Protected by the majestic peaks of the Hohe Tauern range, the Gastein Valley is all about variety. This variety is clearly reflected in the many different sightseeing attractions available in the region throughout the spring and summer. The Gastein Valley is famous for its top-quality sporting highlights including mountain biking and hiking plus the gorgeous lush romantic alpine scenery and charming villages. But there is much more to this region than rolling meadows and chocolate box houses so I went to find out more . . .
Landing in Salzburg, the Gastein Valley is only a short hop, skip and a jump from this major airport making it the perfect getaway for the weekend. Direct flights to Salzburg are easy to come by from most European major cities so one can leave your home in the morning and be in the Austrian countryside by lunch; Schnapps anyone?
We arrived in the charming village and checked in to the Hotel Norica Therme, a boutique hotel with its only spa facilities but who are very handily joined to the gargantuan public spa, Alpentherme Gastein, through a labyrinth of tunnels. After a light unpack in our rooms it was time to head to the Gastein Healing Gallery or “Heilstollen” to experience something quite unique, even in the Alps!
The Gastein Healing Gallery is a health center for radon therapy (yes you heard right, radon) that is located in the Gastein Valley. Treatments in the Healing Gallery are centered on therapy sessions conducted deep in to the mountain via a 2.5 km-long tunnel where one experiences naturally elevated radon levels. The combination of high humidity, warmth and radon deep inside the Radhausberg in Bad Gastein makes the Gastein Healing Gallery a form of therapy unlike anywhere else on Earth. Long-lasting pain alleviation, reduced need for medications and immune stabilization are amongst the scientifically proven benefits of radon therapy. The Gastein Healing Gallery aids in the treatment of such aliments as rheumatic-inflammatory complaints of the musculoskeletal system, respiratory passages and skin. It’s so highly prized as a treatment that you can get the therapy via your doctor in Austria and Germany as an alternative to prescription medicine! Now I was intrigued, having recently had ACL reconstructive surgery and suffering from joint pain I had to give this a go, what ensued next was one of the weirdest experiences of my life.
After a doctors consultation as to whether I was fit for the treatment, I headed to the changing room where I donned by bathing suit and robe that was provided along with some rather fetching sliders, and then headed to the “Waiting Room”. The waiting room is a rather reminiscent of a hospital waiting room circa 1970 and the mean age of the attendees is 70 but I reminded myself that I was here for a medical treatment, not a day at Champneys! When a siren announced the “train” had arrived the room files out to the tiniest sweatiest station I have ever been on, yes worse than the Northern Line in summer! We all board the train, which is like one of those trains you see at zoos that take children round the park, it is rather cramped, and if not a little sticky.
We depart and the train goes deeper and deeper into the mountain, where it gets hotter and hotter, sticker and sticker, until Station 1 where we were told to disrobe and then re-board. Sat there in our bathing suits we head for our final stop, which feels as hot as the surface of the sun, we are filed in to female and male tunnels where upon you find a bed to claim for the next hour. A bell rings and weirdly everyone knows the drill; strip time. Within less than a minute everyone is in their birthday suits and lying on the beds, within 15 mins most of the attendees are asleep and snoring loudly. After an hour another bell goes and we are ushered back to the train, again everyone knows the drill, up and back in to swimsuits, which is a total mission after sweating like a pig for and hour and your costume literally grips to your skin! Back on the train I think to myself whether that was in any way enjoyable and/or has it worked? Now I cannot say I would be rushing back for the actual experience but I weirdly felt a lot better a few hours later after the treatment, my knee was less inflamed and the pain had subsided, so maybe there is something to radon therapy? The Gastein Healing Gallery do recommend from a medical perspective that treatment duration is 2-4 weeks and patients take part in 3-4 gallery sessions per week, so you have got to be committed if you think this would work for you. The jury’s out for me . . .
After a cold shower it was time to head back into town, and if you know the hospitality of the Austrians a drink and a jig was in order! We followed the sounds of the oompah band to a bar where the entire village had apparently gathered. Playing traditional Austrian songs, the gleeful crowd partied way into the wee hours singing along to the alpine classics, and we of course joined despite not knowing any of the words (it’s the taking part that counts).
The next morning it was time to be at one with nature and experience the glorious hiking to be had around Gastein as well as experience the Schafschor, which is basically a big shindig to celebrate the sheep coming down from the mountain. We hiked up to Sportgastein to witness the spectacle; it felt like entire region had turned up to witness the event, with more drinking and more oompah than you could shake a stick at! The atmosphere was amazing, everyone was smiling as the sun shown down in to the valley and then all of a sudden the distant sound of bells. Expectantly everyone was up and headed in the direction of the sound and then like clockwork the sheep appeared in droves! Every shape and size, old and young, all bleating as the shepherds headed them in to the pens. It was a real sight to behold! After Schafschor we headed to a local hut for lunch and partook in some “doughnuts” which are not doughnuts, more savoury buns with onions and of course Schnapps! After one, two, three, not sure how many Schnapps we headed off for more hiking, which weirdly felt a lot easier after lunch?
Working our way down the valley we followed the majestic waterfall, which is a really beautiful walk for all hiking levels, down to Bad Gastein for ice cream. This was the perfect spot to rest from a days walking and enjoy the last remnants of the days sunshine before heading back to prepare for dinner which was back in Bad Gastein at the Ginger N’ Gin. This restaurant is Asian fusion and lists a staggering 130 types of gin on the menu, a challenge I hear you say? Well the challenge actually came in the form of starters with such oddities as crispy grasshoppers on the menu! Obviously gave that a go as well as a few gins or two, which makes this restaurant a great alternative to some of the more traditional fare available in the region.
The next morning we were up bright and early, however the sun was not, the rain had set in and it was rather a damp hike to breakfast, but the hospitality of the Amoseralm alpine hut made up for the weather. The Amoseralm Hüttenurlaub is located at 1592m above sea level and has a total of 3 rooms that are available for rent in summer. They will pamper you with homemade produce such as bread, cheese, bacon, Schnapps and more. Every Thursday on the Alm you can watch over their shoulders as they make bread, and every Sunday and Monday there is an Alpine breakfast, which is what we headed up the mountain for. Lashings of coffee, homemade bread, jam and charcuterie made up for the rather disappointing weather and provided the much-needed calories to head back down the valley in the drizzle.
Leaving Gastein and heading back to the hustle and bustle of home that fresh alpine air had became a distant memory. But whether it was the radon, the Schnapps or the Austrian hospitality I felt refreshed and determined to go back to Gastein. With my knee all fixed and pain free those mountains come winter will be calling and like those grasshoppers I love a challenge!
Hotel Norica is a superior category 4 star hotel which is located right in the centre of Bad Hofgastein. For booking and prices see online.