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Canyons of Podillya
The author looking down the valley of the River Seret.
Hearing or reading the word “canyon” one’s first reaction is to conjure up in one’s mind something grandiose, of the Grand Canyon in Arizona kind. But, of course, there are all sorts of canyons. Ukraine, though most of it is rather flat, also has quite a few of canyons. Olena KRUSHYNSKA took a tour of some of the Ukrainian canyons to have a good look at them.
The land I explored is called Podillya. The small and not so small tributaries of the River Dnister have cut chasms in the rocky earth, dozens of meters deep, with steep rocky cliffs on both sides. Tourists come not only to look at them but also jump from them or across them — hanging from hang gliders, paragliders, balloons or bungee cords. Some cliffs are good for mountain climbing practice too.
I did not do any jumping or climbing — I just looked and took pictures.
The village of Lyadova on the border with Moldova was one of the places I visited on my tour of the canyons. Not only is there a canyon of the River Dnister in its vicinity worth seeing, but there is also an ancient cave monastery there that dates from the eleventh century. The caves could have been used in pre-Christian times too. It is believed that the Lyadovsky Monastery was founded by Antony Pechersky, one of the founders of the Lavra Pechersk Monastery in Kyiv (the word pechersk indicates the presence of caves where the monks used to live). The Lyadovsky Monastery used to attract pilgrims both from other parts of Ukraine and from Bessarabia (Moldova). The monastery church and some other buildings of the monastery were destroyed in the 1930s. At present, restoration is under way. One of the caves is a burial place which contains skulls of the monks.
There are names and coats of arms, carved into the cliff, of some of the pilgrims who made donations to the monastery. Three caves were used as churches — of St John the Baptist, of St Paraskeva Pyatnytsya and of St Antony, the latter being the oldest.
From the monastery you can see a long way into the distance up the river — a dramatic sight of canyon cliffs and surrounding landscape full of primordial charm.
There are several ancient towns which are situated along the River Seret (it is 242 kilometers long) — Ternopil, Terebovlya, and Chortkiv to mention the most important ones, but my destination was the small village of Monastyrok where the Seret has cut a deep gorge into the earth. Once there, I was shown a cave church located close to the top edge of the cliff. This cave church is believed to date from as early as the ninth century but there is some evidence that indicates it could have been used for other, pagan, purposes in much earlier times.
The cave is about ten meters in length (about 30 feet) and eight meters (about 24 feet) in width. There is a sort of a stone visor right above the entrance which is supported by a number of flat stones piled one on top of each other. These supports were made in the nineteenth century either because the natural overhanging ledge needed some support to prevent from breaking off or for some esthetic reason.
But on that tour it was the sight of the canyon there that I came to enjoy rather than the cave — and I did enjoy it.
The valley of the River Zbruch (247 kilometers long) is one of the major tributaries of the Dniester, and it boasts a canyon, ancient churches and old castles.
In the village of Zbruchanske there is a fourteenth-century church which happens to be the oldest one in Ternopilshchyna. The Mykolayivska Church, dedicated to St Nicholas, looks like a defensive facility rather than a house of prayer — thick stone walls, only three narrow windows, practically no decor. The church may look severe and forbidding but the view that opens on the canyon down below is a good scenic compensation.
The area through which the River Zbruch flows was the bone of contention among several rivaling powers, and that is the reason why there are so many castles, fortresses and more modern defense installations dotted the banks and the valleys there. The valley of the Zbruch was a scene of many dramatic and tragic events.
The ruins of the Chornokozynetsky Castle is a romantic sight. The castle dates from the fourteenth century and is said to have been built by the local bishop of the town of Chornokozyntsi as a stronghold badly needed in a land which many wanted to make their own.
The castle changed hands many times but it was the twentieth century, with its devastating wars and revolutions that reduced the castle to ruins.
The ruins of a church, built in 1608 and dedicated to St Joseph, add their sadly romantic note to those of the castle. The panorama of the canyon and of the river meandering through it, is one of the most charming that I’ve ever seen.
Further down the river, I saw another castle — in the vicinity of the village of Kudryntsi. The castle stands at the edge of the cliff and looks quite impregnable. The cliff on one side of the castle is too steep for any offensive military action, and on the other side the castle was protected by a deep moat and defensive towers. Alas, that castle is in ruins too. It was built in the early seventeenth century by a Polish lord, Jan Herbut, who was also a writer and a political figure. Later, the castle had several other owners, but by the end of the nineteenth century it had been abandoned. It was used as a quarry for stones by the locals for purposes less imposing than building castles, but what has been left of the castle is impressive enough. And again, the major attraction is the 360-degree panorama that opens from the ruins. The canyon, the river, distant hills and forests seem to be a boundless landscape encompassing the whole universe, somewhat similar to the panoramic landscapes in the paintings of the old Dutch masters of the sixteenth century.
The River Smotrych in the vicinity of the town of Kamyanets-Podilsky presents a canyon which is probably the longest and the deepest in Ukraine — it is about ten kilometers long (almost seven miles) and about fifty meters (over 150 feet) deep at some places. The river itself, a tributary to the Dniester, is only 169 kilometers (over a hundred miles) long, and hardly more than 10–15 meters (30 to 45 feet) wide.
The canyon is complete with waterfalls, rare species of plants, and geological peculiarities. It is also a place that offers a lot to paleontologists and geologists to study.
Geologists say that the whole area was once the bottom of a sea which covered much of Ukraine about fifteen or twenty million years ago, and it is through the sediments of that sea that the River Smotrych, in much later times, cut a long gorge.
The canyon provided an excellent site for a fortress and Kamyanets used to be such a fortress. People settled at that place in pre-historic times but it was only in the thirteenth century that a major fortress was built on a sort of a promontory that is formed by the snaking river. The Zamkovy (Castle) Bridge, which connects “the promontory” with the plateau across the river was also built in the medieval times, but some historians are of the opinion that the first bridge was built there by the ancient Romans in the second or third century CE. The bridge that you can see there now is believed to have been built by the Turks at the end of the seventeenth century during a siege of Kamyanets.
Among the defensive facilities of Kamyanets two deserve a special mention. One is Rus’ka Brama — a construction with eight towers and defensive walls and water locks which was built in such a way so as to make it possible to dam and block the river if the situation required it. A similar construction, Polska brama, with its five towers and massive defensive walls, was situated on the other side of the fortress. With the locks shut, the canyon would be flooded thus providing the fortress with the additional defensive feature. The water locks have not survived to our days but some of the defensive walls have.
Kamyanets and the canyon claim a place on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
View of the River Dnister from the cave monastery in the vicinity of the village of Lyadova; the river marks the border between two states — the high bank is Ukraine, and the opposite, low bank, is Moldova.
>View of the River Zbruch from the ruins of the castle in the town of Chornokozyntsi; the river marks the boundary between Ternopil and Khmelnytsky Oblasts; up to 1939, the river was the boundary between the Soviet Union and Poland.
Ruins of the castle in the vicinity of the village of Kudryntsi; the castle that sat on the top of a hill used to control the valley of the River Zbruch.
The canyon of the River Smotrych seen from the fortress of Kamyanets-Podilsky; the fortress which was founded many centuries ago, was well protected both by its walls and natural conditions around it.
Entrance to one of the caves of the Lyadovsky Monastery.
View of the River Seret which opens from the cave monastery in the vicinity of the village of Monastyrok.
Photos by the author