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So lucky! (July 2011)

©Ian Buchanan July 2011
A modern horror story, set in the Austrian Alps. It will make your skin crawl, in a hot, sticky way......

We were so lucky. The road trip tour through the Austrian mountains occurred on a glorious, warm, sunny day. On the way back, when we stopped to overlook the glacier we heard thunder. Then, late in the afternoon it clouded over and became quite horrible, with cold, heavy rain, which kept up all night. We returned the hire-car in the pouring rain the next morning, and trudged to the bus station, big coats over our packs to keep them dry.

The trip to Bad Gastein was a relatively short one, nothing like the twelve hour slog a few days back. What a bargain! For €9 you get a two hour scenic trip through the country. We sat up the front, next to the driver, so got the full windscreen view as we belted along tiny roads, following a quite vigorous river. Public transport in Austria is a gift…you pay a pittance for the ride, as a form of public transport that anywhere else would be an expensive tour.

So, we arrived in Bad Gastein, a "thermalbad" town. Use your German accent on that pronunciation...it's a town offering hot spring swimming. But more than that...the waters in Bad Gastein are slightly radioactive, and its those properties that have made it a popular tourist health resort for the last few hundred years. Emperors and kings, the addicted, the lame, the dying and the incurable all come to Bad Gastein seeking a cure to their afflictions.

It's hard to comprehend the layout of the place. The town is built on two vertical valley walls facing each other, houses, hotels, chalets and so on dug into the rock or perched one above the other. In between runs a raging cataract. In our room with the double-windows closed it sounds like a plane idling, or a diesel train going past. The cascading waterfalls through Bad Gastein look like they have been glamorously photoshopped, with little side-falls merging back in, houses perched dangerously close to the edge. On a sunny day it's supposed to be stunning. We found it impressive on a moody, heavy day, but the color of the foam was grey rather than the turquoise glory I have read about.

The bus driver, in retrospect, was hinting we should get off at the first stop at Bad Gastein. We stayed on to go to the station, as we figured that was the centre of town, but as bus took off from th stop where the driver was being coy I spotted the information centre right 50 metres past the departing stop. Resignedly we sat as the bus struggled up the killer hill to the station - every street in Bad Gastein is a heart-breaker – and then we had to trudge all the way back almost to the previous stop.

But it worked out ok. Sylvia took a fancy to a Pension as we staggered by, and we were back a few minutes later and took a night there. It was one of those perfect serendipity moments. Villa Humbert was a five story mansion, owned and operated as a B&B by a chatty old lady. She had been away, only back yesterday, so the place was almost empty, although there was a few odd couples (and I do mean odd) hanging around.

The balcony looked out onto the valley and the waterfall.

Frau Gleitsner, muttering and rattling her heavy chain of keys, beckoned and asked us to follow her, up one, two, three flights of stairs. As we climbed around us I could hear squeaky doors opening, and turning back I could see wizened, beady eyes watching us through the cracked-open doorways. I stopped for a moment, staring back, and the eyes disappeared as the doors creaked close again.

Walking up the stairs we had one of those “only in Austria” moments. The walls of the staircase are decorated with the corpses of hundreds of hunting victims. Rows and rows of deer heads and antlers, hens, squirrels, owls for God’s sake….who shoots owls? Sometimes they were simply mounted, in symmetric rows and rows. Other times a bit of artistry went into the display…three black hens, for example, splayed out like a coat of arms in a triangular wheel pattern. There were hundreds of deer antlers, but a large adult caught my attention. A deer with a crucifix jammed in its head. What did that mean? (Religion gives me a headache? I'm thinking about Heaven?)

I assumed the dog heads were a treasured hunting dog, rather than, say, the next door neighbour’s annoying pooch.

While the Frau snuffled and watched us closely, we filled out the accommodation paperwork and paid her. The room was ok, a huge, old-wealth mansion converted into a boarding house doesn't have too many dud rooms, and I liked the view.

We dumped our stuff and headed off.....off to the ThermalBad. As we clumped back down the stairs again, like a wave, before and behind us was the opening and closing of doors as the other residents watched us go.

Bad Gastein's famous heated waters are slightly radioactive. So they say. And swimming, drinking and even breathing in the steamed vapours of the radioactive fluid is supposed to be good for you. So we were prepared to give it a shot. But if you are going to read this to the end you’ll need some help to get through the next bit. It'll get a bit uncomfortable, and if you are of a nervous disposition, you might find it heavy going.

I’ll set you up with something to help you through.

Think of an old, Austrian couple. The man is fat, smokes heavily, and smells of it. His face is burned red and the rest of his body untanned and blubbery. His wife is skinny, but wrinkled, also a smoker with a hacking cough. (That's pretty standard for Austria...they all smoke.)

Ok. Deep breath.

Are you ok? Let's keep going....

They are both naked, and their toes and fingers, and other extremities, are blue with cold and bad circulation. Got the picture? Hang on to it, you’ll need it in a minute.

There are 6-7 different pools at the thermal baths. All different sizes and shapes, different functions. For example, one has submerged deck-chair shaped seating through which the usual spa jets pump through. Another has a powerful waterfall that hammers you with a huge volume of water. They go off at intervals, and people move around trying one gimmick after the other. It’s ok. It’s easy to scoff, but if you go with it, it is quite enjoyable. I should mention the outside pools steam away at 32 degrees C, and the scenery includes spectacular snowy peaks, parts of the town, a steep green meadow, ski fields and a busy chairlift.

The facility is spread over a few different levels. The pools are all on the lower two floors. But the top level offers a variety of saunas, steam rooms, cold plunge pools and more. But that area is FKK.

For the uninitiated, FKK stands for something like "Freikorperkultur"…not quite right but I always mispronounce it. But what is means is…no clothing. To participate, you do so as a nudist. Sauna, spa bath, showers…men and women, all mixed in together. In quite close proximity.

We asked, twice, and the staff were obviously quite puzzled. Surely it was quite clear? So, we took a deep breath and off we went.

Don’t think about it, Sylvia and me gambolling amongst the FKKers. I don't want you focussing on me...or my wife for that matter...completely naked amongst strangers. Think about the old man and the old woman. He’s hairy, and lost a part of his finger in an accident. She could do with a wax, and has misshapen toes.

Ok? Are you alright?

The first room was a “Salt Cave”. Dug into the mountain, it was a salty-steam room so steamy you could not see two handspans ahead. Given we didn’t know the lay of the land we staggered in, found a wall and paused. I came dangerously close to a fleshy collision. (Old man…hairy ears). A voice from somewhere indicated there were seats, and we found them and sat down. WET BOTTOMS on a wet seat SOMEONE ELSE had NAKEDLY, WETLY SAT ON.

But no doubt vapourised clean.

I hope.

Colored lights played off at random intervals, dispersing through the steam, and every so often a roar of steam flushed through the room. We edged a little further into the cave. It was key-shaped, with a huge stone centrally placed. We had moved forward enough, unwittingly and realised abruptly that we had sat below the shot-of-steam entrance, and I cannot believe such an incredibly intense blast of steam didn’t parboil us alive.

From there we went to a plunge-pool.

An old woman tut-tutted us for dropping in and screaming…you are supposed to lower yourself gracefully, which, given the 12 degree temperature, was a hard task.

There were also in-between showers. There were a dozen or so, lined up along a wall, all offering different functions. Completely open, in full view of the other patrons. (That rash on the old man's hairy back looks nasty....)

The shower we chose, of course, sprayed us with icy water. If we'd thought about it first it might not have been such a heart-stopping shock.

On to a scented sauna, then a milder steam room, then a serious, hot sauna. Each time we went back to either the plunge pool or the showers. At the end of the row of showers was another option…two buckets on a rope. Sylvia pulled on the chain and doused herself. Again it was freezing water. I gave her the gift of pulling the rope for me at a time of her choosing, and she took quite a lot of enjoyment from dumping 20 litres of icy water over me. We got tut-tutted again for laughing uproariously at this.

And then on to the final sauna, upstairs.

Upstairs to the FKK pool...and out into the open. Where you could see the view…the mountains, the hotels, the ski fields, the busy chairlift…and I expect the view could look back at you.

Aah, who cares?

The last sauna, another cave dug into the rock, was extremely hot.

While we were in the sauna some bumbling idiot came in and out, fluffing around, forgetting to take off his glasses and so on, enraging the woman already there who seemed impervious to the blistering dry heat. She berated him for his opening and closing the door too many times.

He set up near us, and fussily arranged his towel.

Now here's a mystery. You can slide your arse onto the same wet bench as anyone in the steam room, but in the sauna you need to underlay your bum and feet with a towel.

Our clumsy friend turned to straighten his towel, and his gigantic, naked arse swung around barge-like, dangerously close to my face. I would have been interested to see a recording of my body language at that point.

The old woman has a belly-button that sticks out. There's some sort of fabric stuck in it.

© July 2011 Ian Buchanan

If you liked this short story, try The Jetty Journals: http://www.thejettyjournals.com
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