You haven’t truly lived until you’re bumping down flooded back roads, following a priest to one of the backwoods Ukrainian castles.
Wait, let me back up.
Day 1: Kamianets-Podilskyi Fortress
Ah, the joys of rolling off a post-Soviet night train at 3:30am into chilly October night-morning. My friend and I had hoped the hotel would call a taxi for us, to spare us the humiliation of trying to negotiate with a driver, but no luck.
“Let’s ask that guy,” I said, bravely pointing towards the one with the most intact Lada.
“Takci?” I asked, which wonderfully sounds the same in every language.
“Da, da, da.” The driver was wrinkled but probably not as old as he looked. He kept shifting, looking at other passengers, with way more energy than I was really able to process at that time of the night-day.
We gave him the name of our hotel and he ridiculously over-quoted us. We argued, brought him down about fifteen cents, and then agreed. Then he turned from crabby Ukrainian taxi driver to gentleman, opening the car door for me and helping me with my backpack. He loitered for a minute, probably hoping to pick up another fare, then clamored into the cab.
He talked about as fast as he drove, barreling down the cobblestone streets of Kamianets-Podilskyi.
“How do you say too quickly?” Gena asked, clutching the seat.
I shook my head, now believing I had been deceived about the man’s sobriety. Fortunately, the hotel was basically within walking distance of the train station, and within minutes we were deposited at its front door in one piece. Collapsing onto a real bed had never felt so good.
We got a late start the next morning, which is one of the wonderful things about Kamianets-Podilskyi – it’s so small, you can easily conquer it in a day. We meandered towards the fortress, the main attraction, wandering down side streets and traipsing down muddy dirt paths. It was the first blue-sky day in a week and a half, and we were happy to spend it slowly and carelessly.
Getting our first view of the Kamianets-Podilskyi castle was like getting dropped into the middle of a fairy tale. You forget about the satellite dishes, the abandoned twentieth-century buildings, the unsettling clumps of school groups. You believe that up the winding road a castle full of nobility and peasants awaits, the air brimming with anticipation for a feast of a joust.
Or at least I did. I felt like a BAMF Disney princess.
The beautiful thing about traveling in Ukraine is that you’re basically allowed to climb all over these historical sites. Exploring the fortress at Kamianets-Podilskyi, you don’t get costumed entertainers or information in English. But you do get to haul yourself up to the top level of the tower through a hole in the floor. And instead of one of those lame souvenir coin machines that you crank, you can wield a hammer to smash your coin into a medallion. And if you dare to bother the only people dressed in traditional clothes, you can gorge yourself on grilled meat and veggies just like they probably didn’t do in medieval times.
And when you’ve wandered through all the towers and gotten tired of the teenagers trying to cut you in line, you can walk back up the hill towards the old town and stop for a reviving drink at the charming Coffee ot Politsmeystera.
Day 2: Khotyn Fortress
As our marshrutka bus rumbled along from Kamianets-Podilskyi towards Khotyn, Gena tapped my arm.
“Once we cross the bridge, start to look for the sign.”
Once we crossed the bridge, all I noticed was that it was beginning to rain. Gena spotted the sign before I did, pulling herself to a precarious position next to the bus driver to make sure we got dropped off at the right place – something you have to ask for in Ukraine. The driver pulled over to let us and half a dozen others out, and we huddled under a tree as we referred to the GPS.
“We can cut across that road,” Gena said, pointing across the street. We started off… the rest of the bus passengers trailing behind us.
We followed our de facto leader and her GPS through a residential area, the rain cheerfully reminding us that we had dared to adventure in the Ukrainian fall. We found the gate and paid, then wandered around the parking lot through tour buses for a few minutes trying to find the castle entrance. To be honest, I hadn’t even seen any pictures of Khotyn castle, so when I saw the low gate house my skepticism that it was going to be worth it.
But I’m an idiot, because as soon as we trudged through the gate, we got a glance at this stunner.
It was steadily raining, and while that did nothing for our fashion choices (and our newly acquired bright blue ponchos), the mist actually made Khotyn look more imposing. Perched over the Dniester River, Khotyn castle has been beautifully restored to its medieval glory. I could have spent hours wandering around the hills that surround it, trying to find the best angle to capture its solemn turrets. But it was raining, and I’m rather a creature of comfort. Definitely would not have been great at sieging Ukrainian castles.
Make sure you venture down the basement, where there’s a collection of medieval weaponry – and descriptions in English! Though once you’ve seen how thick the walls of Khotyn are, it’s hard to imagine any marauding troops breaking through.
Day 3: Kudryntsi Castle
The fortresses at Kamianets-Podilskyi and Khotyn are the most impressive Ukrainian castles in the region and the best known, but we still had one more full day for exploring. The guidebook wasn’t giving us many options, and with the rapidly dropping temperature we toyed with the idea of staying at the hotel and getting a $4 massage.
But no, this weekend was for adventuring.
A half hour of googling found us some nearby ruins. They seemed remote, by Ukrainian standards, and since it was cold and muddy we had braved the bus system the day before, we opted to hire a taxi.
Which brings us to crawling along washed out dirt roads in rural Ukraine.
“I think he took a wrong turn,” Gena muttered to me, showing me her GPS. There are no better navigators than over-teched female travelers, and I’m pretty sure she was right, but looking out the window at the narrow, downhill road we were on, it was apparent there wasn’t going to be any option to turn around. Our taxi driver shook his head and cursed under his breath every time his precious car hit a rock. Maybe he was trying to take us on the scenic route, but the extra hryvnia didn’t seem worth the toll it was taking on his car.
When a 4×4 Lada roared up behind us, our taxi driver found a spot to pull over and wave him down. A quick conversation, and soon we had an orthodox priest leading the way around the hills to the tiny village of Kudryntsi. It was such a petite town that when we passed a local wedding everyone stopped and stared at us, this unfamiliar car rumbling through town. The priest gave us more directions, and our driver pressed on – looking doubtful.
Ten minutes later our driver pulled off the road at the bottom of a hill. He pointed up a footpath, crossed his arms to show he wasn’t driving anymore, and pointed to the car. Message received, Gena and I jumped out of the car and braced ourselves against the icy wind.
We could see the crumbled front wall from the bottom of the hill, but as we slipped and slid our way towards the top, more of the shattered fortress came into view. The wind pulled hard at us as we ducked under the low arch.
The Kudryntsi castle isn’t the most impressive in the area. It’s smaller, less maintained, and probably newer than the others. But standing in the middle of the ruins by ourselves, surrounded by hills flush with fall colors, looking down on a sleepy town that probably took the history above them for granted, I felt more of a thrill of adventure than the other fortresses. There aren’t many secrets in the modern age – and not that Kurdynsti is one of them – but for a moment I felt like I had discovered a sliver of the world few people will ever see.
When really, what we had ‘discovered’ anyone could find with half an hour of Googling and thirty dollars to hire a taxi. But few people ever will. So maybe, in fact, I was right.
When we returned to Kamianets-Podilskyi we warmed up with hot drinks and waited for night to fall. We still had a few hours to kill before our night train to Kiev and our adventures hunting for Ukrainian castles were over, but we had one more mission. Once darkness crept up we reluctantly headed back out in the chill air for one last look at the Kamianets-Podilskyi fortress. So worth it, as the white towers capped with their red roofs looked like a picture book illustration.
“Maybe we shouldn’t tell anyone about this place,” I said to Gena as we snapped a ridiculous number of pictures. Sometimes travel makes you a bit selfish like that. Tourists can flock to Germany, France, and the UK in search of famous castles.
I’ll take Ukraine all to myself.
BTW, just a note on expenses, because I think people don’t believe me that Ukraine is SEA cheap. Here’s a breakdown of our budget, per person:
Round trip train tickets Kiev-Kamianets-Podilskyi: $15
Economy hotel room + breakfast for three nights: $46
Transportation around Kamianets-Podilskyi + attractions: $20
(including renting a taxi for three hours to get to Kudryntsi)
Meals and an alarming number of “snacks”: $33
Total cost for a three day weekend in Kamianets-Podilskyi per person: $114
What do you think of the Ukrainian castles? Where have you been castle hunting? I love recommendations so leave yours in the comments below!