(for Those of the Travelers Looking for Locations Off the Beaten Path)
Zolociv Castle is probably the biggest reminder that nothing lasts in history. Once, it was a powerful fortress, a center of the vital trade route to western Europe. Everyone in the area and beyond knew about it. Today the castle is a part of an old and small town far from the main road. Only the most dedicated explorers are willing to get to it.
And yet, despite its location in the outbacks, it is the superstar in the Ukrainian tour of the castles that we call the Golden Horseshoe of Lviv, and it is surely a place worth visiting.
To be perfectly honest, Pidhirstsi Castle (another stop in the Horseshoe Tour) is much more impressive, in our opinion. And we would’ve given it the center stage. But in order for it to land there, it has to be restored first.
Meanwhile, all the spotlight is on the Zolociv Castle.
How to Get to Zolociv Castle
The landmark is located 70 km from Lviv, which makes it an hour’s drive. The road to take is H02, which is a bit of a challenge. In Ukraine, the main roads have the letter E assigned to them. These are of international value, and more often than not, they are okay.
The troubles start when the letter changes from E to any other – the quality of the road drops down immediately and significantly. This is just the case with the commute between Zolociv and Lviv, which is marked by the letter H. For an inexperienced driver or for a traveler that rented a car to explore the country, driving here can be challenging.
Taking a tour may be a way out. It starts early in the morning in Lviv, from where a comfortable bus takes off to the three advertised castles. These are Olesskiy, Pidhirtsi, and Zolociv.
The museum’s opening hours are from 10:30 am to 5 pm, with the cash desk operating till 4:30 pm. The admission fee is 3 USD for adults and 0.80 US cents for children. The guided tour of the castle costs 11 USD.
We did not plan our visit to Zolociv. It was Sunday, and we were on our way back from a weekend in Lviv when one of us in the car expressed an idea to stop by Olesskiy Castle. It is the only palace on the Golden Horseshoe tour that is visible from the road.
From there on, we simply continued our journey further into the area. We visited Pidhirtsi, and Zolociv castle was our last stop. We got there an hour before the museum closed. Phew.
Zolociv Castle and Its Romantic Story
The castle dates back to 1634, and it was a fortress first, with high walls, ramparts, and cannons. Two of the fancy palaces within the fortification appeared later. These are the Big Palace in the Renaissance style and the so-called Chinese palace.
Like many estates in western Ukraine, the castle and lands belonged to the Polish royals. The first owner was Jakub Sobieski, a nobleman, who later left Zolociv to his son. Jan III Sobieski was the Hetman, and later the king of Rzeczpospolita and the Grand Duke of Lithuania.
He spent a lot of his time here, together with the woman he loved very much, and whom many of his courtiers resented. This woman was Marie Casimire Louise.
Jan III Sobieski first saw Marie when she was 15 years old. In those days, he was not a king but a powerful nobleman. She was a daughter of a French aristocrat and a lady in waiting to Marie Louise Gonzaga, the Queen of Poland.
Side note. Rumor has it that the girl was in fact the queen’s illegitimate daughter born in France in the days when Marie Louise Gonzaga was only engaged to the Polish king, Vladislav VI. Some even say that Vladislav knew about this incident, but Marie Gonzaga’s significant dowry of 700,000 ecus was a sum too big to refuse, so Vladislav simply turned a blind eye to the incident and decided not to call off the engagement.
Back to the story. What is a fact is that when she was only four, the parents of little Marie Louise kissed her goodbye and send her to Poland along with the rest of the retinue of the fiancee of Vladislav VI, Marie Gonzaga.
The story has it that Jan immediately fell in love with the girl. However, his mother, a very influential woman, was against a possible liaison between the two. Jan was a figure too grand to marry an unknown girl without proper background and fortunes. He had a brilliant political future ahead of him. The girl made the impression of an opportunist.
So, Marie Louise had to marry Jan Zamoyski, a Polish magnate and an older man who loved his liquor. The couple had four children, but all of them died in infancy. During seven years of her unhappy marriage, among the few things that kept her going were the tender love letters that she kept receiving from Jan III. He never gave up hope to one day marry the love of his life.
Then, two important events happened. First, the mother of Jan III died. And in 1665, Marie’s husband succumbed to syphilis and passed away, as well. The mourning time for the widow was short, and by the end of that same year, she finally married Jan III Sobieski.
The Controversial Queen
The history refers to Marie Louise, known as Marie Kazimiera during the years of her Polish reign, as to a very controversial figure. It is her influence and connections that helped Jan III become the king of Rzeczpospolita. But the Polish courtiers were not very fond of her.
Much of that had to do with the queen’s liaisons with the French court, and her looking for privileges and benefits from the house of Bourbons. Also, many believed that the queen spent too much money on herself and her hobbies and interests. The Polish noblemen were not happy to sponsor the lavish lifestyle that Marie Kazimiera fancied. To them, she remained a foreigner, a French benefiting from the Polish treasury and manipulating the king.
While the courtiers remained in opposition, Jan III carried his deep and true love to Marie Kazimiera to his death bed. The king kept the tradition of writing love letters to his wife, and there were around 4,000 of them. About 300 made it to our days and got published. In his writing, Jan III referred to his wife in a gentle manner, calling her Marysieńka.
The couple had fourteen kids together. Only four survived.
Marysieńka’s Zolociv Castle Retreat
Zolociv Castle became the queen’s retreat. She spent most of her time here. It was with her initiative that the Chinese palace, a second building within a fortress, appeared. Those were the years when European aristocracy was fond of everything Chinese. Of course, only a few really visited the empire. The themed palace has nothing to do with the true canons of Chinese architecture, but its creators used the power of imagination.
The queen’s bedroom windows faced the outer walls of the castle, and there were guards taking shifts 24/7. These were also the castle walls with secret ladders to the treasury. Marie always carried the keys to the treasury with her.
The queen turned the fortress into a cozy and luxurious residence famous for its gardens, the Chinese palace, and the toilets. Back in the 1960s, the toilets were a rare element in houses and castles. There were quite a few in Zolociv. The castle also had a proper sewerage system, as well as many secret tunnels.
The End of the Romantic Period
Jan III Sobieski died in 1696. It was now Marie against the Polish aristocracy, and it looked like no one was eager to support her. Not even her oldest son. Marie had to retreat to Rome, and from there to one of the estates in rural France.
The days of glory and prosperity for Zolociv Castle were over.
When the Austrian crown claimed these lands of Rzechpospolita, the castle became a prison. Time went by. The Soviets claimed the estate after the 1920s and turned it into one of their headquarters. People were tortured and held in captivity here.
It was not until the 1980s that the Lviv Art Gallery got Zolociv Castle under its protection. There was a large-scale restoration. And then, after years of dramatic ups and downs, the castle finally opened its doors to the visitors.
Zolociv Castle Today. Is It Worth the Visit?
Here in Ukraine, we are used that most of the historic landmarks are in a horrific state. The country’s been independent for only thirty years. We are still cleaning up the mess that the Soviets left us. One of such “valuable” inputs from the socialist party was its abuse of the historic monuments.
Much to our surprise, when we got to Zolociv, we discovered a lovely palace and fortress, most of it restored and all glammed up for visitors.
The Chinese palace is not as glorious as it once was. Many of its rich furnishing and paintings were stolen. Many were lost. But there are still some old chandeliers, coats of arms, and replicas of the olden-day elements of luxury displayed in the rooms of the castle.
The gardens are lovely, too. We also climbed the ramparts and enjoyed great views of Zolociv, the town.
The Grand Palace has an exposition about the history of the fortress and its owners. It also shines a light on the crimes of the Soviets and tells a story about 700 men tortured and killed behind the walls of Zolociv during the times of NKVD. What the exposition does not tell, however, is that more than 3,000 jews were violently killed outside the castle walls by that same NKVD. These victims of the regime are buried in trenches surrounding the castle.
Zolociv Castle is an important Ukrainian landmark, and we honestly think it deserves more recognition and promotion.
It is also a nice getaway for everyone looking for a day trip from Lviv, or even from Kyiv. We would advise putting this destination on a to-do list of Ukraine travels.
Things to see after Zolociv Castle
Western part of Ukraine is rich on all kinds of attractions, from cozy towns to big cities, and from beautiful mountain lakes to the rivers and national parks. Here are three other locations you might want to explore when in this part of the country:
- Lviv is always a good idea. The biggest city in this region is also the most exciting one. It combines old architecture with fun and hip modern vibes. Come for a day trip, or better yet – stay for three or more nights.
- Uzhgorod is definitely a seriously under-the-radar small town worthy of attention. For the longest time, it’s been a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and its Old Town is all about the cute historic buildings.
- Dzembronia is the village placed up in the mountains. It is hard to get to it. The locals barely speak any language other than Ukrainian. But the sunsets and sunrises in this place, as well as the close proximity of nature are so worth the effort! If you are after authentic Ukrainian life, Dzembronia is the place to be at.