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A Christmas Markets Cruise
to Remember

Posted by Amy Clyde on 3/26/2015
Posted in: Tauck’s Travelogue
Tags: River Cruise, Christmas Markets, Tauck, Travel

xmas lead in

As the sound of children caroling on the steps of the Church of Our Lady filled the air, I sipped a mug of feuerzangen – Nürnberg’s signature hot wine-and-rum punch – nibbled a marjoram-flavored bratwurst, and plotted my next move.

nurnburgShimmering with holiday lights, the cobblestone Hauptmarkt square was overflowing with stalls topped by red-and-white-striped roofs as far as I could see – each stall piled high with traditional Bavarian yuletide treats, like cinnamon sugar-dusted schneeballen... artisan-made ornaments of straw, cloves, and felt... spinning Christmas pyramids shining with candlelight... and local specialties, like toys of wood and tin, and “plum people” – funny little figures made from dried fruits, nuts, and cloth.

I had my eye on the gingerbread – lebküchen – to bring home as a gift. Afterward I’d find the perfect glass-blown tree ornament to remind me of this trip. And then maybe I’d go for a ride in a bright yellow horse-drawn carriage...

On second thought, I needed to go shopping for a new suitcase to help carry back the goodies and presents I’d found in the Austria and Germany Christmas markets along the Danube River throughout the week; the suitcase I’d brought from home was already full of glorious loot – a chic hat from Passau, apricot liqueur from Melk, lambs wool earmuffs and smashing green leather gloves from Salzburg...

But cruising from town to town on a Tauck riverboat, I had discovered that the European holiday markets are about much more than shopping.  Each one is like walking into a different fairy tale – each charming in its own way, with its own age-old customs, and each an authentic slice of local life that you can’t experience at any other time of year, or anywhere else.

xmas gluweinWe have nothing like these seasonal markets in the States. Set up in old city and town squares throughout Germany, Austria, and France, they are where the locals gather, touch base, and chat during the month leading up to Christmas – neighbors, friends, families, teenagers... everyone comes out to get together over old-fashioned regional treats and steaming mugs of mulled wine. When it’s cold outside the Christmas Markets warm the heart... as they have for centuries.

My heart actually started warming up as soon as I set foot on our riverboat, the ms Savor, at the beginning of the cruise in Vienna. The ship was all decked out for the holidays – a big tree in the lobby, traditional cookies and drinks of all kinds at the ready, stockings hanging by every cabin door… One look and I had instant holiday spirit. At home I’m the one who does the decorating and rushing around in December to create my family’s Christmas; onboard it was lovely to have it all done for me, like a gift. The whole trip I felt like a kid.

xmas lobby

The cruise was filled with events and activities that also felt like presents. One evening in Regensburg alums of the celebrated Regensburg Cathedral Boys Choir came onboard to sing for us. You’ve heard of the Vienna Boys Choir? Regensburg’s is just as good.

And every day there was a fascinating cultural experience ashore – a guided tour of Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna (where I learned that Empress Maria Theresa ate twelve times a day while pregnant following the prevailing obstetrical wisdom of the day); lunch at Palais Pallavicini, one of the few private palaces in Venice; a guided visit at Melk Abbey, where the Baroque library is magnificent and we just happened to luck into a special musical mass in the church; and lunch at historic Stiftskeller St. Peter in Salzburg, where the turkey with Glenfiddich glaze accompanied by red cabbage braised with a touch of prunes was the best holiday meal I’ve ever had.

Another wonderful part of the cruise was walking around the old towns with knowledgeable and witty local guides. They told many stories, providing a layered sense of place everywhere we went. Much better than a guide book.

I’ll always remember coming across the “stumbling blocks” in Salzburg – single brass “stones” set among the cobblestones in front of houses, like plaques, each one a reminder of someone who used to live there who perished during World War II. To have our guide point out these blocks, to know what they say about the values of the people of Salzburg today, to “stumble” upon the absence of those who were lost and feel them at that moment as very real and present – all of this was priceless.

decorating treeFrom Vienna to Nürnberg, there was something new to learn around every corner, and something new to feel. And it was great to be experiencing it all with my lively fellow travellers onboard the ms Savor. Our second evening together, sipping Baileys, we trimmed the biggest tree onboard and made it a “giving tree” to surround with presents we would buy throughout the week for people in need in Nürnberg, our last port of call. By the time we reached Nürnberg, there were stacks and stacks of presents spilling out from under the tree. The loving spirit of the season was certainly alive and well along the Danube that week.

If you want to experience the holiday spirit of the European Christmas Markets for yourself this year, you should know that hands down Tauck has the best river cruises, according to the readers of Travel + Leisure; in 2014 they voted Tauck the “World’s Best River Cruise Line” for the third time in four years. After my cruise on the Danube, I totally get it.
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