Sipping a mug of warming mulled wine in Koblenz from my vantage point on the Ehrenbreitstein Fortress perched high above the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle rivers, our ship Viva Tiara and vessels from the Viking and A-Rosa fleets resemble toys.
All around are amazing installations, including reindeer, stars and a musical illuminated "field" comprising thousands of lights, which make up the Christmas Garden trail in the grounds of the 19th century stronghold.
It's a magical sight.
In fact, the only thing missing is the crowds you would normally expect at such an event --instead there are no queues at the gluhwein and bratwurst stalls, most of the al fresco tables are empty and only a couple of children ride on the carousel.
As neighboring Austria goes into a snap lockdown and Germany imposes tighter COVID-19 restrictions -- and some lines cancel or amend their festive sailings -- here's our take on what it's like to sail on a German Christmas market cruise.
Many markets are still open
Although markets in the southern region of Bavaria have been canceled, including those at popular river cruise destinations in Nuremburg, Passau and Regensburg, those along the scenic Middle Rhine region remain open with increased health protocols, such as timed entry to the Christmas Garden. On our round-trip sailing from Dusseldorf we visited markets in Dusseldorf, Koblenz and Cologne -- which has a variety scattered across the city, with the most famous being in the shadow of the landmark twin-spired cathedral and within easy walking distance of river ship docking points.
What you need to know (and take with you)
We arrived shortly after Germany introduced its new "2G" rule which means unvaccinated people can no longer enter restaurants, bars, leisure facilities and certain public spaces including Christmas markets. This is not an issue for river cruise passengers as travelers can only travel to Germany with proof of a double vaccine and, if applicable, recovery from COVID-19.
However, it does mean you need to be organised. Everything is carefully checked on entry and we recommend it's best to save the necessary documents on your phone in case Wi-Fi is not available to pull up the original source, such as the NHS app for U.K. visitors. To be on the extra safe side keep a printed copy with you as well.
Some venues also check your certificate against proof of ID so be sure to carry that with you. One passenger was turned away from the Christmas Garden as she didn't have an approved form of ID, such as a passport. Once you're inside there are no further checks and some markets, including Cologne, put a nightclub-style stamp on your hand so you can pass in and out freely.
*Note: The obligation to wear masks, while not eating or drinking, varies from market to market so check on arrival and always keep some with you.
Viva Cruises, the tour operator arm of the Scylla company which supplies vessels for lines such as Tauck and Riviera, caters to German passengers and English-speaking travelers from other countries. There was a warm welcome when we arrived onboard the 153-passenger Viva Tiara (which some cruisers might remember as Swiss Tiara before it was refurbished and renamed) that was decked out with Christmas trees and decorations.
There is a currently a 70 percent limit on the number of passengers and additional protocols include a pre-embarkation health questionnaire, daily temperature checks, sanitising gel and social distancing throughout the ship and increased disinfection and cleaning. Crew members wear face masks all the time. Although no dancing is allowed and passengers can't sit around the bar the measures certainly didn't dampen passengers' spirits (in some part due to the line's generous open bar which added to the convivial onboard vibe!). One morning there was a gluhwein-making demonstration and another day a musical duo hopped aboard to provide after-dinner entertainment.
Conclusion: There is Still Plenty of Seasonal Cheer, But How Long Will This Last?
At the Christmas Garden there was a "wishing tree" where you could write down and hang up your yuletide hopes. While some visitors asked for specific presents and a would-be Romeo wrote down his telephone number alongside a heartfelt plea for a girlfriend, many wished for the end of COVID-19.
Until that happens, keep a watchful eye on itinerary changes and cancellations as the new Omicron variant takes hold across the globe.
But if you're prepared to go with the flow and take on the various and sometimes changing protocols you are still going to have a lot of fun on a festive market cruise.