Hungarian ParliamentAaron Saunders

By Aaron Saunders

I’ve always secretly longed for an old-fashioned, traditional Christmas spent in the narrow cobblestone streets of a centuries-old European Christmas market, sipping hot mulled wine while the sounds of carollers mingle with the scents of roasted chestnuts and spiced lebkuchen. It was a fairy tale world I never knew existed until last December, when I boarded AmaWaterways’ AmaLyra in Nuremberg, for a weeklong “Christmas Time Cruise” adventure along the Danube.

This was to be my first river cruise experience, despite having logged hundreds of days’ at sea on deep-ocean cruise ships. And it didn’t take long for me to realize that I loved it.

My itinerary was seemingly taken straight from a Christmas fable. Beginning in Nuremberg, we would sail down the legendary Danube River, bound for the German cities of Regensburg and Passau before crossing into Austria for visits to Linz, Melk and historic Vienna. A journey into the heart of the Hungarian capital of Budapest would conclude this great journey. Similar itineraries are offered during the summer high-season months, but setting this journey apart would be the included visits to some of the oldest Christmas Markets in Europe.

Nuremberg Christmas MarketAmaWaterways

Europe in December so closely resembles that storybook version of Christmas that we all secretly envision that it becomes nearly impossible to resist the sounds of carollers strolling near St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, or the spicy aroma of hot Gluhwein wafting through the air in Nuremberg. At every market I visited, friends and families would gather well into the night to enjoy the candies and treats offered at every market, and the atmosphere is abuzz with festive cheer.

I was thrilled to discover no two markets are created equal. In each, the traditions of years gone by have been passed down from generation to generation, creating a totally unique experience that only exists in December.

Vienna alone has a number of distinct Christmas Markets – so many that you’d be hard-pressed to see them all. Outside Vienna’s City Hall, the Rathausplatz Christkindlemarkt is easily one of the most beautiful. Festively-decorated trees and light displays stand in the shadows of the massive Rathaus, or City Hall, that was constructed between 1872 and 1883.

The market itself is a beehive of activity. It’s also loaded with food choices, making it the perfect place to grab a light lunch or dinner. Rich chocolates are featured in nearly every stall, and the smell of spices and roasting sausages wafts over the entire square.

Yet, less than a 10-minute walk away is the equally breathtaking Christmas Market at Maria-Theresien-Platz, sandwiched between the Natural History Museum and the Kunsthistorisches Museum, home to artworks spanning seven millennia. It’s quieter here and, for whatever reason, the rumpunsch is substantially (and pleasantly) stronger. There are more hand-crafted wares like ornaments, decorations and intricate woodcarvings and less of an emphasis on food.

These two markets exist just blocks away from each other, yet their look and feel are completely unique. On my way back to the ship, I accidentally stumbled across the Christmas Market in Freyung Square. Handmade wares were the name of the game at this triangular square, and it didn’t take much imagination to envision this same setting hundreds of years ago.

Of course, I had to stop and sample the Gluhwein.

The most popular drink served at each market, Gluhwein – or mulled wine – varies just as much as the markets themselves, and can be enjoyed mit Schuss (an additional shot of alcohol added). As a bonus, you can even keep the custom mug for a few Euros more; each city (and sometimes each market within a city) has their own distinctive cups. From my discussions onboard, I was far from the only person trying to figure out how to bring 10 mugs back in my luggage.

For the kids, kinderpunsch is a great non-alcoholic alternative commonly made from hot, spiced apple juice that can come in just as many variations as Gluhwein, with different booths adding their own unique spices and juices.

The markets also have some unexpected finds, like one chocolatier in Passau who specialised in sweet treats made to resemble wrenches, nuts, bolts, hammers, and other industrial tools and equipment.

NurembergAaron Saunderss
In Nuremberg, figures made out of nuts and prunes were some of the most highly sought-after souvenirs. In fact, they were prominent in nearly every stall and shop I went to in the Hauptmarkt square. There truly is something for everyone…

After spending just half an hour wandering each market, you’ll wish you had brought a second suitcase with you.

A definite highlight of the trip was the opportunity to visit the Thurn & Taxis Romantic Christmas Market, located on the historic grounds of the Palace of St. Emmeram in Regensburg, Germany. Fire-lit torches lined the gravel pathways that cut through this collection of former monastic buildings, all of which were built between the 11th and 14th centuries. And as I strolled the grounds, admiring the wares in the handmade wooden booths and listening to the soft strains of classical music coming from somewhere in the palace courtyard, I realized that my visit here was more than worth the 15-minute walk from the pier.

Winter had definitely arrived by the time we sailed into Budapest, Hungary. There was a new crispness to the air that forced me to tie my scarf just a little tighter and while there was no snow on the ground, the darkening skies indicated it wouldn’t be long before both Buda and Pest were blanketed in a soft layer of white powder.

As we sailed past the brightly-lit Hungarian Parliament to the strains of Strauss’ The Blue Danube, I realized that not only had I discovered a new way to cruise; I’d experienced the Christmas I always secretly wanted.

AmaWaterways’ AmaLyra
Technical Data
Built: 2009 at Scheepswerf Grave b.v., Netherlands.
Length: 110.0 meters
Width: 11.45 meters
Crew: 41
Staterooms: 75, including four suites
Passengers: 148
Elevator: One, with service to Cello Deck and Violin Deck.
Registry: Switzerland.
• Two Single Staterooms: designed exclusively for solo travellers. 13 square metres, featuring a French Balcony and located on Cello Deck.
• 13 Category D and E Staterooms: located on Piano Deck and featuring half-height fixed windows. 15.8 square metres.
• 56 Category A, B and C Staterooms: located on Violin and Cello Decks, featuring a French Balcony. 15.8 square metres.
• One Category A+ Suite: measuring 21 square metres and featuring a French Balcony.
• Three Junior Suites: measuring 23.7 square metres and featuring a French Balcony and bathroom with full bathtub and separate shower.
Public Rooms & Amenities
Sun Deck with one whirlpool; walking track; Main Lounge with 180-degree views; bow seating area; Gift Shop; Reception area; Massage and Hair Salon; aft-facing Lounge; Fitness Room; Restaurant with open-seating breakfast, dinner and lunch.
Complimentary Features
• Free-pour wine, beer and soda with dinner; complimentary bottled water, tea and coffee served 24-hours.
• Wi-Fi access throughout the ship.
• Bicycles for use ashore.
• Interactive television system in every stateroom featuring first-run Hollywood movies, classic films, travel videos, music channels and satellite television.
• Nearly all excursions ashore included in cruise price.