My ‘healing’ weekend in Austria starts with the crashing sound of the Ryanair bugle announcing ‘another on-time Ryanair flight’ as we touch down at Salzburg airport. Why do they do this?
I mentally replace it with ‘The hills are alive with the sound of music’ as my taxi winds its way high into the mountains skirting the city. Everywhere is covered with a light dusting of snow and as we climb higher, the landscape becomes even more stunning, soaring high peaks dropping to deep valleys with winding valleys and occasional waterfalls.
It’s a healing in itself to look out at the snow-covered rooftops of the beautiful Alpine houses. All around there are fir trees covered in snow. I think of the pictures on Christmas cards from my childhood and feel happy, remembering all that excitement and wonder.
An hour into the mountains and we reach our destination. I chortle with delight. I appear to have stepped INTO a Christmas card from my childhood. The Hotel Grüner Baum is set deep in the Kotschachal valley of Bad Gastein, 1,000 metres above sea level. It’s a collection of traditional timbered buildings set across 70 acres on the edge of Hohe Tauren National Park and has been owned and run by the Blumschein family for four generations. Each one has added a new building to their inheritance, the great-grandparents having the good sense to buy the entire valley as well as the small hunting lodge that is now the main hotel building.
I’m here for the thermal springs of Bad Gastein.
They’ve attracted a whole host of celebrities since their discovery in the 19th century – emperors and kings, politicians and artists, actors and writers have all made their way here. I read through the hotel guest book and see they’re still coming – among the entries are Jude Law, Liza Minnelli, King Hassan of Morocco and the entire Dutch royal family.
The healing caves in the mountain
I’m also here for the Heilstollen galleries – ‘healing caves’ of Bad Gastein. Thousands of people flock here every year looking for relief from arthritis and other bone and joint disorders. Back in the 1940s, miners drilling for gold realised that joint pains miraculously vanished once they were deep inside the mountain caves. Word spread and the first visitors arrived to experience the ‘cure’ in 1952. How does it work? Apparently it’s all down to the rare radon gas in the caves, drawn from deep inside the earth, which has been shown to ease joint and bone pain.
I’m especially interested in the caves, as I’ve been walking on crutches since last May, following a medical problem with my hip and surgery to regulate it. The surgery appears not to have worked, instead of spending six weeks on crutches I’ve now been on them for six months, and doctors just shake their head whenever I ask how much longer the pain will last for.
I was a bit worried though when I heard the word ‘caves’ – would I be scrabbling around rock pools and lurching down dark passageways on my sticks? But the set-up turns up to be the height of sophistication. After my first night at the hotel, I’m driven to a modern light-filled clinic that seems to be partly built into the mountainside. I have an interview with a doctor, my blood pressure is taken and then I change into the swimwear they’ve advised me to bring.
The journey into the mountain
I’m given a robe and slippers and then taken to the train – oh yes (!), a small train is going to drive us deep into the mountain, starting from an underground platform in the basement of the clinic. There’s a large group of us and we squeeze into the small carriages; there are special carriages at the back with stretchers for those who are unable to sit and need to lie down.
Then we’re off, winding our way into the darkness, but as we journey the chill snowy air starts to turn warmer. And even warmer. We get off at one point to take off our robes, then back into the train where now the temperature is soaring as we go deeper into the mountain. 20-minutes driving later and we stop, the temperature in the high 40s and the humidity hitting a sweaty 100%. A few seasoned cavers – the ones who’ve been here before – get off; the rest of us continue on until the temperature falls to 37 degrees – phew – and humidity is a mere 40%.
We get off, men and women split up and we go our separate ways, arriving at the ‘women’s cave’ where we all strip off completely and lie down on thin mattresses on wooden beds that have been attached to the cave walls. The lighting is very dim and talking is not allowed so we all settle down pretty quickly in this hot humid environment to breathe in pure radon.
It’s a surreal version of a Malory Towers dormitory in an Enid Blyton storybook but I find it much easier than I thought to relax; I sense a gentle but powerful energy coming from the wall of the cave. The doctor comes round halfway through the session to check that everybody is OK and, in what seems like a very short time, the hour is up and the train is clanking back along the track to return us to the clinic.
How do I feel afterwards?
It feels strange emerging from the darkness to see bright sunshine reflecting off the snow, and to contrast us, still covered in sweat from the caves, with the chilly air outside. I’ve really enjoyed my experience in the Heilstollen galleries – and I know this might be completely psychological, but my hip isn’t painful at all when I get off the train.
Radon treatment back at the hotel
Back at the hotel, I go to the spa for a radon bath – just to up my quota of the mineral for today. The hotel runs two separate spring pipes into its buildings – one bringing radon-rich water to the swimming pools and spa baths, the other to every tap in the place. So yes, it is safe – and super healthy – to drink the tap water!
I also have a physiotherapy session, another healing option offered by the spa alongside its regular menu of facials and massages. And my hip is feeling blissfully pain-free. In fact I haven’t bothered walking with my crutch now for the past few hours.
What’s the hotel like?
Hotel Grüner Baum rates itself as ‘four/five star’ but the hotel is too cosy, too quirky to be a fully-fledged five-star. You won’t find any palatial acres of marble-clad foyer; this reception is home to rugs that look like they’ve been walked on, old-fashioned wooden furniture, a sledge, antique typewriters and a statue of St Anthony. There are blackened hearths with roaring fires, stacks of logs and mantelpieces piled with books.
The ‘Hofapotheke’ bar is kitted out with the original interior of the old Royal & Imperial pharmacy in Innsbruck, full of hundreds of tiny drawers and large glass jars dating from the 19th century.
My bedroom in the main building has two terraces with spectacular views of the mountains that rise steeply from the edge of the hotel gardens, behind the spa building. An unseasonably early fall of snow when I arrive in early October – the snowy season and skiing don’t normally start until December – has sent the hotel’s Chamois sheep part-way up the mountain slopes to graze; everything down below – from the playground and the swimming pool to the rabbit huts and the petting zoo – has been covered in a thick snowy blanket.
A taste of ‘healing’ food
Plate glass windows in the Panorama restaurant give stunning views of the valley outside. And in fact it’s in the restaurant where the hotel loses its ‘homely’ atmosphere and becomes the full five-star experience. Food is one of the keystones of the hotel offering – and with a large number of guests opting for half board, they need to be on their toes to keep each evening’s offering varied. They clearly are. Over my three-night stay, I’m treated in turn to a huge buffet spread, a seven-course tasting dinner and a table d’hôte menu with excellent choices; fresh produce given a light modern touch, beautifully presented. Each evening is a treat.
The evening’s menu is delivered every day to my breakfast table – guests occupy the same tables each day, another homely touch – along with information on that day’s activities, special outings, spa deals and the weather!
What else is there to do?
Curl up with a book from the hotel’s collection in the lounge or surf the internet – there’s free wifi throughout the hotel and iPads available to borrow from reception. Swim in the indoor pool, or try the Finnish sauna and steam room. A kids’ lounge has board games, Wii and Playstation, and childcare is available six days a week.
Visit in summer for the outdoor pool, or to explore the many walking trails in the area, mountain bikes and Segways are also available to guests. The petting zoo has goats, rabbits, hamsters and guinea pigs, guests can go horse riding or camp at the converted silver fox farm nearby.
In winter the hotel runs a shuttle service to the ski lifts, plus there’s tobogganing and snowshoe hiking, with a cross-country track starting from the hotel door – people with walking poles crunch their way purposefully past me throughout the weekend.The hotel can book activities such as mountaineering, tandem paragliding, gold panning in the local rivers, hunting, archery and sleigh rides through the national park. The scenery here is beautiful – a horse and carriage took me for a half-hour tour and it was terribly romantic, despite the fact I was by myself!
Find out more
Standard doubles cost from 229 euros (£194); suites from 310 euros (£262); single rooms from 114 euros (£96) per night on a half-board basis. Contact the hotel on 00 43 6434 25160 or visit the website at www.hoteldorf.com