Christmas Markets on a Viking River Cruise
Story & photos by Neil Wolkodoff
Christmas may be the most magical time in Europe, and the best way to see both Europe and these festive events is a river cruise. Viking Cruises has been perfecting this itinerary longer than anyone in Europe (since 1997) and is expert at blending culture, history and an abundance of Christmas cheer. The market season in Europe runs from about November 30 to December 22, essentially three weeks to taste, celebrate and learn.
The ideal way to start a Rhine Getaway at Christmas is to spend three days in Amsterdam before embarkation. Viking has hotel packages, and Amsterdam is easy to navigate with their “I amsterdam” City Card. You can also pick a hotel by city region and then zip around to your interest areas using the same transport pass, which also includes many local discounts and added attractions, like museums.
Like most cruises, there is a range of times you can get to the ship, then meet and greet the crew while finding your cabin. The cabins are more substantial than anticipated. Moreover, here, the operative concept is to rest up and go, so you aren’t in the cabin that much. The ship is well appointed with the main restaurant, and a large bar/lounge and an extensive top deck for viewing. The cuisine rotates by region and city, expect some specialties of that town every night with regular favorites. Given the 190 passengers and the diversity of tastes, Viking has mastered the art of blending great regional food with solid favorites, like the grilled ribeye.
The first night, after check-in, there is more meeting and bar greeting. Viking is small enough you can meet all the other passengers in conversations, meals or mingling and that is the main focus of the first night as the ship sets sail. Viking is about meaningful interaction with other guests, the staff and the culture and history of each stop along the way. On most days, the ship sails at night then docks during the day for exploration. Each night, each cabin receives a detailed overview of the next stop complete with key sites, tours, docking, and departure information.
The included tours are more than adequate, which presents the essential history, landmarks and cultural nuances of that city. Each stop has at least one added, extra charge tour for the more adventurous of those sailing with Viking a second or third time. Viking is very picky about tour guides in each city, they have to be experts in their area, and undergo extensive training and periodic reviews. Hop off in the morning, go as directed, and Viking has done all the planning from transportation to the specific itinerary for the day, you just provide a little personal locomotion on the tour. You don’t miss a word tour-wise because each tour guide is connected to each participant with a unique wireless headset.
On and off the ship is easy as it’s always the second deck, and Viking has some of the best docking locations in each city. The included maps pinpoint your exact dock location, interesting local landmarks, and markets, so a walking tour on your own is secure.
Day 1: Windmills and More Windmills. Kinderdijk is the most famous windmill town in Holland, and you get a living history lesson on windmills and their importance to land reclamation in early Holland. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the original 150 windmills are now down to 19 in Kinderdijk. A fantastic display of hydraulic technology from almost 200 years ago.
Day 2: Cologne, Germany. Germany celebrates Christmas like no other nation in Europe, so abundant Christmas markets appear to pop up every few blocks. Each market has a special gluhwein mug, just purchase and refill at a nominal rate during your walk. Here the included tour takes you to Old Town, the Cathedral and St. Martin’s Church. If you want to toast with the best of them, the evening excursion is an immersion in Cologne’s Beer Culture and Dinner.
Day 3: Koblenz & Rudesheim, Germany. The morning trek is up to the 700-year-old Marksburg Castle, then do a guided sailing for the afternoon seeing castles and their stories. Once the ship docks in Rudesheim, you are further entrenched in the history of romanticism with storybook villages, renown Riesling and chardonnays. The additional tour features a wine tasting and dinner at the Eberbach estate.
Day 4: Heidelberg & Speyer, Germany. While Heidelberg is the oldest university in Germany, the actual Manheim Steamroller, the first propelled tractor originated in the town. The grandeur of the Heidelberg castle, a Gothic-Renaissance masterpiece, was also a draw for artists and others, including Mark Twain. Moreover, of course, more Christmas markets along the way.
Day 5: Kehl & Strasbourg. Not to be outdone by the Germans, Strasbourg makes a huge Christmas statement French-style with numerous Christmas markets. A grand included tour of the city’s famed cathedral, historical center, and parliament starts the day. For a better taste of the region, the Test the Best of Alsace tour combines meeting food merchants, sommeliers, and notable local chefs. The people of Alsace are a little independent, and thus the food and wine are different than in both mainstream Germany and France. If a speed interest drives you, the Mercedes Benz Factory tour will get your motor running autobahn style.
Day 6: Breisach, Germany. At the entrance to the Black Forest, you experience the mountain landscape, cuckoo clocks, Christmas stands and even Black Forest Cake. If history is calling, the optional tour to the Colmar area, where the WWII “Pocket Battle” was fought will stir emotion. Included are numerous battlefield memorials, and a stop at the site of Audy Murphy’s machine gun stand against German forces made him the most decorated American soldier of all time. If spirits are in the cards, then the Gelderman winery, founded in 1838, is renown for its’ sparkling wines using traditional, in bottle fermentation.
Day 7: Basel, Switzerland. Docking early in Basel, and then it is off the ship for optional excursions to Lucerne or Zurich or air transport home.
Neil Wolkodoff, PhD, is a Sports Scientist in Denver, Colorado who has worked with golfers over the last 15 years. During the rare free times, he travels to exotic golf destinations to see how golf, culture and local geography mix in different locales. He has penned articles for Colorado Avid Golfer, Golf Digest, and Golf Magazine. In his travels, he has golfed with royalty, tour professionals, the local duffer, and the occasional goat.