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Shoreside snowfall, nativity scenes and sweet treats during an ocean cruise?
Usually, when clients wish to visit Europe’s legendary Christmas Markets, you book them on a river cruise. And, most of the time, it’s an easy journey — but, occasionally, water levels fluctuate, making it challenging for riverboats to traverse waterways such as the Danube and Rhine.
In order to hedge our bets during a December 2018 drought, my wife, parents and I swapped a Viking river cruise with a Viking ocean sailing — the surprisingly festive Iconic Western Mediterranean itinerary.
It had been just a few months since I had last embarked on this exact route onboard Viking Orion, one of the line’s newest ship, so I wasn’t sure what I would share with my traveling companions that was much different than before. But, as it turns out, there was quite a lot to be merry about.
We traveled onboard Viking Sky, a sistership to Orion. I had sailed on Sky before, but now, it looked fresh and marvelous adorned in holiday decorations. Once we embarked, my mom and I set off for a casual photo shoot with Viking Erik — the line’s plush toy mascot (to which we playfully added a Santa hat) — posing among the ship’s many Christmas trees, garlands, lights and even snowy stag statues. (My family members are all kids at heart.)
While we had anticipated such onboard ornamentation, we did not expect to enjoy an oceanic facsimile of a Christmas Markets itinerary. Nonetheless, Barcelona, Spain; Lucca, Italy (via Livorno); Aix-en-Provence, France (via Marseille); and Marseille itself delighted us with their iterations.
Before setting sail, an overnight in Barcelona allowed us to explore the seasonal booths at Barcelona Cathedral and Sagrada Familia.
Both sites specialize in customizable nativity scenes befitting the holy locations. Everything from miniature towns and foliage to figures of baby Jesus, the wise men and cattle were for sale, allowing visitors to assemble their ultimate Christmas display.
Meanwhile, the Tuscan town of Lucca featured retail stalls that were more akin to a flea market, all adjacent to an ice-skating rink and carousel. My wife purchased a new leather wallet for herself, and afterward, we discovered an amazing collection of antiques being sold along the storied streets. (If only our luggage would have accommodated, we would have adopted several decorative pieces.)
Compared to Germany’s Christmas Markets, however, Lucca’s scene was lacking food vendors. The scents of freshly made delicacies did not permeate the crisp air until we arrived in Aix-en-Provence. Although it did not occupy one of the temporary booths along Cours Mirabeau, Patisserie Bechard — one of the oldest cake shops in town — quickly caught the attention of our noses. The pastry shop’s sweet treats are sublime and worthy of a visit in any season. At the end of the corridor, rides called to children, but for us, a warm coffee was on the menu to wash down our goodies.
Later in the afternoon and into the evening, Marseille’s market tempted my wife and me with local raspberry jams. A temporary Ferris wheel of epic proportions towered over the stalls and the old port’s marina. Its bright lights illuminated the pedestrian path that had been empty on my previous visit. A side trip to Fragonard down the street allowed us to procure some fragrant perfumes and toiletries; each stop perfectly fulfilled our Christmas gift needs.
The icing on the cake, though, was witnessing a wispy snowfall in Tuscany as we took a bus ride out to San Gimignano, Italy, yet another glorious gem on our touring route.
Little did we know all that would be in store for us when we began our sailing. Our Viking ocean cruise quickly exceeded our expectations with its coastal Christmas markets — and then some.
The DetailsViking www.vikingcruises.com