When Geoff Watts went to a radon clinic within an Austrian mountain, he found the heat and humidity more troubling than the radioactivity.
For anyone sharing my dislike of high temperatures and extreme humidity, a trip into Bad Gastein's healing galleries is a foray through something akin to one of Dante's nine circles of hell. The electric train carrying its bath-robed and towel-clutching health seekers may be painted a cheerful orange, but the mood of this passenger as we trundle into the mountain is a deepening black.
This region of the Austrian Alps has been mined for precious metals since Roman times. The last serious effort was made during World War II, when the need for gold was exceptionally pressing. As a mining venture, the enterprise failed. But a number of the workers reported that previously troublesome aches and pains in their muscles and joints seemed to be improving — an effect attributed to radioactive radon in the underground air. The galleries had found a new and more profitable use.
Novices like me start their therapeutic experience with a quick medical check from the resident doctor ("Do you suffer from claustrophobia?") before gathering in a kind of briefing room for final instructions. Five minutes into the mountain, by which time the train's eight-person carriages are already steaming, a brief halt at a subterranean platform allows us to disrobe. Now clothed just in swimming gear, we continue.
The gallery to which I've been allocated is a couple of metres wide and long enough to house two dozen narrow wooden beds arranged end to end along its sides. We lay our towels on the plastic mattresses and ourselves on the towels. The more serious among us strip off completely. In dim light and complete silence, we lie breathing the hot, moist, radon-rich air. We sweat and sweat. Never have minutes passed so slowly. When is the train returning... please?
Following liberation we're allocated to a set of cool recovery rooms painted a pale, soothing blue, each with four beds facing a large window. To the sound of mind-numbing New Age music, we take in a chocolate box view of mountain scenery. Out there it's freezing, and snow is falling. Perfect; just the sight of it does me good. I feel better already.
This article first appeared on Mosaic and republished here under Creative Commons.