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History of the Giant Mountains

The name…

It is a belief of most researchers that the Polish name of the Giant Mountains (Karkonosze) is nothing more than a copy of the Czech name (Krkonoše) – and is a composite of the Slavic core-word “krk- krak” (which means mountain pine, or a twisted bush) and -noš - e (which means “to wear”). The name Karkonosze would consequently mean “to wear mountain pines”, and thus logically – “Mountains who wear pines on its back”. This name appeared for the first time in a document dating back to 1492. It should be noted nevertheless that it was originally a feminine term, referring to only one of the tops of Sudetes (Kotela).
In the 16th century a Czech chronicler Václav Hájek wrote: Česká a Slezská Krkonoš (what he indeed meant was the Kotela and Wielki Szyszak mountain tops). In 1601, on the pages of the Olomouc religious songbook, its author used the name Krkonoše for the first time – referring to the whole mountain ridge. The German name “Riesenberg” (Śnieżka), originally known as the Giant Mountain made a similar “career” by the way – firstly referring purely to the mountain itself, and later covering with the name – the whole ridge .
According still to the quite different concept of the Karkonosze name – it is said that the name referees to the pre-Slavic vocabulary of Proto-Indo-European origin. Kar – would be the core of the word and mean 'up' or 'a stone' (do note that identical core “Kar” may be found in the name of the Carpathians). When used as doubled “Karkar” – it would mean a 'rocky field, rocky slope'. It is worth noting that on the birth in the 2nd century A.D. Claudius Ptolemy's map mentions a tribe called Korkontoi, which - perhaps – used to live on the southern foot of the Giant Mountains.

Life in the mountains

The first settlements were introduced to the foothills of the Giant Mountains as part of the colonization program and occurred at the end of the 13th and in the 14th century – mostly agricultural villages were established there. The higher parts of the mountains however, remained almost entirely uninhabited for a long time. Local people engaged themselves mainly in agriculture, but also in mining and metallurgy. Having discovered quartz deposits in the Jizera Mountains 13th people began to develop the glass industry. So-called “traveling mills” were located along the river valleys line, manufacturing their precious product - “Vitrum montanum” – the mountain glass. Those little factories operated on both the Silesian side of the mountains, in Piechowice, Szklarska Poręba and Czerniawo, as well as on the Czech side, in Harrachov, Jablonec nad Nisou, Desna along with Rokytnice. In places where natural deposits were found, mines were built. The development of mining and metallurgical industries has led to an increase in demand for wood and its products - charcoal, used as fuel in metallurgical ovens and potash, used as a flux. Forests were cut down by woodcutters, and a particular line of specialists transporting harvested timber along with dusters who burned wood charcoal in the coal mills has appeared. This action has been conducting on a large scale especially in the 16th century on the south side of the mountains; specialists brought from Tyrolean, Styria and Carinthia exploited royal forests in order to maintain the production of silver mines in Kutna Hora. This very process has led to inevitable and utter deforestation of the Giant Mountains. Similar activities, although on a smaller scale, were also conducted by the owners of the lands to the northern side of the Giant Mountains. After this extensive “clear cut”, it was possible to carry out agricultural activities, and in particular cattle grazing. The notion for land cultivation has caused that in spite of difficult climatic conditions – people tried to cultivate even the higher level – mountainous land. Those very tries gave a rise to the occurrence of the pastoral shelters, which over the years began to transform into mountain-huts shelters. 

Herbalists - Laborants

The word „laborant” comes from Latin expression – “Laborare” – which means – “to work”, “to prepare”. Hence the name of a professional group, dealing with the collection of medicinal plants in the Karkonosze – active from the 17th to the 19th century. Laborants were generally preparing medicinal products out of the variety of mountain plant life; herbs, bushes, flowers, tree bark etc... The main center of Karkonosze laboratories was Karpacz, although their activities extended to the whole region. In 1796 the local guild consisted of 27 members - 18 lived in Karpacz, 2 in Płóczki, 2 in Miłków and 5 in other nearby towns. Laborants where somewhat not kindly accepted by local drug store owners and physicians – posting a serious threat to their business. They were blamed of being simple witchdoctors, harming people with their lack of scientific knowledge, accused of “feeding” on local municipalities gullibility. The truth however was remarkably different. While some of them did not have formal education, they thrived with thorough knowledge of herbalism. Their activity - unlike little effective medicine of the days - was actually capable to bringing positive effects to the people suffering from various health problems. They were not mountebank thus. It is worth mentioning that one of their recipes has been in common use until quite recently - in every pharmacy you could buy an ointment made from a plant known as the wolf's bane. We know that the labs were able to prepare over 200 specimens for a variety of ailments. For the production they used circa 98 species of plants, wood of 7 species of trees, collected as many as 55 species of forest fruits, as well as 43 species of seeds of various plants. No one dared to deny the effectiveness of their methods, but straight medicine and pharmacy were wary of looking at the folk competition. The doctors started fighting (through administrative measures), which had to end with the failure of the Karkonosze herbalism treatment activity. The first big “closing down” happened in 1790: only 46 medicaments were allowed then, and what is more – the sale of their medicines was possible only in the cities that were the district physician’s supervision. In 1843, any new adepts of this art were prohibited. The last laborer - August Zölfel - died 18 March 1884. Today only expositions at KPN Center in Karpacz reminds of this interesting story of Karpacz and its surroundings.


In the 16th century different searchers arrived in the Giant Mountains. Among them were doctors, alchemists, treasure hunters, adventurers, dowsers, miners, "free men" of a different sort. One of them was the physician and alchemist Leonhard Thurneysser zum Thurn. Having visited the Giant Mountains and Jizera Mountains before 1570, he came to understanding that there is gold and precious stones here.
Sapphires and rubies were used by Walloons to conjure the most valuable of jewelry, while semi-precious; amethysts, topazes, tourmalines, jasmines and mountain crystals were used to produce illustrious and renowned the Florentine mosaics. Venetians were interested in these valuable stones for other reasons –cobalt containing minerals were used as a compounds to make the stained glass. All the treasure hunters in Karkonosze surely desired to find the gold first. This most wanted, precious ore can (still) be found in the mountains in three basic forms: in the sands and gravels of the Karkonosze streams and rivers, in metal ores and as the compounds of rock intrusions in the cliffs, eg. in the quartz veins.
What made the whole “Karkonosze Walloons story” so uniquely inspiring and mesmerizing was what was left of them. Otherwise mysteriously disappearing from those hills and forests, they have still left something behind. These memorized, self-made notes, originally made by Walloons, turned out to be a vast and exquisite source of priceless knowledge. What they indeed could tell the successors was the locations of valuable ore and precious stones, their quantity and quality, and their place-of-appearance. Until recently, almost visible and tangible proof of Wallon's presence in the Giant Mountains was the mystery of their symbols carved in rocks…

Old tourism

About the birth of the Krkonose and Izera tourism we can speak in the context of the health resorts development. It were the visitors who came to the waters in Cieplice, Świeradow Zdroj, or Jańskie Laznie - to having started the first typical tourist trips to the mountains. The biggest health resort was undoubtedly Cieplice – now a part of Jelenia Góra. Tradition acclaims the discovery of the Cieplice springs to Duke Bolesław I the Tall – in 1175. In 1687 the health resort was visited by Marie Casimire Louise de La Grange d'Arquien. This very visit made staying in Cieplice resort a very fashionable idea.
In 1451, Eneas Sylvia Piccolomini, later Pope Pius II, visited the Janske Lazne, and so eventually every “spa” occurred soon to be the center of cultural and social life. In addition to making use of the therapeutic waters – in manner of cure and bathing, people visiting such places were also interested in attending the balls, going to theater and such. A trip to an attractive place in the area – like a mountain top, or a nearby forest route – was always something in good tune. It was exactly for the therapists to write the first written travel guides, such as Warmbrunn and its surroundings – written by Rozalia Saulson in 1850, or Wanderung im Riesengebirge guide by F. Tittl Etching (1782-1836 ) and pastor Heyne.
As we said before – the agricultural activities were carried out even on a higher mountain level zones – in order to graze the cattle, clear cuts were conducted. This very activity somewhat helped in opening the door to the mountainous tourism in the region. Original pastoral shrines were transformed within the time into typical mountain huts, providing the travelers with a shelter and food. An example of which may be the 18th Buda Hampla – already famous, known today as the Strzecha Akademicka mountain shelter.
The typical product of already more than few Karkonose huts – was cottage cheese flavored with mountain herbs – properly prepared, dried or smoked. What is interesting – well known guest books of nowadays have originated that very time – it was always a pleasure for the travelers to share with their experience and impressions, leaving the commemorative notes on its pages
As the number of tourists increased, more skilled and experienced mountain climbers became guides and porters. The moral-ethical attitude of the candidate, who was supposed to be the model of the citizen, was of great importance. The first organization of mountain guides and porters was established in the Karkonosze in 1817. Tourists were frequently carried to Szklarka waterfall, Chojnik castle, or to the summit of Śnieżka in sedan-chairs. Original sedan-chairs can be still seen at the Museum of Sport and Tourism in Karpacz.

A huge “career” in the Giant Mountains resorts in the nineteenth century made horned sleigh rides. Previously used by the shepherd's cottage farm only to bring timber, sleighs have become a mean of transporting the tourists. The fun side of using this kind of attraction was that tourists didn’t have to climb the mountain in the first place – to take a slide after. They were using special trains to take them up there.
Another winter attraction of the Giant Mountains and Jizera Mountains was (and still is) the skiing. The first three pairs of Norwegian ski appeared in the Karkonosze as early as in 1885. The first serious skier in here is considered to be Captain Vorweg of Cieplice, who in the winter of 1890/91 made his first ski trip to the mountains. Nowadays, cross-country skiing is becoming increasingly popular.