Every year, it’s comfortingly the same and I react in just the same way; nose up in the air taking in the smells that mean it has to be Christmas. Sharp cloves, warm cinnamon, spices for mulled wine, tangy pine needles, warming ginger, these are all as familiar as Santa Claus himself and yet the pleasure in them are not diminished for all that. The joy of Christmas Markets across Europe is a guilty secret! Twinkly, fairy lights, lit mid-afternoon, around the wooden cabins that house the stalls, create an atmosphere humming with friendly, low-key anticipation. There’s a rustle and a bustle amongst the stallholders, a small brass band tuning up and the local choir, plump with flushed cheeks, assemble around the very foresty Christmas tree. And then it begins softly, like a gentle breath, slowly increasing in volume as we all join in, ‘Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht’ and it never fails to cause a tear, because it is all so magical, and so timeless. Flickering candles add to the twilight; for a moment it’s as if time has stood still.
I am especially partial to Lebkuchen and Stollen, available at every other stall, and frankly, each sample as delicious as the next. And yes, the charming man is absolutely correct, everything tastes so much better with a glass of warmed, spicy wine (Glühwein) in my hand. Wooden toys and traditional decorations are plentiful here and really well-made, with attractive (non-toxic) bright paints that remind me of my grandmother’s house. And the cheery little trains and flapping seagulls are charming. As are the softly coloured cashmere scarves, sheepskin mitts and felt cloche hats, to which I am devoted.
Each Christmas market has its own character, with some of the more provincial towns selling locally made, unique handicrafts and specialist foods, whilst those in the major cities are larger, more commercial and a bit more brash. I’d recommend visiting both to savour the contrast in styles, try the different foods and soak up what Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Hungary have on offer in the winter.
It’s an inescapable fact that mainland Northern Europe is likely to have snow in December, often before, which adds almost beyond measure to the atmosphere. Snow-capped buildings in the historic towns and squares, often lined with timber framed houses, bring to mind scenes from The Snow Queen or other fairy tales. Add the sounds and smells, warmth from braziers roasting chestnuts, and you have all the ingredients for a fabulous experience.
What makes this visit even more enjoyable is that I’m on a Christmas Market Cruise, so tomorrow there’s a new destination, new views and a different market. Added to which, we will be snug on the ship enjoying a gourmet dinner and great wines as we slip graciously along the river. I am a total convert to river cruising, it’s rather like finding an intimate boutique country house, that’s personal and known only to a select few, after a diet of giant, city centre, functional hotels which are open to all. And of course, there’s the total joy of only having to unpack once, yet being able to experience new places daily. The Rhine, Danube and Main rivers offer spectacular views of stunning hilltop castles, palaces and illuminated churches. Travelling on these major rivers provides insights into the fascinating history and culture of Europe, as well as great opportunities to explore on land.
At Christmastime, the river cruise ships enjoy a festive atmosphere, with classic, stylish decorations enhancing the tasteful decor. The public rooms are warm and cosy, creating a luxurious and friendly place in which to relax in the evenings, as the ship travels through the night to its next Christmas port of call.
For cruises to Christmas Markets, Silver Travel Advisor recommends Viking River Cruises.