Long way here, but it was worth it!
07/25/2015 - 07/26/2015 91 °F
Kamiya nets-Podilsky, in all its glory
It took two, stifling, sweaty bus rides to get here, but as I stood on a hill overlooking the castle at Kamyanets-Podilsky, I knew it was worth it. The town is located in Central Ukraine, but far from any big cities or connection points. I had decided to approach it in a two-stop method. I would travel from Lviv to Kolomyya, and spend two nights there sightseeing. Then, I would go the other half of the way to Kamyanets-Podilsky. Both bus rides were about five hours long and uncomfortable (no AC on 90-degree days). Though I like Ukraine, it's public transit system is stuck in the Soviet mode. Dowdy, slow leave at inconvenient times and buses are rattle traps. It's roads are mired in the Third World, with potholes, gravel-covered washouts, and poorly-patched asphalt comprising about half of their surfaces between cities. This means buses take much, much longer to reach their destination and a ride that feels, at times, like a bumpy amusement park attraction.
You entethe Hetman Hotel under the stern gaze of these gents!
I arrived at my hotel in Kamyanets-Podilsky seriously looking forward to seeing it. Their website and guidebook description sold me right away. It is called The Hetman, which is the term for a Cossack leader. Who were the Cossacks? It is kind of hard to describe, but they were essentially the motorcycle gangs of Central Asia in Renaissance and later times. The tribes were warlike and had a reputation for ferocity. They would be hired out as enforcers by various rulers, or on a whim, rise up in rebellion. Cossack tribal identity was only partly ethnic, communities could abandon their farming under duress and become a new Cossack band. The Hetman Hotel's stairwell is lined with portraits of various Cossack hetmen, all glaring at you fiercely as you pass by carrying your bags (no elevator). The hotel is otherwise very modern, and richly decorated. Since it cost only the equivalent of $2 more, I'd upgraded to a Junior Suite. It was lavish, and my nicest room in Ukraine.
K-P's main square
After unpacking and cooling off, I geared up and walked across the main square to the tourist information center. They spoke only halting English, and had maps only in Ukrainian. I snagged one, though, and asked one of the guys working there to show me the best places to take photos. He proceeded to mark a half dozen spots all around town on the map. From there, it was no question where I was heading next. The whole reason for coming here was the castle. I walked through the cobblestone streets towards what is misnamed the Turkish Bridge. The Turks did fill in the bridge's arches, but it was built by the Poles who built the bridge and heavily fortified this town when they controlled it. There was little chance of getting lost, it seemed everyone in town was rightly headed that way, or coming from there. This included wedding parties. I saw more than a dozen different wedding parties during my stay in Kamyanets-Podilsky. It must be THE place to get your wedding photographs for this area of Ukraine.
The deep,river gorge surrounding the castle
I took a few photos from the ruins of the bastion that guarded the near end of the bridge. Picture an almost 360 loop in a deep river gorge, forming basically an island. The bridge is the connection point to that fortified loop. The gorge becomes a natural fortress, and people throughout history have recognized it's unassailable position. There is a story that when the first Turkish sultan to invade the area saw the fortress he asked his advisors, "Who has built such a fortress?" The advisors answered, "Allah." The sultan shook his head, saying "Then let Allah take it," and riding away. It was the Polish kingdom that built what we see today, although there is evidence of fortification as early as Roman times. The Poles built a steep wall was atop the rocky hill that encircles the gorge. They fortified it with than a dozen towers, as well as at gates and other strategic points. Later, as cannons made stone less of a barrier, they added a new, star-shaped angled fortress to protect it's most vulnerable point. The Turks did take the castle, though, in 1673, giving it back to the Poles through a treaty a couple decades later, though.
Entering the castle
My own assault on the fortress was straightforward. I walked along the busy bridge, taking pictures all along the way. It was afternoon, so the sunlight was streaming from behind the castle towards me. Backlit -- not the best situation for taking photos. I would have to keep an eye out for a good vantage point from the western side. Meanwhile, I could explore the castle! I paid my 20 Hrivnas (less than $1), and later in one of the shops, picked up an English language guide pamphlet. It wasn't really necessary, though. I climbed towers, walked along walls and the wooden galleries built to defend them, clambered down into dungeons, and essentially poked my head into every spot where we were allowed. None of the signs were in English, though, which limited my ability to enjoy the museum inside one of the barracks buildings.
On the battlements of the castle
I was in my element though, immersing myself in the castle's historic pulse. I wasn't the only one. A large group of reenactors was present that day. They were eating a suitably medieval lunch of roast meat when I arrived. Halfway through my visit, they started an impromptu archery contest. The best dressed of all the reenactors was the Turkish archer. His elaborately decorated outfit, period mustache, and peaked headdress all radiated Eastern Europe. He dutifully posed for my picture, but did not join the younger reenactors in the contest. After I was satisfied that I had left no patch of stonework unexplored, I left to see if there was a spot I could catch the gorgeous afternoon sunlight that was painting the castle's towers and walls.
Reenactor at the castle
I found a staircase from the bridge heading down, and followed it. Soon, I was deep inside the gorge, pacing through a small village in the shadow of the castle. Chickens darted across the path in front of me and curious dogs barked. I could see I was heading in the right direction, though, which was encouraging. Gradually, more and more if the sunlit side of the castle was being exposed. When I came to a fork in the path, I also stumbled upon a wooden church. It was locked up, but beautiful in the afternoon sun. I followed one branch of the path and hit paydirt. While visiting the castle, I had noticed a large hill across the gorge with a huge metallic cross on it. I could see dirt paths worn in the grass, and knew there had to be a way to get there. Sure enough, this was the way! Soon, I was standing beside the cross in the best possible vantage point. Wow! The early evening (by now) sun stoked a warm fire from the centuries-old stones. The brickwork glowed red, while the stones shone a rich yellow. Plus, I had the hillside to myself. I could drink in the amazing view with no distractions. The view from the hill reminded me startlingly of my all-time favorite castle: Krak des Chevaliers, the Crusader castle I visited a decade ago in Syria. The hours of sitting uncomfortable in a ratty bus melted away up there on the hill. I knew I would do it again in a heartbeat to visit a wonder like Kamyanets-Podilsky.
After a much-needed shower, I rewarded myself with pizza that night. I'd been having Ukrainian food regularly, so indulged myself. The hotel room was luxury, too, and I relaxed in there that evening, looking at my photos and catching my friends and family up on my travels. Kamyanets-Podilsky has other sights, being a historic town, and I would visit them to tomorrow.
What used to be a minaret converted to a church spire
I was up early, eating breakfast at 8 am. I read through my guidebook again to refresh myself on the town's sights. I marked up the map the tourist information office had given me and set out. I was reminded quickly that it was a Sunday morning. Church bells gonged regularly. The streets were almost deserted. I paced along the cobblestone streets and alleyways, which sometimes became dirt paths. I found old medieval gateways, the walls and towers that defended the town, and the churches whose domes poked up above the tile-roofed buildings of Kamyanets-Podilsky. My favorite was the Armenian church, which is currently being restored. It's faded grandeur reminded me of a Roman ruin, with elaborately carved stones lying on the ground. I recognized the Katchka -- the intricately carved stone cross -- from my own visit to Armenia a few years back.
The park overlooking the gorge and Old Town
I took a break around lunchtime to cool off. The heat would soar into the 90s again, today. On my second sojourn, I dipped down into the river gorge, walking along a pathway tracing the river's bubbling course. At one point, I was startled by a persistent, cicada-like whirring. I looked up to see a zip liner pass, smiling, far overhead. I looped back around to the road that wound along the hillside on the edge of town looking down into the gorge. I noticed a park across the gorge in the "new town" section, which looked nice. So, I followed the tall bridge that straddles the gorge and joined the families and wedding parties taking pictures among its fountains and staircases set up to admire the view of the Old Town. Recrossing the bridge, I ducked into the souvenir market, each stall painted to look like a tiny, half-sized house. I had passed through earlier, and was eyeing a certain shirt as a souvenir. At $11, I decided to help the local economy, and bought it. In all honesty, I had pretty much exhausted the town's sights. I vaguely considered the ride through the gorge on a repainted and converted, Soviet BRDM armored vehicle. I'm not an armor nut, so I passed.
Despite the slow winding down of my visit, I did enjoy my time in Kamyanets-Podilsky. Two days was plenty enough to see the sights. If I'd planned a third day, it probably would have involved way too much time in cafes! I was dreading the denouement of the trip, though. The only train to Kiev left at 12:45 am. So, at midnight, I would have to pack up and leave my lovely Junior Suite. I would be subjected to a night train to the capital -- one with no sleeper compartments. I am envisioning more Soviet style transport with over-indulged, screaming Ukrainian kids. I have my music on my iPad, though, and my ear buds to shut them out. I also brought along plenty of work and reading material if I can't sleep. We have already answered the question, though, on whether the discomfort of travel to and from Kamyanets-Podilsky was worth it. When I stood on that hill, admiring the castle glowing in the sun (as it will forever remain in my memory), I knew that the thrill of touching History will always trump any temporary discomfort.