Palaces and Castles in a Lion Country

Issue 2, June 2008.


Lviv region has been one of the focal points of eastern European history for the past millennium, with the tide of empire regularly washing up conquerors up into the woodlands and foothills of Halychyna. Lviv has traditionally been a gateway region highly prized by neighbouring powers and often fought over. This turbulent history has left the surrounding countryside dotted with the fortress relics of bygone frontiers and the palaces of extinct dynasties. While much of Ukraine’s historical inheritance remains tied to the Soviet or Russian Imperial past, Lviv region continues to act as an anchor for the country in a different, quintessentially European experience.

With the tourist trade developing in West Ukraine its historic treasures are also slowly beginning to receive the kind of attention they have long deserved. Many of Lviv region’s most celebrated castles are connected to the greatest men of their respective ages and have long since demanded more respect and care from the regional authorities.
Thanks to neighbouring Poland’s historical influence in the region most of the leading lights linked to Lviv’s palaces and castles are Polish. The most famous figure to feature in the annals of Lviv’s palaces is undoubtedly Jan III Sobieski, the legendary victor over the Turks at the gates of Vienna in 1683. Regarded by many as the last of the truly great Polish kings, Sobieski was born in Lviv region at Olesko Castle in 1629. Appropriately for a Lviv-born hero, Sobieski was later dubbed by the defeated Turks the “Lion of Lechistan.”

Olesko Castle (68km from Lviv)

In the seventeenth century when West Ukraine was part of the sprawling Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which at the time was one of the mightiest empires in the world, Olesko Castle was a place of kings and couriers where the fate of many nations hung in the air. Today’s castle actually dates back to the very earliest years following Lviv’s foundation and first appears in the history books in 1390 when it was a gift from the Pope to the newly-created Catholic bishop of the region. Its location is said to mark a long-lost border between ancient Lviv and Volhynia princedoms. At various times the castle belonged to Halychians, Poles, Lithuanians and Hungarians before finally falling prey to the dominance of the Commonwealth. Despite these deep historic roots the castle will always be associated with the glory of the reign of Polish King Jan II Sobieski, who was born in the castle in 1629 and was to maintain a close bond with the fortress in particular and the region in general for the rest of his life. Many of the artworks currently on display in the castle museum are part of the collection the king personally amassed here, offering a unique glimpse into the mind of a military genius and colossal statesman.

The castle offers wonderful views of the surrounding countryside and a wide range of fascinating exhibits from what is thought to be one of the finest collections of historical Polish arts in the world. Visitors can also enjoy strolls in the attractive castle park or dine in “Hrydnytsya”, the popular castle restaurant, where the medieval architecture and Ukrainian national cuisine combine to offer an original dining experience. The church and monastery that are part of today’s complex were built in the eighteenth century. When the region was engulfed in the fighting during WWII the castle complex was used as a Nazi concentration camp. Since the 1960s the castle has been maintained as a museum

Zolochiv (67km from Lviv)

Zolochiv is first mentioned in the annals history in the year 1442, and on March 15th of 1523 the town adopted the Magdeburg Rights, making it a member of the loosely knitted medieval version of the EU super-state. This palace- fortress has been a regional gem for over five centuries, but much like nearby Olesko Castle its history is intricately intertwined with that of its most famous residents and owners King Jan III Sobieski and his wife Marie Casimire Louise, Queen of Poland. King Jan Sobieski began reconstruction of today’s castle with a mind to creating both a splendid royal retreat and a defensive stronghold where his forces could hold out against enemy raids from the south and east. Sobieski first made his name as a commander during the great uprising of Ukrainian Cossack leader Bohdan Khmelnitskiy, and throughout his life the security of his empire’s eastern marches remained his gravest concern, so it is perhaps fitting that he should have left so many architectural fortifications here as a monument to his rule. The castle today remains a place of mystery with secret passages abounding and an underground entrance linking the interior of the palace building with the outside world.
The pride and joy of Zolochiv Castle was historically its superior toilets and plumbing, which were the wonder of the early modern palace interior design world. The intricate pipe works and clever use of naturally occurring water pressure were extremely rare for the seventeenth century and remain one of the finest examples of their kind still in existence today.
During the 1690s, Queen Marie often vacationed in Zolochiv and thanks to her presence a distinctive Chinese palace appeared in the castle grounds which is still delighting visitors by playing host to regular exhibitions of eastern art and tea ceremonies. Zolochiv castle was owned by the Sobieski family till 1737, when it was sold to Sandomir governor Tarla, who in turn later passed the collection of properties over to the Radziwil noble family until eventually, in 1834 Zolochiv Castle became the property of the Habsburg government. At first, the Austrians
used the castle as a military base before turning it into a hospital and, years later, a prison. When in 1939 the Soviets invaded Halychina region, special units of the Stalin’s NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs: the leading secret police organisation of the Soviet Union charged with liquidating all perceived sources of opposition to the Soviet regime) used the site for mass executions. In 1995 close to the castle a small chapel was erected as a memorial to the victims of the NKVD terror. Until 1953 Zolochiv Castle continued its grim existence
as an isolated prison, but with the death of Stalin it was transformed into a technical school before becoming the property of Lviv Art Gallery and a designated site of historical interest in the 1980s.
As you would expect for somewhere with such illustrious associations Zolochiv is wrapped up in myth and mystery. The focus of most legends are the two giant slams of rock which lie close to the castle and are inscribed with a mysterious text in some unknown medieval form of script which no archaeologist or academic has so far been able to decipher. Legend has it that the huge stones were brought to Zolochiv by leading lights of the medieval Templar Order. The secrets they continue to hold have been keeping scientists guessing for centuries and continue to delight tour guides and local wags to this day. Visitors to Zolochiv are invited to place their finger in a small indentation in one of the stones and turn it either clockwise or anti-clockwise, depending on the nature of the wish you would like to make. If your wish is material in nature, then twist towards the thorn wreath to one side of the hole. If you are wishing for a romantic adventure, twist towards the blooming wreath! Due to the efforts of Lviv Art Gallery Director Mr. Boris Voznytskyi, who is a great castle enthusiast, Zolochiv castle has become considerably more beautiful over the past few years, however, much renovation work remains ahead for this Lviv treasure.

Pidhirtsi (73km from Lviv)

If you are looking for the run-down splendour of a former imperial outpost then Pidhirtsi is the ideal location. The first known reference to a castle on this site is 1445, but today’s exotic and overpowering palatial ensemble dates back to the pomp of Polish rule in the East. Taking advantage of a commanding position overlooking the surrounding countryside the celebrated architect Wilhelm Beauplan constructed this unconquerable stronghold in five years beginning in 1635 by order of Polish Hetman Stanislaw Koniecpolski. In 1633, commander in chief of the Polish army Hetman Stanislaw Koniecpolski, one of the leading Polish noblemen of the day, bought the estate from a descendant of the once noble but impoverished Pidhorecki family. As the new owner he hired numerous architects, artists and gardeners to give the existing fortified castle a more civilised chateau look. As a result the castle acquired French chateau charm of a standard rarely found outside of France itself. The most celebrated description of Pidhirtsi Castle in all its pomp was left by French nobleman Franeois d’Aleyrac, who visited the castle in 1687 and later noted: “this castle is the most splendid building, one of the most striking architectural
miracles in all Poland. Any European king or royal family would be proud to have it among their possessions.” However, this fashionable French country residence was also a formidable fortress and in the 1648 Cossack uprising it proved more than a match for besieging Ukrainian forces. Three years later the Cossacks returned, but again failed to take Pidhirtsi. After the second siege, Koniecpolski’s son Aleksander repaired the damage to the palace and strengthened its fortifications, which enabled it to successfully resist numerous Tatar invasions
throughout the late 17th century. In 1682 Stanislaw Koniecpolski (the grandson of the original owner) presented the castle to Jacob Sobieski, son of Polish King Jan III Sobieski. Tragically, in 1711 Russian troops under Tsar Peter the Great were billeted in Pidhirtsi will on campaign against the Ottomans in Besarabia and when the troops marched out they took with them many of the palace’s priceless and irreplaceable sculptures and other artistic treasures. Some of these works by celebrated Italian sculptors later reappeared as part of the collection of the Tsar’s Summer Garden in St Petersburg. In 1725 Konstantin Sobieski (the youngest son of Jan III) sold the castle to Hetman Stanislaw Rzewuski. After Rzewuski’s death, the complex was inherited by his son, Waclaw, who was also the owner of the nearby Olesko Castle. Waclaw Rzewuski made Pidhirtsi his permanent residence and eventually turned the chateau into a private museum full of priceless collections of art works, paintings, rare books, furniture, weapons and war trophies including Persian rugs and Turkish tents. It should be noted that the owner let the general public come and look at his treasures.
In the 19th century, Leon Zhevuski, the childless owner of the chateau, decided that he could no longer afford to pay for the maintenance of the palace and sold it on to Prince Sanguszko for a low price in return for guarantees that sufficient funds would be invested to pay for its upkeep and restoration. Sanguszko kept his promise and by the dawn of the twentieth century the chateau was in excellent condition and its collections in perfect order. However, the tide of history was turning against Polish dominion in the region and troubled times lay ahead for the palace. To escape the chaos and bloodshed of the First World War and later Russian Empire’s own civil war the Sanguszko family spirited most of their treasures away to Brazil where they remain in safety at the Sanguszko Foundation in San Paulo. During WWII the palace was used as a hospital and the Soviet authorities later turned it into a Tuberculosis sanitarium.
Tragedy hit the already dilapidated palace in February 1956 when a fire gutted much of the premises. Valuable wall panels, murals and mosaic floors were all irretrievably lost, leaving only the once magnificent architectural shell of the building intact. After some minimal repairs the Soviets found a new use for the chateau, using it as a backdrop for Soviet movies including the celebrated Soviet version of the Three Musketeers. With the coming of Ukrainian independence the palace complex reverted to the control of the Lviv Art Gallery. For many years there have been rumours that the palace is to be converted into a presidential resident. It would indeed by a powerful symbol of Ukraine’s European pedigree and Westward-facing international perspective, but for the time being talk of reconstruction works remains in the realm of rumour and gossip. The complex remains in a poor state of repair. However, despite its run-down appearance the palace remains an historical marvel that has retained much of the aristocratic swagger and sweeping majesty of previous centuries. It looks out onto distant horizon and visitors cannot help but wonder how many Polish nobles must have also peered across at that same frontier and wondered if the Tatars or Cossacks were marching against them.

Svirzh Castle

Part of a complex featuring a rare renaissance cathedral, this fortress dates back to the early borderland encroachments of the Lithuanians in the 14th century. Its picturesque location make it an ideal spot for a picnic under the castle walls by the edge of the nearby lake.

Zhovka Castle

This is another of the Lviv region castles connected to Poland’s King Jan III Sobieski, who made it one of his regional residences in the latter half of the seventeenth century. Zhovkva is noted for the remains of fortifications including the Glynska and Zwirynetska Gates, the castle itself and the cathedral and bell tower. Also of worth seeing are the Dominican and Basilian monasteries, the wooden churches and the giant synagogue. Zhovkva is an excellent example of the unique architectural style of a 17th century fortress town and offers a window into the imperial aspirations of the Polish rulers who built it.