Present day Ukraine is located on some of the most sought after and fought over territory in the world, its fertile lands making it perfect for surviving and thriving and its location making it a coveted and strategic point bridging continents. The country has been invaded at different periods by the Mongols from the east, the Ottomans and Tatars from the south, the Russians and Lithuanians from the north and the Poles and Austria-Hungarians from the west. Whole or parts of Ukrainian territory have also passed through the hands of Moldavians, Romanians, Germans, Bessarabians and the Soviets. Today’s invaders are more of the touristy type, with visitors coming to see – among other things – the wide variety of different fortresses and castles left behind by history itself. From the Genoese Fortress in Sudak, Crimea to the Palanok Castle in Mukacheve near where Ukraine meets Hungary, Romania and Slovakia, these fortresses and castles are as diverse as the nations that created – and conquered – them.
Two of the more interesting fortresses are situated just northeast of the Carpathian Mountains, within an easy day trip of each other. They are the Khotyn Fortress and the Kamyanets-Podilsky Fortress, both of which are included in the list of the seven wonders of Ukraine. Only 30km separate the two and both are about a marathon distance away from the Romanian and Moldovan borders. The best starting point for a day trip to both is from the city of Chernivtsi located about 60km west of Khotyn.
The Khotyn fortress is located on the banks of the Dniester River in a small city of less than 15,000. Although evidence of fortification existed as early as the 10th century, the present-day stone fort was built around the 13th century. The entrance is located on the upper side of a hill and the rest of the fort is built going down the slope. This means that the base of the fortress is much lower than the entrance, which makes the already high brick walls look even taller and more intimidating. Once inside the fortress, however, the place feels much smaller as the surrounding high walls make you feel closed in; maybe not so good for those who suffer from claustrophobia! Walking around the small courtyard, I felt as though I was wondering back throughout the ages to a time when homes had earthen floors, when water was collected from wells and when the smell of livestock was overpowering but normal. The only view of the surrounding land was from tall narrow openings in the walls which widened as it went out, the typical design that allowed defenders at the time to see attackers coming and give them a better shot while still being fairly protected. As I left the fortress, I noticed that the ground level inside the fortress was level with the ground level at the entrance, which made me wonder how much of the fortress lay underground, not open to the public.
The Kamyanets-Podilsky fortress is situated in a unique location and the surrounding geography only serves to enhance the impressiveness of the fortress itself. It’s located on top of a plateau that is surrounded on three sides by cliffs carved out by the Smotrych River, the resulting natural moat making the perfect setting for fortification. The entrance to the fort is on the one side that the river doesn’t pass through, and the view is amazing on approach as visitors are welcomed by the slathering of towers that poke out as the fortress balances on the island of rock. Kamynets-Podilsky is more geared toward tourists than its neighbor as well, as evidenced by the row of babushkas along the road selling little trinkets to visitors.
As you walk into the Kamynets-Podilsky fortress, one of the first things you notice is that there is a lot more breathing room inside than in neighbouring Khotyn, particularly as you climb up and walk along the walls and into the towers. Visitors beware, though, that a lot of the paths have not been modified to accommodate tourists so making your way throughout can be a bit tricky thanks to uneven stairs, narrow walkways and a lack of handrails. It didn’t even dawn on me that anything had actually been modified until I walked into one of the towers and realized that the room I was in was a much more recent addition. In the centre of the room was the eroded stony cone of the original tower now being protected against the elements by the more aesthetically pleasing addition.
Although both Kamynets-Podilsky and Khotyn are considered two of the seven wonders of Ukraine, neither of them have been commercialized by the influx of tourism, and have managed to keep a deep and appreciated sense of authenticity. The fortresses seem to have the right amount of visitors, neither so crowded so as to make you jaded nor too empty so as to be creepy! Both of these fortresses offer an excellent chance to visit a small part of the Ukraine’s epic past.