This Beautiful European Castle Was Built In 1640, But For A Century It’s Sat Eerily Abandoned

Image: Sergey Nik Melnik via Twitter/UkraineTrek.com

When Pidhirtsi Castle was built in the western part of Ukraine, it was intended to be a peaceful dwelling. Throughout the castle-fortress’ nearly 400-year history, however, things have been anything but restful. Yes, the breathtaking beauty of the structure belies the centuries of strife that it has witnessed.

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The construction of Pidhirtsi Castle began in 1635 after Stanis?aw Koniecpolski, a commander in the Polish military, commissioned the project. At the time, Koniecpolski was serving as grand crown hetman to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

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As grand crown hetman, Koniecpolski was of the highest possible rank in the Polish army. Indeed, the only person with greater authority would have been the king himself. The commander was therefore a man who held a position of considerable responsibility, influence and privilege.

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The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth of the time combined the countries of Poland and Lithuania. And it was one of the largest European territories of the 16th and 17th centuries both in terms of landmass and population. The state’s diverse populace numbered 11 million across 400,000 square miles.

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And as hetman, Koniecpolski himself owned portions of the country. Entire districts were in his possession, in fact, as were more than 300 settlements and many thousands of households. He even boasted his own army and supported the creation of Warsaw’s Koniecpolski Palace – the Polish president’s formal seat.

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As Koniecpolski noted in his memoirs, he was in need of a dwelling that offered peace and relaxation. But although Pidhirtsi Castle now arguably stands in a perpetual state of tranquillity, history tells a different story. In fact, it’s perhaps incredible that the structure is still standing.

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But where exactly is the stunning edifice to be found? Well, it sits in the Ukrainian village that shares its name: Pidhirtsi, which lies near the Polish border. The castle is situated with the Woroniaki hills to the south and boasts views of the Styr River valley. This seemed, then, to be a picturesque enough location for Koniecpolski’s new home.

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So it was that in 1635 work began on what would become Koniecpolski’s new residence. The identity of the mind behind the design of the magnificent structure isn’t known for certain. However, an Italian architect named Andrea del Aqua – who also created a fortress for the hetman in nearby Brody – may well have been responsible for the masterplan.

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As for who built the castle, well, that’s less of a mystery. The person credited is the French-Polish engineer Guillaume le Vasseur de Beauplan, who also worked on the Brody fortress alongside del Aqua. Pidhirtsi Castle took five years to complete – time well spent, though, judging by its elegant looks and sturdy construction.

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The edifice itself is constructed from stone and brick. And the design is typical of a palazzo in fortezza – meaning a building that’s part palace and part fortress. For instance, a drawbridge was the only way over its moat, which was intended to slow the advances of hostile invaders.

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Meanwhile, defensive weaponry studded the outside walls, bolstered by bastions and bristling with iron cannons. Some of that firepower potential actually survives to this day. And yet even these belligerent features do not detract from the castle’s intrinsic elegance.

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Visitors can, for instance, get a sense of the sophistication of the castle’s owner from the marble sign that looms above the gate. The sign is inscribed with Latin text that’s still visible after four centuries. And, translated, it reads, “A crown of military labors is victory; victory is a triumph; triumph is rest.”

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Perhaps, then, the inscription was Koniecpolski’s tribute to his own success. Having spent almost his entire life engaged in warfare – and with many notable triumphs to his name – he certainly may have felt that he had earned his time of rest. And Pidhirtsi Castle is where he wished to take this repose.

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It was undoubtedly a desirable destination. Whereas other similar structures in the area were designed with war in mind, Pidhirtsi Castle was also meant for good living. For example, its Italian-inspired gardens were more in keeping with those of a country residence than what you might see in a typical defensive stronghold.

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And the centerpiece here is even more of a marvel. Within the castle’s near-330-square-foot layout stands a stunning palace that is among the oldest in Ukraine and indeed Eastern Europe. For those in the immediate area, it’s difficult to miss, too. The imposing three-story structure is set upon a hill and visible for many miles around.

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But what was it like inside for those who lived there? Well, the edifice is, essentially, a castle of two halves. The east wing was the owner’s residence, where Koniecpolski would have lived with his staff. The west wing, meanwhile, was where any guests who were visiting the estate would have stayed.

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Today, however, the once-opulent decor of the castle’s interior lies in a rather forlorn state of disrepair. Years of dust and dirt cloud the crystalline panes of the building’s windows, whose views overlook dried-up fountains that in another lifetime flowed with wonderful cascades.

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Koniecpolski had, then, visualized a setting of peace and tranquillity – and yet history had other designs. War, you see, would beset this region of Europe for many years. So it was that shortly after the hetman had passed away in 1646, the castle came under attack.

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In 1648 Ukrainian Cossacks – a democratic, self-ruling faction made up in part of armed forces – assaulted Pidhirtsi Castle. However, the fortress proved to be difficult to assail, and the Cossacks’ attempt to capture it was unsuccessful thanks to its formidable defenses.

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Still, beaten but not defeated, those same forces returned in 1651 to try and claim the castle once more – but again to no avail. And after this second unsuccessful battle, one of Koniecpolski’s sons, Aleksander, restored the structure and bolstered its safeguards.

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It turned out that these improvements to the castle’s defenses were worthwhile, too. Right up until the end of the 17th century, Pidhirtsi Castle was, you see, the target of repeated raids by the Turks and their neighbors the Tatars. And yet it stood firm in the face of these incursions.

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In the meantime, the castle came into the hands of Koniecpolski’s grandson, who was also called Stanis?aw. And then in 1682 the younger Stanis?aw passed the edifice and the estates attached to it on to a Polish nobleman named James Louis Sobieski. What’s more, despite the tough times, Pidhirtsi Castle retained its magnificence – and its appeal to other prospective buyers.

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James Sobieski’s younger brother, Konstanty, subsequently sold the grand property to the Polish Great Crown Hetman Stanis?aw Rzewuski in 1725. And when Rzewuski’s son, Wac?aw, inherited Pidhirtsi Castle upon his father’s death, he chose it as his official residence over the close-by Olesko Castle, which he also owned.

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Pidhirtsi Castle was in fact originally built over two floors, but Wac?aw Rzewuski added the third story toward the end of the 18th century. He also had a church built on the grounds and established a theater there. And the renovations came at a time of seemingly rare tranquillity for the area.

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Yes, the castle-fortress was finally experiencing the peace that Grand Crown Hetman Koniecpolski had longed for. Indeed, after 1772, when Austria took over the southeastern region of Poland, an extended period of calm was to follow – for the castle and its historical context.

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Why was this the case? Well, in 1795 the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth ceased to exist – even though its ruling class continued to preside. And yet the dissolution of the state was to mark the dawn of a new era in which Pidhirtsi Castle would flourish.

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Indeed, after the estate underwent a makeover in 1788, the castle and its environs had much to offer. Guests to the premises had access to a zoo, a park, vineyards and multiple gardens – all within the grounds. And as for the building’s interior itself, well, it was practically fit for a king.

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The walls throughout the castle were lined with hundreds of artworks. In fact, one chamber, The Green Room, could have served as an art museum in itself. Other rooms, such as the Golden Hall and the Chinese Room, were no less stunning. And the Knights Hall contained an extensive collection of war artifacts.

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Each room was also fitted with its own marble fireplace, while the floors were lined with marble tiles throughout. Fittingly, then, the castle played host to extravagant parties – complete with appearances from its own orchestra. This was certainly high-society entertainment, with guests including dignitaries such as Kaiser Wilhelm and Emperor Franz Josef.

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Peacetime, however, wouldn’t last forever. Austria-Hungary became embroiled in World War I, once again throwing Pidhirtsi Castle into the line of fire during warfare. The subsequent bloodshed of the early part of the 1900s would actually be the worst that was ever witnessed there.

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In fact, during World War II, as well as World War I, Pidhirtsi Castle stood vulnerable to the ravages of conflict. And then, after the Russian Army had looted the premises of its valuables, the estate was transformed into headquarters for part of the Austro-Hungarian army.

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However, the Austro-Hungarian army’s occupation of the castle didn’t deter the Russians. Indeed, they returned to tear down walls and strip the marble tiles off the floors. The structure was all but gutted, in fact, and yet its road to ruin would continue following the war.

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This time, though, Mother Nature was the antagonist as a storm hit the area in 1956. During the storm, the castle was struck by a bolt of lightning, which then set fire to it. The fire raged for three weeks, in fact. But despite its history of conflict and devastation, nothing seemed able to completely devastate Pidhirtsi Castle.

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If walls could talk, what a story Pidhirtsi Castle would have to tell. Sure, it may not be a comfortable narrative to listen to, but the structure has survived the conflicts and other ravages of its history. And while it bears the scars of its past, its majesty nevertheless endures.

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An eerie silence shrouds the castle today, and its weatherbeaten grandeur carries a certain ethereal mystique. Indeed, the imposing yet neglected edifice could almost provide the setting for a Hollywood horror movie. And as it happens, there is an allegedly spectral side to this place.

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Yes, not only does Pidhirtsi Castle bear the weight of its checkered past, but it is also thought to be haunted. And appropriately enough, there is a macabre tale behind the claim. During his residency of the property in the 1700s, Wac?aw Rzewuski is, you see, believed to have murdered his wife in a bout of jealous rage.

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It is said, in fact, that Rzewuski imprisoned his wife in the confines of the castle’s basement – where she ultimately perished. However, as is commonplace with such legends that are passed down through time, today several versions of the narrative exist.

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A ghostly figure, dubbed the “Woman in White,” has reportedly been spotted roaming the halls of the castle. So, could those stories from the past – whichever version is believed – be true? It is certainly claimed that electromagnetic energy has been recorded on the grounds – a sign, perhaps, that ghosts may be present.

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But whether or not you believe such notions, Pidhirtsi Castle has undoubtedly captured the imaginations of people near and far. Granted, the castle’s best days may well be behind it. But in light of the obvious charm that it does retain, not to mention its historical merit, the people of Ukraine have today urged that this majestic edifice be preserved.

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Hence, not only does the castle have its own commemorative coin, but restoration efforts are currently ongoing to return the structure to its former glory. And although the restoration will be a long, laborious and expensive undertaking, for Ukrainians it will surely be worth it. After all, Pidhirtsi Castle stands as a symbol of a past that they never experienced.

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