The healing powers of the Gastein valley

By | Category: Travel destinations

Looking over Bad Gastein

The Gastein Valley in the heart of the Austrian Alps and south of Salzburg is a green prosperous, valley surrounded by magnificent Hohe Tauern mountain range. The valley, an ancient Roman crossroad, has seen many rises and falls in prosperity throughout its long history. It has been built on gold, silver and salt mining, the thermal waters as well as the healing caves and, today, the ski resorts.

Gold was mined from the times of the Romans until the seventeenth century and, at its peak, in the seventeenth century, 20% of the world’s gold was extracted from this region.  Mining slowly declined although there were many attempts to find new seams and the last mine closed in 1944. Those last attempts to find a viable seam were made in Radhausberg and, although miners dug a 2.5 kilometre tunnel, they failed. Or so it seemed.

What the miners didn’t appreciate was that they had found another source of wealth. They uncovered a healing energy which seemed to cure the rheumatic pains of some of the miners. Scientific research revealed that the radon gas in the air combined with humidity and high temperatures (up to 40 degrees c) could cure and relieve pains. Radon is a colourless gas and its radioactive efficiency makes it a healing energy.

Since then, the healing cave therapy has become a vast enterprise in the Gastein region. Today, Gasteiner Heilstollen (Heilstollen means healing tunnel or gallery) is a health centre for radon therapy.

the entrance to the underground

To undertake radon therapy in the area you must first have a check up with a doctor. After I completed mine I, along with several other people, journeyed on a small train up within the Radhausberg and into the caves. It was noticeable that it was getting hotter and hotter as we travelled through each station. I decided to stop in a level that had milder temperatures preferring to stay there and rest for half-an-hour. I was exposed to Radon gas, but I didn’t feel anything at the time. It was a few weeks later that the hip and back pains that I had been experiencing, disappeared.  Was it due to radon therapy?

Radon therapy might be a new venture for the area, but Bad Gastein had been already known for its thermal, water springs since Roman times. The baths were a popular place to visit for healing until the sixteenth century when interest faded as the region was hit by plague. With the outbreak over, interest was reignited and, despite the hardships of travel, visiting the baths was a popular pastime especially for rich aristocrats, politicians and members of royalty.

the waterfall flowing into the town

Gastein at the foothill of Graukogel mountain is blessed with eighteen different springs and is the result of rainwater trickling down the mountain peaks. By the time this water reaches the valley it is thermal containing both minerals and radon and is at a temperature that varies only slightly from 44-47°C. Local hotels and spa centres receive the water from a pumping station in Bad Gastein. This natural resource has greatly helped in the development of the reputation of the spa towns of Bad Gastein, Bad Hofgastein and Bad Dorfgastein. Most hotels like the one I stayed in, the St Georg in Bad Hofgastein, have spas and health centres equipped with thermal pools, saunas and facilities to provide radon treatments.

the cafe in the museum

In the heart of Bad Gastein, a beautiful waterfall, 341metres high, cascades right in the middle of the city dropping three levels as it does so.  I reached the middle waterfall on the other side of the valley opposite a seventeenth-century church called Preimskirche. Enjoying the therapeutic spray of the waterfall on me and listening to its calming sounds proved to be an amazing moment. The waterfall is located next to an abandoned old power station and yes, the power used in that station was provided by the hot springs.  The power station is now a little museum to which has been added a café and the Kraftwerk Café is an ideal place to relax and enjoy the Gasteiner Waterfall.

If you are into adventure, you could experience zip-lining for one has been created linking the two sides of the valley. This breathtaking journey over the valley takes only less than a minute, but it is a memorable activity to view the forest and the waterfall from above.

hiking along the quite routes is very popular

Hiking is also a very popular activity in the valleys and mountains. You can hike from the Raiffeisenbank in Bad Gastein and follow the signs to the Alpengasthof Windischgrätzhöhe which is 1,200 metres up the mountainside. Continuing on you pass through a forest until the summit, where you have a panoramic view of the Gastein Valley.

For those interested in a more traditional environment, there is Alpentherme, the public spa in the heart of Bad Hofgastein. This newly renovated state-of-the- art, public bathhouse benefits directly from the local thermal springs. The centre is a health rejuvenation complex with several fun pools indoors and outdoors for adults and children. And it also has jacuzzi and steam rooms set at different temperature levels. Another unique feature of Alpentherme is its man-made lakes which are popular in summer.

Bad Hofgastein is a very cozy and boutique style town, an ideal holiday spot for all ages. As I strolled around the town, I could feel a strong sense of luxury with all the hotels I mentioned earlier as well as there being boutique and designer shops, and elegantly flower-decorated restaurants. There were fountains around the town and in the main squares. Yet despite being a modern spa resort I still felt that the town had maintained its traditional character.

Nearby is the small village of Böckstein, a former mining hamlet at the foothill of Radhausberg and which is close to the Gasteiner Heilstollen caves. Here, the Montanmuseum in the town reminds visitors of the gold mining heritage in the region. The exhibits include the display of machinery, tools and documents to highlight the significance of gold mining and there is also a section about salt mining. The Bocksteiner catholic church of Maria built in the eighteenth century is one of very few remaining old buildings in the village.

one of the spectacular views

In Bad Gastein. I continued my tour of the Hohen Tauern Mountains by taking a cable car at Stubnerkogelbahn which is where you have to go in order to reach the summit of Stubnerkogel, a mountain legendary amongst skiers. The modern, eight person cars carry passengers across two sections and over a distance of 2,660 metres. Provided you have no fear of looking down, the views are quite spectacular. A different scene is to be found at the summit because the adjacent restaurant provides a panoramic view of the mountains. As you exit the station, you must step on the 140 metre long suspension bridge which is made of wire mesh as it provides spectacular views. It moves gently in the wind so those of a nervous disposition might not want to cross the bridge but merely gaze from the end at the vista. It connects the station to the opposite mountain parallel to the trail providing an adventurous and memorable photo opportunity for hikers. I followed the hilly path on the edge of the summit where there are deep valleys on both sides which lead up to the higher peaks. Despite it being a sunny day the peaks of the mountains were covered in scattered clouds.

travelling by an open “cable car”

That journey was not to be last in a cable car for I wanted to go to the mountainous pine forest of Graukogel and the best way is on the Graukogellift. Here the cars are large enough for just two at a time and you are kept in your seats by a bar a bit like the older ski lifts. The cars take you up to a height of 1,956 metres and, as you go, down below there are trees 200 and 300 year’s old.

As we went higher, my guide pointed out to me the ski slopes that criss-cross the forest. The summit of Graukogel is at the top of the forest and the hiking here, in contrast to the dry and open field landscapes of Sportgastein and the Stubnerkogel, is different as you see more vegetation and flowers. As you go deeper into the forest, you come across several small tree houses which have been built for observing the wildlife. I had no time to stay as I did not wish to stay in the forest overnight and the last cable car of the day was at 16.45. That didn’t deter some hikers who stoically walked all the way back to Bad Gastein.

The beginning of another cable car trip

Gastein is not just an upmarket spa resort. In this age when medical tourism is growing ever more popular, Gastein has a role to play. It is a year-round resort attracting skiers in winter and early spring and hikers for much of the rest of the year.  And what makes it so appealing is that when I left I really did feel rejuvenated and relaxed.   It has to be more than just the mountain air!

Images and story © Mohammed Reza Amirinia

For more images of Gastein, click here or go to http://www.amirinia.com/gastein-valley

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,