If you travel between Bukovyna and Podillia and wander about historic landmarks like Khotyn and Kamianets-Podilskyi, the Podil Tovtry National Park will be a mandatory stop on your route. This unique preserve on the Dniester River was voted one of Ukraine’s top seven natural wonders. Inimitable natural scenery and historical monuments are closely intertwined here.
FORCED TO LEAVE
One of the most magnetic places in the Tovtry is a stretch along the shore of the Novodnistrovsk Reservoir near which Bakota and a few more villages were located before 1981. The locals still have nostalgic memories of their homes and orchards filled with cherry and apple trees all of which are now under water. The local residents who remember the construction of a hydroelectric power station, which caused this locality to become submerged, tell how people were forced to destroy their own homes and cut down their fruit trees. If the owners refused, prisoners did it for them. Other inmates, convicted of graver crimes, dug out cemeteries to reinter the bodies.
Now nature rules supreme here – and attracts people. Strong winds blow over the calciferous hills of the Tovtry in the summer, but several hundred meters below, the inlets of the water reservoir are quiet; packs of campers set up tents on the bank where the river is "as wide as the sea"; people sail and ride motorboats and fishermen busy themselves with their catches.
Bakota was first mentioned in chronicles in 1024. In the 18th century, it was the capital city of the lower reaches of the Dniester, a territory that was part of the Principality of Galicia-Volhynia. The city then occupied an area of 10 hectares and had 2,500 residents. The first mention of the monastery was found in a chronicle dated 1362. It was founded by the monastic elder Antonius, who was also the founder of the Kyiv Cave Monastery. In 1255, the city was captured by the Mongols. Legend has it that the monks and the residents hid in the labyrinth of the monastery’s caves. The invaders urged them to come out, surrender and renounce their faith, but they refused. Then the Mongols blocked the entrances with rocks and fires, burying the Bakota residents alive. In 1258, the Tatars burned down the Bakota Castle. In 1431, Bakota became a border territory between Poland and Lithuania. Its residents staged an uprising that same year, driving away the landlords and proclaiming independence. Three years later, Polish troops crushed the uprising, punishing its leaders, burning down the houses and the castle and dispersing the population. Following these events, Bakota fell into decline and was never again a city. Life was quiet here for the next several centuries. In 1918-39, Bakota was a border village. A two-metre-high stone wall was erected along the Dniester, and the territory of “hostile” Romania began on the other side of the river (now Chernivtsi Oblast). The church by the monastery was finally destroyed and the monks driven out in the early 1960s. Two decades later, all residents were moved and the area was flooded. In 1996, collapsing rock destroyed the majority of the caves and the burial vault with murals and frescoes dating to the 11th through the 13th century.
CELLS AND RAGS OF A MONASTERY
The first thing you see when you reach the lake is a beautiful panorama of the Dniester. Several million years ago, these regular-shaped hills, reminiscent of huge man-made pyramids, were the shores of a sea. Over time, seaweed and molluscs turned into the calciferous ridges that now rise up to 400 metres above the water.
A path leads down the hill to the remains of an old monastery that dates to the time of Kyivan Rus. Orthodox believers often come to Bakota to see what remains of the monks' cells: a few cells in the caves contain icons, candles, icon lamps and women’s kerchiefs. There are no monks or father superiors here, just groups of believers and curious tourists.
Someone is clearly taking care of the site — wooden railing lines the path leading to the cells and three fresh water springs. Trashcans and a public restroom are also nearby. Signs installed here and there contain quotes about faith, love and empathy from famous people. The railings leading to the springs are wrapped in motley rags, including even parts of women’s bathing suits. A wind-battered and sun-scorched teddy bear lies by one of the springs next to a faded icon, wistfully watching the thirsty visitors.
YALTA OVER THE DNIESTER
When you pass the cells and follow the path downhill, you will come to a beach – an ideal place to pitch a tent. The climate in Bakota is soft and warm and scientists say that the amount of heat per square metre here is almost the same as in Yalta, a resort in Crimea. There is practically no wind and very few mosquitoes — an added bonus, to be sure. Visitors can sail the lake for UAH 100 an hour. The site also hosts private yachts and boats and paragliding is on offer, too. Active tourists are joined by painters lured to the area by its picturesque landscapes. Fishermen say that the horseshoe-shaped reservoir that covers the area of 1,600 hectares and reaches the depth of 50 metres is rich in fish. Despite the fact that this is a preserve and fishing is prohibited, no guards are in sight. Nor is there anyone to collect the entrance fees noted on the signboards.
The water is warm and pure and a great place for a swim. Because of the river's bend, the current is virtually imperceptible. Many wild cherry trees can be found along the bank — a reminder of the village that was once here. A few dozen metres away stands a small wooden house where a family with one child lives. They say they sold their flat in Kyiv and moved here after falling in love with the site.
Minibuses run from the bus station in Kamianets-Podilskyi to the village Stara Ushytsia six times a day (UAH 13). After the village Hrushka, you should get off near the intersection with the road sign Monastery. The drivers often transport tourists, so they know where to stop. Walk along the road to the crossroads with an abandoned bus stop: the road to the right goes to a children’s camp and the one to the left leads to the monastery. Walk along this latter road until you see another road sign reading “Monastery”. From there, walk past the apple orchards of an agribusiness until you see yet another such sign. A few hundred more metres along a field road, and you are at your destination. The total walk is 8km and it takes about an hour on foot. If you travel by car, you can make it to the last road sign, but only if it has not rained. Otherwise you risk getting bogged down on the dirt road.