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Chortkiv, a small town with a long history
Olena Haladzhiy is a seasoned traveler but her trip to the Land of Ternopilshchyna that she took recently, was her first to that part of Ukraine. She was enthralled with what she saw and her essay reflects some of her enthusiasm.
A tour of Ternopilshchyna, the first ever for me, though, I think, I’d been to all the other parts of Ukraine, proved to be full of tourist excitement. It was a guided tour and we, a group of journalists, were shown castles, ancient monasteries that come back to life, caves with reputedly the longest in the world systems of underground natural corridors, a canyon and a natural preserve, plus a lot else which would take several separate articles to describe. But this time I’d like to concentrate on our visit to the town of Chortkiv which, incidentally, was not originally planned.
But it is so happened that when we were riding past that town a member of our group said that she was dying to have an ice cream, and our TV camera operator said that he had to urgently recharge the camera’s batteries, and it was decided to make a stop in Chortkiv. Our guide Oksana said that she would provide the basic facts about it. And she did. The town has a population of about 30,000 people, a number of architectural and historical landmarks, and is situated 76 kilometers south of the city of Ternopil. It was agreed that we should all look around town and meet again in several hours at such and such place.
A friend of mine suggested we have coffee in the nearest coffee shop. The coffee surprisingly enough turned out to be excellently made. And it was served with several rose petals artistically arranged on the saucer. The aroma of coffee and fragrance of rose proved to marvelously enhance each other.
While sipping my coffee and inhaling the scent of the rose petals and appreciating their arrangement, we fell into conversation with a gray-haired man who was sitting at the table next to ours. It is not my habit to talk to strangers in cafes, but there was something ingratiating in that venerable gentleman that piqued my interest and made acquaintance easy.
He told us a lot about Chortkiv and about some of its architectural landmarks. In fact, he was a mine of information about Chortkiv, its past and present.
The Church of St Stanislaw across the square from the coffee shop to which our new acquaintance pointed used to belong to the Dominican order. It was built by the ruler of the town Stanislaw Golski in 1610. The church once had, among its relics, an icon of the Holy Mother of God (Virgin Mary) which was believed to have curative powers. In 1663, the Polish king presented the icon to the Dominicans friars and it was kept in St Stanislaw’s until the end of the Second World War when it was taken to Krakow where it was later restored and placed in a chapel. St Stanislaw’s now displays a copy of that icon.
I’m so sorry I failed to ask the gentleman his last name so I only know it is by his first name that I will refer to him — “Pan VasylÕ” (Mr Vasyl). He offered to take us on a tour, and the first place we went to was naturally the church we had just discussed.
The cavernous interior proved to be as impressive as its exterior which bore some Gothic echoes. The Church of St. Stanislaw is a huge building, with several chapels and altars inside. We saw the icon — the copy of the original — that Pan Vasyl’ had mentioned but the copy evidently did not have the power of the original.
In 1989, the church was returned to the Dominicans who hold religious services there.
Then we went next door to a wooden building that stood out among brick and stone houses around it not only because it was wooden but rather because it looked like a fairy tale palace.
We were told that the building was built on the initiative of “the burgomaster Ludvik Noss,” who had studied in Denmark and Switzerland and brought to Chortkiv “some foreign ideas.” The building used to be Chortkiv’s City Hall, complete with an old-style chiming clock and a weathercock, but now it is rented to cafes, small shops and offices, and its walls are covered with ugly advertisements.
Pan Vasyl’ pointed to the columns of a building in the same square saying that the building used to be a trade center in the nineteenth century. Right next to it, we saw an open market, and I wondered why there’s always money available to run a market but not for restoration of old landmarks.
An old castle
Next stop on our serendipitous tour of Chortkiv was a castle, or rather the ruins of it. On my trip to Poland I had seen many old castles but they were in excellent state of preservation. Not so in Chortkiv.
The castle was built in 1610, and was in possession of the Ukrainian magnates Holytskys, and later it was owned by a Polish princess from the Potocki family. The last owner sold it to some charity organization which did not provide proper maintenance and later, the neglect in the soviet times brought the castle to its ruinous condition.
The castle is situated on the opposite bank of the River Seret that flows through the town, so we had to cross the bridge to get to it. Pan Vasyl’ told us a local legend: Once upon a time there lived a woman in Chortkiv who kept having one and the same dream many nights in a row. In her dreams, a ghost insisted that one of the walls of the castle be dismantled, and the remains of his body that would surely be found, be properly buried. The woman passed this request to the town authorities and indicated the wall. The wall was taken apart brick by brick, and a skeleton was indeed found inside the wall. According to the legend, it was ascertained that the skeleton belonged to a Christian monk, Theophil, who was immured in the wall live by the Turks.
The ruins beg to be restored and I hope restoration will be done before the ruins crumble into dust.
I wished we could stay longer and see more of the ruined castle and listen to stories about it, but we wanted to see other places in Chortkiv and we had little time left to do that.
We proceeded then to the Church of the Pokrova (Protective Veil) of the Holy Mother of God. In the churchyard, we discovered a spring of water which is said to have curative properties that heal the ailing and infirm. There are many local stories of “miraculous healings” caused by the water from this spring. In one of the stories, an atheistic red Army soldier, badly wounded and dying, was brought to the spring — he, realizing it was his last chance to survive, resorted to prayer and the prayer was heard, and the water from the spring cured him.
I did take a drink of that water too though I was neither ailing nor wounded. And I did feel a wave of invigorating energy surge through me — or maybe I just imagined it.
Next, our guide led us to two wooden churches in the center of town. One of them, the Uspenska (Assumption) Church, was originally built at the end of the sixteenth century but later, in 1635, after a number of Tartar and Turkish raids on the Land of Ternopilshchyna, the church was rebuilt. In 1989, the church was thoroughly restored. The building was literally taken apart and then reassembled again and reinforced. The architectural style of the church is basically typical for western Ukrainian wooden churches but it has some unique features which set it apart.
The other wooden church, Voznesenska (Ascension), was built in 1630 but it was badly damaged in the Tartar and Turkish raids too, and it had to be rebuilt in the early eighteenth century. The church by its color, general appearance and its shingles made me think of some pre-historic creature covered with scales. But there was a touch of cheerful color in it too — in the drum of the central dome I spotted multi-colored pieces of glass incorporated into it. Seen from another angle, the church seemed to look like a gigantic tryzub (trident — Ukrainian state emblem).
The origin of the name
When the appointed hour of our bus departure was approaching and we were about to return to the place where it would wait for us, I asked Pan Vasyl’ whether he knew why his town was called “Chortkiv.” “Anything to do with ‘chort’ (devil)?”
We were told that the town was founded almost five hundred years ago. In fact, it began as a village which belonged to one Ivan Prandotych who had been given a piece of land by the Polish king for his valor shown in the Battle of Grunewald (the battle took place on 15 July 1410 when the combined Polish. Lithuanian and Ukrainian forces, led by the Polish king Wladyslaw II Jagiello, defeated the Knights of the Teutonic Order; it was one of the greatest battles of medieval Europe that put an end to the Teutonic aggression into Eastern Europe; the Teutonic order never recovered its former power). That piece of land that Prandotych was awarded with, was situated in a picturesque place in the valley of the River Seret.
The name Chortlkiv seems to have been derived from the word “chert’” or “ocheret”, that is “reeds,” with which the scenic banks of the River Seret were overgrown. According to local lore though, the name does have a connection with the word “chort” — a little devil tried to dam the river with huge rocks, the river overflowed and the chort was drowned. The place was called then, Chortove, that is “Devil’s”.
I found there was nothing of the devil in the town of Chortkiv which, thanks to Pan Vasyl’ and the desire for ice cream and the need to recharge the batteries, proved to be a fortuitous tourist discovery.
Photos by Olena Krushynska
The author expresses her thanks
to the State Service of Tourism
and Resorts, the Tourism Board
of the Ternopil State Administration
and to the tour operator Oksamyt-KL.
Interior of the Church of St Stanislaw.
A view of the Church of St Stanislaw
and Market Square.
The building of the Old City Hall (1908) and the
19th-century trade center.
Ruins of a 17th-century castle.
This 17th-century wooden Uspenska (Assumption)
church was restored after Ukraine’s independence.
The Pokrovska Church (built in 1905).
The Church of St Peter and St Paul looks like tryzub
(trident, the Ukrainian state emblem) if viewed
from certain angles.
Narodny dim Culture Center in 1908–1912.
The 19th-century Trade Center.