A good travel bucket list should be filled with destinations that include luxurious accommodations, incredible pampering, and great food and drink. For my wife and me, a European river cruise and a chance to tour Europe’s Christmas markets were among the items on our list.
Last year, we were delighted to mark both items as complete in one trip, an all-inclusive Danube River cruise on the S.S. Maria Theresa, operated by Uniworld Boutique River Cruises. Our eight-day European Holiday Markets trip from Nuremburg to Vienna included stops in Regensburg, Deggendorf, Theresienthal, and Passau in Germany, plus Linz, Dürnstein, and Vienna in Austria.
Local informative walking tours led by professional and knowledgeable guides were included free at each stop, with optional bus transportation provided for those with limited mobility. The tours ended at local Christmas markets, which varied in size and atmosphere. Maria Theresa offered us elegant accommodations and superb meals as we explored the charming ports. It was a trip of a lifetime.
Nuremberg’s world-famous Christmas market (Christkindlesmarkta), held in the spacious central square in old town in front of the Church of Our Lady (Frauenkirche), has a prosperous modern feel with row upon perfect row of booths selling everything from glass angels and ornaments to fruit dolls and scarfs. A plethora of food booths sells a range of exquisite sausage sandwiches, mulled wine, and beer; at least one booth sells the best potato pancakes. Be sure to look up at the church’s mechanical clock at noon for the daily männleinlaufen (running men) and you’ll see seven prince-electors move around Emperor Karl IV.
Regensburg, on the other hand, has several Christmas markets, the most romantic of which was located in the courtyard of the Thurn and Taxis Palace. Wooden vendors’ booths have evergreen branches strewn across roofs that complement the 300-year-old palace and create a warm, authentic atmosphere. The locally made sausages and mulled wine were excellent, and perusing many of the crafts was fun.
In Vienna, we decided to pay for a tour to the Schönbrunn Palace and Christmas market. The Schönbrunn and a stop earlier in the day at the Winter Palace of Prince Eugene in Vienna’s city center were windows into a world of royalty and privilege. The market outside the Schönbrunn was one of our favorites because there was plenty of space between stands, a good mix of booths offering Christmas items and food, and an overall festive air, with several performers on stilts interacting with children and their families.
As we visited various markets, it became apparent that they were not there just for the tourists. The markets also are important destinations for locals seeking family-friendly activities or a place for friends to kibitz over drinks and foot-long sausage sandwiches.
The only port that didn’t have a Christmas market was Dürnstein, but this was of no consequence as we toured the twisting and arched streets, the ruins of Burgruine Dürnstein castle high above the town, and enjoyed a healthy cup of mulled wine. A magnificent view of the countryside was ours following a steep climb that ended just below the castle, which, according to locals, was where King Richard I was held for ransom in 1192.
Contrasting pastoral and opulent sights
In Linz, we passed up a planned farm visit, had a light lunch ashore and hopped on the Pöstlingbergbahn, a mountain tramway to Pöstlingberg atop a 1,768-foot hill on the north side of Linz. The tram’s vertical climb was exciting, but the view of Linz and the surrounding city from a lookout platform at the summit was breathtaking. We even came across a couple of women hand-feeding a small family of reindeer in a fenced enclosure, making the entire afternoon a serendipitous delight.
Other tours included an exclusive Mozart and Strauss concert in the opulent Viennese ÖIAV Palace and a visit to the glassworks in Theresienthal.
But the trip had sobering moments, too.
In Nuremberg, we paid to take the World War II historical bus tour to the courtroom where the Nuremberg trials were held. The tour ended at the Documentation Center, a museum located in the unfinished remains of the Congress Hall built for Nazi party rallies. A striking feature of the building is a modern glass and steel walkway designed as an immense arrow to symbolically pierce the heart of the structure with, at its tip, a small overlook of the surrounding courtyard.
An unscheduled activity on Maria Theresa fascinated me. I watched the ship go through one of the more than 20 locks. Because the locks along the Danube (and the Rhine River) are 12 meters wide, ships are built to a maximum width of about 11.4 meters (Maria Theresa is 11.43 meters), leaving no more than a foot of space on either side. This is never more apparent than when standing on the deck of the ship at the bottom of the lock before it begins to fill.
Perhaps a cocktail from one of the ship’s bars would have made passing through the no more than a foot of space on either side.
Perhaps a cocktail from one of the ship’s bars would have made passing through the locks feel less claustrophobic.
Daily specials were available at the intimate Bar du Leopard aft or at the spacious Habsburg Salon forward, where music was performed most nights. We tasted mulled wine at many stops along the way but our Habsburg bartender unquestionably made the best. His secret: Captain Morgan rum.
The Baroque Restaurant provided open dining and space for intimate settings for those seeking privacy, as well as opportunities to share a table with fellow travelers. Every meal offered delicious options, and a white and red wine was provided with each dinner. The large and congenial wait staff provided us with exceptional service.
The Viennese Café was the venue for light breakfasts, desserts until midnight, as well as coffee, tea, and hot chocolate around the clock.
The 11 suites (complete with butler service) and 64 staterooms were elegantly appointed, and a housekeeping staff was ready to fulfill any need. Add to this a heated swimming pool, spa, fitness center, cinema, shopping opportunities, and an expansive top deck with plenty of seating for scenery watchers and there was very little more a guest can want.
Except more time. With all the activities ashore and aboard, there is too little time to sit and watch the incredible scenery pass. Romantic castles, walled and otherwise, intact and in ruins, and magnificent hillside communities recall images from picture books, television shows, and films about history long past. And the scenery becomes even more mesmerizing in the Wachau Valley around Dürnstein and beyond.
As our time aboard the Maria Theresa sadly came to an end, we were able to scratch river cruise of Europe off of our travel bucket list. Then it occurred to us that there is no reason we can’t simply write it down again and throw it back in the bucket.
Randy Cosby is a contributor from St. Louis, Mo.
More holiday travel wishes granted
Following our cruise, we decided to take a train from Vienna to Brussels, Belgium, a city our daughter insisted we must visit. A Christmas market in Brussels near our hotel was bulging with people the three nights of our stay. On two of those nights, we couldn’t pass up the frites, twice-fried French fries, served with either mayonnaise or one of several other mayonnaise-based sauces that were delicious.
A few blocks away, the Grand Place (Grote Markt), Brussels’ central square, was filled with people each night for a dazzling multi-colored light show that played off the facades of the historical buildings surrounding the space.
Day trips from Brussels took us to Ghent and Bruges, the latter being a top priority for me since seeing the film In Bruges. Christmas markets in Ghent and Bruges also were bustling, but the latter, located in the market square in front of the clock tower made famous in In Bruges, was entrancing at nightfall. At the suggestion of our cruise director, we found a little table with two chairs outside a café on the edge of the square, ordered two overpriced drinks, and simply watched folks file past in front of the gaily lighted booths. It was a sublime interlude and though lasting only a short while, should have had its own place on our bucket list.
We were able to take in many of these sights on our travel wish list thanks in large part to a great deal offered by Icelandair, which we took advantage of flying across the Atlantic Ocean from New York. Travelers from the U.S. can stop off up to a week in Reykjavik, Iceland, on the way to Europe at no extra airfare.
Although Reykjavik doesn’t partake in the Christmas-market phenomenon, it does have a unique Christmas tradition involving Yule Lads (Iceland’s take on Santa Claus) and their less-than-loving ogress mother, Grýla.
Iceland and its people are fascinating and hospitable. Its raw natural beauty is at times otherworldly. And while we didn’t see the Northern Lights during our four-day stay, our daughter, who joined us on the first leg of our trip, saw them the night after we left.
Perhaps she witnessed the most spectacular holiday light show of all.
– Randy Cosby