A Christmas markets cruise on the Danube River isn't quite the same as the usual spring, summer and autumn voyages. Mostly what's unique about this itinerary, available only in late November and in December, is centered on visits to the region's medieval Advent markets rather than vineyards or boat tours or languid walking jaunts around ancient villages. There's also the weather....
When I flew into Nuremberg to join AmaWaterways' 148-passenger AmaLyra for a pre-Christmas jaunt to Regensburg, Passau, Linz, Melk, Vienna and Budapest, the weather was numbingly cold. And yet the snow really did transform each city into the winter wonderland promised in the brochures. I can't think of a better way of getting into a festive mood. But having enjoyed Rhine and Danube River voyages in warmer seasons, I did have some trepidation. Would Christmas market fatigue set in? And with darkness falling at 4 p.m. and with shipboard life essentially taking place indoors, with only one lounge and one restaurant for everybody, would I get bored and restless?
--By Sue Bryant, Contributing Editor
Photo: Perati Komson/Shutterstock
First impressions matter, and AmaLyra’s festive season decorations could best be described as beautifully lavish. There were huge gold ribbons wrapped around poles, a vast Christmas tree, swaths of gold tinsel with baubles festooning every available wall hanging and even a little star hanging on every cabin door. There was an enormous crib at the entrance to the dining room. It was sumptuous but tasteful and very much reflected the German style of Christmas, with everything hand-made and colour-themed in red, green and gold -- so the ship fitted in perfectly with the surroundings.
Did I long for the traditional festive trappings of home? Not at all.
Photo: Jason Ho/Shutterstock
When I boarded, AmaLyra was tied up outside Nuremberg alongside a forest blanketed in fresh snow. Frozen trees extended snow-laden branches over the river, sparkling in the wintry sunshine. The ship’s decks were piled high with snow, too, which felt strange after years of cruising Europe’s waterways in the green of summer. It was serene and storybook.
There was so much snow that even the French balcony railings on my cabin were covered with the stuff. A tray of colourful foil-wrapped chocolates was waiting for me, as well as a chocolate Santa on the pillow. The Santa was a special gift as I’d joined the ship on December 6, the feast of St. Nicholas, when German tots leave their shoes outside their rooms at night. If they’ve been good, St. Nicholas fills the shoes with candy. Luckily, my steward must have assumed in advance that I’d been well behaved all year.
After checking out my ship, I headed back out to Nuremberg’s Christmas market, one of the biggest and most famous in Europe. It’s everything you’d hope it would be in terms of quaintness, right down to the wafting aromas of sizzling sausages and spiced, hot wine.All the stalls must have the same red-and-white-striped decor, and everything is either hand-made or exceptionally tasteful. Good buys include tree baubles and decorations, crib figures, candles, nutcrackers, miniature angel orchestras, hand-made soaps, chocolates, cookies, gingerbread hearts and even entire gingerbread houses.
Two caveats: Although everything is of impressive quality, prices are high for Brits and Americans because of the strength of the euro. Also, on a week-long cruise, there are an awful lot of markets. Savvy passengers will pace themselves rather than diving in and buying everything at the first port.
On river ships, the top-level sundeck is generally the heart of the vessel, offering the chance to be outdoors – lounging, playing chess, dipping into hot tubs and even dining. In winter? It’s a tad nippy. In fact on AmaLyra, everything is folded away and piled high with snow. The side rails are down because we were preparing to go under some low bridges later, but access was forbidden because it was so icy.
Photo: Patrick Wang/Shutterstock
Pre-Christmas voyages are big business in river cruising, and most of the big lines tout Advent cruises. Lengths vary from five days on the Rhine with Avalon to four with Saga, eight with AmaWaterways, and 15 all the way from Amsterdam to Budapest with Scenic Tours. In retrospect, I’d say four or five days makes the perfect mini-break and gives more than enough time at a variety of markets. The markets along the Rhine are some of the biggest, most traditional and prettiest -- Cologne, Nuremberg and Koblenz. Having said that, foodies will love the Strasbourg market (and the scenery of the Black Forest nearby), while romantics will find Vienna, with its numerous markets and other attractions, irresistible.
On Danube cruises east of Vienna, the markets at Bratislava and Budapest have different crafts, food and festive drinks to provide contrast to the Rhine's more Germanic style. Wherever you choose, sailing along the rivers in winter is magical; even out on the water, that curious, muffled silence caused by thick snow is everywhere.
Gorgeous though the Christmas markets are, there’s only so much mulled wine you can drink and so many hand-made candles you can buy. Because I was curious to go stomping through the winter wonderland (the air was so sharp and the trees so sparkly and beautiful), I took a stroll down the riverside trail, where locals were out exercising their dogs. On a summer cruise on a line like AmaWaterways (or rival Uniworld), which carry fleets of bicycles for guests, I’d normally cycle as much as possible. But you’d need some pretty rugged tires to tackle this much snow. The walk was just as satisfying and wonderfully invigorating; you feel like a local out for a winter stroll. I’d recommend bringing snow boots or strong walking boots, though. And gloves.
Because it was so cold, some guests simply stayed onboard by day -- reading in the lounge, watching movies in their cabins, gazing sleepily at the snow falling and, of course, eating (huge cooked breakfasts; hearty soups and hot stews for lunch; and at night, when the ship sailed, long, gourmet dinners). Wine is included at both meals (and Sekt, German sparkling wine at breakfast, too).
There was a festive atmosphere in the evenings, made all the more so by riotous German Christmas games in the lounge one night -- including a hilarious treasure hunt called ‘Hunt the Gherkin’, which involved guests running all over the lounge looking for a courgette that turned out to be hidden in a curtain. Overall, it was a great bonding experience.
Photo: Leonard Zhukovsky/Shutterstock
This whole cruise had a dreamy, almost fairy-tale quality about it, and I loved everything from the snow and the markets to the contrast of the cosy luxury of AmaLyra. If there are any negatives about the experience, I’d say market ennui (particularly among the male travellers who’d been persuaded to accompany their wives) is a possibility. I’d also say travel with a partner or friend, as this really is an experience that should be shared. And choose the sail date carefully; some lines offer river voyages that actually span Christmas and New Year. In Germany and Austria, these are much more family occasions and the town centres will be quiet. Most of the markets finish on December 24.
Finally, don’t expect nightlife. There was music in the lounge and games, but we did sail most nights, so there wasn’t much opportunity to go ‘out’ at night, and as on most river cruises, everybody was tucked up in bed by midnight.
Photo: Adrian Zenz/Shutterstock