Meeting the Salt Queen

An Entrepeneur Discovers the Healing Powers Of the Seaside -- in the Heart of Vienna

Whatever Austria’s charms – and there are many – for an exiled islander, it’s hard to get over the yearning for the sea.

So when a friend told me that I could dose up on three days of salt sea air without ever leaving the country, my ears pricked up. When he told me that the process would take less than an hour and I could get there by bike, I began to wonder whether he was pulling my leg.

Deck chairs await visitors at the Salzgrotte Oceaneum, Vienna’s first artificial salt cave | Photo: Christian Cummins

He was talking about Vienna’s first artificial “salt cave,” the Salzgrotte Oceaneum, found in the shadow of the bustling Wien Mitte shopping center.

It’s a very simple concept. An air-conditioning unit pumps salt particles around a small room, and you, the land-locked customer, recline lazily on a deckchair and breathe the swirling crystals in. In doing so, if you believe the hype, you’ll be doing a bit of good for your lungs, your skin and your nerves.

Although this is a new concept for Vienna, salt-caves have been sprouting up all over Eastern and Central Europe in the last decade. There are now over 200 in Poland alone – where this sort of therapy really began. Although salt has been hailed for its healing properties since ancient times (Cleopatra, who was famously particular about skin care, was said to swear by the stuff) it was doctors in 19th century Poland who really started taking an interest in the medicinal power of salt crystals.

They had noticed that workers in the country’s salt mines suffered from many fewer lung problems than you would expect for men in such a  treacherous trade.

So they started to look into the reasons. They found that salt particles, with their rich mixture of iodine, bromine, magnesium, potassium and other minerals, have both antibacterial and antiviral properties. Nowadays many doctors recommend salt treatment as at least a supplementary measure against respiratory diseases like asthma, skin complaints like psoriasis and an absolute myriad of allergies.

But the founder and manager of Austria’s first salt cave, Urszula Radziewiska, herself a Pole, assured me that a session in a salt cave is also a worthwhile experience for those of robust health. A 45-minute session would get rid of any tension or negative emotions I might be feeling, she claimed.

Radziewiska is a striking woman, tall and blond and immaculately made up, with long, heavily-painted lashes emphasizing deep and engaging blue eyes. As she made the promise she smiled in such a beatific way that I was inclined to believe anything she said.     “You have to learn to relax properly,” she told me, instructing me to leave my iPod and book behind in the waiting room. “It’s an art you have to learn!”

So, ready to be instructed, I took off my shoes, put on my fresh pair of socks (obligatory for hygienic reasons), opened the door and entered a new world.

A thick layer of crystals lay on the floor and when I walked over them, I had the pleasant sensation of strolling on coarsely grained-sand. I’d been promised a cave, and, thanks to the wonders of artistic plastering, it was a cave I was given. The walls bulged outwards, and from the already low ceiling stalactites hung down. Everything was painted white, and I was suddenly overcome with the absurd expectation that Santa Claus was going to pop out from behind a salt rock and offer me presents.

But instead of Christmas gifts, I was washed over with the evocative sounds of waves breaking and birds singing. The dozen or so deckchairs waited invitingly, each provided with a warm blanket in case the 20 degree room temperature in this “salt-air micro-climate” proved too chilly. I sat down, tipped my chair back, and stared upwards at the calming red and green ambient lights, trying to identify the bird species featured on our soundtrack. Dozily, I recalled my conversation with salt-queen Urszula.

Radziewiska leans forward conspiratorially when talking about the wonders of salt. For her this little cave in the center of Vienna is quite literally a dream come true. Bewitched by the crystals as a child, she had been taken by her parents to see the Wieliczka Salt Mine near Krakow, a world famous labyrinth of pits and chambers with chandeliers and altars and even a church hewn out of solid salt. Little Urszula had been completely awestruck by this magical world and hung on to the guide’s every word as he extolled the healing effects of salt. Could she build something similar at home, she had asked her parents? They had laughed. Then, 30 years later on a trip home from Austria, she discovered that someone had made her dream come true. Artificial salt-caves not only existed but were becoming more and more popular. She was immediately determined to bring a cave to her adopted homeland.

All she had to do was to convince her bank that, at a cost of over a thousand euros per square meter, a salt cave was the sort of project they should be investing in.

“They seemed to think I was completely mad,” she said. “Then I pointed out to them that there were already salt caves in Germany. That appeared to convince them. You know how the Austrians are!”

I was the youngest of my fellow loungers, by at least a few generations. I had been forewarned that this might be the case. Most of the Salzgrotte clients are past retirement age, which makes sense to Radziewiska, since the elderly have both more time and more health complaints. But young business executives also come regularly, generally during lunch hour.

“Here you can really unwind. You can’t do that in a coffee shop,” she said. “But most young people don’t know how to relax properly,” she said. So she’s going to help teach them. As of October, the Salzgrotte is offering classes in deep breathing and yoga.

To be honest, the thought of 45 minutes without doing anything at all had rather intimidated me, but after ten minutes, just after I had positively identified the song of a cuckoo, it appears I must have nodded off, dreaming happily of the ocean.

Salzgrotte Oceaneum
15.90 per session
Tel: (01) 890 3600

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