Tim and I are sitting in big fluffy robes on a tiny train that is whisking us over two kilometers in to a cave in Austria. No, we’re not using the robes to keep warm before a walking tour like in Slovenia’s Postojna Caves. We’re trying out a radical treatment (at least us Americans would say so) in the Gastein Healing Caves.
The Austrians and Germans, on the other hand, swear by the miraculous healing powers of the naturally occurring low-level radon gas in Radhausberg Mountain. It’s even a treatment covered by their health insurance. Europeans have spent up to two weeks treating their ailments like inflammation, pain, skin conditions like psoriasis, and a long list of other medical conditions in the healing caves.
Like us, you might be wondering how on earth the Austrians and Germans discovered the health benefits of radon gas. As we meet with one of the doctors before our treatment, he tells us the tale. In the height of the Gastein Gold Rush in the 1700s, it was said that Gastein supplied more than 10% of the world’s gold. Naturally, greedy German soldiers in World War II thought there might be some gold left for their taking and ordered miners in to the caves. They didn’t find any gold, but they reported being able to breathe much better after spending time in the caves.
Some 75,000 people (mostly from Austria, Germany and Central Europe) flock to the Gastein Healing Caves every year and claim that a week to two weeks of treatments offer them sustained pain relief for up to a full year. Supposedly the radon gas combined with high humidity levels due to the temperature help stimulate the body’s natural powers of self-healing by absorbing the gas through your skin and lungs.
Though American doctors would no doubt raise an eyebrow and warn that high levels of radon gas can be toxic, I was willing to try it out. Tim and I were in a car accident in April and I’ve been dealing with a neck injury causing me pain since. After all, the doctors explained that the amount of radon gas absorbed over the course of a two week treatment is equivalent to getting an x-ray.
We arrived to the Gastein Healing Caves clinic and aside from a mining cart out front, it looks like any medical facility. We check in and are sent to fill out some paperwork with our medical history. We watch a short video in English that details every aspect of the process from the examination with the doctor to how to use the train or alert the doctor in the caves.
As we’re only at the caves to try them out for this story, we meet with the doctor together. He checks our blood pressure and heart rate, then explains and answers our questions about the caves. There are five galleries in the caves of varying temperatures and humidity up to 41.5°C (106.7°F) and 100% humidity.
All patients start out in Station I, which is the very last stop on the train, and has a temperature of 37°C (98.6°F) and 75% humidity. Most patients will stay in this station or Station IA, though some treatment progresses patients up through the various stations increasing in temperature and humidity. I for one am glad we are only going to Station I; I can usually only stand about 10 minutes tops in a sauna and I’d be spending 60 minutes in the healing cave nearly a mile inside a mountain.
After our examination, we head to the couples changing cabin we are assigned and put on our swimsuits, our spa robes, and flip flops. We have a pin to each pin our cabin key to our robes and we hydrate with water and juice at the spa cafe while waiting for the train.
As we board the train, we’re given a sheet to drape over the bed and lay on once you reach the caves. The train takes about 20 minutes and stops at all of the stations before Station 1, where we’re getting off. As we ride the train we’re already beginning to sweat. Once we arrive at our station and most of the train piles out, we head to separate men and women’s caves, each with 40 beds.
Some of the women in my cave completely strip while others lounge in their swim suits. Tim tells me after that it was the same in the men’s cave. I put down my sheet and make a pillow of my “sweat towel”. Silence is encouraged in the caves and it is quiet aside from the patter of feet as the attending doctor patrols the cave and the occasional snore. I’m fully relaxed, comfortable, and sound asleep probably in minutes.
An hour passes in no time and the doctor is waking us all to prepare for the train to take us all out. Tim and I easily meet back up and ride in the same car together back out. It makes one stop, called the Spa Robe Station, where you dry off and put your robe back on before returning to the clinic.
Back at the clinic, there are showers to freshen up and if you’ve been schedule for physiotherapy, this is where the treatment rooms are.
The Grand Park Hotel Bad Hofgastein
The Grand Park Hotel in Bad Hofgastein offers a Healing Cave Program that includes 7 nights in a double room with half board and all treatments. We did a mini version of this and stayed two nights with half board and our treatment.
The five-star hotel is simply fabulous. The rooms are incredibly spacious and we had a balcony with beautiful mountain views to enjoy. The huge bathroom had a separate shower and jacuzzi bath. It’s also pet friendly and welcomed Emma with a cute doggy area set up in our room for her.
Half board includes an ample breakfast buffet, healthy snacks in bar in the afternoon, and a 5-course dinner. The cuisine is delicious, yet healthy in keeping with the theme of a health spa holiday. The menu changes and you have a couple of choices for entree. We enjoyed a corn chowder soup, a dumpling with sweetbreads, roast suckling pig, an a cake with homemade ice cream and fresh berries, and the salad bar on our visit. With an Austrian wine from The Grand Park Hotel’s extensive cellar.
There is also an on-site spa, indoor thermal pool, and a variety of daily activities offered by the hotel. We had the opportunity for a cheese making demonstration and tasting, guided hikes, and yoga on our visit. A daily program is delivered with all the next day’s offerings, including the spa specials for the day.
What To Do Nearby
The alpine setting offers 220 kilometers of pistes for skiers in the winter. It’s a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts in summer with hiking and biking trails, an 18-hole golf course, horseback riding, paragliding and more. There are castles nearby to visit and Salzburg is just an hour away.
Though we didn’t have the best weather on our visit, a little bit of rain and mist won’t stop the most hardy of hikers. An easy hike suitable for any weather is to take the Stubnerkogel lift up to the top station. Here you can get some great views from the swaying 140 meter long suspension bridge. Though it just crosses from one rocky outcrop back to the station, it does break two world records: it is the first hanging bridge at 2300 meters and it can be walked across all year long in rain, snow, and preferably sunshine.
Hike back down to the valley in about 4 hours time on the trail winding down through meadows, wildflowers, and forest. In good weather, you can also hike down from the mountain station to the natural Bockartsee Lakes.
Klammstein Castle stands guard at the entrance to the Gastein Valley, where it once served to protect the people of the valley from intruders. It’s a small castle, though there is a restaurant and bar that serves lunch. The interior of the castle can only be visiting on a guided tour.
Bad Hofgastein is a typical Austrian village full of charming little shops and cafes. With so much to do for outdoor lovers and the museums and culture of Salzburg practically on your doorstep, it can be easy to forget to wander the village you’re staying in. At the very least, wander in to one of the little cafes for a slice of Austrian strudel.
Burg Hohenwerfen is a small fortress about 51 kilometers from Bad Gastein and has a weaponry museum. In summer, there is also a falconry show where the trainers will teach you a bit about birds of prey and demonstrate their impressive wing spans and hunting skills as they soar over Salzburgerland.
Salzburg is just an hour away and Sound of Music fans will want to visit sights from the movie on the Original Sound of Music Tour. Or take in breathtaking views over Salzburg from the city’s iconic Hohensalzburg Fortress while sipping on a glass of Austrian wine from the tavern. You can even take in a variety of concerts from classical to jazz all year round.
How To Get There
It’s easy to arrive in Bad Gastein, Bad Hofgastein or Dorfgastein by car or train. There are always taxi and bus connections available to the individual villages.
- Note that there is a car train when arriving from southern Austria via Villach, Möllbrücke and Obervellach to Mallnitz. Be sure to check the Tauern Motorail schedule.
- By car, Bad Gastein is approximately 1 hour from Salzburg and 2 hours from Innsbruck or Munich.
Trains stop at the stations in Bad Hofgastein, Dorfgastein and Bad Gastein. Find tickets here.
Disclosure: Our stay at The Grand Park Hotel and visit to the Gastein Healing Caves were hosted by The Grand Park Hotel in order to bring you this story. As always, all opinions are entirely our own.