Where the Pros Go

BY LISA SANDS

Where the Pros Go
Christmas Markets Along the Danube

Please don’t judge me, but Christmas is not my favorite holiday season. Between Thanksgiving and the end of the year, I find myself stressed and melancholy, with my mind full of memories of lost loved ones and my wallet emptier by the day as I try to fill that void with material goods for the kids. I dread going anywhere near a shopping mall in search of the perfect gift, and I dread the letdown I feel after the Big Day. Bah, humbug!

So, when I was invited on a mid-December river cruise with 16 colleagues to experience Christmas Markets along the Danube, I was filled with conflicting emotions. The title itself includes “markets,” so I envisioned day upon day of shopping, bundled up like a fluffy ball of yarn, marching through the wintry tundra along an icy river. But I couldn’t have been more wrong about the trip. Was there a lot of shopping? Yes, but it was nothing like shopping in a mall. Was it cold? Yes, but it was cold at home, too. The trip turned out to be one of the most meaningful holiday experiences I’ve ever had.

We traveled with Tauck, a third-generation tour company that focuses on enriching travel experiences through escorted tours and river cruises to more than 140 destinations worldwide. Our home for the eight-day cruise was Tauck’s ms Savor, with just 130 passengers, including couples, groups of friends and extended families. The ship was seasonally decorated, and holiday music played throughout the common areas. Each day on board offered some holiday-related activity, including tree-trimming, holiday music trivia and even a Secret Santa gift exchange. The ship’s friendly staff and atmosphere, including digitized fireplaces in the Panorama Lounge, were the perfect complement to the fairy tale-like quality of the small towns and Christkindlmarkts we visited. By the end of our trip, I could relate to the Grinch when his heart grows big. It was a renewing experience. The holiday spirit stayed with me well beyond the end of the trip, too. If you’re in the “market” for a winter vacation that will deliver the true spirit of the season to you and your loved ones, put this one on your bucket list.

Highlights of the Familiarization Trip
Our itinerary included famed cities along the Danube River, including Vienna, Melk, Linz and Salzburg, Austria; and Passau, Regensburg and Nuremberg, Germany. I recommend spending at least one pre-night at a hotel in your initial port city. My prenight in Vienna was magical. Walking along cobblestone streets, I wandered through the city’s outdoor markets aglow with tiny twinkling lights, past ornate 17th-century buildings and gothic cathedrals, and sampled my first steaming mug of mulled wine as a light snow swirled.

Sightseeing included Melk Abbey, a Baroque monastery housing a massive collection of medieval manuscripts; a walking tour of Mozart’s birthplace, Salzburg; and Schönbrunn Palace, the 1,441-room summer residence of Austrian royalty and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. History buffs shouldn’t miss Nuremberg, where the famous trials were held at the end of World War II (and also home to Germany’s largest Christmas market).

The cadence of each day was relaxed yet filled with activity. After breakfast, guests departed for guided sightseeing, and lunch in town was often included (in Salzburg, we had lunch in Stiftskeller St. Peter, one of Europe’s oldest restaurants). Afternoons were generally free for self-paced sightseeing or visits to Christmas markets, and dinner was a casual affair, with no set seating time and no formal dress required. Evenings were spent in the Panorama Lounge listening to local entertainers or enjoying a drink with new friends. By the end of the trip, we knew many of the 130 passengers; getting to know other guests is one of the great things about traveling by a smaller river cruise ship.

Most Surprising Aspects

Christmas markets in each town are unique, with rows of wooden stalls selling local crafts, traditional foods and glühwein, which is hot mulled wine that’s also made with various spirits and sweeteners such as caramel. A mug of glühwein costs about 7 euros, and if you return the mug when you finish, you get the 1 euro deposit back (or you can keep the mug as a souvenir). Every market has its own mug, so you’ll have to pay the deposit for a new mug in each city (I have quite a collection!). In larger markets, you’ll find a bandstand with live music, carnival rides, craft workshops and ice skating rinks. Most city markets offer free admission.

If you see something in one market that you really like, buy it, because you may not see it somewhere else. Some markets are known for specific items; for example, Nuremberg is known for its wide array of German-made nutcrackers and incense smokers. › Watch out for the Krampus! This beast-like horned creature is St. Nicholas’ antithesis who, according to legend, punishes naughty children. You may see a few Krampus-costumed locals at the markets, and lots of Krampus ornaments.

And most surprising for me: I did not get bored with the shopping. It was that different in each town. With the scent of roasting chestnuts, sound of festive music, and sight of happy families browsing the stalls, it was nothing like shopping for gifts in a U.S. mall.

If You Go…

Christmas markets run for about two months each year, and dates vary by country. In Austria, the markets open on November 11 (St. Martin’s Day) and run through December 24.

Bring cash (euros) for shopping. Very few market vendors accept credit cards. Get a Travel Money Card from AAA, a reloadable plastic card to which you add a set amount of U.S. dollars, and then simply withdraw funds from any ATM when you need euros.

Bring casual, warm clothing, and plan to dress in layers. You won’t need fancy dinner dress when you travel with Tauck, although there were a couple of evenings on which holiday wear was encouraged. Bring waterproof boots or sturdy walking shoes. We had light snow once or twice, but the weather was mainly clear and cold, comparable to the U.S. Northeast. You’ll want to go out at night to see the spectacularly lit markets. The glühwein will keep you warm.

Be prepared for low water levels on the river that may impact how far up the Danube the ship can travel. We were diverted from sailing to our final port, but the wonderful staff at Tauck worked overnight on alternate plans to get us to our planned sightseeing by motorcoach.

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