Austrian spas offer the unusual

Sweltering heat intensifies as we worm deeper into the subterranean core. More than a mile into the heart of the mountain, the air is motionless. The only sound is the metallic shimmying of our sleek railcar, an ultramodern machine that slithers inside a century-old mine shaft.

It will take us two hours to reach our destination deep inside the Hohe Tauern mountain. Visitors journey here to the Gastein Valley, the epicentre of Austria’s health-and-wellness province of Salzburg, to discover the dark secrets of the Curative Tunnel. Gastein is unique among the world’s natural spas because it weaves its restorative magic from deep inside the Alpine range.

One hundred years ago, the tunnels were originally gouged to search for gold. After exhausting the supply of precious metal, the mines were closed, only to be re-opened during the Second World War to exploit other raw materials.

Miners who toiled for months in the tunnels told of the relief they felt from a range of respiratory ailments while down the “pit.” Despite the heavy work, rheumatic and muscle pains were relieved.

Radon present
Post-war scientific investigations ultimately realed the real treasure buried here-a curative interior climate rife with radon, an inert radioactive gas generated within the Hohe Tauern mountain range.

That element, combined with a consistent temperature between 38 and 42 C and humidity between 70 and 90 per cent, has forged the world’s most amazing spa.
The Badgastein resort is the closest urban site to the Curative Tunnel. This once imperial town owes its existence and development to the promise of its wondrous waterfall.

Wondrous waterfall
Erupting from the depths of the Hohe Tauern mountain range, the waterfall thunders down alongside Badgastein’s main thoroughfare. Its remarkable water-for centuries reputed to allay a host of physical maladies-is bottled and sold throughout Austria.

It’s available on site for free from fountains and taps pierced into the canyon’s face. Tasting as sweet and pure as natural runoff from Arctic glaciers, this water produces an instant soothing effect.

Tram in tunnel
Before a journey into the tunnel, visitors must pass a medical checkup by spa physician and director, Dr. Albrecht Falkenbach. He assesses each individual’s physical and psychological state for the journey. It’s not recommended for those with cardiac irregularity, circulatory disturbances, cerebral vasoconstriction or claustrophobia.

The tram lumbers along at five miles an hour with four stops or stations along the way. Each station displays temperature, humidity and radon level.

The final stop, station four, is 2,230 metres from the tunnel entrance. Here the temperature is highest and the radon levels peak at 4.5 nanocurie a litre of tunnel air.

We step off the tram and into the utter stillness of this halogen-lit realm. On single cots, for an hour or more, we lie quietly, inhaling the air and focusing solely on breathing-slowly in and out.

When we emerge from the tunnel-wrapped in blankets to acclimatize ourselves by degrees to the outside world-the cooling mountain breezes are welcome.

Radon plus humidity 
Falkenbach explains how the radon works.

“The radon dose is low and is exhaled through the lungs and skin mere hours after leaving the tunnel.”

Combined with the heat and high humidity, radon has a stimulating effect.

“Inside the mountain, these factors influence body cells. Radon spreads via the blood stream, accumulating in fatty tissues as well as in the hormone-producing endocrine glands. Radon also emits alpha particles that stimulate cellular metabolism and strengthen the body’s resistance and repair systems.”

According to Falkenbach, 10 to 12 trips into the tunnel galleries over a period of three to four weeks can help alleviate symptoms caused by chronic polyarthritis and degenerative spinal syndrome as well as respiratory diseases, including asthma and bronchitis.

“The positive effects of the treatment lasts between nine months and a year,” explains Falkenbach.

Health farms
For those who prefer above ground therapy, there are many health farms. Here, Austrian farm families host travellers in their homes for wellness retreats and unique treatments.

Visitors can choose from stays at nature and health farms, wine farms, farms designed for the disabled, equestrian farms and those that cater specifically to families with young children.

A particular favourite is the Moarbauer, or hay bath farm. One of the finest of this type is run by the Holleis family, 80 kilometres south of the city of Salzburg. Atop a large hill, their farmhouse offers a panoramic view of the valley.

There are glorious nature walks, mountaineering, limitless bicycle trails winding around peaks and through valleys as well as skiing, snowboarding and sledding in the winter-all minutes from the farm’s front gate. 

Hay sauna
But the main allure of Moarbauer, for locals and wayfarers alike, is the hay bath. In the home’s upper floor, guests take their seats in individual wooden cubicles. Behind each compartment are stacks of freshly mown hay through which steam is piped, releasing an aromatic and invigorating inhalation sauna.

These bio-baths are a natural cure for many respiratory ailments, including colds and sinus-related problems, and also work wonders on aching muscles and sore joints from strenuous hiking.

After a 30-minute mega-sweat, visitors are taken to an adjoining room and eased into a recliner, gently enfolded in cuddly, woollen wraps for gradual cooling down.

For the ultimate enjoyment and benefit, plan on a week’s stay at a farm and take in local culture, and cuisine.

For free copies of the brochures Endorsed by Body and Soul and Feel Good in Austria – Health and Wellness Resorts, contact the Austrian National Tourist Office in Toronto by phone 416-967-4867, fax 416-967-4101 or e-mail [email protected]