The man who scouted out the location of the Ukrainian fortified town, Kamyanets-Podilsky (fortress of stone), must have received a shiny, gold star for his brilliance. Surrounded by a 100 foot deep, natural canyon, this citadel has got to be in one of the most defensible positions in the world.
As though it was taken from the mind of some epic, fantasy author, the stronghold of Kamyanets-Podilsky perches dramatically on its rocky island– an imposing fortification where citizens were kept safe from the dark forces of the outside world. Along with the God-made moat, Kamyanets was also once enclosed by man-made battlements and bastions. The only entrances to the city were through three, main bridges crossing the Smotrych river, two of them heavily protected by turrets, murder-holes and arrow-loops. The third and largest bridge was covered by Kamyanet’s main fortress, a mighty castle guarding the western approach.
Kamyanets-Podilsky was seemingly unconquerable, so it’s location was coveted by many ambitious rulers, with vast armies to waste, who wished to take on the challenge and glory of capturing it. Over the recorded years Kamyanets-Podilsky repelled more than 50 invasions. It is said that the Turkish Sultan Osman II, arriving at the fortress with his massive army in 1621, quaked at the sight of the ominous, walled citadel. “Who could have built such a wicked-awesome stronghold?” The Sultan asked his men (paraphrasing). “Surely it was Allah himself,” a commander replied. “Then we’ll let Allah conquer it.” The Sultan decided to leave the city in the hands of God and take his posse elsewhere. Remembering the strength of this fortress, in 1672 the Turks returned with a force of warriors outnumbering Kamyanets 60 to 1, and only then were they able to conquer it.
Ashleigh and I were just as awed as Sultan Osman when we first crossed the bridge from the Soviet-built, new city into the old town of Kamyanets-Podilsky. The gorgeous canyon, carved in the oxbow of the Smotrych river, gaped at either side of us and made our stomachs drop. Farmer’s fields dotted the fertile land on the banks of the river while remnants of ancient towers and crumbling walls balanced precariously on the canyon’s edge.
Within the Old Town, on our way up to the castle, we enjoyed gazing at a few beautiful churches, quirky art pieces (like the Tourist and a giant purple cat mural), and attempting to pull a magic sword from the stone to become the one true king and unite all of Ukraine (too soon?).
A grand bridge spans the gap from the old town on Smotrych Island to the twelve-towered stronghold of Kamyanets. From the bridge, the view of the castle’s spires against the chaotic landscape of sheer cliffs and rolling farmland was glorious.
The old fort only costs around $2 to enter and we got a kick out of creeping along its battlements, climbing within the newly renovated towers, and chucking our money down its yawning, 40 meter well. The new fort, located at the north-western end of the castle, was free to explore but judging by the piles of beer cans and scattered cigarette packs it looked like a teenage party site. Nevertheless, I heedlessly plunged my way through the new castle’s dark tunnels, underneath its earthwork bulwarks, with unreasonable excitement.
Our final day in Kamyanets-Podilsky was a nice one so we decided to take a hike to the giant cross situated on a hill south of the castle. Our walk took us along the inside of Smotryck gorge, past several evil-looking guard dogs, a trip of braying goats, uphill through an ancient cemetery and finally to the top of the ridge where the tall crucifix casts its shadow. Again, from Cross Hill we witness beautiful views of Kamyanets Castle and the town itself.
On the way back to town we passed the Church of the Exaltation of the Cross. This traditional, wooden chapel was a marvel with its exquisitely carved beams and complicated rafters covered with thousands of delicate shingles. There was also an old well which I fiddled around with a bit.
For all you medieval romantics out there, Kamyanets-Podilsky’s old town has a lot to offer. Its location within the oxbow canyon of the Smytroch river, along with old wall bastions and castle parapets, gives Kamyanets the semblance of something out of myth. While for us the town was a little quiet (during the low season), the summer season is filled with folk performances, medieval fairs, and hot air balloon flights over Smytroch canyon. Kamyanets-Podilsky has survived countless battles with Mongols, Tatars, Cossacks, Turks, and Germans to become one of the Seven Wonders of Ukraine and a cultural icon for years to come. If you’re visiting Ukraine you can’t miss the mighty fortress of Kamyanets– you never know when another horde of soldiers will come along and finally take it down.