Travel: Badgastein was my last resort

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The Independent Travel
It comes almost as a surprise that anyone comes to Badgastein to ski. In this Austrian resort there's little sign of gaudy skiers clumping along the streets in their ski boots and glow-faster suits and no noisy bars. None of the boisterous racket of Kitzbuhel where every street is the venue for a party, or the modern French resorts where rackety cafe life spills out on to the slopes.

In fact, you cannot see the ski slopes from most of the hotel windows. Instead, if you walk along the conifer-lined path from the quiet elegance of the Haus Hirt Hotel to the town centre, you pass a decorous tea room selling solid Austrian patisserie, a sensible gift shop and several granitey hotels built precipitately on to the steep mountainside.

This does not look like the Austrian resort of your dreams: by no means the cosy confection of wooden chalets and gasthaus with balconies and endless eaves. Instead, what look like great grey towers on the drive up the valley turn out to be grand hotels with high ceilinged foyers, shutters and an air of faded dignity.

Even when you reach the town centre the feeling of an ordered spa town which has perhaps seen busier days is enhanced by the modern convention centre jutting over a waterfall and the towering casino.

A spa is just what the place has been for almost 500 years. It was developed in the 1820s by the Archduke Johann (grateful for its curative waters) and came to be visited by the Prussian emperor William I, Bismarck and the Austrian Emperor, Franz Joseph I, who used to make annual pilgrimages on the train to the town and be whisked by coach and four to his watering hole.

As far back as Roman times the mountain had been mined for gold and silver and it was just a happy by-product that the miners discovered they were being cured of arthritis and back ache as they worked the damp tunnels. As the minerals ran out, by the 15th and 16th centuries, its reputation for cures flourished with travellers who came great distances to sit in wooden tubs, melting away their ailments.

Now, rather bizarrely, in a tunnel under the mountain people strip off and sit naked in medicinal springs and in pools - it's an underwater therapy to cure a multitude of sicknesses such as rheumatism, constipation, osteoporosis and even impotence. Many of the hotels have their own little thermal pools as well as saunas and massage rooms, all of which combine to give the guest a delicious feeling of well being - particularly as the hotels, mostly very formal but family run, are famous in the area for their cuisine.

There are also, of course, skiers. Very few of them are package holiday Brits - it's an easy, cheap trip with Lauda Air to Salzburg, which is an hour and a half away - which adds to the resort's sense of individuality, though it has been touched with the Alpine plague of the lager-crazed Scandinavian.

And there is some excellent skiing. The bus from the centre takes you to the Stubnerkogel, where in a blizzard that had skiers scrambling back uphill to the mountain restaurant, we discovered testing black runs that eased into a long schuss into the valley, a welcoming cafe, a cup or two too many of jagertee, and the connection with the lower resort of Bad Hofgastein.

On the other side of town the Graukogel area has some of the most challenging runs in the entire area through delightfully wooded pistes. Down the valley and off the main road, is Dorfgastein, with pretty arcades, horse-drawn carts and easy skiing.

A little out of town is Badgastein's third, newest and highest area Sportgastein, served by a shiny, fast, gondola (which peaks at 2,686 metres). We found lots of off-piste skiing, a big vibrant cafe serving great bowls of soup and brackish white wine and, wonder of wonders, sunshine and the first sight of the mountains after days of blizzard, mist and snow.

Richard Holledge