The day started early, with a packed breakfast in my hotel room at 6.30, and a cup of coffee. Then I took a taxi to the bus station, which is about 2 miles south east of the centre. Getting to Khotyn Castle presented some challenges, as it is not in Khotyn town.
I had directions from the Lonely Planet guide, and had asked a Russian speaking friend from Moldova to write “Please tell me the right place to get off for Khotyn Castle” and a few other useful phrases on a sheet which I’d printed. I showed this to the driver, who didn’t seem interested. Another passenger who spoke English took a look and said he would tell me where to get off. We reached Khotyn bus station, where the bus waited for about 5 minutes. Then we moved on.
I started to look a bit anxious the further we went, as I knew the castle was walking distance from Khotyn. My friend told me not to worry, and that he would tell me where to get off. Then I realised he thought I was going to Kamyanets, as this was in one of the phrases further down the page on my sheet. So he told me to get off and hitchhike back. Luckily, a car with a family in it stopped almost straight away, and it was a ride of less than 10 minutes to get back to the junction for the road to the castle. Hitching in Ukraine is quite common and the custom is to give money, roughly equivalent to the bus fare.
From the main road, it was a twenty minute walk through a village to get to the castle. I passed a colourful blue Orthodox church, where the Sunday service was taking place. Ukrainian Orthodox churches seem to have a habit of broadcasting the service on loudspeakers mounted outside. I’d met the same thing in Ivano Frankivsk the previous month.
Soon I reached the castle itself. Khotyn Castle is over 1000 years old, having been built at the beginning of the eleventh century. It initially belonged to Kievan Rus and, at the end of the fourteenth century, it became part of the Moldavian state. The Moldavian ruler Stephen the Great, best known for his wars against the Turks and his construction of the Painted Monasteries (now in Romania) extended the fortress.
During the Moldavian period, which lasted until the sixteenth century, Khotyn was a centre of crafts and culture- the fourteenth century handwritten Khotyn Gospel was written here. From the seventeenth century onwards, Khotyn changed hands regularly between Polish and Turkish rule, becoming Russian in 1812 at the end of the Russo-Turkish War. In 1918, it became part of Romania, reverting to Soviet control after World War Two.
The castle is right next to the river Dniester, and there are impressive views from both inside and outside. There isn’t much in the way of exhibits and sadly the upper battlements can’t be visited. A museum of torture instruments gives depressing insights into human ingenuity for inflicting suffering. There is also a cool basement, containing various items of weaponry, such as catapults.
From Khotyn, I walked back to the main Chernivtsi-Kamyanets road. As hitching had been so easy earlier in the day, and I knew the Chernivtsi-Kamyanets buses were only every hour, I tried again, but this time less successfully. Eventually a minibus pulled over. I squeezed into the only seat, balancing my legs over somebody’s suitcase in the aisle. After a little over half an hour, we reached Kamyanets. I had been hoping we would go to the bus station, but the bus simply disgorged in a street. I looked in vain for street signs so I could orientate myself with my map, so really had no idea what part of the city I was in. Trying to ask the way was unlikely to be much use, as I didn’t expect many people to speak English. Eventually I saw some taxis, and managed to get to the Polish Cathedral, albeit for an inflated price.
Kamyenets (or Kamyanets Podilsky as it more correctly is known, dating from the time of Polish rule, when the Poles made it the capital of the Podillya province) is really a place to be taken in for its setting. The old town is located above a deep gorge, which surrounds it. My taxi swept in across the big bridge- before its construction, the only route was via the tiny footbridge across the river, right in the bottom of the valley. There was a wedding in the Peter and Paul (Polish) Cathedral, but I did manage to see one of its most unusual features. Next to the main entrance is a minaret, topped with a statue of the Virgin Mary. When the Turks withdrew from Kamyanets in 1699, they made a condition in the treaty that the minaret should not be removed. The Poles complied but cleverly Christianised the minaret by adding the statue.
The approach to Kamyanets Castle gives spectacular views. The castle is high on a rock on the opposite side of the gorge from the old city. To reach it, you cross a bridge, which originally had arches until these were filled in during the period of Turkish rule in the seventeenth century. If this were anywhere other than Ukraine, it would be swarming with tourists. In the event, most of the visitors were wedding parties, who were having their pictures taken at the various viewing points, with the castle in the background.
The castle itself has more to see than Khotyn and far more of the ramparts and battlements are accessible. You can also go down into the dungeons, see a “debtors’ hole” and a well. There are good views too- a large blue Orthodox Church stands out on one of the hills in the distance. I went into one of the souvenir shops and bought a mug for my collection. The lady who owned the shop had a laptop in front of her, which was streaming a political rally. “Maidan” she said. She was proud of the protest movement and fed up with the corruption of the Ukrainian political class.
From the castle, I walked back to the old town and with the wedding over managed to enter the Peter and Paul Cathedral. Then I went to the rather interesting museums of coins and notes, which traces the history of currency from around the mid eighteenth century to the present day. They have many of the provisional currencies issued in post-Soviet countries immediately after independence in 1991 (“coupons” in many cases) and even have some old Romanian notes, which I recognised well, dating from before the 2005 currency reform, when four zeroes had been eliminated.
After a quick tour of the Art Museum and a visit to a curious church built slightly below ground level, in the large Armenian Market Square, I left the old city to walk to the bus station. This time I crossed the great bridge across the gorge on foot, looking down into the deep ravine. People were swinging across the gorge on a pulley alongside the bridge- scary even to watch. Apparently you can bungee jump too. Pausing from time to time to look back at the view of the bridge and gorge behind me, I walked to the bus station for the return journey to Chernivtsi. I had dinner outside at the hotel restaurant, where a lively crowd of locals had gathered.