17 February 2011

Castle Hunting: Khotyn

When we were in Kamyanets-Podilsky and Kolomyia, we were told that Khotyn castle was THE place to go in the region. After having such a great time taking pictures of the beautiful Kamyanets-Podilsky fortress, we were skeptical and curious about this other place. It turned out to be more magnificent, but less photogenic, than our first Ukrainian fort. Sitting on the banks of the Dnistr river, it's walls towering over the valley, it was quite a sight. Unfortunately, the day was grim and the light was difficult. We shivered our way through the light snow, climbing on frightening paths around the surrounding rocks.
The building is massive, with towers that stand over 120 feet high and walls that reach to almost 100 feet. A wooden fort (which was partly reconstructed in stone during the 13th century) stood on the site before the current castle, but the region was fairly remote and not often threatened by invasion. In the 15th century, though, the area began to become more strategically important, with Polish and Ottoman armies encroaching upon the Moldavian principality. The waywode Stephen III ("Stephen the Great," apparently) erected three large scale, modern castles in the region to defend his land's independence. The largest of these three was Khotyn, which was built over a period of seven months during 1463.
The courtyard was empty except for a bunch of scruffy dogs that barked at each other and us. Most of the doors were locked, and we were too cold to stick around for long. The little building in the center is the well house.
There are outer walls that protect the castle's flank, running along a high slope for about a mile. We spotted one other couple walking along them, but never got within shouting distance of them. The snow made the recently burnt grass very slippery, and we had to do some creative scooting to make our way down some of the slopes.
The rear castle wall (away from the river) is cambered outward quite steeply, which looks a little scary but is intentional. There is an interesting red pattern laid into the stonework, apparently in an "averting" design that is called "the holy Tetractis." The large wet spot on the castle wall has existed almost from the time that it was built, and has never been fully explained. There is an ancient legend that tells of a local girl who was built into the wall alive - her tears seep out continuously, creating the mark. People now believe that an interior ditch (the castle yard is much higher than ground level) drains at that point, accounting for the moisture.
As we were leaving, a big tour group came clomping down the hill. We stopped at a little, rundown building near the gates for a cup of coffee, served to us by two old women bundled in bright wool. The sun was beginning to poke through the clouds, but the wind, people and chill dissuaded us from going back for better photos.

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