Cruising the Danube at Christmas

Vienna Christmas Market

It was a special moment. In a scene out of a fairytale, gingerbread house-like stalls adorned with twinkle lights filled the square in front of St. Stephens Cathedral in Passau, Germany. Handmade ornaments, one of a kind local treasures and delectable confections on display beckoned.

As I wandered around, the aroma of grilled sausages and fresh, baked goods stoked my hunger—or perhaps my propensity toward seasonal gluttony. I succumbed and headed straight for the stall serving the oh-so-cheesy raclette. And of course, a steamy mug of Glühwein was a must.

Gingerbread House in Passau

Sitting at a table at the edge of the bustling market, I settled in for some people watching. While it was difficult to distinguish tourists from locals, it was clear everyone was enjoying themselves on this chilly winter night.

Within moments, a trio of German-speaking junior high schoolers approached me and asked in plain English if they could join me. “Sure”, I said and then the questions began. Where are you from? Do you speak German? Why are you here? Do you like it? What’s it like to live in New York? Who did you vote for, Clinton or Trump? Without getting into a political fray, I must say, those 8th-graders from Passau knew far more about American politics than any 8th graders I’ve ever met! It wasn’t long before other students joined—one even asking if he could finish my raclette. The interaction reminded me what it is I love so much about European Christmas markets. They’re full of warmth and emotion.

Passau Christkindlmarkt

Christmas Market Cruise

While I love a road trip as much as anyone, recently I took to the water on a Christmas market cruise along Europe’s Danube River, with an itinerary stretching from Hungary and Slovakia to Austria and Germany.

Each festive location brought interesting stalls, decadent treats and plenty of good cheer. With the cruise spanning four countries, diverse cultures played a big role in giving each market its unique characteristics and cuisine.

Christmas Market Treasures

Port of Call: Budapest

Stuffed cabbage, potato pancakes and goulash rule at the markets in Budapest. Hungarian staples, these dishes are universally enjoyed especially when there’s a chill in the air which nicely balances the heaviness of the cuisine. I savored everything but made sure to follow my indulgence with a hike to keep off the pounds!

What made this stop more enticing was that there was an optional activity offered. Far from the strict eat and drink cruise, it was an opportunity to get some exercise while enjoying the local attractions. I was happy to join a guided 4-mile hike on Buda Hill which was both educational and entertaining. Along the way, I learned about the country’s troubled history and struggle for freedom. Big perk: multiple views of the river were beautiful.

Hungarian Parliament on the Danube

Port of Call: Slovakia

While each city had its own DNA, the obvious difference from one to the other was the cuisine. In Bratislava, Slovakia’s capital, enticing aromas wafted in the air. A local favorite, Ciganska Pecienka is a heavily seasoned pork or chicken cutlet typically fried or grilled with onions and served on a bun. Another favorite, Lokše, starts with fried potato dough. Satisfying both savory and sweet, the dough is topped with anything from cabbage, sauerkraut, goose liver pate and cheese to walnuts, caramel, cinnamon and sweet cheese.

Bratislava Market

Port of Call: Austria

In Austria, market stalls peddle cream-filled pastries, pretzels, sausages and mulled wine. At the centerpiece of the Vienna Christmas experience, Christkindlmarkt in the Rathausplatz, 150 stalls offer glass ornaments, artwork, jewelry and traditional yuletide crafts. And many Advent surprises abound throughout the city’s parks. Dating to the late 18th-century, the market welcomes an estimated 3.5 million visitors each year.

In contrast, a relatively small market in Melk provided an intimate experience with local carolers singing at the stunning Melk Abbey with all its golden splendor standing watch over the charming town.

Melk Abbey

While Christmas markets were the focus of the cruise, they weren’t the only attraction. Passengers could delve deeper into local culture through special excursions and private events. In Vienna, a music-themed option treated us to an exclusive concert of classical music featuring works by Mozart and Strauss played in the impressive Liechtenstein City Palace where Beethoven first performed his 3rd Symphony.  It was a moving performance, for sure.

Vienna Christmas Market

Christmas Markets and More

And what about those curious German students in Passau? Like me, they learned that a Christmas market cruise is more than a seasonal shopping and eating experience. Beyond the spectacular markets, expert guides provide historical perspective and opportunities for cultural interactions abound. And the adventure only requires a childlike wish to be enchanted at Christmas time.

Emerald Waterways

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This article first appeared on Travel Squire.