There’s something in the waters of Bad Gastein.
That’s not just an expression. There actually is something in the water of this famed Austrian resort town.
Located in the heart of the Hohe Tauern mountain range, the town has been a famous destination for centuries as visitors flocked to its various hot spas, seeking out what is considered the magical healing properties of its radon-rich waters and healing mines located in cliffs high above town.
Down through the years it has attracted members of the aristocracy, various monarchs and heads of state and names as diverse as Sigmund Fraud and Shirley Bassey and of course, local boy done good, Mozart, who was born just up the road in Salzburg.
Stunning buildings are dotted around the centre of Bad Gastein
There is even a story from the late 1980s when a little known rock band by the name of U2 arrived in town and were unceremoniously told to shut up by an irate bar owner for making too much noise as they practised the sounds that would later become the Joshua Tree.
Even today locals still encourage visitors to drink the water straight from the tap in their hotel room, usually a big no no when traveling, but sure enough, it was as refreshing and tasty as they promised when I tried it out of curiosity after checking into our centrally located and pleasant 3 star Hotel Krone.
Although we were here for a few days before Christmas ostensibly to check out the skiing and to hear about the ambitious investment plans that are set to transform the region, we were soon immersed in the other side of this beautiful little town with its exquisite city centre spa hotels, hot spots, and little shops and restaurants.
The beautiful Hotel Salzburg Hof
Unlike some other ski resorts that are often purpose-built to accommodate the hordes that descend every year seeking their thrills and spills on the slopes, Bad Gastein is an authentic Austrian city with its own life going on in the quaint cobbled streets at the bottom of the slopes.
There was fantastic vibe in this town of twinkling lights as the festive season got underway and there were scenes of picture postcard beauty as we strolled along its snow-covered streets and gazed up at the surrounding snow white mountains.
On a walking tour with our guide Elisabeth Kröll we learned about the famous ‘cure houses’ that are set up in the surrounding ornate buildings and we even got to check out some of the Belle Époque grandeur of the former casino.
There is air of faded elegance in Bad Gastein, a sense that this alpine gem has seen better days but revival in the air and the enterprising locals have worked hard to transform former rundown buildings and give them a new lease of life.
One of them is a power station that is now a cool bar that lies at the foot of the highlight of the tour, or, as Elisabeth had described it, the best secret she had kept until last. As we turned a corner she revealed with a grand flourish Bad Gastein’s impressive waterfall that sent its the tumbling icy cold waters ripping right through the centre of town.
A converted power station in Bad Gastein
It is these very same waters, as well as the radon gas in the caves embedded in the cliffs above the town that makes visiting Bad Gastein feel, quite literally, like a breath of fresh air. Under clear blue skies and icy white mountains and surrounded by fresh mineral water and hot springs, the sprightly residents here enjoy a healthy, outdoor existence. It was with some awe that I watched a group of older locals engaged in an energetic game of curling outside the restaurant where we were dining on our first evening in town.
In their version of this local entertainment, the player hurls a large stone that has a longer stick attached, down along a stretch of icy road in a bid to get it as close as possible to the target ball.
It was played with much gusto and even though I couldn’t understand what they were saying there was no doubt that a good bit of slagging and one-upmanship accompanied each throw as they each competed to win a round.
Believe me, it was a lot easier than it looked, and even after several awkward pitches I was no closer to getting the hurl to travel with the same level of marksmanship as these robust men of the mountains achieved on every throw.
Taking in Bad Gastein during a winter walk
It was great fun, and well worth the punt, if you excuse the pun, and it helped work off the hearty lunch we had enjoyed earlier in the Eisschützenstüberl Familie Lanzelin right next door. Accessed by walking along the scenic and frozen Kaiserin Elisabeth Promenade, this comfortable restaurant with its wide windows offering spectacular views of the mountains dominating the horizon, serves up a no-nonsense homemade fare that would be typical of this part of the region.
Consisting primarily of what we would politely term stodgy, we tucked into a huge communal bowl of heart-warming ribs and heavy, door-stopper dumplings that was all lashed down with tall glasses of the local Stiegl helles(light lager) and weissbier.
Then there is the ubiquitous schnitzel, the breaded and battered pork and veal that is synonymous with Austria and Germany. And while it may not be the most delicate of dishes, it does set you up for an energetic day throwing yourself down the side of a mountain, which was, after all, why we were here.
Even though Bad Gastein competes for a share of the lucrative alpine market it can easily hold its own in the whole skiing stakes, but given the competitive nature of the industry and with some heavy-hitting competitors right on their doorstep, Bad Gastein is not resting on its laurels.
The hills are alive..
Work is already underway on a massive construction project that will see the transformation of a 20-hectare area of pistes in the Schlossalm ski area.
A total of over 84 million euro will be spent over the next few years, up to 2020, that will see new gondola lifts replace chair lifts, increasing passenger capacity, while a new mountain station is scheduled to open in December 2018.
But, to be honest you would be perfectly oblivious to the activity as most of the work takes place during the summer months and, in the meantime, there is still plenty of top class skiing action to keep everyone happy.
Alex, our ski guide, points the way
My first experience of the new ski season was as you’d expect in Austria. We were in and out of Sport Schober, located near the main Stubnerkogel lift station in minutes as the efficient staff had us suited and booted and ready to go, and from there it was a quick ride up to the top of the 2,251 metre Stubnerkogal.
The lifts are pristine and in good working order, but truth be told, the facilities were hardly under any pressure as it was still quite early in the season with the official madness of the Christmas rush still over a week away. So, while we didn’t exactly have the place to ourselves, there were still many blissful and unique moments on the slopes when we’d look back over our shoulders and there wouldn’t be another sinner in sight.
The nice red slopes gently segued into significantly more challenging fast blacks but such was the relaxed pace we were travelling at it, it didn’t require too much effort to make the adjustment.
My main man, Alex
On our first morning a heavy snowfall at the top of the mountain did lead to a slight disorientating white out as we descended. It took some concentration to keep our bearings but as I gradually managed to regain my ski legs the snow stopped the adrenalin kicked in.
Soon were were picking up the pace and after a stop off for lunch, we were back out and by the afternoon were flying. Our ski guide Alex took us up and over various different runs that all offered slightly different challenges but as a mediocre skier I was well able to take them on at my own pace.
We even stopped off to check out the cool 140m long suspension bridge that ever so slightly swings in the breeze, offering heart-stopping views out over the Gastein valley from a spine-tingling 28 metres above the snow. On the next ridge a panorama platform, the Glocknerblic observation post looked like a set from Star Wars in the distance
And all around us rose the mesmerising Hohe Tauern mountain chain that gives this part of the world its unique identity
Yeah, I might look confident…
While the skiing was fantastic it would have been amiss to leave Bad Gastein without at least trying out the hot spas for which the town is equally famous and a night time visit to the Felsentherme Spa, located just a couple of doors from our hotel, provided a welcome relief for weary bones.
Floating gently around the indoor 32°C pool was pure bliss although I enjoyed the outdoor ‘relaxation zone’ where you could get out of the water and dive into the surrounding snow before plunging back into the heated waters. Talk about a thrill to the senses!
It was almost as much fun as the après ski, which not being a big party town, seems to revolve around one bar in particular, the Silver Bullet, where the house entertainment consisting of a couple of brilliant musicians, Martin Browall and Oskar Tossberg, kept the mainly, Swedish, crowd hopping and bopping into the early hours.
We did try to find an alternative late night spot later in the evening and eventually we stumbled across a much smaller place that had a far younger crowd literally dancing on the tables.
Although we were tempted to join in we selected to find a more appropriate spot for a couple of old hands like us and we ended up having a few nightcaps in the absolute divine Salzburger Hoff Hotel. With its black and white photos of its glamorous guests who have stayed there down through the years gracing its elegant walls, it felt, for a moment, that we had slipped back in time and caught a glimpse of Bad Gastein in all its former imperial glory.