III. From the history of the Tatras

Do you know the history of how the Tatras got their name? There were two people from Eastern Slovakia walking in the area and counting the peaks: “ta 1, ta 2, ta tri” (so 1, so 2, so 3 in their dialect, ta tri=Tatras). That is how we could start talking about the history if we wanted to be funny.

The name Tatry (Tatras) is probably derived from an Old Slavic name Tritri, which means rocks or rocky peaks. Old maps would depict our most popular mountains with a German name Schneeberg – Snow Mountain as the snow covers the mountains longer than the surrounding area.

Have you heard about the Tatra dinosaur?

Two geologists were really lucky in 1977. They set out for Tichá dolina (valley) in the Tatras to collect some samples and discovered something that had lived around 200 million years ago. They found demonstrable evidence that a 2.5-meter big dinosaurs had lived in the area and the Tatras had been an island before. (TIP: Tatra dinosaur still alive! Come and see a reconstruction of it in the paleontological exposition of the Slovak National Museum in Bratislava).

How were the Slovak Alps born?

The High Tatras deserve to be called “miniature Alps“ as in the Slovak area of around 260 km2 there is almost everything, except glaciers, which an alpine massive can offer. The main ridge is 26 kilometres long and stretches from Ľaliové sedlo (saddle) in the west to Kopské sedlo in the east. Most valleys were covered with ice in Ice Ages and thus had a typical glacial character.

The Belianske Tatra Mts. stretch on an area of 67.5 km2 and are typical for terraced mountain slopes. Their 14-km long ridge borders with Podtatranská brázda in the north. The whole mountain range is made of Tatra karst, which formed several caves in the underground (Belianska jaskyňa (cave) – the only cave open for the public, and also Alabastrová and Ľadový sklep).

The Western Tatras used to be called Liptov Mountain Meadows in the past, which would epitomise their eastern landscape character. The main 32-km long ridge is rather meandering. The most beautiful part of the Western Tatras is called Roháče, as they resemble devil´s horns (roh=horn).

The region of the Tatras borders with the mountains of Oravská Magura, Chočské vrchy and Levočské vrchy, Pieniny up to the Low Tatras. (TIP: Interesting surface formations, the so called travertine, are popular with tourists and can be found near the village of Bešeňová, spa Lúčky, or Vyšné Ružbachy, with a small round lake called Kráter=crater).

Tatra tarns were formed from water flowing from melting glaciers into various dips. The tarn of Štrbské pleso is of a different origin, though. It filled a moraine dip formed after the inner ice had melted. The region is rich in mineral and thermal springs with healing effects. People even believe in magical effects of them. There are several springs with their sources in the Tatras (five of them in Starý Smokovec, three in Dolný Smokovec, cold Seltzer water in Tatranské Matliare, Kežmarské Žľaby and Lendak).

Living symbols of the Tatras

Brown bears, golden eagles, Tatra marmots or salmon trouts are among protected animals with their habitat in the High Tatras. The Tatra chamois is the symbol of the Tatras, with around 900 pieces living in the area.

Neanderthal man of Gánovce, our most popular man

This oldest popular inhabitant of the village Gánovce used to live near a thermal spring around 120 thousand years ago. He is believed to have got drowned when intoxicated by gasses of the spring. The original cast of his braincase is stored in the National Museum in Prague, a copy can be found in Podtatranské museum in Poprad.

Prehistoric smelters and Marcus Aurelius

In the 19th century, workers digging foundations in Nový Smokovec found a silver coin with a depiction of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. Several years later, archaeologists came across prehistoric rests of an anvil in the area over Tatranská Polianka. Historical documents mention the Tatras being a no-man´s-land between the 8th and 10th century. The 12th century was a period of colonisation of the Spiš region by German farmers, traders and miners. The 13th century was typical for dividing the Tatras into different parts as significant representatives of religion and aristocracy would divide their properties and land. People used to tell scary stories about dragons and other monsters in the Tatras. However, there were also individuals who were not afraid of entering the Tatra nature and discovering its beauty. Valleys and steep rocks would be climbed by coalmen, treasure hunters or hunters mainly, later even by the local aristocracy. Thick Tatra forests formed shelter for bandits and deserters, smugglers or serfs. People still believe that treasures of the famous Juraj Jánošík are hidden somewhere in the Tatras.

Inhabitants of the Tatras

The 16th century can be considered an era of discovering the Tatras along with the first hiking attempts. It all started with a woman, the chatelaine of Kežmarok - Beata Laská, who got as far as the tarn of Zelené pleso. The first Tatra ascent was described by a mathematician and astronomer David Frὅhlich, who probably climbed the peak of Kežmarský štít. His notes form an exciting story of a 3-day long hike across the Carpathian Mountains. Plague and poverty were raging in the area in the early 18th century. A gradual economic expansion that followed “woke up” the Tatras and the 19th century is typical for the formation and development of today´s Tatra settlements. The whole process of settling in the mountains was helped by the building of the railway connection Košice-Bohumín.

Trains brought progress to the Tatras

The first train arrived at the station of Poprad on 8th December 1871 and the Tatras have been visited by masses of tourists and spa clients since then. The oldest Tatra settlement is Starý Smokovec, where earl Csaky got a small hunter´s house built (1793). The second settlement under the Tatras in the line was Štrbské Pleso, with a hunter´s cottage built in 1872. Tatranská Lomnica was mentioned for the first time only in 1892. In the early 20th century, the Tatras were a very popular area for tourism and recreation. The first car would come to the Tatras along the so called Cesta Slobody (Road of Freedom) in 1900 and twelve years later, there was the first bus. The access was improved by a railway and a funicular from Hrebienok to Starý Smokovec.

Tatra spa tradition and Jiří Wolker

The history of balneology in Starý Smokovec started in the late 19th century. The main centre was Nový Smokovec, with new-formed pavilions for treating respiratory diseases. Other healing centres were built in Štrbské Pleso, Tatranská Polianka and Vyšné Hágy. A famous poet came there to have treatment for a very dangerous tuberculosis, the author of his own epitaph: “Here lies a poet who loved the world and for Justice he fought. Died- young, twenty-four years,“ Jiří Wolker.

Tatra chalets and mountain guides

People were enchanted by hiking. However, tourist trails had to be built for this purpose and tourists would need the services of local mountain guides, as well. Firstly, all these activities were provided by the Hungarian Carpathian Society, the oldest tourist organisation in the Hungarian Empire. The development of tourism inspired a constructional process of several tourist chalets. The oldest one is the Rainer´s chalet built in 1863. Téry´s chalet in Malá Studená dolina (valley) is located at the altitude of 2015 metres and is the highest located Tatra chalet run all year long.  Only one chalet is located higher, Chalet under Mt. Rysy. It operates for a limited number of months, though.

Post-war era

After the end of WWI, the local Tatra people founded the Club of Czechoslovak Tourists, whose main representative - Miloš Janoška established the oldest tourist-geographical monthly magazine called Beauties of Slovakia and the High Tatras, published even today. WWII did a lot of damage in the area. Several industrial compounds were destroyed. Later, in the era of communism, unified cooperative farms and state properties would arise in villages under the Tatras. The fall of communism started a new era of social life in the Tatras, too.

With sports to the world championships

Winter sports activities have their history, too. The first real Tatra skier was doctor Mikuláš Szontagh, who would use skis while hunting mainly in 1876. Several years later, there was the first ski course held at Štrbské pleso and thus one could start to compete. Alpine skiing, cross-country skiing or ski jumping on wooden ski jumps brought masses of tourists to the Tatras. The year of 1970 was significant due to world championships in Nordic skiing held in the area. This sports activity had a huge impact on modernisation and construction of ski resorts in the whole High Tatras.

The saddest incident of the Tatras - calamity

19th November 2004 was a hard day not only for local inhabitants of the Tatras but also for visitors and lovers of mountains who needed to recover after a destructive gale. Strong gales with speed of 170 to 200 km/hr were blowing for several hours and left a scene of devastation behind, in a form of 2.7 million m3 of destroyed trees. This natural catastrophe had a serious impact on all landscape components. The forest has been recovering slowly but there is another plague around – overabundant bark beetles destroying all that is left.


Interesting facts

Smokovce – The oldest Tatra settlement was established near Seltzer water springs in 1793, when earl Štefan Csáky got a hunter´s cottage built there. Earl Csáky is said to have set out on a hunt and met a young girl quenching her thirst with fresh water. He would ask her in German:“Schmeckt es dir?“ and the settlement was thus called Schmeks, which was very close to the present Smokovec. Local Seltzer water started to be used not only as a tasty refreshment drink but its healing effects would be used for hydrotherapy and climatic spa. The social life of those times was connected with balls in Smokovec held in June, which used to open the summer spa season. Local aristocrats would be taken to the Tatras with fiacres, which lost their monopoly in 1908, however. The first electric railway from Poprad to Starý Smokovec opened the gate to the High Tatras for good. The development of Starý Smokovec was supported considerably by Ján Rainer, who would lease this settlement between 1833 - 1867. Buildings of Flóra, Švajčiarsky dom and Bellevue were built at that time, standing there still day. The construction of the first Tatra Grandhotel was finished in 1904. Aiming to attract tourists, they started with regular winter seasons offering a wide range of sports facilities and a transport connection to Hrebienok, with a funicular operating since 1908.

Nový Smokovec was established after the physician Mikuláš Szontagh had not been successful in establishing spa treatment in Starý Smokovec. Szontagh´s sanatorium was the first specialised healing centre for TBC in the Hungarian Empire. Szontág, a significant botanist, would test the impact of climate on his own body as he was suffering from TBC himself. At the start of the previous millennium there were 38 buildings in Nový Smokovec, including 26 belonging to the sanatorium with 340 beds. After the death of his father, Nikoalus Szontágh restored Nový Smokovec and started to develop the spa treatment in other areas, too (Basedow and all respiratory diseases). After WWII the sanatorium in Nový Smokovec became a state spa and then a private joint-stock company in 1995, offering a complex spa treatment.

Dolný Smokovec was meant to be a counterpoint to the luxurious settlement of Starý Smokovec, based on written records. It was originally designed as a tourist base for school excursions. The project, however, failed because of financial problems. Fortunately, masses of rich tourists would come to Dolný Smokovec to spend their holidays in fancy villas. There is a modern healing centre with a surgery pavilion built in 1931. This is a part of the Specialised Healing Centre of children´s tuberculosis and respiratory diseases.

Horný Smokovec or Pekná vyhliadka, is the youngest of four Smokovec-settlements. Constructional works started here in 1926, when family pensions were built and named after the wives of their owners (Klára, Vlasta, Dagmar and Imra).

Tatranská Lomnica – The most eastern settlement of the three Tatra centres was established by the state. In 1892 the state bought forested land on the foot of Lomnický štít (peak) for 110 thousand crowns in order to establish the first state spa there. One year later, Hotel Lomnica was built there, the largest hotel in the territory of the High Tatras at the time. It was followed by building the remarkable Spa house with a pool and hydrotherapy. The representative Grandhotel Praha was added in 1905.

An artificial sledging track was built behind the grandhotel, it is 1 172 m long and its vertical drop is 94 metres. The fastest sledge would rush down at the speed of up to 100 kilometres per hour. Several sports venues were established at the same time, including a ski school, a skating rink and tennis courts. Skijőring found its place in the Tatras, too. This popular Nordic winter sport was preferred by visitors of Grandhotel Praha mainly. Skiers would be “harnessed” to horses and driven along snow-covered roads or transported on a sleigh. During WWI, some spa buildings became temporary hospitals of the Red Cross or healing centres for officers. The most attractive tourist destination was the suspension cable car to Skalnaté pleso (tarn) and later to Lomnický štít (peak). The idea to establish a meteorological station on one of the Tatra peaks was introduced in the late 19th century. Tatranská Lomnica became the main recreation centre of union members in Slovakia in the 1960s and 1970s. The world championships held in 1970 brought another wave of development. A new cable car was built, operating between Tatranská Lomnica and Skalnaté pleso,  replacing the old one.


History of the cableways

·         The funicular to Hrebienok was part of the project of the Tatra Electric Railways company and started to operate in 1908. Two cars were used for transport. The funicular Starý Smokovec - Hrebienok surmounts a vertical drop of 254 m. The original track of the funicular would serve the visitors to the High Tatras until 1967. New modern stations were built in Starý Smokovec and at Hrebienok during the renovation period that followed. The latest funicular started to operate in 2007 and keeps the shuttle system of transport. Changes to the construction decreased the vertical drop between the stations by eight metres, i.e. 246m.

The construction of the suspension cable car from Tatranská Lomnica to Lomnický štít (peak) was initiated by the director of the State spa of Tatranská Lomnica, Juraj Orságh, who pushed the idea through in 1936. A grand opening was held in 1941. The track has two parts: from Tatranská Lomnica to Skalnaté pleso with a mid-station Štart, which used to be a starting point for a sledging and bobsleigh track leading to Grandhotel Praha. One might find it interesting that the material used for the construction of the cable car was brought to Skalnaté pleso by horses and to Lomnický štít by people, who would take almost 300 tons of material to an altitude of 2 634 m. The cable car was built by approximately 70 people from the villages of Lendak, Spišská Belá and Kežmarok. One assembling rope was carried up by 36 men. Buildings of the cableway were made of stone brought from a nearby stone pit. The cableway has been modernised several times, the latest adjustments were made in 1992.

Golf under the Tatras

The golf area Black Stork Veľká Lomnica follows the gold tradition of the High Tatras. Golf would be played under the Tatras in 1906 for the first time, when Tatranská Lomnica was a popular weekend destination of aristocrats from the Upper Hungary. A golf course with 9 holes was built in 1908/09. Golf was brought back to the Tatras in 1999 with a training meadow being opened. The first 9-hole course was opened in 2005 and is a part of the 27-hole golf area of Black Stork.

Štrbské Pleso – Tourism started to stream to this highest located settlement of the Tatras in the late 19th century, with an important role played by the construction of the Railway Košice-Bohumín, which contributed to the development of tourism considerably. Tourists would be transported from the station at Štrbské Pleso to their chalets by local fiacres and the road to Štrbské Pleso would be used for transporting ice for drinks from the settlement by a rack railway. Up to 25 wagons would be conveyed to Budapest by the Railway Košice-Bohumín. Extraction and selling of ice ended in the early 20th century, when Štrbské Pleso got a new owner – the state.

Štrbské Pleso became a spa settlement in 1885 as accommodation facilities would provide healing balneological procedures. The so called Nové Štrbské Pleso was formed in the area of a former peat bog in 1900. A company from Brussels got a hotel complex built at the shore of the tarn Štrbské pleso in 1906, the present Grand hotel Kempinski High Tatras. The significance of Štrbské Pleso grew stronger after WWII, when simple chalets changed to luxurious buildings. The constructional boom was initiated also by the FIS World Championships in Nordic skiing in 1970. The rag railway was renewed and electrified, having replaced the old steam rag railway operating between Štrba and Štrbské Pleso.

One might find it interesting that there were European championships in ice hockey held on the ice surface of the tarn in 1925. World championships were held on the ski jumps in 1935 and 1970, nine world cups in ski jumping, eleven world cups in Nordic combined, fifteen Continental cups in ski jumping and seven Continental cups in Nordic combined. The tarn is used for boating again, like it was 130 years ago.


paleolocalities.com; szontagh.eu

Slovak-Polish Tatras, published by Dajama 1998; Slovakia – wandering across regions, published by Dajama 2003;

Changes of Štrba – Z. Kollárová, 2011; Story of a cable car (directed by R. Zabloudil, 2005)

Local journal 3, year XI., August 2008 (Newspaper for inhabitants of Štrba, Tatranská Štrba and Štrbské Pleso), p. 2

Changes of Tatra settlements – I. Bohuš Sr. and Jr.., published by I&B, High Tatras 2008

Skiing at Lomnické Sedlo, this weekend April 20th-21st! The freeride zone is closed.

Viac info