Quick Trips:An underground, feel-good experience
September 9, 2008
This cure for eczema is, as one might expect, moist. But, to be frank, it smells a bit like a basement. That makes sense, though. It is, after all, a hole in the ground.
Atta-Hoehle, Germany’s largest known cave, is both a geologic wonder where limestone curtains hang delicately amid jagged stalactites and — according to the claims — a panacea for a range of skin, lung and sleep-related disorders.
Discovered by accident more than a century ago as the dust from a mine explosion settled, Atta-Hoehle was converted almost overnight from a gritty supply source for a local cement plant into a tourist attraction-cum-sanatorium.
Roughly 350,000 people from across Europe visit the site each year; some for the quirky cave tours and to gape at the site’s natural wonders, while others lie back in the health grotto, breathing the purportedly pristine air.
Although it is a real cave, the proprietors have taken some creative license in moving some of the more interesting cave formations from deeper, more dangerous and inaccessible parts to where weekend spelunkers can see them. For this and other reasons, subterranean tourists will want to approach the cave with an open mind and a sense of humor.
This is the home of the fossilized Easter Bunny, of a crystalline Santa Claus, stony organ pipes and a one-toothed dwarf who looks not too happy about your intrusion. There is, the tour guide says, a Westphalian ham hanging from the ceiling, and because such a ham "needs a smoking chamber," a cavity to one side has been imaginatively transformed for the task. "Several hunks of lard are hanging inside," the guide explained, pointing at a clump of lumpy stalactites illuminated from behind by a red light bulb.
While it might take more imagination than the average tourist can muster to see the formations as anything other than what they are, they are nevertheless striking. Unfortunately, visitors aren’t allowed to wander the caves or take pictures, and must stick with their tours, which run about 40 minutes.
Just about one-quarter of the roughly four miles of caverns that make up the complex is accessible to visitors. The rest, according to the proprietors, is too dangerous to develop. It’s worth noting here that stalactite wounds and claustrophobia are not among the conditions the cave air is alleged to remedy.
But the cave’s "completely dust-, germ-, allergen- and ozone-free air," with a constant temperature of about 48 degrees Fahrenheit and 95 percent humidity, "has an invigorating effect and deepens the breathing," leading the body to heal itself of asthma, chronic bronchitis, hay fever, sleep disorders and stress.
Taking advantage of the cave’s curative effects couldn’t be easier: all you have to do is lie back and breathe.
But if what ails you isn’t on the list, stop by Atta’s rock shop on your way out and pick up a Gesundheitsstein. These little stones are small enough to fit in your pocket and are reputed to cure everything from herpes to hair loss.
Atta-Hoehle is on the edge of Attendorn, Germany. From southern Germany, take the A5 toward Kassel to the A45/E41 toward Dortmund. Take exit 18 for the B54/B55 toward Olpe/Attendorn and turn left at the B54/B55. Make a slight right onto the L512 toward Attendorn. In Attendorn, follow signs to Atta-Hoehle.
From now until Oct. 19, open every day from 10 a.m., with last admittance at 4 p.m. From Oct. 20 to Dec. 14, open every day from 10:30 a.m., last admittance 3:30 p.m.
Admission is 7 euros for adults, 4.50 for children 5 to 14 years old; group rates and special tours also available. Using the health grotto costs 9.50 euros for two hours.
The restaurant at Atta-Hoehle serves traditional fare in the 10.50 to 12.50 euro range. Other dining options are available in town.
The cave’s Web site is www.atta-hoehle.de, with a link to English-language pages. You can buy wine, cheese and souvenirs at shops on the premises. Visitors can’t smoke or take pictures in the cave.