Journey to Health
The Gastein area of Austria is blessed with stunning alpine scenery, thermal springs and one of the world’s most unusual natural “cures,” says Contributing Editor Catherine Beattie.
Arriving in early summer, we found the mountains still sprinkled with snow and the weather unseasonably chilly. We were booked in at the family-run Hoteldorf Grüner Baum, set in a pretty alpine valley on the outskirts of the spa town of Bad Gastein. With its open log fires and friendly welcome, we knew we had made a good choice. The hotel is like a small village, as the guest rooms and apartments are distributed in six large comfortable chalets. Our room was in the cosy Kösslerhaus chalet, which also housed the spa and indoor swimming pool. Comfortable and furnished in typical Austrian style (wooden furniture and pristine white bedding), it opened out onto a flower-festooned balcony with uplifting views and the sound of a rushing mountain stream.
Our resolve to eat lightly and shed a few pounds during our stay was promptly forgotten when we browsed the dinner menu our first evening: Tureen of shrimps and crabs with sour cream and cucumber noodles; fillet and braised cheek of beef; potatoes with herb cream, corncobs and grilled vegetables; iced browned omelette with stewed plums and cinnamon cream. We’d cut the calories when we returned home.
Despite some inclement weather, we managed some mountain and forest walks. We explored the elegant little town of Bad Gastein, admiring the grand spa hotels, Belle Époque architecture and spectacular waterfall, which drops more than 300 metres in three stages, freshening and invigorating the air with negative ions.
The Gastein region is renowned for its curative thermal waters. Every day, five million litres of hot (45°C) water gushes forth from 18 different springs. Unusually, the water contains a low dose of radon, a radioactive inert gas continuously produced by the decomposition of radium within the uranium and mineral-rich rock. High doses of radiation are damaging to health, but the naturally occurring low concentrations in the thermal water regenerate damaged cells and boost metabolism, circulation and the immune system. The radon’s alpha rays energise the body and are absorbed through the lungs and skin.
While the thermal waters have been used for centuries, the region’s most effective “cure” is relatively new. About 60 years ago, scientists discovered why gold miners working inside the Tauern mountains rarely suffered from rheumatism or other degenerative diseases. Extensive research showed that their exceptionally good health was due to regular exposure to three unique naturally occurring therapeutic elements: heat, high humidity and air containing radon.
When the mines closed, they were turned into healing galleries for the treatment of illness, notably locomotive disorders, skin problems and respiratory conditions. The “Gastein Cure” – medically approved and prescribed by local doctors – activates the body’s natural ability to heal itself. Relatively simple, it consists of a series of visits to the Gastein Heilstollen (healing cave galleries) inside the mountain and accessed by a small train, where the heat and humidity raise the body’s temperature and increase the absorption of radon.
The usual ”cure” is eight to ten sessions over two or three weeks. This gives prolonged pain relief for about nine months, significantly reducing the need for further medication. In healthy individuals, sessions in the Heilstollen provide a revitalising detox that strengthens the immune system.
You can combine a “cure” with your stay at Grüner Baum, as the hotel will arrange the doctor’s examination and exercise programme and provide a shuttle service to the healing galleries. We booked an afternoon taster session, and after a short health check (heart and blood circulation), the doctor prescribed our visit to the first station. The Heilstollen has four stations, each one hotter and more humid than the one before. Patients relax at their prescribed station for about an hour before returning to the Centre. Everyone begins their “cure” at the first station, progressing to the warmer, more humid ones when they have built up tolerance to the heat.
Changing into swimwear, hired robes and slippers, we were handed towels and joined an orderly queue boarding the train for the silent one-mile ride into the mountain. The train travelled slowly into the mountain and made a brief stop before the first station. This was to let us all get out and take off our bathrobes, as it was becoming incredibly hot. Once everyone was back on the train, we continued to the first station, silently sweltering in our swimwear.
All four stations have separate healing galleries for men and women, because some patients take their sessions in the nude, as it is more comfortable and gives better radon exposure.
Alighting at the first stop, we were shown into the dimly lit tunnels lined with a single row of beds on each side. Here we rested silently for about 45 minutes, sweating profusely in the high humidity and 39°C temperatures, but feeling tolerably comfortable. I felt reassured that a doctor stayed with the group throughout the session, checking pulse rates and making certain that everyone was feeling well. When the end of the session was announced, we heard the sound of the train returning to take us back to the Centre for a 30-minute rest in one of the recovery lounges.
Depending on the prescription, the “cure” may also include massage and physiotherapy at the Centre, and medicinal tub baths, mud packs and other treatments at other establishments and hotels in the area.
For those who find being inside a mountain too claustrophobic, the Dunstbad Steam Bath in Bad Gastein offers an alternative version of the ‘cure.’ Built over a hot spring, the radon vapour is piped directly into single steam cabinets at controlled temperatures of between 32.5ºC and 41.5ºC. Sessions last about 20 minutes and are hot, but not stressful, as your head is outside the cabinet and you can exit at any time.
Bad Gastein also has an extensive public spa complex called Felsentherme. Totally refurbished in 2004, its modern facilities are deservedly popular with locals and visitors alike. I spent an afternoon in the bubbling indoor and outdoor thermal pools and trying the impressive facilities. These include a large fitness area, sports and kids’ outdoor pools and a range of saunas and steam baths with a salt grotto and healing saline air.
You can have massage and beauty treatments, refreshments in the restaurant or acquire an overall tan on the rooftop sun terrace, with its two pools and fine views of the Hohe Tauern mountain region. For those requiring the services of a medical thermal spa, the adjoining Thermalkurhaus recently reopened after a complete refurbishment.
Back at Grüner Baum, we enjoyed several dips in the sublimely warm pool and some excellent treatments in the spa: an Alpine Relaxation Massage with warm herbal packs; a cleansing Algae Pack that left my skin clear and smooth, and a fabulous ‘Pureness’ Shiseido facial and exfoliation with Japanese pressure-point massage, a nourishing cream mask and make-up application.
While my Shiseido facial was the ultimate in pampering, the highlight of our trip was the session inside the Radhaus Mountain. It was neither luxurious nor indulgent, but a fascinating experience that we intend to repeat – effective natural healing found nowhere else in the world.
We departed Grüner Baum lighter in spirit if not in weight and noticeably more relaxed. Next time, we’ll take a longer Gastein Cure, do more mountain walking AND eat a low calorie diet – at least that’s the plan!
Thermalia Spa Advisory (www. thermaliaspas.co.uk, Tel: +44 (0) 1843 864688) is offering a special seven-night package to Hoteldorf Grüner Baum, from just £1,289 per person. The price includes:
Return flights and transfers to Salzburg from Gatwick, UK
Seven nights’ accommodation on half-board basis
Daily exercise programme
Three entries into the Gastein Heilstollen (and doctor’s consultation)
Return transfers to/from Gastein Heilstollen (thermal galleries inside the mountain)
US visitors can book through a travel agent or direct with Grüner Baum
Grüner Baum www.hoteldorf.com
Dunstbad Radon Steam Bath www.dunstbad.at
Felsentherme Gastein www.felsentherme.com
Gastein Heilstollen www.gasteiner-heilstollen.com