The Faded Glory of Bad Gastein
Some steamy days in Emperor Franz Josef’s favourite resort with a cat that runs the place and a writer with a broken nose
An icy breeze was blowing steam sideways across the mountain vista; a curtain of vapour, tinged pink by the red floor lights of the pool. From my perch in the thermal bath, it looked as if a Saharan sandstorm was sweeping across the darkened woods and snowfields of Bad Hofgastein’s Schlossalm ski area. At dusk, the peaks of the Hohe Tauern mountains were playing hide-and-seek behind the real clouds, and a half moon winked briefly before disappearing again.
I lay back on the submerged steps of the Alpentherme swimming pool, half naked in sub-zero temperatures, but warmed by the heavy mineral water that was naturally heated to a steamy 42 degrees Celsius by the noble gas radon, inside the valley’s rocks. This water, which is said to have valuable healing properties, lapped up to my neck, as strong underwater jets massaged my tired back muscles. I must have looked like a particularly smug hippopotamus, but I felt I’d earned this pampering. During the day, I’d been carving down the slopes beyond the steam and my legs were now aching and leaden. Although vaguely sceptical of the science behind this form of thermal therapy, at this juncture, I was ready to give anything a try.
The previous morning, I’d cockily told local Gastein guide Matthias Mach that I’d come to test the skiing, "to see what his valley had to offer". Inexplicably, and despite the fact that I was wearing a ludicrous protective cast over my broken nose, I’d assured him that I was "a good skier". A crocodile grin had spread across his face: The snow was cold, the visibility was good, and he’d found a willing victim.
From slopes to solitude
Matthias, a highly qualified instructor, oozed passion for his sport and his valley and, over two days, he took me on a thrilling helter-skelter tour through the 200 kilometres of the resort’s four ski areas. On the way to the tiny village of Großarl, we sped down a wide track that descended in deliciously rolling waves, which left me feeling momentarily weightless as I popped over their crests. From the Hohe Scharte peak, we dropped 1,400 vertical metres in one long ear-popping run to the foot of a funicular railway. It’s reputed to be the longest descent in the Eastern Alps. Still there was no let up: From the Stubnerkogel, we carved down empty, groomed pistes that snaked through snow-clad forests.
Only then did Matthias finally let me stop for a strengthening meal in the wood-panelled Hirschhütte that was snuggled in a Narnia-like spot of secluded forest and warmed by a square stove. As I spooned in lentils and bacon, my face aglow (and my broken nose swollen), I noticed that the cabin was saucily decorated with strings of old-fashioned underwear strung on a line across the bar.
"At night you can celebrate great parties here," said Matthias, his eyes misting over in reverie, as he recalled the salubrious Christmas ski school party nights.
I’m not sure what the mutton-chop whiskered Emperor Franz-Josef, who was notorious for his social conservatism, would have made of such parties. The Gastein valley was one of his favourite haunts. He and his wife Sissi "took the waters" in the valley’s most prestigious spa – the belle époque village of Bad Gastein, where, instead of typical Alpine chalets, square-built, multi-coloured villas line the steep streets. It’s as if Vienna’s 13th District has been airlifted from the suburbs and dropped on the slopes of this spectacular steep-sided valley. Kaiser Wilhelm came here too and ambitious courtiers, never keen to miss out on an influence-peddling royal reception, followed and built opulent villas – one of which was my home for the week.
The Villa Solitude has one of the best views in town. It’s perched on the edge of the spectacular ravine that divides the town in two. A fierce cascade runs through the bottom of the ravine, and the porous sheer rock faces that rise up from the water are dotted with frozen waterfalls. Every morning, before breakfast, I walked around town and stopped to goggle at this remarkable scene from every conceivable angle. There’s nowhere like it in the Alps.
The villa itself, built in 1840 by Baron Mensil, is painted yellow with a green roof and shutters, and inside the rooms and ceilings are panelled with 100-year-old pine. There is a large drawing room warmed by a giant porcelain oven. The room’s design has changed little since the early 20th century when it was Countess Lehndorf’s private parlour. I kept expecting to see Sherlock Holmes smoking a pipe in the corner on one of the comfy armchairs that huddle around a mahogany table.
Instead I met Keks, a tabby cat who everyone described as "the boss". He nuzzled up to my legs when I arrived and jumped on to my lap as soon as I sat in the drawing room. He strutted over my laptop as if to berate me for the crime of working while on holiday, and then languidly curled up to sleep on the green sofa. In the mornings, he’d find his way into my room to ask if I had slept well. All in all, he was a magnificent host. The villa’s restaurant, presided over by star cook Wolfgang Nagler, was in a cavernous basement lined with wine racks and warmed by an open fire. It was the sort of romantic atmosphere that almost forces you to fall in love – even if it is just with a grey and black cat.
Havana in the snow
Yet Bad Gastein is a place of faded glamour – like a Havana in the snow. The empire is long gone and fierce competition from up-market mountain resorts has meant Bad Gastein has lost the fur-coat brigade to villages like Lech, St. Moritz and Cortina. More guests disappeared when the German National Health Insurance stopped subsidising "spa cures" back in the 1980s, and many sanatoriums went bust. Then disaster struck when a Viennese business bought four of the historic buildings in the town centre from the indebted community, promising to restore them, but then left them unused. These empty, decaying ghost buildings now haunt the heart of the community. They include the once grand Hotel Straubinger and the Badeschloss, where Kaiser Wilhelm used to bathe. While a legal battle drags on, the dust is gathering, the windows are cracking, the paint on the buildings is peeling and the plaster of the façades is crumbling and falling off, endangering passers by. "I think it breaks the hearts of everyone in the valley to see it," my ski guide Matthias told me, "but at the moment there is nothing we can do."
But the valley is looking to the future. Instead of ageing aristocrats, young, party-hungry Swedes are beginning to dominate the scene. In February the steep, narrow cobbled alleyways of Bad Gastein will be covered in snow and ramps to host Red Bull’s internationally renowned Playstreets event. Here, the world’s top freeskiers will speed down the urban parcours and launch themselves off the kickers into the night sky to perform airborne twists and somersaults perilously close to the balconies where barons and duchesses would once have taken tea. The free "Art on Snow" festival at the beginning of the month will showcase the work of international graffiti artists, ice sculptors and conceptual artists.
Lying back in my thermal pool, I decided that the Gastein valley was well on the way to successfully re-inventing itself. It’s certainly got enough skiing to compete with any resort in the Alps and there’s a laid back vibe that, for me, was best encapsulated by my ski bus driver making an unscheduled stop outside the village bakery to buy some buns. Once again I was reminded of what I love most about hospitality in Austria: it’s luxury worn lightly. Thanks for the buildings Franz-Josef, but good riddance to your formality.
I’m not sure the water has healed me: I’ve read about the sodium, calcium and the silicic acid content and I’ve tried all the saunas, but after two days of following Matthias, my legs are still shot. I just hope all this "revitalising" fluid keeps me alive until summer: I’ve heard the mountain biking is fantastic here.
Gastein Tourism: www.gastein.com
Alpentherme Gastein alpentherme.com/en
Admission: €27.50 all-day adult ticket.
Events in Bad Gastein in February:
Art on Snow: 8 Feb., artonsnow.com
Red Bull Playstreets: 23 Feb., www.redbull.at
For a previous report from Bad Gastein and the Red Bull Playstreets event, see Christian Cummins’ "Urban Flips at Rural Bad Gastein" in Mar 2009 TVR.