The hardest thing about cruising, for me, is the part where I’m locked into an mandatory group tour. Wandering about a city, fiddling with my earpiece, patiently waiting as fellow travelers take hours to snap one photo with their giant iPads, and then being hurried along to the next stop, is not my ideal travel experience. Never mind the fact that when I’m in a group, I always feel like I’m wearing a huge neon sign that says, “Tourist onboard.”
So imagine my delight when Marianne, the program director onboard the Viking Atla, one of the newest in a line of longships introduced by Viking River Cruises last year, told me that we were welcome to do as much – or as little – of the included tours as we liked.
This was especially music to my ears as I happened to be traveling along the Rhine River at the very beginning of the famed Christmas market season, when the cobblestone streets of Europe are brightly decorated and lined with makeshift stands, with vendors hawking everything from snacks and drinks to handcrafted keepsakes.
So while my fellow travelers were obediently following the set course outlined in the daily program, my mom and I could usually be found shopping —and eating -- our way through the market stalls in each city on our eight-day itinerary. Interestingly, while I was looking forward to the Christmas-shopping spree, the real treat was the amazing local foods we sampled throughout the Christmas Markets.
Our first day included a stop in Breisach, Germany. Although Breisach is located in Germany, here the Rhine River creates a natural boundary between Germany and France. After a morning touring the Black Forest (and consuming an alarmingly large piece of Black Forest Cake), mom and I opted to join the optional afternoon tour to Colmar, France.
Colmar, France, an optional excursion on Viking River Cruises' Rhine Getaway, had a bustling Christmas Market // (c) 2013 Monica Poling
While our fellow passengers learned about Colmar’s medieval origins, the lure of the Christmas market proved to be too great, and we headed to the stalls. Although early in the season, here the Christmas Market was in full swing.
Not surprisingly, our first purchase was food-oriented, with mom buying a pretzel covered with Emmenthal cheese, while I happily dismembered a man-shaped pretzel dotted with chocolate chips. A candy stand also proved to be too irresistible, as did the dried salami at a stand overflowing with cured meats.
Picturesque Strasbourg, with its gorgeous layout of “half-timbered” houses is located on a pretty canal and serves up countless medieval treasures, including a famed cathedral. Plenty of fantastic shopping is available here, except on Sundays, when the only shops open are the extra touristy ones.
The city is noted for its iconic White Stork, and many of the locals could be found wearing caps knitted in the shape of a stork, an item I coveted, but ultimately did not buy. I did, however, purchase another city specialty: foie gras, which is outlawed here in California.
Although we didn’t really do justice to the area shops, we did manage to stop in a cafe and enjoy another local specialty known as Flammekeuche (flamed cake), a flatbread style-pizza covered with bacon, onions and creme fraiche.
In Heidelberg, Germany, after visiting the famed Heidelberg Castle, we were set loose in the Heidelberg town center. Fortunately for us, the city’s Christmas Market opened that very day.
This, being our first stop at a German Christmas Market, meant that our main focus was on the smell of the delectable German sausages being grilled along the streets. Mom and I sampled the bratwurst, the currywurst and my favorite, the fueurwurst, a spicy number that literally translates to “fire sausage.” We also had a small bite of a pork schnitzel that will be remembered fondly for years to come.
Board game players will know that most of the best card and board games come from Germany, which maintains a coveted “Spiel des Jahres” (Game of the Year) award. A visit to a toy stand proved to be overwhelming and I couldn’t resist purchasing last year’s winner, a card game called “Hanabi.” I only hope my limited German is good enough to understand the directions.
A charming town located at the confluence of the Rhine and the Moselle Rivers, Koblenz turned out to be our favorite spot for shopping during the river cruise. Here, we found the largest concentration of independent artists.
We already considered ourselves seasoned Christmas Market pros, and we’d started to see some of the she same items being sold at every market, but Koblenz seemed to offer up a variety of unique, hand-crafted items. We didn’t buy much; instead we spent most of our time chatting with stand owners. A stop at a local glassmaker did result in the purchase of a lovely fountain pen, complete with a handmade, glass base.
The lure of visiting Cologne’s cathedral, the alleged final resting place of the Three Kings, proved to be too great, so we largely abandoned our independent time and tagged along with the group.
In the evening, Viking River Cruises offered an optional pub crawl program that allowed us to sample Cologne’s signature kolsch beer. Divided up into intimate groups of 12, we visited four brew houses, with much discussion ensuing over favorite beers sampled.
Clearly, for us, the real draw with Europe’s famed Christmas Markets is the culinary treasures the markets serve up. While there are plenty of souvenirs to be had, travel agents should encourage their adventurous clients to get out and sample the local flavor, which is abundant and served up in bite-size portions, perfect for grazing.
Viking River Cruises Rhine Getaway