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Lithuanian castles in Ukraine

For some 200 years Grand Duchy of Lithuania ruled much of the modern-day Ukraine. These lands still have many tremendous Lithuanian castles that once guarded the boundary of Christian Europe as well as opulent palaces, churches and monasteries funded by the Lithuanian noble families.

Ukraine has been absorbed by Lithuania under the reign of Gediminid dynasty Grand Dukes: Gediminas (1316-1341), Algirdas (1345-1377) and Vytautas the Great (1392-1430). In Vytautas's era Lithuania controlled the entire modern Ukraine save for Crimea and the Southeast. The situation continued until the Union of Lublin (1569) when Lithuanians were forced to cede Ukraine to Poland.

Some of Ukraine's medieval castles are renovated, but many are ruined. The ruins of Ostrogiškis (Ostrogski) family palace in Satroselo have a surviving Rennaisance decor despite of sorry state. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

To this day Ukrainian historians see the "Lithuanian era" rather positively. That's because Lithuanians have never attempted to force their own culture upon Ukraine (unlike the later conquerors Poles and Russians). On the contrary - Lithuanian Royal family representatives to Ukraine would usually convert into Orthodox faith and respect the local traditions. Therefore initiatives to commemorate the Grand Duchy of Lithuania era remain popular in modern-day Ukraine. The Ukrainian cities with most Lithuanian heritage (Lutsk, Kamenets-Podilskiy, Ostroh, Khotyn) have established an association "Route of the Gediminids".

Lithuanian castles in Volhynia (Northwest Ukraine)

Most of Lithuania's Ukrainian castles are located in Western Ukraine, where the Lithuanian rule began with Grand Duke Gediminas and continued the longest (for 200 years), serving as the Lithuania's borderland with Poland.

The most famous Lithuanian castle here is Lutsk Castle that rises above the capital of Volhynia region. Its construction was initiated by Liubartas (Ukrainian: Lubart), the son of Gediminas appointed to rule Volhynia. Entire castle is now named after him and one of its three towers is known as Lubart's tower. The other two towers are have the names of Švitrigaila and bishops; the 4th tower did not survive. Lutsk castle has been completed by Vytautas the Great and most recently renovated in the 2nd half of 20th century. The towers (as well as two palaces that were built in the castle yard in 1789) currently house museums dedicated to bells, books and paintings. The paintings museum includes portraits of Grand Duchy of Lithuania nobility. Extensive castle yard (with Lithuanian coat of arms bas-relief near its entrance) hosts festivals and activities. Drawings of Lithuanian grand dukes cover windows of surrounding homes. The name of Lutsk castle resounded all over Europe in 1429 when it hosted the Congress of Lutsk where Vytautas the Great deliberated with other famous European monarchs (kings of Poland, Hungary and the Holy Roman Emperor) and delegates over the greatest issues of the era, such as the Catholic-Orthodox schism.

Lutsk castle in Ukraine. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Several other Volhynia's Lithuanian era castles have been later remodelled for other purposes. Parts of the buildings remain authentic however.

Klevan Castle had a gymnasium (high school) building added to it under the Polish rule. Soviets built the third building, transforming the castle into alcohol addicts rehabilitation center. Today everything is ruined and free to explore (there are no doors nor windows). However, the location is hidden from the road by a church and village homes, so a map or GPS is needed to find it (there are no cues).

Yard of Klevan Castle with the building that housed Polish gymnasium visible. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Olyka Palace now serves as insane assylum. Built in 17th century amidst the masonry of an older (1558) Lithuanian castle, the palace is a memento from the era when whole town was owned by Radvila famlily (the richest in Lithuania). Olyka was one of Radvilas' capitals. Pope even bestowed the title of "Duke of Olyka and Nesvyžius" to cardinal Mikalojus Radvila the Black. Radvilas managed to thrive in Olyka under each of the shifting regimes (Lithuanians, Poles, Russian Empire). At least until the Soviets came, who nationalized whole property in 1939. Today Radvilas era is reminded by a picturesque cobbled road to the town which is surrounded by trees that once provided a shade to the arriving horse riders (today it helps only the rare cabrolet drivers, but it is still pretty). Two pretty historic Catholic churches survive. Imposing Baroque Holy Trinity church (1640) is romantic (although in needs of repairs), while Ss. Peter and Paul church is even older, dating to Lithuanian era and funded by GDL marshall Petras Mantgirdaitis.

Holy Trinity church of Olyka. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Catholic churches were commissioned by the Polish-Lithuanian nobility in many other of the area's towns as well.

Dubno Castle has retained its defensive purpose. To ensure this it was rebuilt to a then-modern bastion fortress back in 16th century, leaving little visible heritage from the Lithuanian era.

External fortifications of the Dubno fortress. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Several additional Lithuanian castles of Volhynia did crumble completely, with only the hills once crowned by them reminding some of the lost glory. Vladimir Volynskiy town castle hill is an example. The same town also hosts two old Orthodox monasteries: one near the castle site and another one at Zymne suburb (completed ~1500). Zymne monastery looks imposing in pictures but the terrain makes it hard to view it from its prettiest side. The Orthodox monasteries tell about the religious tolerance that prevailed in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania where first Pagan and then Catholic rulers allowed and even funded temples of other religions.

Grand Duchy of Lithuania castles in Galicia (Southwest Ukraine)

Galicia region lays to the south of Volhynia. It served as Medieval Lithuania's boundary with both Poland and the Islamic world.

The most famous Lithuanian sight in Galicia is the Kremenets Castle built by Vytautas the Great on top of a rather high hill near Carpathian mountains. Only the ruins of external brick walls and tower remain to this day. However the hill offers a beautiful panorama of Krements main square. Kremenets was nourished by Bona Sforza (the wife of Grand Duke Sigismund the Old). However the city was later sacked by Cossacks and the current main square buildings date to the Polish era.

Panorama of Kremenets as seen from the castle hill. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Ostroh is the Lithuanian era town which gave its name to the Ostrohian family (Lithuanian: Ostrogiškis, Polish: Ostrogski). The town has numerous sights (although they are surrounded by Soviet buildings). Two partly rebuilt towers stand atop the castle hill (14th century Brick Tower and 16th century Round tower). Lower town has old gates (Lutsk Gate and Tatar Gate) while Mezhyrich monastery (built in 1612) stands at the suburbs. Constructed by Jonušas Ostrogiškis (Polish: Janusz Ostrogski) for Franciscans, currently it houses an Orthodox monk community. Its massive once boosted its defensive capabilities against Muslim raids.

The remains of Ostroh castle (Brick Tower). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Ruined Novomalino Castle stands ~10 km west of Ostroh since it was commissioned by Grand Duke of Lithuania Švitrigaila back in ~1400. However the local abandoned chapel (which is the best surviving building in Novomalino) actually dates to 19th century.

Ostrogiškis family also had landholds further away, such as the impressive now-ruined Staroselo castle. The external walls survive nearly intact with Rennaisance decor visible. However the heritage protection level varies from one Ukrainian castle to another. Staroselo is among the less protected, its overgrown yard now used as a grazing pasture for local cows. There are no road signs helping to reach the castle.

Staroselo castle exterior. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The Golden Horseshoe of Galician palaces

Union of Lublin was followed by great changes in European military technology. Medieval castles became obsolete for defense, getting transformed into nobility residences. Windows were enlarged, interiors became more posh while surroundings were converted into massive parks. Although such Ukrainian palaces may have only a few "Lithuanian era" details, many of them remained in hands of Lithuanian families (such as the aforementioned Radvila and Ostrogiškis) well after the Union of Lublin. After all, the transfer of Ukraine to Poland was not as uprooting as latter wars and revolutions, therefore most nobles retained their landholds. Moreover, Lithuanian and Polish nobility regularly intermarried.

Bust of the Grand Duchess of Lithuania Barbora Radvilaitė in Oleska Castle museum. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Marketed as Golden Horseshoe, three opulent palaces standing merely ~10-20 kilometers from each other are among the Galicia's top sights. The closeness of Polish borders attracts busloads of Polish tourists.

Oleska Castle has the most Lithuanian connections in the Golden Horseshoe. Some of its masonry dates to the Lithuanian era (15th century) with the remainder constructed after 16th century Tatar offenses (when the castle was converted into a palace by Polish overlords). It is believed that Grand Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland Jonas Sobieskis (Polish: Jan Sobieski) has been born in Oleska Castle (1629). The interior now hosts a museum which includes a bust of Grand Duchess Barbora Radvilaitė (Polish: Barbara Radziwill), restored royal rooms and old paintings.

Oleska Castle. Banners of Ukrainian flag colors are seen in the foreground. Such blue-yellow decor gained popularity in Ukraine after the 2014 Russian invasion. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Pidhirtsi Palace is the Golden Horseshoe's prettiest sight. It had seen a fair share of ups and downs: constructed in the 16th century by the Hetman of Poland Stanislaw Koniecpolski, then burnt down in mid-20th century, later renovated and now abandoned. Surrounded by a folly "fortress", the posh main building impressively rises above a nearby plain. A local gallery shows old palace interior photographs, depicting the times its halls were full of great artworks. Expecting a Soviet occupation the owners have successfully evacuated their collection to Canada. Their palace chapel still stands at the entrance to the former park.

Pidhirtsi palace as seen from the lower plain. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Zolochiv Palace is another Golden Horseshoe manor once owned by the Sobieski family. The main building hosts a museum with paintings, while the "Chinese pavillion" exhibits Asian art (with no relation to the locality).

Zolochiv Palace. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Svirzh Palace stands further from the Golden Horseshoe (50 km from Zolochiv) but can still be visited on the same day. The building is in good condition and undergoes a continuous renovation since 1978. It was saved from Soviets destruction as Soviets had decided to use this atmospheric location for filmmaking. While the building is post-Lithuanian, remains of Lithuanian-era defensive tower are located nearby.

Svirzh Palace. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Lithuanian castles in Podolia (Islamic borderland)

Lithuania absorbed Central Ukraine under the reign of Grand Dukes Algirdas (1345-1377) and Vytautas the Great (1401-1429), thus expanding its boundary with Islamic world to ~1000 km in lenght.

To defend the boundary Vytautas commissioned Medzhybizh Castle, which replaced an older wooden fortification. The massive walls largely survive, surrounding a rather posh courtyard with a chapel in the middle.

The yard of Medzhybizh Castle. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The castle of Kamenets Podilskiy is even larger, more famous and impressive, with a pretty old district in the nearby eponymous town. The castle was ruled (and according to some sources constructed) by Lithuanian Gediminid Grand Dukes in the 14th century. However, the Lithuanian epoch was shorter in Kamenets-Podilskiy than elsewhere in Ukraine as it was cut short by Polish annexation in 1434 (more than a century prior to the Union of Lublin).

Castle of Kamenets-Podilskiy in Ukraine. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Khotyn, another one of the the most famous Ukrainian castles, spent the medieval era on both sides of the Christian-Islamic border. In 1621 it was the scene of a major battle where Lithuanian great hetman Jonas Karolis Chodkevičius defeated an Ottoman army that outnumbered his own forces by 3 to 1. This victory was repeated by Jonas Sobieskis (Jan Sobieski) in 1673. Khotyn castle has been rebuilt and opened as a museum in modern times.

Khotyn castle in Ukraine. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Kiev, the capital of Ukraine

Deep inside the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Kiev (the capital of Ukraine) was among its key cities. However, it had came to prominence prior to the Lithuanian era, when it served as the capital of Slavic Orthodoxy and the Kyivan Rus. It also retained its importance after the Lithuanian era ended. Therefore it is hard to distinguish Kiev's Lithuanian era heritage from that of other ruling regimes (Rus, Poland, Russia).

Grand Duchy of Lithuania castle did not survive in Kiev. However a memorial plaque (at Andriyivsky Uzviz) declares the castle hill to be a joint Ukrainian and Lithuanian heritage (both languages are used).

Memorial plaque next to the castle hill stairs in Kiev. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.


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