For years, the thought of European river cruising seemed like a summer activity, walking cobblestone streets under an azure sky, exploring historic ruins, vineyards, and going on truffle hunts. But now the winter cruise has become as popular as the summer cruise, due to one thing: the wish of many travellers to experience the sparkle, and the sensuality in terms of taste and scent, of the traditional European Christmas markets.
In many European towns and cities, the markets present colourful, lively events: the staging of Medieval period dance and music, the cooking of old family recipes made daily: exotic wursts, strudels, and Lebküchen (Bavarian gingerbread). Also, during the year, hand-hewn toys, hand-knit scarves and gloves are made in summer to be sold in winter at the Christmas markets.
In many towns and cities, preparation and planning for this event take all year, but come together during Advent, the four weeks before Christmas.
The river cruise companies, especially Viking River and AmaWaterways, take curious visitors into the heart of these markets — travelling on the Danube and the Rhine — all to enjoy the anticipation of the coming of Christmas through the European Christmas market experience.
The history of the European Christmas Market, also known as Christkindlmarkt, Marché de Noël, and Weihnachtsmarkt, originated in Germany, Austria, South Tyrol, Northern Italy and many French regions. The Vienna December market was a forerunner of the Christmas market and dates back to 1294. This event began as a one-day 11th-century experience, in order, it’s thought, to ameliorate the angst of a dark winter and for townspeople to buy Christmas decorations and food, allowing them to prepare for the oncoming season. However, the popularity of this event expanded from one day in the 11th century into four weeks in the 21st.
On the Danube, our vessel stopped in Passau, Germany, a small university town with a lively Christmas market that has existed for over 400 years. Passau, historically, is the first town to have made and sold gingerbread, and now that product is everywhere, as is its scent.
Passau’s Christmas market is on Cathedral Square in front of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, dating back to 1688. As we ate Lebküchen and sipped Glüwein (mulled wine), we heard an organ concert playing Stille Nacht (Silent Night). It was played on what is said to be the largest church organ in Europe. The music filled the air as snow began to fall. It was a simple experience, yet this sense of gentle history was as ubiquitous as the scent of gingerbread.
There were other scents and tastes on the Christmas Markets Rhine Cruise, especially at the medieval village of Riquewihr, in the Alsace region of France. This is a bicultural area, due to all of the battles and changes of monarchies. For many hundreds of years, the French ruled, then the Germans, then the French again. The gustatory consequence is the unique dual French/German food combinations found at the market. At one of the market stalls was the scent of a buttery sautéed French foie gras, a warm paté made of goose liver, wine-paired not with the usual white Bordeaux, but with a sweet German late-harvest white Gewürtztraminer.
In addition to the many stops in smaller towns and villages, the Christmas market cruises also stop in major Rhine and Danube cities — Vienna, Austria, for example. Vienna has 20 Christmas market areas, and the one at the city hall is the oldest in Central Europe. Nearby, the market stalls sell aromatics, Christmas décor, red and white Glüwein, and sparkling Mylar balloons, all reflecting the holiday lights and urban spirit of the season.
Another city visited was Strasbourg, France, called the Capital of Christmas because it was here in 1570 that the first true Christmas market in Europe took place. It is said that over 300 vendor stalls are spread out over 10 Strasbourg city locations, making Strasbourg one of the largest Christmas markets in Europe. Also, there are memorable markets in Cologne, Germany, where the long shadows of its magnificent cathedral, which began construction in 1238, touch the many Christmas markets in the area.
The markets, whether French, German, or bicultural, express an homage to tradition, reflecting a historic commitment to the seasonal rituals of Christmas. And, moving along the rivers, there’s a sense of spiritual odyssey. Within that sense is one of reconnaissance, of re-knowing. Travelling the ancient water routes, new sensory awareness can be stimulated as much by the winter cold as by new destinations. The Christmas market combines old traditions with contemporary ones and shows how the Christmas past still informs the Christmas present.
English Text by Susan Kime