Join Us In Exploring One of the Three Castle Gems in the Lviv Golden Horseshoe
It is amazing how you can take the same route many times, memorize its turns and landmarks by heart, and never be aware of what a detour of this routine route can hide. We’ve traveled from Kyiv to Lviv so many times that it is impossible to count. After all, it is just a 6-hour drive between these two cities. But it was not until one day one of us said: “Hey, so I’ve read this Facebook post about a castle somewhere off this road. Do you think we should maybe check it out if we have time?” This was how we discovered the Pidhirtsi Castle.
I will probably come back to this point throughout the articles about castles in Ukraine many times, but I don’t think many of us, Ukrainians, know that there are so many of these castles scattered around our country.
We spend a lot of time dreaming about visiting architectural landmarks in western Europe. And more often than not, we’re not aware that in many of our regions, there are beautiful mansions and fortresses that once belonged to some of the most influential European aristocracies…
…and that most of these castles, while beautiful and filled with history, are now abandoned, forgotten, and are falling apart hidden in small villages that are so hard to reach because of the poor roads.
The Abandoned Church Off the Main Road
When compared to many of its sibling castles, Pidhirtsi can be considered lucky. It is within a relatively easy reach. It is not visible from the road, but its closest neighbor – the Olesky Castle – is. And from the gateway to the Olesky Castle, it takes only one curious “I wonder what if…” to actually make up one’s mind and to venture into exploring the area.
We arrived in Pidhirtsi village around 5 pm. By this time, all of the museums usually close their doors. We were not in a hurry. Neither of us knew whether there was a museum and whether the visitors could visit the castle, to begin with.
We did not even see it right away. In fact, the first thing that caught our attention was this beautiful church.
The picture shows a stately building with high columns and an impressive dome. Let me now try to put it in the context of the surrounding. Try to imagine a thirty-minute drive through dusty and bumpy roads and small villages. The only scenery is huts and fields. And then the car makes another turn, and all of a sudden – there it is. In the middle of nowhere. The church of St. Joseph.
Built between 1752 to 1766, this church had to become a tomb for the castle’s then-owner, Waclaw Rzewuski. He was a Polish warlord and a politician, and a thriving one at a certain point. However, being buried in this beautiful church was a plan that was never meant to happen for him.
Waclaw was arrested for plotting against the Russian ambassador. He was sentenced to exile and lived his last years as a monk. He died far from these lands.
The Missing Saint
The church still looks impressive, despite being abandoned for years. We took a turn looking through its windows to see the painted dome and the remains of what was once a beautiful altar.
The attic of the church used to display the nine saints, the patrons of the family that owned these lands. Today, however, there are only seven statues. As I later discovered, the church was in the middle of military action during World War II. The attic was where a sniper was hiding, and when the opposing side tried to take him down, the bullets damaged the statues.
So we stood there, wondering how a church as beautiful as this one ended up here as if someone accidentally dropped it here when one of us finally turned around to see, what’s across the street from the church. And it all finally became clear.
The Hole in The Wall
Standing across the street from the church was the Pidhirtsi Castle. From where we stood, we could only see the fence, the alley, and a fragment of the entrance. But it was enough to make us sigh in rapture. Who knew a beauty like this one was hiding there, in the middle of nowhere?
The gates were closed. The fence was high. And it was not like we were going to climb it anyway. We asked one of the passing by locals whether the visitors could get into the castle. The man said that this was indeed a museum. But that the visiting hours were over for today.
And then he pointed us to the woods surrounding the castle from one of its sides and said that there was a hole in the fence and that everybody in the area used it to get in. So we went looking.
The iron net of the old fence led straight into the woods, and there it was – a small manhole. Behind it was a narrow trail, which took us straight to the castle walls. Where we stood mesmerized, discovering the Pidhirtsi Castle.
The Story of the Pidhirtsi Castle
This was initially a fortress atop the hill, with a clear view of the valley. Its construction took place between 1635 to 1640. Finishing works inside the castle went on for another twenty years. The owner of the site was Hetman Koniecpolski. He never lived to see the end of those works, as he died in 1646.
For the next 80 years, the castle has been changing masters, until in 1720 it ended up in the ownership of the Rzewuski family. This was a second influential clan in these lands. the first one was the Sobieski family, owners of the Zolociv Castle. The Rzewuski family were wealthy Polish warlords and politicians, too. This was the period of glory for the Pidhirtsi Castle.
It became home to precious collections of paintings, books, furniture, and weapons. Lots of prominent visitors from Europe came to visit the family and to stay in the numerous rooms of the fortress. Among them was the French writer, Honoré de Balzac. There were balls, and fireworks, and parades, and theater, and even the printing house.
By 1787, it was Severin Rzewusky who took charge of the family, of its estate, and of the Pidhirtsy Castle in particular. He was into alchemy and treasure hunts. He was also not shy about spending the family fortune. One by one, the precious pieces of art, furniture, and weapons disappeared from this castle.
What survived the squanders of Severin, was later taken by the Soviets. Some of the precious sculptures are now in the gardens of St. Petersburg. The castle became the sanatorium for people with tuberculosis. The Soviets used their go-to palette to transform once richly decorated walls and painted them plain white and blue stripes. These divided the walls into halves. Oh, the blue and white pattern… so many of us, people with the USSR background, detest it till these days.
And then, as if being stripped of its former glory was not enough for this beautiful building, in 1956 it caught on fire. After it, only the walls and outside elements of the castle survived.
The Future for the Pidhirtsi Castle
Even with its exterior being severely damaged by time and fires, with bricks showing from under the decorative coating, with partially missing windows and destroyed balconies and columns, the fortress still looks stunning.
Its big backyard opens the view of the valley and the road that we took so many times on our way back to and from Lviv, the E40 route. Now that I know of the Pidhirtsi Castle’s whereabouts, I can also spot it from the road. There is this one brief moment, this turn and a gap between trees, where some of the walls of the fortress are visible.
Today, 99% of the castle needs renovation. It’s a slow process. There’s never enough money for culture and heritage in the state budget. There is also a complex chain of bureaucratic procedures to establish the renovation process.
We stood there, on the terrace, enjoying the view of the valley, and imagining how one day this can all be different. The insides could be the museum and gallery and the gift shop, and the outside can host a small cafe and a promenade. In hot summer nights, this place would be perfect for theatrical performances since it is really not that far from Lviv.
I guess we were not the only ones thinking about it. In 2017, a local charity initiative submitted a plan for restoration to one of the crowdfunding platforms. It was a small plan, for one of the castle’s balconies, but it was a start. With the help of publicity, the group ended up raising the sum, and restorative works are currently in process.
How to Visit the Pidhirtsi Castle
In 2018, another fund offered its help. This allowed to open certain rooms of the castle for the visitors. These are the Chinese cabinet, the Golden Chamber, collections of paintings, and a few other rooms. There is also the inner yard with a massive wooden wheel used to pump water from the well and a slightly irritating tour of the castle’s cellars.
The tour is based on a legend that its last owner, Severin, was a jealous man always suspicious of his beautiful wife, who was forty years younger, being unfaithful to him. So one day, he bricked her up in one of the cellars. The ghost of the Lady in White has been haunting the castle ever since.
Located next to the exposition of the doll in the white dress hung under the ceiling is one of the alchemy rooms where Severin held his experiments and studies.
The Pidhirtsi Castle visitation hours are from 10:30 am to 17:00. The entrance fee is 2 USD for adults and 0.80 cents for kids. Guided tours cost 5.50 USD. It is better to take a daily tour around the Golden Horseshoe of the Lviv Area – the trip will cover the three castles, Olesky, Pidhirtsy, and Zolochev.
On our way back from the castle, we discovered that it was not only the locals and us who got in through the hole in the fence. As we were about to leave the site, we saw a big touristic bus stopping by the gates. About fifteen tourists along with the guide marched past the gates, and straight towards the gap in the fence.
Oh well. I guess we were not the only ones who did not make it on time.
Written by Inessa Rezanova
I am a Kyiv-based screenwriter with 10+ years of experience in producing scripts. I love my job, and no, I did not quit it to travel the world. I see different countries in my spare time. As a storyteller, I believe that it is the emotional journey that matters the most. This is why together with my sister I started this blog to encourage everyone to travel and to do so with a heart and mind opened to adventures.
Images by Natalie Rezanova
I am a photographer based in Kyiv, Ukraine. I am lucky to be able to do what I love the most for a living. Photography is an endless source of inspiration for me. My mission on this blog is to inspire by sharing some of the favorite captions from my journeys. I also provide professional photography tips to help the readers bring home some beautiful photo memories.