hungarians imposed their presence on the landscape. They selected the Vary area for a castle/fortification because it lay at the confluence of the Tisza and Borzsova Rivers. Rivers were trade routes and transportation corridors, the lifeblood for commerce in the early Middle Ages.  The fortification was built near the mouth of the Borzhava River to control this strategic point, it would become known as Borzhava Castle.

Location matters in history, the confluence of the two rivers was the decisive factor in the placement of Borzhava Castle, one of the first defensive structures in what would become the Kingdom of Hungary. This was a place informed as much by geography and topography as by the designs of man. Due to the fact that only the barest of details exist about its structure, the actual design of Borzhava is open to interpretation. It was not a stereotypical early medieval castle. The defenses were constructed out of earth and wood. A description of such works is given in the essay Castle Construction in Hungary by Tibor Koppany who describes them as “not castles in the modern sense…the wooden outer walls, supported by inner wooden trellises and partitions, filled with earth.”  For the time, these types of works were considered to be the most impregnable.

Hungarian King Béla IV fleeing from the Mongols

Hungarian King Béla IV fleeing from the Mongols (Credit: Szechenyi National Library Budapest)

The Coming of the Mongols & The Devastation of Hungary
If geography is destiny, than the location of Borzhava marked it out for historical importance, but also destined it for obliteration. Its position on the eastern frontiers of the Kingdom turned out to be highly precarious. Borzhava was an adequate defense until a new foe suddenly appeared out of the East in the 13th century, the Mongols. According to historical sources word first began to trickle into the Carpathian Basin about the ferocity of the Mongols from Russian boyars (land owning nobility) who had fled the rampaging horsemen. The boyars were granted asylum in Hungary by King Bela IV. In 1237, a Dominican Friar by the name of Julianus made a pilgrimage to the banks of the Volga River in search of a Hungarian tribe that had branched off from the original Magyar tribes in their movement westward across the Asian steppes. Julianus found the tribe, but of even greater interest he discovered the Mongols were heading westward, conquering all before them. When he returned to Hungary a couple of years later Julianus carried a message from the Mongol leader Batu Khan, demanding that Bela IV surrender the Kingdom of Hungary. The message was ignored. Soon thereafter, the Cumans, a tribe that had been expelled from the steppes by the Mongols showed up in Hungary and were granted asylum. They also carried a message from the Khan demanding surrender. These warnings were ominous, but King Bela IV of Hungary and the Kingdom’s ruling elite paid little heed to the danger before it was too late.

In 1241 the Mongols suddenly appeared, conducting raids with lightning speed. Borzhava Castle and its defensive works never had a chance it was quickly destroyed. Once these eastern defenses were breached the whole of the Hungarian Plain lay open. The Mongols would go on to devastate Eastern Hungary, cross the Danube and ravage much of western Hungary. The only places in Hungary that withstood this onslaught were hilltop fortresses. When the Mongols retreated, the Hungarians were left with their country in ruins. Bela IV had to figure out how to protect the kingdom from another such incursion. In the aftermath of the invasion, the defensive fortifications of Hungary underwent an irreparable change. A massive rebuilding project was ordered by Bela IV. Defensive structures made of earth and wood would no longer be of use. Formidable hilltop castles made of stone were optimal for security of the kingdom. This meant that Borzhava would not be rebuilt. Its topographical situation made it much too vulnerable. The flatlands were no longer suitable for the kingdom’s defenses.

Sumeg Castle in western Hungary

Hilltop fortresses such as Sumeg Castle in western Hungary – were the types of defensive works that King Bela IV commissioned to secure the Kingdom of Hungary from another Mongol invasion (Credit: Balla Béla)

Traces of the Past – Etched In the Landcsape
The first era of Hungary’s castle/fortress architecture had come to an abrupt end with the Mongol Invasion. Borzhava Castle was no more, but settlement in the area would soon resurface and this time for good. In 1320 the village was given the name Vari. The word var in Hungarian means castle. This is one legacy of Borzhava Castle that survives in Vary to the present day. Physical evidence also remains. The discerning eye can still make out mounds, trenches and earthworks that were once part of the complex. The fact that anything at all remains is simply amazing given the changes that nature and man have wrought on the rivers and landscape.  Vary will not make anyone’s list of must see places, but it is worth a visit just to see the traces of a past that against time and fate still remains.

The Architecture of Self-Destruction – Nevitsky Castle, Ukraine: A Lesson In Ruins

The extension of the Soviet Union’s borders westward in the aftermath of World War II brought the Transcarpathian region into Ukraine. One of the results of this was that Ukraine would inherit the historic sites in the region, which had very little to do with the overriding majority of Ukrainians. By and large Transcarpathia had a very different history from the rest of Ukraine. The area had been a fringe zone where Hungarians, Poles, Romanians and Rusyns vied for control. One of the sites in the region was Nevitsky castle. It might be said that though the castle is in Ukraine, it is not quite of Ukraine, at least from a historical standpoint.

 Ruins of Nevitsky Castle

The ruins of Nevitsky Castle – evocative and instructive (Credit: Masha Kovalchuk)

Ascendants & Descendants – Nevitsky Castle : The First Two Hundred Years
The history of Nevitsky castle is to a great extent a microcosm of the Kingdom of Hungary’s history during the Middle Ages. It does have some tangential connections to the history of the Ukraine, but these are not nearly as obvious. The first version of the castle was constructed in the early Middle Ages to help protect Hungary from possible invasion by way of the Carpathian Mountain passes to the north. The Hungarians knew from first-hand experience that these passes must be guarded. During the late 9th century, the Hungarians had used one of these passes to sweep into and conqueror the Carpathian Basin. The Hungarians did not want to fall prey to the same stratagem they had used. Thus in the 12th century, Nevitsky Castle was constructed on a 260 meter high volcanic rock outcropping above the Uzh River. This highly strategic point guarded both trade and possible invasion routes. The first version of the castle did little good in slowing down the Mongol advance which came roaring through the area in 1241. The land that is presently Ukraine had already been ravaged by the Mongols, the Kingdom of Hungary was to be next. The Mongols put Nevitsky’s wooden structures to the torch, resulting in its utter ruin.

The Mongols only stayed in the Kingdom of Hungary temporarily before they retreated eastward. The upshot of the Mongol Invasion was an order by Hungarian King Bela IV for stone castles and fortresses to be built in order to better protect the Kingdom. Nevitsky was soon restored and refortified in a much more substantial manner. While Hungary was able to recover from the Mongol disaster relatively quickly, the course of Ukrainian history was irreparably altered by the invasion. Kievan Rus ceased to be the center of power for the Eastern Slavic world. The power base of the Slavic world gravitated to the Grand Duchy of Moscow, what would eventually grow into Tsarist Russia. Meanwhile, as the 14th century dawned Nevitsky once again came under foreign rule, but this time it was not from invasion, but by invitation.  The King of Hungary at the time, Charles Robert, transferred ownership of the castle to members of an Italian family of French origins, the Drugeths. This made sense in light of the fact that Charles Robert had the same ethnic background as the Drugeths. Members of the family had loyally fought on the side of the king in helping defeat rebellious aristocrats to secure his rule. The Drugeths were richly rewarded for their service. Nevitsky was just the start as the Drugeth family began their meteoric ascent to become the largest landowners in the Kingdom of Hungary. Like seemingly everything in the fringe area of Transcarpathia, it would not last.

View over ruins of Nevitsky Castle toward the Uzh River

View over ruins of Nevitsky Castle toward the Uzh River (Credit: Юрій Крилівець)

Enemies Within – The Ruin Of Nevitsky
The decline of the Drugeths and Nevitsky as an active castle came not from without as so often happened in the Kingdom of Hungary’s history, but from within. Family infighting plagued the Drugeths for decades. This led to such bizarre situations as the time when in 1600 one family member besieged the castle with a 3,000 man strong army. Inside the walls were the wife and children of the recently deceased head of the Drugeths. They were forced to flee and leave the country. Land and power trumped bloodlines. The end for Nevitsky came less than half a century later. The Drugeths were supporting the Catholic Habsburgs. In the Middle Ages, religion was a much stronger identifier than nationality. The problem for the Drugeths is that Nevitsky was situated in an area consumed by Protestant fervor. They incurred the wrath of the powerful Transylvanian princes. In 1644, Gyorgy Rakoczi I, Prince of Transylvania captured Nevitsy, destroying much of the castle. A new chapter in the castle’s history dawned that continues up through the present, the castle as a ruin.

Today when visitors go to Nevitsky they can see one of the original towers still intact. There are also substantial portions of the walls. There is always something romantic and evocative about ruins that lends them to the imagination. The act of imagination can also distract from the lessons and instructiveness of such ruins. Despite its position towering above the Uzh River, despite multiple constructions that upgraded its defenses, despite the wealth and power of the Drugeths, Nevitsky eventually failed. The seeds of its destruction came from within. For all the chaos and violence imposed on Hungary by the Mongols, Ottoman Turks and the Habsburgs, the ultimate problem came from within. Whether it was the divisions of a family, of the nobility, of religion, or of nationalities the weakness engendered by internecine disputes was ultimately a fatal flaw that time and again brought the Kingdom of Hungary defeat and eventually destruction. The ruins of Nevitsky Castle can be seen as a physical manifestation of this trend.

The ruins of Nevitsky castle

The ruins of Nevitsky castle – a window into the past (Credit: Anatoliy Fedusenko)

Disunity – A Warning To Ukraine
Nevitsky Castle’s ruins are now a much visited tourist spot in modern Ukraine. The place and its history would seem to have little to do with Ukrainians, but it still offers lessons. Presently Ukraine is embroiled in a war on its eastern border. Russia has done much to bring this about, fomenting discontent and violence. These insidious efforts have been aided by disunity inside Ukraine. This war is not just between ethnic Russians and Ukrainians, but also between Ukrainians themselves. There are regional differences, religious differences, generational differences, economic differences. All these divisions only serve to weaken Ukraine. What will the end result be? The ruins of Nevitsky Castle serve as a warning of what the future might hold for Ukraine if it fails to unite.