Austrian ski resort Bad Gastein where Abba meets the wild west – in a good way
You're almost guaranteed to leave Austrian spa town Bad Gastein with a healthy glow – if not from the skiing or dancing to Europop, then surely from the radon, writes Geoff Hill
I FLEW to Austria, ate half a pig with Liddy and went curling. Liddy was the head of tourism in Bad Gastein, one of the prettiest little towns in Austria – and that’s saying something.
“How did you enjoy lunch?” she said as we finished off the ribs.
“Lovely, especially as I’m a vegetarian. What sort of vegetables were they?” I said.
“Broccoli,” she smiled without batting an eyelid. But then, she was originally from Holland, where a sense of humour is necessary from living in a country below sea level. One burst dyke, and you’re stuffed.
And so to curling; not with the slabs of granite traditionally hewn from Ailsa Craig, but lighter wooden versions for wusses. And wusses we were, thinking we were all doing well until a local old-timer rolled his eyes, stepped up and slid two curls to within an inch of the target.
Bad Gastein itself became a famous spa town in the 18th century, after visitors noticed that the local amethyst miners lived for ages. The reason, as Marie Curie later discovered, was that the mountains and rivers all around were rich in radon, and just enough to make you glow with health, but not in the dark.
Before long, the great and the good were trotting up the mountain road in their carriages to be cured and, to make them feel at home, hotels and restaurants sprung up in grand Belle Epoque style rather than the rustic vernacular of most Tyrolean burghs, making the town look like a little Vienna in the mountains.
Among the visitors was Arthur Conan Doyle, who was walking down the street one day when he was stunned by the sight of a great waterfall plunging through the heart of the town. Inspired, he moved it to Switzerland and made it the scene of the apparent demise of Holmes at the hands of Moriarty.
Mind you, the rich and famous didn’t always get the welcome they expected: in 1987, a bunch of lads in town took out guitars in the Kir Royal bar and started a sing-song, only for the owner to come over and ask them to keep the noise down. Sadly, they were Bono and the rest of U2, on holiday after finishing recording The Joshua Tree. The bar closed shortly after.
Another unfortunate victim of fame was the local woman who was out walking her dog at dawn when out of the foggy dark emerged a clatter of medieval knights on horseback. She ran home screaming, only to find later that it was Nicolas Cage making a movie.
Slightly more fortunate was a certain Mrs Mozart, who took the waters there after two of her babies had died, then went home and produced little Wolfgang Amadeus, delighting everyone except Salieri.
Anyway, that was enough history. It was time to go skiing, which was the usual story: at the start of the first day, you’re looking nervously down blue slopes and wishing you’d stayed at home, and by the end of the second swooshing down blacks, at first with grim determination, and at last with what a blind man on a galloping snowmobile might describe as a modicum of grace.
Skiing’s a bit like life, really: the things you worry about rarely happen, and even if they do, they’re never as bad as you think they’ll be.
As Mark Twain put it: “I’ve been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.”
Happy but knackered, we retired to the spa down the street, lounging in an outdoor hot pool with the snow falling gently on our faces like the tiny, lost regrets of old lovers.
Aglow with radon and wellbeing, we walked to the Silver Bullet, a Western-themed bar filled with impossibly beautiful Swedes dancing to Europop beneath the head of a stuffed buffalo whose eyes gazed down on the scene with sad bafflement.
It was like being at an Abba audition in Dodge City in which you expected Wild Bill Hickock to walk through the door at any minute, draw his six-guns, mutter darkly: “You call that s**t music?” then shoot everyone in sight.
Including the buffalo, freeing its spirit at last to roam forever over the grassy plains of Kansas.
:: I flew from Dublin to Salzburg with Ryanair, which has flights every Saturday during the ski season. See ryanair.com for details and prices.
:: Bad Gastein is one hour 15 minutes from Salzburg. See austriatransfers.at for transfers.
WHAT TO DO
:: Bad Gastein is part of the Gastein Valley, with 137 miles of pistes. See skigastein.com. With nursery slopes at the base of the mountain, 25 blue runs, 46 reds and 16 blacks, and a nice mix of wide runs and narrow trails linking runs, it would suit beginners up to reasonably competent intermediates. The instructors are excellent.
:: Other activities include cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, ice-climbing, ice skating, curling, dog sledding, winter hiking trails, night tobogganing, full moon ski touring, and a choice of thermal spas as well as the healing caves of the Gasteiner Heilstollen.
:: There’s also a fascinating Stars & Movies walk with the bubbly Elisabeth Kröll about famous visitors and their antics, free through the Bad Gastein Tourist Office. See gastein.com.
:: The extensive Felsentherme Spa in Bad Gastein is €22.50 for three hours with your Gastein Card, available from the tourist office. See felsentherme.com.
WHERE TO STAY
:: I was at the basic Euro Youth Hotel Krone. It has the worst breakfast orange juice in the world, but is cheap, friendly and a short walk to the excellent Schober ski hire shop with free storage depot opposite it for your shoes etc, the main gondola to take you up the slopes, the Felsentherme Spa, the train station, and the town’s shops and bars.
It has a bar and restaurant with hearty nosh at decent prices.
:: Single rooms start at €38, doubles at €33 pps and dorms at €20pps, all including breakfast and free wi-fi.
:: See euro-youth-hotel.at or call 00 43 6434 23300.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
:: Rossalm, at the bottom of the slopes, is a great lunch or dinner stop, with a cosy atmosphere and open fires. I recommend that old Austrian favourite, prawn curry.
:: For drinking, Kraftwerk (gasteinertal.com/kraftwerk) is in a converted power station with an outdoor terrace right beside the famous waterfall, the Silver Bullet (silverbulletbar.com) is a beer and burger joint with live music up to teatime then Europop, and the Klapotetz (gasteinertal.com/en/klapotetz) is a snug bar and restaurant popular with locals.