Explore Europe’s magical Christmas markets with AmaWaterways
By Katie McElveen
Europe may set trends in art, music and food. However, when it comes to the holidays, tradition reigns — particularly in cities along the Danube River, where, starting in November, Christmas markets begin to open for the season.
The festive custom dates back centuries, all the way to the Middle Ages, when towns and villages throughout the region organized winter gatherings to celebrate the beginning of Advent. Today, these markets are a step back in time, offering an atmospheric antidote to more modern Christmas events with aromas of gingerbread and mulled wine, the sounds of carolers, lots of twinkling lights and hundreds of wooden stalls overflowing with handcrafted items.
Each market has its own personality and history, too. In Germany, records indicate that Nuremberg’s Christkindlesmarkt was probably founded in the 16th century and had become so popular that, a hundred years later, in 1616, a local parish minister canceled Vespers because everyone was at the market shopping for Christmas gifts. Though one of Europe’s most popular markets — more than 2 million people visit each year — the Nuremberg market still sells locally-made food and craft items, including the city’s unique prune men dolls that are crafted from dried prunes, figs and walnuts. Locally produced goods are also the norm in Passau, where St. Stephen’s, the city’s gorgeous Baroque cathedral, creates a dramatic backdrop for this smaller, easy-to-navigate — but well curated — collection of stalls. In Vienna, Austria, markets range from the hip, DJ-powered outdoor winter market that takes over the city’s Museum Quarter each December to the shops within Spittelberg’s meandering warren of cobbled streets and, grandest of them all, Christkindlmarkt on the Rathausplatz, a massive open-air extravaganza that’s home to more than 150 vendors, as well as nightly choir and band performances, an ice skating rink and wondrous light displays.
In December 2019, Anita B. Flippin, (abflippin@AAACarolinas.com) branch manager at the AAA Durham, North Carolina, office, took her sister on a Christmas market-themed cruise through the region aboard AmaWaterways’ AmaMagna. The new ship is twice as wide as any other ship sailing the Danube — or any other European river. Anita found that the ship’s larger size offered more dining options, larger suites and expanded public spaces. “We chose a verandah cabin — not a suite — but it was huge,” she says. “The balcony was actually large enough to sit on!”
Since Anita had visited Europe before, she chose to spend her days enjoying the Christmas markets in each city they visited. Her favorite was Salzburg, Austria, where she was able to visit three different markets in one day. “I purchased beautiful handmade glass ornaments and, of course, chocolate,” she says. “You’ve got to bring home chocolate from Europe!”
Anita wasn’t the only passenger with a soft spot for Salzburg. Traveling with her mother, Tara Clemens, (tlclemens@AAACarolinas.com) branch manager of the AAA Cary/Waverly Place, N.C., office, enjoyed the variety of non-market excursions available on the “Christmas Markets of the Danube” itinerary. She especially liked the full-day visit to Salzburg, Austria, where the Sound of Music fan was able to explore, among other sites, the Nonnberg Convent, which was a filming location, as well as home to the real Maria von Trapp for two years; the family’s real-life Salzburg home and the town of Mondsee, where Maria’s marriage to Captain Von Trapp was filmed at the Collegiate Church of Saint Michael.
Nichole Mills, (dnmills@AAACarolinas.com) branch manager at the AAA Greensboro/Pisgah Church, N.C., office, was also impressed with the Danube excursions. “The guides did a great job of making each church and landmark interesting by highlighting what was different about each one and how it represented its era,” she explains. “I ended up learning a lot.”
Beyond in-depth exploration of the remarkable churches and cathedrals that line the Danube, AmaWaterways offers a huge variety of immersive experiences fusing foodways, art, music, architecture, history and, most recently, exercise.
In Passau, Germany, which was founded by the Celts during the 2nd century B.C., an expedition takes hikers to Veste Oberhaus, a 13th-century fortress that sits atop St. Georgesberg Mountain. The 40-minute or so trek is worth every sweaty step. The citadel overlooks Passau and the three rivers that surround it. Within the walls, a museum tells the story of what it took to build the imposing structure.
Austria is filled with active excursions including a cycle tour of Vienna that takes advantage of the city’s 745 miles of bike paths to showcase both popular and lesser-known sights. Also, within Austria’s vineyard-strewn Wachau Valley, you’ll have the chance to safely pedal from village to village — even in winter — along specially-designed trails. Independent types won’t feel hemmed in either. Each AmaWaterways ship carries a fleet of bikes that can be checked out at any time with no charge.
Since its founding in 2002, AmaWaterways has put a distinct focus on food, a philosophy that goes well beyond serving regionally-inspired, locally-sourced dishes on every cruise to include immersive culinary experiences in every destination. On the line’s “Danube Christmas Market” itineraries, the “Taste of Slovakia” excursion in Bratislava may include tastes of seasonal delicacies such as ciganska pecienka, a flavorful sandwich of spiced pork or chicken served with caramelized onions, mustard and hot peppers; and sweet poppy seed pastries. There are also cinnamon-sprinkled apricot dumplings, apricot jam and apricot liqueurs to try in Durnstein, which grows the sweetest of the golden orbs.
No matter which Christmas market itinerary you choose, your ship will be decked out in its holiday best — wreaths hung on every stateroom door, lighted garland twinkling on staircases and menorahs and Christmas trees decorating public spaces. It’s a magical time to be in one the most magical locales in the world.
Now’s the time to book your magical Christmas markets river cruise! Call your local AAA Travel Agent today at 800-750-5386!
Can’t wait until Christmas? Join Samantha Brown Aug. 6-13, 2020 for a “Taste of Bordeaux” sailing! Visit AAA.com/SamanthaBrown for details!
(Traveler Spring 2020)