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Christmas Markets Virtual
About the Virtual Cruise
Christmas Markets Virtual It's no big secret (particularly here on Cruise Critic) that European river vessels ply the famous tributaries of the Rhine, Rhone and Danube during the most temperate seasons of spring, summer and fall. But Cruise Critic's Kathleen Tucker recently made a delicious-sounding discovery: a handful of river ships, operated by cruise lines ranging from Viking River to Avalon, offer very special winter-time sailings.

These voyages, which meander between the tiny villages, mid-sized towns and urban metropolises of Germany and Austria -- and only during the pre-Christmas weeks of late November through December -- are dubbed "Christmas Markets" cruises. That's because their itineraries consist of visits to riverside cities that celebrate the season with these ubiquitous marketplaces. It's a fabulous annual ritual in this region, which lays claim to creating many of the holiday traditions we enjoy today, such as gingerbread, nutcrackers, Christmas carols and the concept of decorating trees with actual ornaments.

For Tucker, an unabashed holiday sentimentalist, this unique cruise on Viking River Cruises' 150-passenger Viking Spirit sounded like a fabulous way to absorb ancient holiday traditions, sightsee in historic cities, and, well, shop. And shop. And shop.

Before she departed she confessed to a couple of concerns:

How cold will it be on a river cruise in Europe in December?
A fan of big ship cruising, will I long for variety and contemporary amenities?
What's the best way to tote home all the stuff that we'll inevitably buy?

Tucker found answers to these questions and more during a recent seven-day Christmas markets cruise. Cruise along with her!
Day 1: Embarkation at Nuremberg
Day 2: Nuremberg and Danube cruising
Day 3: Regensburg
Day 4: Passau
Day 5: Salzburg
Day 6: Melk, Durnstein and Danube cruising
Day 7: Vienna
Day 8: Disembarkation
Related Links
Viking Spirit ship review
Viking Spirit Member reviews
Europe River Cruises
Viking River Messages
Day 1: Tuesday, Embarkation at Nuremberg
Embarkation at NurembergWeather Report: Sunny!

After an overnight flight from the States with a very easy connection in Zurich, my sister and I arrived around 10 a.m. at the Nuremberg airport, where a Viking River Cruises representative met us. We had a short wait for the transfer (with just enough time to visit the ATM to withdraw some Euros), and then we were on our way to the Viking Spirit. While our rooms would not be ready until 2 p.m., we were allowed to check in early and leave our bags.

Approaching the ship, the first impression from this big ship aficionado was, naturally, how small it seemed! Viking Spirit, as are many European river cruise vessels, is long, low and narrow -- and, I discovered almost immediately -- deceptively small.

Embarkation was a breeze -- by far the easiest and fastest I've ever experienced on a ship. We simply gave the receptionist our names and passports (no credit cards or paperwork to fill out!) and in return she handed us our room keys along with nametags, another first for me on a cruise.

We then had our first chance to explore the ship. Having cruised only on large ships before, it became quickly apparent that this was going to be quite a different experience. Certainly the intimacy of its size makes a big impression. The public rooms consist primarily of a comfortable observation lounge surrounded by floor-to-ceiling picture windows. It's the place for informal socializing, sightseeing on the river, afternoon tea, daily briefings, cocktails (there's a small, full-service bar), entertainment and virtually all other activities onboard.

There's also a tiny game room/library with a couple dozen books that look like they were left behind by former passengers, a dining room, and a small, but comfortable reading room. You won't find the spa, casino, fitness room, Internet cafe or the multitude of lounges, bars and shops that one expects on a large ship.

After enjoying an early light lunch -- a buffet with soup, hard-roll deli sandwiches and spaghetti and meatballs, we were ready to start shopping. Since the ship is docked in Nuremberg's newer section -- and it's a 15-minute ride to the old city where markets such as the famous Nuremburg Christkindlesmarkt (Christ Child) is located, we requested, via the ship's purser staff, a taxi. One duly arrived port-side; the ride cost about 10 - 15 euros.

At first, Nuremberg's Christmas market was a bit overwhelming, almost like hundreds of Christmas stores outside, one after another. It's one of the largest and most famous Christmas markets of all, visited by two million people each year. It is also one of the oldest markets, dating back to the early 1600's. There are about 200 stalls altogether located in the market square in front of the old church. The atmosphere is quite festive and crowded, and got even more so as the afternoon wore on. Sweet smells of gingerbread spices, mulled wine and bratwurst filled the air and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves.

At least half of the stalls sold Christmas ornaments of every imaginable kind -- angels, Santas, snowmen and even Titanic! -- in wood, metal, paper and glass. But we quickly started seeing the same ornaments over and over again and it became a challenge to find unique ones that you couldn't find at home and weren't made in China.

Which is not to say we didn't succeed -- and ended up finding some unique ornaments, the best of which were the angels. That's because angels are a big Nuremberg tradition. Originally designed and sold at the Christmas market over 400 years ago by a local doll maker who had just lost his beautiful young daughter, these gold foil angels with pleated skirts have come to symbolize the Christ Child market and are a wonderful souvenir to bring home for your Christmas tree.

My favorite stalls sold "prune men." In the Nuremberg area these prune men are considered a patron saint of the family and are placed behind the window facing the outside to prevent any harm befalling the family members. Somewhat similar to gingerbread men, but much more fanciful, their bodies are made of figs, the arms and legs of dried prunes and the heads of walnuts. They are whimsically dressed as chimney sweeps, bride and bridegrooms, leprechauns, and other lively characters.

By far the liveliest spots in the Christmas market were the Gluhwein stands, which sell hot mulled wine in souvenir mugs which some fellow passengers began collecting (they are different at each market). Another local specialty to try is the Nuremberg sausage. It's typically sold "three in a bun," as they are no bigger than your pinky finger. Legend has it that during medieval times, there was an 8 p.m. curfew and the sausages were made that small in order to sell and pass them through keyholes after curfew and into jail cells.

And, you can't leave Nuremberg, known as the "gingerbread capital of the world," without tasting the local specialty -- here called Lebkuchen. You'll find dozens of gingerbread stalls at the market, with intricately decorated cookies decorative tins and several different varieties. The best, sweetest and moistest gingerbread is called Elisen (it also comes with vanilla and chocolate icing).

Here's a tip: Before you buy any to take home, you may want to check out a couple of the gingerbread stores on the edges of the marketplace or at a local supermarket where the prices are less expensive.

Ultimately exhausted, we headed back to the ship with our finds and unpacked and got ready for dinner. Even at 154 square ft., which would be considered on the small side on a big cruise ship, the design and layout of our stateroom -- more square than long and narrow and no seating area to take up space -- our cabin is surprisingly roomy. There's plenty of storage space (even with our bulky winter clothing and coats) and we've got a large picture window that spans the width.

This evening we met in the lounge for our official welcome and a safety demonstration (no muster drill!). As we overnight in Nuremberg, we received a daily briefing about tomorrow's shore excursion. Tonight's dinner was a traditional advent dinner, which surprisingly was very much like the traditional Thanksgiving dinner we enjoyed last week of turkey, potatoes and cranberry sauce. Sampling the nightlife on Viking Spirit will have to wait for another day -- wearied by the previous night's travel, a full afternoon of shopping and the time change, I crawled into bed and fell quickly asleep.
  Day 2: Nuremberg and Danube cruising

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