An after-work ski escape to an illuminated “magic mountain” is just an hour away. Several routes cut through the woods, creating 14 km of runs – 13 of which are lit up after dark
At night on a floodlit slope, all sensations seem twice as intense. The sun’s long gone, replaced by a nostril- freezing cold that – if you are dressed right – feels invigorating rather than intimidating. Under the sodium glow, every contour is highlighted, ice crystals sparkling like diamonds.
It feels thrillingly fast. Without the wide panorama of daytime, you’re hemmed in by a tunnel of light leading down the mountain through the dark outline of the woods. Your focus narrows. Nothing exists but you, the snow and your edges scratching loudly on the ice that inevitably settles after sundown. When you pass a floodlight post, your vision briefly dims and then brightens again, making your shadow shrink and stretch like a disoriented Alice at the bottom of her Wonderland rabbit hole.
Just an hour’s drive (100 km) south of Vienna, the slopes of the Zauberberg “Magic Mountain”, certainly live up to their name. Rising brashly from noble Semmering, a historic resort that was wildly popular with imperial Austria’s elite, it now provides some of the most accessible skiing from the capital.
While 19th-century aristocrats would spend entire summers at Semmering, rumbling to their villas on a dramatic railway built over dizzying viaducts in 1854, today’s time-pressed world makes the resort perfect for spontaneous getaways. You can enjoy exhilarating skiing, eat a stodgy traditional mountain meal and indulge in some flush-cheeked après-ski – without having to dip into those cherished holiday days. Just go after work.
Fly by Night
Fitting for a micro holiday, Zauberberg is, in many ways, a micro resort. There are only three lifts: a gondola, a chairlift and a drag lift. The vertical drop is just 336 m, but it doesn’t feel too limited: Several routes cut through the woods on the way down, creating 14 km of runs – 13 of which are lit up after dark. This makes it the most expansive night skiing area in eastern Austria.
“I’ve always seen it as bonus skiing,” said Zauberberg regular Rob Gouge, a Canadian working in Vienna’s financial sector. “My favorite aspect is looking forward to it for the whole day at work, knowing you will be in a different world in a few hours.”
I couldn’t agree more: I myself like to occasionally turn up for my morning meeting with my skis and boots in a bag and my helmet and goggles on my head. I put my kit in the corner and, during the longeurs of the daily grind, take surreptitious glances at them. At 17:00, the end-of-school bell ringing in my mind, I’m out like a shot, eager to be whisked away from the soot and grime of the city to the driven snow and the freshness of an icy wind. “It kind of feels like having a second identity,” said Rob. “When everyone else is heading home, I’m driving to the slopes.”
When the mountain looms into view, it looks like a hunched badger – glowing white stripes cutting through the dark forest. It beckons like a guilty pleasure. The high wattage of the lights, the artificial snow, the drive from Vienna – in these ecologically conscious days, these are indulgences we should probably deny ourselves: These mid-week night skiing trips feel like the equivalent of a night’s binge on pizza and chocolate after a month-long health trip.
But pizza and chocolate are good and regrets are for the morning after; until then, I say, revel in your sin. If you can bunk off work early enough, it is worth getting there for the evening reopening at 18:00. For two hours after the lifts close for the day at 16:00, grooming vehicles comb the runs to perfection. If you get there in time, you can carve like a pro racer down a smooth carpet of snow.
For the ambitious, there are four hours of skiing ahead – especially if you boost your strength with a steaming bowl of lentils and dumplings at the Liechtensteinhaus, at the summit of the gondola lift. “I really feel like I’ve squeezed so much more into a day when I go night skiing,” said Rob. “It really feels like two days in one.”
The skiing is pretty decent. Semmering hosts one of the most raucous stops on the women’s World Cup skiing circuit, and the lower slopes of the race-grade pistes are challengingly steep. When you skid back to the base station of the gondola, your cheeks are flushed red with adrenaline as well as the cold. The highest summit is just 1,344 m – almost a hill compared with its high-alpine cousins to the west. But despite a lot of scratchy artificial snow, there’s enough variation in the slopes to keep you interested for a few hours.
That said, the most fun I ever had at Semmering was a birthday party where I left my skis behind and hired a sled for just €6,50, intent on braving a bumpy track twisting and turning 3 km down. There were tunnels lit with psychedelic lights as well as the Enzianhütte, a cozy timber pub lurking in the forest, awash in rainbow lights and serving shots of schnapps to those foolhardy enough to plunge down a mountain on a barely controllable contraption. I felt a bittersweet thrill as I frantically attempted to steer, clumps of snow flying in my face as the many bumps hurled me like a bucking bronco. We spend too much of our lives under control; sometimes it feels good to let go and hope for a soft landing.
The lights go off at 22:00 but the party continues long into the night – and that suits Sandra Krajcer, a Vienna-based Pole who worked as a ski instructor in Tyrol and uses the Semmering to cope with those powerful skiing-withdrawal symptoms. “Let’s be honest,” she said, as we clinked our glasses of vodka together, “22:00 makes much more sense for après-ski than 16:00!”