FRANKFURT, December 17, 2012 — I defy you to suppress childlike enthusiasm for the holidays while visiting a German Christmas market. Even the most stoic holdouts will melt when handed a warm mug of glug wine (mulled wine) as they stroll past the rustic hand-built chalets that vendors create to sell Christmas trinkets. From kitschy winking felt elves to hand blown glass angels, this is an unabashed celebration of the season.
The German Christmas markets, like their Eastern European counterparts, date back to the 1300s. One candy maker in Nuremberg, who sold chocolate dipped pretzels as big as bike tires and two-foot ropes of rainbow colored licorice, told me her family had been making and selling candy here for three hundred years.
The Germans don’t get giddy about much, but Christmas is an exception. The markets are for Germans by Germans. That visitors like them too is simply an extra boost. You won’t see vendors pushing tchotke on tourists. This is very much a local tradition bordering on obsession. Most big cities and some smaller villages have Christmas markets in their main platz (plazas).
A river cruise makes visiting several German Christmas markets easy. Rather than having to pack and unpack, driving town to town, guests simply board the ship, unpack once and are whisked down either the long winding Rhine or the Danube River, a narrow passageway that slices through the heart of Bavaria, past swaths of the dense and dramatic Black Forest.
A new river cruise has just been launched by a luxury German company called A-ROSA. The company has been successfully guiding Germans down the Rhine and the Danube for more than a decade, but with the unveiling of a brand new boat called the Silva, A-ROSA is, for the first time, tailoring its river cruises to the North American market.
What does this mean? Well, for starters, all staff on board speaks fluent English. But more than that: A-ROSA is carving a unique niche among the river cruise operators in Germany by offering completely all inclusive trips, everything from airfare to top-shelf alcohol (all day) to excursions to tips. Book it and forget it. Other than shopping money, you need not have a Euro in your pocket.
Recently, I took a maiden voyage aboard the Silva. One of the great highlights was pulling up to the dock in Regensburg, which from 530 to the first half of the 13th century was the capital of Bavaria.
Here, I stepped off the boat into what looked like a fairy tale set. Despite the rough winds and billowing snow—or perhaps because of it—stalking the serpentine streets of this city was magical.
Regensburg is the only medieval-era city to be spared bombing during World War II. Weaving through foggy darkness under centuries-old bridges and past the atmospheric shadows cast from gothic church spires, a welcoming ethereal glow led me to the city’s Christmas market with its festive chalet booths, some with impish elves atop the roofs, some with pastoral scenes of grazing deer, some crowned with paper star lanterns.
The next day, when the Silva docked in Nuremberg, it was opening night of the city’s Christmas market. The platz was flanked by bricks and mortar shops selling ornaments, garlands and gingerbread houses.
For residents of Nuremberg, this night is the equivalent of an American Fourth of July. The market kicks off with an appearance by the Christ Child (not baby Jesus, here it’s a teenage girl who sends out a holiday wish) and a pleasant song with a local children’s choir.
Should you choose this night to visit, be prepared to be squeezed between thousands of people in a stream so virulent that it carries you forward, sometimes off your feet. The feeling hovers somewhere between exhilaration and terror, much like being trapped in soccer stadium after a hard-fought Scottish match.
After that sensory overload, the A-ROSA Silva calls like an old friend with open arms. I was thankful to step inside the hushed ship and head below deck to the spa to revive. The ship’s spa rivals many landlocked spas for style and space. The coed sauna even ohas large picture windows that pull the view inside.
But it is at the lounge upstairs where you will find the true spirit of Christmas with your other shipmates, sipping a Belvedere martini or a good Pilsner on draft. This comfy gathering space is the ship’s equivalent of a town square, where people come together to trade stories and lift a glass.
Dinner onboard is taken seriously. (Men need to wear jackets). The chef delivers meals that span the globe, but largely highlight the best of Germany. A sampling from my cruise: profiterole with duck liver pate and pink pepper, beef tenderloin with red wine sauce and white onion puree, and authentic apple strudel.
Unlike many riverboats where cabin sizes vary widely, most of 89 cabins on the Silva span about 156 square feet. Most rooms have floor-to-ceiling glass doors that frame the view of the riverbank like a postcard.
On my final night, I jutted my face outdoors. It was snowing steadily; ducks on the river had buried their heads into their wings. The sky was pitch dark and clouds swirled around the crescent moon. Suddenly, from the darkness, I spied an alabaster spire like a beacon atop a hillside church. Before I could make out the fullness of the church, it was swallowed once again into the stillness of the night. All that was left in view was the steady veil of snow as it caught the ship’s lights, and we sailed on.
Book A-ROSA Silva’s next year’s 14-day Danube River cruise to the Christmas markets of Bavaria by February 28, 2013 and save up to $1,000 off the regular fare of $7,983 per person.
To read more about European Christmas markets, see fellow Food & Travel columnist Bob Taylor’s piece http://communities.washingtontimes.com/neighborhood/travels-peabod/2012/dec/9/christmas-markets-three-countries-only-takes-littl/
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