Once Gastein in Austria was a hotspot for seekers of precious metals, then a rare element made it a hit with health hunters. As for the skiing, that’s solid gold, finds Esme Allen
At nearly 3,000 metres and -15 with relentless wind making the snow-capped mountain look like an icy tundra, it had to be one of the most unusual places I’ve enjoyed a champagne breakfast. We had arrived by gondola at the peak of the barren Kreuzkogel mountain in the Gastein region of Austria with a handful of guests, ranging from adventurous ski and snowboarding enthusiasts who were going to freestyle it back down the mountain, to an older lady carrying her little, shivering pet dog in her handbag. After wading through knee-high snow to get to a lookout point to take photographs of the dramatic mountain panorama, we were served a fabulous breakfast in a little geometrically designed metal and glass pod on stilts which, thankfully, was toasty warm.
Back in the picturesque valley below which borders the Hohe National Park, snowshoeing, overland skiing and winter hiking are the main attractions. Donning our snowshoes, we followed in the footsteps of 16th-century gold and silver miners, exploring the remains of their abandoned homes, empty shells made of dry stone walls, covered in ancient lichen and ice. There is also one of Austria’s first hydro electric generators, dating from 1911, which is now the site of a small mining museum, a scattering of Alpine style wooden farmers’ houses and a restaurant serving delicious traditional food. We were lucky enough to have as our guide Hans, a ranger from the national park who is passionate about protecting the natural resources of the mountains.
After searching, largely unsuccessfully, for precious metals in the 19th century, Gastein struck gold, this time in the form of the healing waters and minerals from the rocks. As with Bath and Harrogate, people – including Austrian nobility – began flocking to the towns to bathe in the restorative waters. A legacy from the imperial past can be seen in the grand Belle Epoque style buildings found in Bad Gastein.
In keeping with the spirit of the area, the next day we headed out of town, up into the snowy mountains, and with some trepidation arrived at Gasteiner Heilstollen, health centre for radon therapy. The centre dates back to the 1940s when miners using the tunnels into the mountain claimed their rheumatic pains had gone. The presence of radon, coupled with the high humidity, was identified as the cure and formal therapy programmes started in 1952. Nowadays the treatment is even available through Austrian health insurance, and the Austrian centre is the only place in the world to offer this therapy.
After having our blood pressure taken we put on our swimwear and robes and gathered with 30 or so other people who had signed up for the one-hour taster session. A train would take us two kilometres through a tunnel into the mountain where we would disembark, and lie quietly on beds absorbing the heat and radon. With neither my husband nor I suffering from any illness, the session was really aimed at tourists who wanted to try something a bit different and maybe feel some health benefits. Rounded up, we were taken by medical personnel through an electric sliding door and onto the tiny train. The low arch above the train showed the date 1940 and crossed hammers indicated that this was the original train track that took the miners to work. It was at this point that my mild claustrophobia struck so, waving my husband farewell, I settled back in the waiting room. An hour later and a group of rather sleepy and sweaty people, including my husband, emerged. After a barrage of questions he admitted he didn’t feel any different, it wasn’t that hot or claustrophobic and yes, along with a few others (he could tell by the sound of snoring), he had actually just fallen asleep.
With 220 kilometres of pistes, Ski Amade, which encompasses the Gastein region, is one of the largest ski areas in Austria so there are slopes to suit all abilities. That said, the slopes around Angertal where we spent a couple of days would suit intermediate to advanced skiers more than beginners. From Angertal you can buy ski passes and hire equipment. An added bonus is that you can also leave your equipment there overnight so you’re not lugging it all back to your hotel. Luckily, lots of snow had fallen on the day of our arrival to complete the beautiful Alpine scenery and top up the slopes.
Keen to try out the swimming pool, sauna and steam rooms, we popped on our fluffy robes and slippers and shuffled along the long underground corridor which took us, rather cleverly, directly from our lovely little hotel in Bad Hofgastein to the town’s large public spa and pool, the Alpentherme. As snow began to fall and the light dimmed we swam in the heated outdoor pool and relaxed in the spa. One thing to note is that in Austria, in common with other German-speaking countries, swimwear of any sort in the sauna and steam room areas is forbidden. To appeal to visitors from countries where the spa etiquette is a little more reserved there is an area for women only. There’s also a very smart pool and spa area at the hotel itself.
There are more than enough slopes to keep the most enthusiastic skier occupied in Gastein, and there is snowshoeing and winter hiking for those looking for other ways to enjoy the mountains. Then there are the spas, saunas, and of course, Gasteiner Heilstollen if you fancy a snooze inside a mountain…
• Esme Allen travelled to the Gastein Valley in Austria as a guest of the Gastein and SalzburgerLand Tourist offices and Crystal Ski (www.crystalski.co.uk/0208 939 0726). For resort and region details see www.gastein.com and www.salzburgerland.com respectively. Crystal Ski Holidays is now taking bookings for ski holidays in 2017, offering a week’s half-board at the four-star Hotel Österreichischer Hof in Bad Hofgastein, Austria, from £667 per person (based on two sharing) including flights from Edinburgh and transfers departing on 14 January 2017 (direct flights available from all major UK airports).