Spanning the distance between the Lviv region and Moldova, the dragon-like spine of the Podilsky Tovtry follows an arch-shaped ridge that stretches for 250 km northeast to southwest.
This ancient “beast” recalls how 15-20 million years ago the Sarmatian Sea washed the shores of the present day Podillia geographic area and explains why the green hills of Tovtry resulted not from tectonic upheaval but as the remains of a petrified coral reef. Evidence can be found right under foot: here and there amidst limestone boulders you may find petrified shells of different sizes and shapes. Layer by layer, the skeletons of corals and shellfish that once inhabited the Sarmatian Sea for millions of years formed what is today the world’s only mountain ridge of organic origin. The Carpathian Mountains, though not related to the Tovtry, made their contribution to this process: tectonic changes accompanying the rise of the Carpathians forced the sea to retreat to the southeast, leaving behind an enormous 5-kilometre wide coral reef.
The origin of the word “tovtry” is unknown, though scientists continue to examine this coral formation. In order to preserve it, in June 1996 the Podilski Tovtry National Nature Park was established, covering three districts of the Khmelnytsky region and some adjacent districts of Ternopil region. The park covers over 260,000 hectares and includes 160 hills.
Visitors need not be alpinists to climb the Tovtry since the hills are not very high. The highest hill, Nyzhniy Kamin (Lower Stone), rises 431 metres. Second-highest and the most popular peak is Bohyt (417 metres), located near Lychkivtsi village in the Ternopil region. This hill used to host a statue of the pagan idol Svyatovyt, which Christians later threw into the Zbruch River.
Archaeologists discovered that a pagan temple already existed at this place in Scythian times, which reached its peak during the 9th-13th centuries. Surprisingly, pagan gods were worshiped here until the 17th century.
Differing in height and covered with forest or bald, all Tovtry hills have one common feature: their south-western slopes are steep, while on the north-eastern side the slopes are gradual. Many hill peaks are covered with white limestone boulders, resembling flocks of sheep when viewed from the side. According to a local folk legend, a Gypsy shepherd once punished his evil landlord and hid his lord’s sheep in the underpasses of a ruined castle, leaving the landlord with nothing but boulders.
The Tovtry are steeped in legends. One says that near an old mill not far from the city of Kamyanets-Podilsky the folk hero Ustym Karmaliuk once dated a beautiful girl from a nearby village. The mountain overlooking that mill today bears his name. Another legend has it that peasants from the villages of Nihyn and Cherche hid in a hill cave from Tatar raids. The Tatar siege lasted several weeks, during which milk ran down the cave walls, providing life-saving nourishment to the locals.
The flora of the Podilsky Tovtry is diverse and unique, in particular its areas of steppe and rock-steppe vegetation where various endemic plants grow, protected by Ukrainian legislation. Local fauna is represented by foxes, hedgehogs, ferrets, martens, deer, wild hogs and even moose. There are also many caves and grottoes along the Tovtry chain inhabited by bats. Ornithologists come here to watch and take photos of hawks, owls, falcons, eagles, black storks and grey cranes.
Because of the significant length of the Podilski Tovtry, most tourists are advised to explore the ridge one section at a time – for instance Karmaliuk Mountain or Samovyta Tovtra on the outskirts of Kamyanets-Podilsky. The latter, being a city-museum, itself is perhaps the ultimate attraction of the Podilski Tovtry National Nature Park. This ancient city serves as a gateway to the park and makes any trip to Podilski Tovtry a true adventure!