The town of Druskininkai was named after salt (‘druska’ in Lithuanian) – one of the most expensive and necessary ancient commodities. It is known that salt was steamed here as early as the fourteenth century, and people who worked in its production were called salt workers (‘druskininkai’).
However, over time it became clear that the salty waters of Druskininkai were not very suitable for the production of table salt. There was too low a level of the beautiful pink crystals that are most suitable for this trade. Coincidentally, over time, the locals became aware of a completely different feature of the local water, this being its miraculous powers of healing. This is how the true history of Druskininkai began…
Elders say that the first patient to recover in Druskininkai due to the salty waters was… a horse. The owner had banished the meagre and crippled animal to the banks of the River Nemunas to live out its last days. The horse, forgotten by all, was walking through uninhabited salt swamps, all the time building up its strength and health. When coming to the Nemunas a few months later, the owner unexpectedly met his horse again to find it completely recovered.
We do not know whether this tale is true or false (išmislas, according to Dzūkija’s residents), but we do know one thing: by the eighteenth century the local salt workers were well aware of how best to apply the abundant brine fields. Most famous of these locals was the folk doctor, Sūrutis, who treated his patient to mineral baths for three consecutive seasons. Although Vilnius’ doctors considered his illness incurable the patient, known at the time as the Lithuanian historian, Teodor Narbutt, was helped to rise to his feet thanks to Druskininkai’s baths. In his articles, Narbutt highly praised Druskininkai.
The official date for the establishment of Druskininkai as a resort is 20 June 1794, when Stanisław August Poniatowski, grand duke of Lithuania and ruler of Poland, established by decree that the area had been granted the status of a healing place. The mineral water was tested and its healing properties were scientifically proven. New avenues of exploration were opened up for Druskininkai.
The name of the scientist who had tested the town’s mineral waters was Ignatius Fonberg. As a professor of Vilnius University, and head of the Department of Chemistry, Fonberg had determined that Druskininkai’s waters belonged to the group of cold chloride waters. It is the chlorides that are responsible for the water’s anti-inflammatory, anti-allergic, and haematological coagulant features also strengthening bones and teeth.
The recognised power of Druskininkai’s springs became the new cornerstone of the resort. In 1837 the project to establish the resort was approved by the Russian Czar Nicholas I. The project received a loan of 25,000 silver roubles. The swamps were drained and white sandy alleys were laid out in their place. The first health centres were built. Tennis courts and bowling alleys were installed. A theatre opened for the summer. One of the first photography salons in Lithuania was opened…
By the end of the nineteenth century, Druskininkai was already a trendy summer holiday destination. By scale of popularity in the Russian empire only the resorts of the Crimea and the Caucasus outperformed Druskininkai.
In the early twentieth century the resort flourished even more. Summer in Druskininkai was spent by members of the nobility and artists from St Petersburg, Warsaw, Grodno, and Vilnius. Concerts, theatre performances, dances, and beauty contests were held throughout the whole season… Eliza Orzeszkowa took inspiration for her stories here, Napoleon Orda did the same for his architectural landscapes. Whilst living in Druskininkai, the young M K Čiurlionis painted one of his most poetic series, Žvaigždžių sonata (‘Sonata of the Stars’).
However, the resort was famous not only for its various entertainments. In 1913, a total of 18,600 people spent time in Druskininkai attempting to improve their health. Mineral waters and mud were used to treat podagra, rheumatism, and diseases of the digestive system, heart, and nerves.
During the inter-war period, the concept of a healthy lifestyle began to spread across Europe. It was proven that physical activity and the sun have a positive effect on the body. Soon, Druskininkai had also started implementing innovative treatment methods. The natural factors of nature, such as sunlight, air temperature, and water power, were used in the park for the means of therapy by the talented Doctor Eugenia Lewicka. Park visitors were hardening their bodies, exercising in the open air, swimming in the pools, playing volleyball, basketball, and tennis, and were competing in running and jumping events.
Following the Second World War, the Lithuanian sports pioneer, Karolis Dineika, continued the work of E Lewicka, bringing the park back to life for the second time by developing and supplementing the park’s offerings with new wellness methods, while also creating a pavilion of cascades and aeroionotherapy, and installing the Saulė walking and cycle path. Thanks to him, Druskininkai’s Wellness Park became one of the most popular places in the resort.
After Druskininkai became a resort under USSR control, the sanatoriums began working all year round. Many large reinforced concrete structures were built, such as the Eglė, Lietuva, Vilnius, and Nemunas sanatoriums amongst others, as well as the physiotherapy health centre (now better known as the Aqua Park). In addition to official accommodation, holidaymakers could choose from almost two thousand private flats which belonged to local residents. Every year in Druskininkai more than 100,000 people rest and relax while receiving medicinal treatment.
At the beginning of the 1990s, thanks to the disruption caused by tourist flows from the former USSR and the decreasing flow of patients who were financed by regional hospitals in other Lithuanian cities, Druskininkai experienced an economic and social crisis. In 2000 Druskininkai Municipality began to revitalise the resort by promoting and initiating the creation of tourist attraction centres, while also providing privileges for business development. As early as 2003, after it had undergone refurbishment, Druskininkai’s health centre (formerly the mud centre) was reopened and the magazine Newsweek ranked Druskininkai in the ten best balneotherapy resorts in Europe.
Over the course of a decade, the town’s urban infrastructure has been refurbished and hotels and sanatoriums have been privatised and also refurbished. The town was supplemented by the adventure park, the golf course, water activities, clubs, and new dining and accommodation facilities. In 2006 the Aqua Park was opened, in 2011 the Snow Arena indoor winter entertainment complex was established, and in the same year a new bridge over the River Nemunas was built. In 2012, following further refurbishment work, the old healing centres park and the musical fountain were both reopened. In 2015 the two sides of the River Nemunas were bridged by means of an ecologically-friendly cable hoist. Between 2000 and 2015 more than 300,000 euros were assigned from the municipal budget and various funds were invested into the refurbishment of public facilities alone. When compared to 2000 (which had around 39,000 visitors over the course of the season), the number of tourists arriving in 2018 increased by 8.5 times (amounting to 340,000 visitors).
* ‘Methodical recommendations for the use of mineral waters’