Cultural history of the Tatra Mountains – dragon bones, treasure hunters and sanatoria

The High Tatras are an Alpine holiday place that can be reached with a half-day journey from Budapest. They provide hiking and mountain climbing opportunities, fascinating peaks and clear fresh air. Tourism appeared in the 1820s at the feet of the Tatras, and splendid hotels of the Monarchy were built soon. Our virtual exhibition reveals how the common history of the massif and the people developed during the past couple of centuries.

From chamois hunters to rectors of Késmárk

The first conquerors of the Tatras were mountain shepherds and chamois hunters, but the exact date when the first men reached the peaks cannot be told due to lack of records. The first tourists, whose names are known, were Constable Jeromos Lászky and his wife Beáta Lászky, who visited the valley of Green Lake with their escorts in the first half of the 16th century. According to certain sources, only Beáta was the explorer, which evoked her husband’s anger and punishment.


Soon afterwards, the teachers and students of the lyceum of Késmárk beat the path literally for the subsequent tourists. School rector Dávid Frölich was the first to document his three-day tour to the Késmárk peak in the middle of the 17th century. Frölich was a geographer, an astronomer, an ‘imperial and royal mathematician’ and a scientist who was before his period. It was Petrarch, who inspired him to conquer the mountain, by writing his own trip to Mont Ventoux as an experience of enlightenment.


We ought to be grateful to the family Buchholtz as well: György Buchholtz senior, Lutheran pastor of Késmárk, was an early connoisseur of the Tatras. His sons also learnt the love of nature and the mountains: the excellent litterateur and natural scientist György Buchholtz junior organised excursions into the Tatras and he was making assays. He already named several peaks on a panorama map made in the beginning of the 18th century. He dealt with botany, mineralogy and speleology, and what is more, he even found ‘dragon bones’ in a cave, which entered the history of palaeontology as a cave bear later.

The other Buchholtz son Jakab became a master furrier and a big fan of nature: he roamed the majority of the Tatras and got hold of a huge collection of minerals; so Vienna entrusted him with questing after ore mines. Treasure hunters and adventurers roaming the countryside was a typical phenomenon during the 18th century, because they supposed that the mysterious peaks hide precious metals. Sometimes they were right, because gold has been quarried in the side of Kriván (Kriváň) since the era of King Matthias.

From hunt balls to grand hotels

By the end of the century, tourism started developing: directly from hunters’ lodges. For example, from Count István Csáky’s villa in Ótátrafüred (Starý Smokovec) built in 1793. The Count loved staying here and was glad to host the nobility who visited him. They often went on excursions in the mountains together. Later on, a bathing-resort was built on the guesthouse exploiting the sour spring-water.

By the 1820s, the Tatras became a popular and beloved destination: a number of tourist groups were led onto the second highest peak, the 2634-meter-high Lomnica Peak (Lomnický štít) that had been thought to be unapproachable. You still need a mountain guide to reach the top on a path without signs that has been secured with chains since then. Alternatively, you can choose the funicular that has been carrying panorama-admiring visitors since 1940.


In 1834, János Still and his company climbed the highest point of the Tatras and that of the whole Carpathians as well, the 2655-meter-high Gerlachov Peak (Gerlachovský štít). Teacher János Still was the most famous guide of the Gerlach in the decades afterwards. The peak had many different names during the 20th century: Franz Joseph Peak, Legionnaires’ Peak, Stalin Peak, but it has the Slovakian name Gerlachovský štít officially since 1959. If you want to see the famous metal cross and the breathtaking panorama, you must be fit and need a mountain guide unless you are a mountain climber.


Now, let’s go back to Ótátrafüred (Starý Smokovec): the heydays of the oldest holiday resort and touristic centre of the Tatras started in 1833, when János György Rainer rented it. The resort had six houses then; he had more houses, a restaurant, a bath and esplanades built in the surrounding area. In addition, he had the first Alpine hut - Rainer Hut or Rainerova chata – of the Tatras constructed as well, in 1865.

The first tourist club of Hungary (the Hungarian Carpathian Society) was established in Ótátrafüred in 1873. The art-nouveau-style Grand Hotel was built in 1904, according to Guido Hoepfner’s plans. We must mention Gedeon Majunke, whom we must be grateful for the uniform face of the buildings in the High Tatras: the coffeehouse of Ótátrafüred (that can be seen only in postcards now), the Szilágyi Pavilion in Tarajka and the Téry Alpine Hut (Téryho chata) that stands at 2015 meters above sea level.


Doctor and mountain climber Miklós Szontagh directed the healing water institute of Ótátrafüred as of 1873. He formed a bathing resort by establishing a new sanatorium, thus he founded Újtátrafüred (Nový Smokovec). He focused on high-altitude therapy, the benefits of the Alpine climate, so he ceased the summer season mode and received patients all the year round. From that time on, everything was given for the perfect recreation: middle-class people of those happy peacetime years could heal, do sports, go on trips and spend their time in excellent hotels and restaurants.


Although the world wars, the new borders of Hungary and the world crisis caused factures, one thing has not changed since then. Ótátrafüred (Starý Smokovec), Tátralomnic (Tatranská Lomnica), Lake Csorba (Štrbské Pleso) and Tatras’ peaks, ridges and valleys are still the most attractive touristic destinations. Every season has its own magic, but be cautious: there are closures on certain touring tracks during winter and spring. The Tatras are the smallest high mountains in Europe, but avalanches can normally occur unfortunately and you must also respect the peacefulness of local animal species: chamois, bears, marmots and eagles.


Translated by Zita Aknai



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