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 foreboding, 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.

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)