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Christmas-time on the Danube


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This time of the year is exciting in Europe.  It is the lead-up to Christmas.  The weather is crisp – in South Africa, we’d label it as cold – and you wake up each morning wondering whether it snowed in the night or will perhaps snow during the day.  Evenings draw in early and, as they do, all the Christmas lights come on and, what was a joyful atmosphere during the day becomes a festival of light, sound, aroma and taste…and that’s before you even set out for the Christmas markets.  Each town seems to have at least one and each one is well worth a visit.
 
CHRISTMAS MARKET CRUISE
In November/December 2013, my wife and I experienced this magical pre-Christmas atmosphere first-hand, when we took a 7-night cruise down the Danube with AmaWaterways, visiting 14 Christmas markets along the way.
Boarding in Nuremberg, we stepped into an almost fairy tale world – the kind of world that we, as South Africans, had come to believe was synonymous with a European Christmas.  It was warm and cosy after the freshness of the Nuremberg air, festively decorated in green and red, gold and silver, with just a hint of “snow”. 
Starting with a mouth-watering welcome dinner, the meals were a gourmand’s delight, featuring special dishes of the region, each with its own explosion of tastes and flavours and all washed down with unlimited glasses of soft drinks, regional wines and local beer.
Our sortie into the Nuremberg Christmas market was the first of the daily shore excursions that were a part of our voyage.  Sipping hot Gluhwein from a mug that made the journey home with us, and entranced by the smells of cinnamon-rich Lebkuchen, ginger bread, hot sausages grilling over a fire, aromatic coffee, scented candles and freshly cut spruce and fir, we wandered from stall to stall, gazing at Christmas ornaments, matryoshka dolls, beer steins, traditional cakes, biscuits, breads and confectionery – all the ingredients that make a Northern European Christmas so entrancing to a visitor from the Southern hemisphere.  We returned to our cruiser excited, energised and eager to set sail, which we did before dinner.
Our first night of sailing was spent crossing the Continental Divide through a series of locks (16, I was told).  It boggled my mind to think that I had gone to bed on the West-flowing Rhine and had woken up on the East-flowing Danube...but then, engineering has never been my strong point.
Regensburg, Passau (pictured above), Melk, beautiful Vienna and breath-taking Budapest – each with at least one Christmas market and, in most cases, more than one.  A guided tour in each – mostly on foot – unveiled the unique charm and character of each port and afterwards, there was time to explore the Christmas markets at leisure.  My wallet wished there was less time to explore, but my strong point has never been the ability to resist an enticing item – particularly when it is wrapped in a magical atmosphere.
 
HIGHLIGHTS OF THE CRUISE
Nuremberg – our introduction to German Christmas markets, with its gluhwein in a mug which we could keep as a souvenir or return and reclaim our deposit.  Our Christmas presents for 2013 were purchased in this market.  My wife’s was a matryoshka doll and mine was a beer stein.
Regensburg – the market in the grounds of the Thurn and Taxis Palace, where we bought a few special gifts that we never found in any of the other markets.
Passau – our guide told us in impeccable English that this was where Hitler spent some of his boyhood years.  At the age of 6, he fell into the Danube and was rescued by a friend, who spent a large part of his adulthood wondering whether he had done a noble thing or not.
Melk – the most magnificent, well-preserved monastery that I have ever encountered.
Vienna – a beautiful, beautiful city with amazing historical buildings, where we visited 4 Christmas markets and ate huge, piping hot schnitzels sandwiched in equally huge toasted sesame buns in the open air, while a gentle snow fall sprinkled our jackets.
Budapest – one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen.  A night cruise on the Danube opened up a fairy tale world of enchantingly lit buildings reflected in the dark water of the river.
The Cruiser – the warmth and hospitality, magnificent food and where even I was allowed to sit on Santa Claus’ lap to receive my Christmas present from him.
 
This was a wonderful experience.  Yes, it was cold and No, I wasn’t barefoot but that didn’t matter.  I’d do it again…and again if I had the chance.
My bucket list AmaWaterways cruise?  From Budapest, up the Danube, over the Continental Divide and down the Rhine to Amsterdam – 14 days of luxury with a few Christmas markets thrown into the bargain.

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