17 February 2011

Steeped in History and, also, Steep

Traveling around Ukraine, it's easy to get caught up in its dramatic modern history, to look for what is Soviet or un-Soviet about it, to see the country as new or young, having only gained its independence within my lifetime. That's when a trip to Kamyanets-Podilsky comes in handy. It's a city that oozes with reminders that Ukraine's history has been interesting and dramatic for centuries, not just decades.
Mentions of the city date back to 1062 and was a town in the Kieven Rus state, which many believe to be the predecessor to Russia. This fact delights many a Ukrainian, as it sort of means that Russia was birthed from Ukraine, not the other way around. Anyway, its history is incredibly multi-ethnic, by virtue of the fact that it was ruled by Poland, Lithuania, Austria, Hungary and even the Ottoman Turks at some point or another.
Each time Ukraine had a shining moment of independence, it would call Kamyanets-Podilsky its capital. It's probably because of its incredibly impressive castle, but I like to think it's because it is just so darn beautiful. Its name comes from the rock it sits one, an 'island' perched above a 50m high river canyon. Long staircases scale the walls and shoddy footbridges lead the way from the 11th century old town to clusters of shacks and houses.
Old Town is closed to cars except for six hours each day and was basically empty every time we walked through. A lot of people seemed to walk in only to catch the matrushka (van taxi) to New Town, which was over another bridge and bustled with university students. The three cafes/restaurants we found in Old Town were much cooler than the array in New Town, though the latter had indoor toilets. In Kamyanets-Podilsky, we drank cappuccinos and then peed in a hole out back.
Every group of people that inhabited the city left some little mark that's still there today. We walked over the Turkish Bridge each day to have our aforementioned cappuccinos at a cafe on the Armenian Market Square. We were expecting the market square to be, well, Armenian in some way, but it was just these two lines of colorfully painted stands selling souvenirs. Still, it was nice that it wasn't the Lenin Bridge which led to Lenina Square, which are the sort of names we've grown used to.
This is the Cathedral of SS Peter and Paul. It was built by Catholic Poles in the 1500s. When the Turks took over in the 1600s, they turned it into a mosque and added the stone minaret that you can see sticking up out of the front there. A treaty gave the city back to Poland in 1699 and part of the agreement was that the minaret couldn't be torn down. So, a big gold statue of the Virgin Mary was affixed to the top of it. If you look closely you can see her in all her shiny glory.
There was a huge Jewish community in the city through much of its history. Kamyanets-Podilsky was actually the site of what most historians consider the first action of The Final Solution. Over 23,000 Jews were killed in two days (mostly Hungarian) and there was little to no effort made to keep the massacre a secret. Sadly, its one ethnic group that doesn't seem to have a current-day presence in the city.

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