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Well known for its warm hospitality and stunning mountain scenery, the Gastein region of Austria also offers a unique natural therapy inside a mountain – Catherine and Alec Beattie tried it out.

Mountain Magic

For a revitalising break in beautiful surroundings, Hoteldorf Grüner Baum ticks all the boxes. Situated in a pretty alpine valley on the edge of the Hohe Tauern National Park, the hotel is only an hour’s drive from Salzburg and minutes from the famous spa town of Bad Gastein. Designed like a small village, the 80 guest rooms and apartments are accommodated in six comfortable chalets. Reception, restaurants and bars are in the Main House, while Kösslerhaus, the largest chalet, houses the spa and swimming pool, fed by the in-house thermal spring. The thermal water is also used in treatments in the cosy but pristine spa, which has medical and wellness areas, a relaxation room with alpine views, sauna and steam rooms, a small gym and a Shiseido beauty salon. 

Arriving in early summer, we found the mountains still sprinkled with snow and the weather unseasonably chilly, so were pleased to be staying in the cosy Kösslerhaus. Our charming room 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 make up for indulging ourselves when we returned home. For those with more willpower than us, the hotel kitchen can prepare special diets and low-calorie healthy meals. 

Nature dominates in the mountains. The fresh clean air and fantastic scenery encourages all ages into taking healthy outdoor exercise: Skiing, sleigh rides and tobogganing in the winter; outdoor swimming, fishing, tennis, cycling, mountain walks and sunbathing in the summer. 

Despite some inclement weather, we managed a few mountain and forest walks and strolled around the elegant little town of Bad Gastein, admiring the grand spa hotels and Belle Époque architecture. We marvelled at the spectacular waterfall, which drops over 300 metres in three stages and freshens the air with invigorating negative ions. 

The Gastein area 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.

Given that the thermal waters have been used for centuries, Gastein’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 air humidity and air containing radon.

When the mines eventually closed, they became 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 and consists of a series of visits to the Heilstollen (healing cave galleries) inside the mountain, where the heat and humidity raise the body’s temperature and increase the absorption of radon. 

Most patients require eight to ten sessions over two or three weeks, though those with mild health problems can benefit with fewer sessions. The ‘cure’ gives prolonged pain relief for about nine months and significantly reduces the need for medication. In healthy individuals, sessions in the Heilstollen provide a remarkable detox that increases vitality and 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 Heilstollen at Bockstein or to the Dunstbad Steam Bath in Bad Gastein. The latter offers an alternative version of the ‘cure’ for those who find the mountain galleries too claustrophobic for comfort. 

The historic Dunstbad sits directly above a hot spring with the vapour piped directly into single steam cabinets at controlled temperatures of between 32.5ºC and 41.5ºC. The treatment takes about 20 minutes and is hot but not stressful, as your head remains outside the cabinet while your body sweats inside. You can also have massages, fango (mud) treatments and hay flower packs at the Dunstbad.

Bad Gastein also has an extensive public spa complex. Felsentherme Gastein was remodelled and refurbished in 2004, since when its facilities have become popular with locals and visitors alike. 

I spent an afternoon in the bubbling thermal indoor/outdoor pools and tried the impressive facilities. These include a large fitness area, sports and kids’ outdoor pools and a range of saunas and steam baths including a salt grotto with healing saline air. You can have massage and beauty treatments, refreshments in the restaurant or acquire an overall tan on the rooftop naturist 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 has just reopened after a complete refurbishment. 

We also enjoyed several dips in Grüner Baum’s 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 smooth and silky and a fabulous ‘Pureness’ Shiseido facial and exfoliation with Japanese pressure-point massage, a nourishing cream mask and make-up application. 

While the Shiseido facial was pampering at its best, the highlight of our spa break was neither luxurious nor indulgent. If anything, our ‘taster’ session in the Heilstollen inside the Radhaus Mountain was slightly scary but an experience we would definitely repeat – effective natural healing found nowhere else in the world. 

Florian Blumschein drove us the short distance from Grüner Baum to the Heilstollen Centre near Bockstein. The modern three storey building is built around the entrance to the old mine shaft and the small train into the mountain departs from here. The amenities are clean and well designed and there is even an internet café. 

After registering, we had a short health check (heart and blood circulation) with one of the doctors. She pronounced us fit and explained (in perfect English) how the session was organised and advised us to drink extra fluids to keep hydrated. We were to take the train into the mountain as far as the first station. The Heilstollen has four stations and it becomes hotter and more humid at each one until the terminal is reached. Patients stay relaxing at their prescribed station for about an hour. All patients begin their ‘cure’ at the first station with the warmer more humid ones prescribed when they have built up their tolerance to the heat. 

Changing into swimwear, hired robes and slippers, we joined an orderly queue boarding the train for the silent ride one-mile ride into the mountain. The facing seats in the small carriages quickly filled up, but we managed to find two together. 

Travelling slowly inside the mountain, the train 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 we were all 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 people like to take their sessions in the nude as it is more comfortable and gives better radon exposure. 

Alighting at the first stop, we were shown to dimly lit galleries where we rested silently on beds 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 that everyone was feeling well and taking pulse rates. When the end of the session was announced, we heard the sound of the train returning to take us back to the Centre and a 30-minute rest in one of the recovery lounges. 

Depending on the prescription, treatments may include massage and physiotherapy at the Centre. Patients may also be prescribed medicinal tub baths, underwater massage, swimming in thermal water and fango packs, which are carried out at other establishments and hotels in the area. Many visitors return regularly to take the ‘cure’ to enhance their health or alleviate mobility, skin and respiratory disorders. 

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 (, Tel: 01843 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
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)
Dunstbad Radon Steam Bath
Felsentherme Gastein
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