My travels: Dubno, Ukraine. Arcadia; paradise lost.

In Dubno, town in Western Ukraine, in the middle of the hot summer day, walking between the walls of the huge defensive castle, I was suddenly hit with that tangible, nearly physical feeling of nostalgia…


As usual with the most interesting discoveries on our travel paths, Dubno was a pure coincidence. We were trying to get to Rivne on that particular day, taking a marshrutka ride first thing in the morning from Tarnopol, a city that was the second stop on our travel through Ukraine in June 2016. Long story short, we arrived at the bus station in Tarnopol just in time, but marshurtka to Rivne was standing there fully packed and no amount of being “naive foreigner” would make it stretch, so marshrutka went away and we were left standing behind.

We jumped on the second one that day, going in the general vague direction of where we were going and randomly got off the bus in a tiny town of Dubno. I believe our decision making process went a bit like “Where are we?” “I do not know, I think we passed a sign with a name Dubno on it” “What is in Dubno?” “I have no idea, want to find out?” 🙂 Travel, you beautiful whimsical creature of freedom, you.

After getting out of the bus we decided to acquire a bit more local knowledge, seeing a tourist agency on our way (booking tours of Italy for Ukrainians from Dubno) and hoping to be furnished with a local map. We stepped in there and met probably the most enthusiastic CouchSurfer in the tiny town of Dubno (population: 38 thousand people) – or most likely the only one.

We spent a good hour chatting to “Andrew Raven” as he proudly translated his name to English, about anything and everything, starting from the current Ukrainian situation and going back in time. From conversations about our travel plans, dreams and families back to the story of 1928; my grandma as a four year old having to abandon her home. Her family was afraid of the mounting aggression from their Ukrainian neighbors, so they decided to leave the extensive lands and the house near Lviv and run. She lost a younger sister in the process. This story was never mentioned to me until she passed away. It was too much trauma. Then he shared the story of his grandparents, Ukrainians, fleeing Zamosc (city in the East of Poland), afraid of their Polish neighbors…

Pages of Polish-Ukrainian history books are never easy, but I valued the possibility to talk about it to the locals of Volhynia. And as usual in travel, the most interesting meetings happen when you least expect it..

After about an hour, we continued on our way, furnished with a map showing the huge defensive fortress built in 14th century, that gave the beginning to the town around it. The fortress/castle was our first stop and literally from the moment we turned the corner it blew our minds. The main entrance was looming huge, the moat really deep. It wasn’t just some small castle-like house or a pile of rocks that used to be a castle long ago. It was properly preserved: tall defensive walls, towers, long dark tunnels underneath, cellars, huge courtyard, a palace, beautiful gardens and even a peacock-pheasant reserve among the rose bushes and artillery.

Here, between the four walls of a closed-off courtyard of an old castle, which used to belong to a Ruthenian aristocratic Ostrogsky  family, later on sold to the Polish Lubomirsky family, I was hit right in my gut with this wave of nostalgia – in a moment I least expected it. I stopped, looked around and marveled at what this place must have been in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Paradise lost – was my first very persistent reaction that did not leave my imagination for the whole time being there. The space around me looked more like the mythical Arcadia than anything I ever imagined, or ever experienced. As I walked around the courtyard, literally swimming in the hot sun, all I could think about was this myth of Arcadia as presented in the literature of Renaissance. Paradise lost. A little pocket of time long gone. Idyllic space of natural beauty, and child-like simplicity. Golden. Quiet. With air so sweet from the scent of pear and apple trees, light buzzing with bumblebee sound and pastoral harmony, not corrupted by any conflict; between those stone walls in those forgotten gardens. Logically speaking, I knew this was not the case. Like everywhere in these broken lands, my surroundings were more than likely a backdrop to the repeated stagings of horrors. The palace, with interior like an open, gushing wound, crumbling inside with ceilings and floors removed, was a testament to that. Somehow though there was no trace of it left in the gentle harmony of the afternoon sun, touching the stones surrounding the courtyard..

img_20160624_143143_panorama_editAnd in this lost paradise, I could see the shadows of its previous inhabitants, moving in and out, between the walls of the fortress, as if they always belonged there and never left. Some of them walking out of the white palace, through the imposing doors. Young women, in rustling dresses, running down the steps towards the ornamental carriage parked in the middle of the driveway, ready to harness horses on moment’s notice and bring them to a lively ball nearby. Men inspecting the armory and the contents of the long, tunnel-like cellars underneath the defensive walls of the outer fortress (ok, and a rebellious woman hidden right there with them just the same, because that’s what women of these cultures have always done; always defied the norms of lives that were ascribed to them).

As I walked around, touching the walls, prodding the darkness in cellars, listening to deep wells, smelling the flowers and tracing the wheels of the carriage with my fingers, I could imagine this life, which was long gone.. Like a dream, less than a memory. It was palpable this tiny pocket of the lost paradise, more than in any other corner of what used to be the state of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, with its privileges, rights and Golden Liberty granted to the nobility of all nations that constituted that country; the very rudimentary form of the Nobles’ Democracy.

I realize that my experience is very difficult to relay to anyone that did not grow up in Poland, maybe specifically in Poland of my 1980s generation, still removed and backwards, full of shadows of the Soviet reality but slowly claiming back its identity.

Freedom, pride and honor are the building blocks of the Polish soul. They had to sustain my country for a long time. Polish culture had to withstand 123 years of partitions and a complete disappearance from the map, an active politics of Germanization and Rusification, two world wars and 50 years of Soviet domination. This love of freedom that we trace back to the Golden Age in Polish history and the nihil novi idea – that nothing can be decided about us behind our backs – this has sustained us, supported us and brought us back. If you are Polish, you are rebellious by nature – you just are.

flowersI am European and an expat, yet I am Polish at heart, that feeling confirmed throughout the years of living abroad. I can’t shake this identity any more than I can shake my adult expat one. Loving freedom is very much a part of me and I felt that in Dubno, it was almost tangible. But this age of gold, light and freedom for some was the age of darkness and shadow for others.. This has to be remembered. Such is and has been the European history for ages.

This intense feeling of nostalgia that I experienced in Dubno surprised me. I have never been sympathetic to those ideas of “getting Lviv back”, even if due to the family history alone I could have been stuck in that sentiment. Lviv is what it is, the city at the heart of Galicia, city that lost one identity – and you can still see the scars – but gained another one. Today it is an Ukrainian city with a multicultural past and a long history. Same as Wroclaw in Poland.

In times of peace, we can all enjoy these places together. I can speak Polish in the West of Ukraine and be understood, and understand answers coming to me in Ukrainian that sounds so similar to my mother tongue that you immediately see and understand the sister-like nature of both languages.

Borderlands have always been spheres of conflict, but also, spheres of fusion. Why not appreciate the closeness of our cultures, instead of stressing that which brings us apart? Why instigate or add up to the existing conflicts that do not benefit any of the directly involved sides?

This very strong feeling of nostalgia raised some important questions about the national memory in my mind. In some way, whichever way you look at it, the majority of the towns of Western Ukraine are dotted with Ruthenian/ Polish/ Lithuanian nobility castles, just like the one in Dubno. To me Eastern Galicia and Volhynia are provinces of incredible vibrancy yet with dark shadows on every corner. It is a very difficult land to travel to for a Pole, mentally and emotionally, difficult and yet at the same time so satisfyingly beautiful, almost like a sweet, light, nearly forgotten dream. That beauty and harmony that I experienced in Dubno, this peacefulness is worth remembering, sustaining and preserving.

We took a very long time leaving that castle. We enjoyed a wonderful meal there. Probably the best barbecue of my life, when it comes to bbq sausage. Germany, bbqWurstland, has nothing on Ukraine. Their bbq sausage is to-die-for! 

Later we walked through the town of Dubno and saw scenes of everyday life against the backdrop of destruction. We saw monasteries with golden cupolas and old gates from 15th century, and a ruined synagogue from 17th century, the memory of millions of Jews that used to live in the Pale of Settlement. Dubno was a town with thriving Jewish population before WW2, over 50 percent of inhabitants, all perished, the building itself broken, burnt down and in the state of decay now..
A sad picture of Anatevka in my mind.

Paradise lost. The land of shadows, moving in and out of existence through the golden afternoon sun, in and out of my daydreams. No matter how difficult the travel through light and shadow, all I know is: I will be back.

Then, we made our way to the Tunnel of Love, to  walk towards an oncoming train, with our heads and hearts still full of Arcadia. 


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s