We will never know what the first people to discover the world’s second largest thermal lake thought. They would have had no understanding of the natural plumbing that causes 60 million liters of water to gurgle up to the surface daily. They would have been unable to comprehend that the lake refreshes itself on an almost daily basis. The fact that they were standing on the edge of what would become one of western Hungary’s main tourist destinations would have meant nothing to them. They would not have known that the steam coming off the water in the winter was harmless or that the lake held the power to alleviate innumerable ailments. Did they really need that knowledge in order to soak, frolic, relax and enjoy this incredible natural wonder? What they probably needed more than anything else was courage, the courage to dip first their toes, then their legs and finally their entire bodies into the healing balm of Hévíz Lake’s miracle waters. This would have been the beginning of a long human history at the lake which continues right up through today.
Preserved For the Privileged – The Golden Age at Hévíz
We will never know what the first people who discovered Hévíz thought, but we are certainly able to know what they felt. Aches and pains would have given way to the curative powers of a natural wonder that combines the therapeutic power of water and minerals. The lake has always offered the opportunity for an invigorating soak that stimulates the imagination and soothes the senses. Whether standing on the edge, soaking within or staring at one’s reflection in Hévíz Lake, something about these waters gets beneath the skin and replenishes the human spirit. As in the past, so in the present, the waters have the magical effects of a timeless, evocative power that heals. Yet those people of long ago and even those of not so long ago had a great advantage over visitors today. They were not visually assaulted by the gaudy high rise hotels and crass commercialism that scars the town of Hévíz as well as the lake’s immediate surroundings. Only in recent times has unfettered capitalism been allowed to soil the experience. A century ago the visitor experience at Hévíz Lake was not that far removed from that of antiquity. A soak at Hévíz was purely and simply au naturale. Now visitors must close their eyes to block out the unsightly mass of modern tourism that has encroached upon these waters.
Hévíz Lake began its rise to prominence and popularity during the late 18th century. In 1795 Count Gyorgy Festetics piped the thermal lake’s bountiful waters into a bathhouse. This created Hévíz’s first spa and the march to modern tourism was well on its way. This was the trigger for Hévíz to become a playground for the aristocracy. Aristocrats and spas have a lengthy history in central Europe. The 19th and early 20th centuries brought royalty and nobility to such famed spa towns as Bad Ischl, Marienbad and Hévíz among many others. The waters were preserved for the privileged. Tourism for the aristocracy flourished. In retrospect, this period seems to be one long, grand and final belle époque. Scores of European nobility made their way to Hévíz, the majority of them connected in some way to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The thermal waters were a sparkling wayside in an era that glittered all the way to its end. The nobility felt the water’s healing powers to the full, but the forces of nature could only be kept away from the masses for so long. What had allured aristocrats to Hévíz were not just the waters, but the opportunity to socialize among the upper classes. Soaking to their heart’s content, surrounded by languid water lilies floating atop the thermal water’s surface, it must have been quite an era. Yet nothing lasts forever, especially power, wealth and privilege. Ideological forces were about to be unleashed that would change the visitor demographic of Hévíz irreparably.
Magnificence & Indifference – Natures: Human & Otherwise
The First World War upended the old elite, but Hévíz retained some of its charm, if not its glory. In the years that followed, the waters continued to offer solace. In the aftermath of a fallen empire, with the world thrown into chaos, as radical change transformed Hungary from a sizeable kingdom into a mid-sized nation, the thermal waters at Hévíz kept coming forth. Here was the magnificence of nature utterly indifferent to the calamitous fortunes that were about to transform human affairs. The spirit of this short lived age can be seen in a photo taken at the lake in 1933. Men and women face the camera. They soak and smile brightly. They look so happy, so relaxed, they have no idea of what was to come. They do not know of the next war or the even longer cold one that will follow. The photo shows a moment that was filled with pure enjoyment. This was what they experienced, what they felt. This was the human experience of Hévíz Lake as it was then, as it had always been and as it would never be again, on the verge of succumbing to the forces of communism and capitalism.