Medieval jewels of Khotyn: unexpected beauty on your doorstep

29-05-2017

As the summer approaches, thoughts are increasingly turning to travel. We dream of foreign places and exotic destinations, but how many people are aware of the historic gems hidden in their own back yard, like the stunning medieval fortress of Khotyn nestled in the hills of south-western Ukraine?

All over the world, domestic tourism is growing in popularity: cheaper than foreign travel, with no problems relating to visas, currency exchanges and foreign languages. And Ukraine has plenty to offer for its own people, often unaware of the breathtaking heritage that has marked the history of their country.

To help local tourists on their way, Espreso.TV followed a brand new tourist trail, promoted with support from the European Union, to discover Ukraine’s rich medieval past… and that of its neighbours.

Khotyn Fortress

Khotyn is a small town in south-western Ukraine, close to the borders with Moldova and Romania, on the right bank of the Dnister River in Chernivtsi Oblast. Its population is just 9,500. Nevertheless, Khotyn attracts many tourists.

This is the home of one of the Seven Wonders of Ukraine – a medieval fortress perfectly preserved to the present day. And it is not just a fortress. Khotyn is the site of an architectural reserve spreading out over an area of almost 17 hectares.

In the Middle Ages, Khotyn was part of an integrated defence system that included nine fortresses, three of which have survived: the Khotyn Fortress, the Soroca Fortress (in the territory of present-day Moldova), and the Suceava Fortress (in Romania).

“The town is just 30 kilometres from Kamianets-Podilskyi,” says Olena Mishchenko, a tourist visiting from Kyiv. “So you can kill two birds with one stone, and visit two ancient fortresses in a day.” It is best way to travel there by car, but there are frequent buses and minibuses between the towns, and most of them will drive you almost to the fortress gates, on the green hills overlooking the river, a site of outstanding natural beauty. “It’s not just the beauty of the castle, and the extraordinary historical interest – here you can feel an incredible calm from the beauty of the Ukrainian Podillia region,” Mishchenko adds.

Khotyn Fortress was first built in the 13th century, but its mighty walls bear witness to the turbulent history of the region, a crossroads of invading armies and great power games across the centuries.

The fortress, established as the Khotyn Fort by Prince Volodymyr Sviatoslavovych as far back as the 10th century, has been in its current form since the 13th century, when the fortress was rebuilt at the command of Prince Danylo Halytskyi and the old wooden fortress was replaced with a new stone one. At that time, it was considered to be one of the strongest fortresses in Eastern Europe.

The fortress has been part of many states: the Principality of Galicia-Volhynia (Halych and Volyn Principality), the Kingdom of Hungary, the Principality of Moldova, the Ottoman Empire and the Russian Empire. Each new ruler has contributed to its rebuilding. Thus, today, it has a somewhat multicultural appearance.

Nevertheless, there is no sense in just reading about the fortress’s history. You should visit it and see everything with your own eyes.

Now, the only people laying siege to Khotyn are tourists, attracted by a programme of renovations completed in 2015 under the EU-funded cross-border cooperation project ‘Medieval Jewels: Khotyn, Soroca, Suceava’, which is part of the Romania-Ukraine-Republic of Moldova cross-border cooperation programme. In the spirit of the programme, the project has worked to link Khotyn with the two other surviving fortresses which now lie across the border in Moldova and Romania but were once part of the same defensive network along the Dnister.

The total value of the project was €3 million, with over €660,000 allocated to the Ukrainian partner, explains Maksym Tashchuk, the project’s procurement expert. This money has helped the Khotyn Fortress to solve some major problems.

“We had a huge problem with lighting. The power supply to the fortress was very poor, and we’d have to shut the fortress to visitors at sunset. Now, the project has helped us to install a proper lighting system, supplied by our own power station,” says Yelyzaveta Buinovska, the director of the Khotyn Fortress reserve: “With the modernisation of the power network, the whole area can now be lit up at night with up-to-date concealed lighting devices.”

A total of 130 projectors have been installed inside and around the castle, and the light systems have several settings, including festive settings for special events. “Before, the Khotyn Fortress was plunged into darkness each evening: now, you can see it in all its grandeur, even at night. This also enables us to hold festivals, concerts, medieval tournaments, and other events after dark,” adds Buinovska.

Places to walk and things to see

You can spend a whole day walking around the Khotyn Fortress. “I would recommend visiting the castle complex first. Every building here tells a story and bears witness to an epoch,” says the reserve’s director.

Apart from the main fortress building, you can also see defensive ramparts, ditches, artillery bastions, and towers built in different periods of its history.

"History buffs will really like this place, since the fortress is really huge. It looks even more impressive when you look at it from below, standing on the bank of the Dnister River. The view just makes me feel giddy,” says tourist Serhii Palhash, sharing his enthusiasm.

Across the reserve, new trees and bushes have been planted, and benches have been laid out to provide rest after a walk. The main paths have been paved, and other areas planted up with grass.

“The Khotyn Fortress is a must-have for every Ukrainian tourist,” says Mishchenko. “These walls have been standing for hundreds of years, ancient silent witnesses of our history. Although the fortress has gone through so many disturbances, it has survived. We often go abroad to see the history of other countries, but we have our own impressive heritage. To fall in love with our country, we need to know it well,” she adds.

Inside, the objects on display speak of that extraordinary history: “The exhibits are directly linked with the fortress’s history. You can find a room full of medieval torture and execution instruments. You can see ancient military equipment used during assaults on the fortress, swords and firearms, coins and pottery discovered during excavations,” says the reserve’s director.

But the EU project has done more than just turn on the lights: “Uninterrupted electricity supply means we can have the necessary temperature conditions to exhibit items such as military clothing, national costumes and paintings inside the citadel. Now, we can display things that were not previously accessible to visitors,” says Tashchuk.

And the visiting tourists are impressed: “The fortress has catacombs, where you can see ancient weapons. Here, you can see different cannons, which were formerly used to protect the walls of Khotyn Fortress. You can walk around dungeons, where prisoners were kept. In certain rooms, you can see medieval clothing, suits of armour, and household items,” says Mishchenko.

More and more people visiting

Since the renovations, the number of tourists visiting Khotyn Fortress has risen by 20%. Among other things, large banners have been produced and signs installed to help tourists get to the fortress without difficulties.

“Publications in the media and a promotional video shown on TV have raised Ukrainian tourists’ interest. The project has facilitated the installation of signs along the tourist route within the Khotyn Raion, marking the coordinates of all three fortresses participating in the project,” explains Tashchuk.

At certain times of year, it is possible to take part in local holidays celebrated in the Khotyn Fortress grounds. In late June, the “Bessarabia Colouring” festival takes place here, where visitors can learn about the historical region of Bessarabia, with national costumes, songs, dances and local food.

Entrance tickets for the Khotyn Fortress can be purchased for a small price: an adult ticket costs UAH 20 and children pay half price.

Today, the fortresses at Khotyn, Soroca and Suceava are divided between three countries, but they have shared a common history since the Middle Ages. Once part of a single defensive network, they are now joined again in a common heritage trail thanks to the EU-funded cross-border project – a compelling reason to visit them all.

It is easy to reach the Moldovan town of Soroca from Khotyn. Around 180km separates Khotyn from Soroca, where the medieval fortress stands in the centre of the town, again rising above the Dnistro River, while   the Romanian town of Suceava is around 200k from Soroca. Throw in the added bonus of visa-free travel, and it is not difficult to combine all three fortresses into one incredible trip!

Author: Daria Tarasova