Is a European Christmas markets river cruise on your bucket list? Anji, from our Sales team in Australia, recently experienced an Avalon Christmastime from Vienna to Budapest in November last year. Here, she takes us through a fairytale Christmas experience along the Danube during Europe’s festive season.
Have you ever felt like you were in a fairytale, or a Hollywood movie where you should be starring alongside a gorgeous man with an even better accent (à la Jude Law)? Drinking steaming mulled wine with snow falling around you and lights from a Christmas tree sparkling in the background?
There is something so special about Europe during the festive season. It may be the carols, the local food that is like a hug for your belly, being wrapped in layers upon layers of clothing to stay warm, or the one too many mulled wines. There are twinkling fairy lights and Christmas trees everywhere, and traditional wooden huts filled with homemade crafts, Christmas ornaments, local delicacies and drinks. Combine this with a river cruise and it becomes a once-in-a-lifetime fairytale experience.
My perception of river cruising is that it was for retirees. But that isn’t what I experienced while onboard an Avalon Waterways’ Christmas cruise from Vienna, Austria to Budapest, Hungary. With less passengers onboard, you get to know everyone and develop a true connection. I finished my travels with strangers who turned into Aunts and Uncles, met more passengers in their 30’s and 40’s than expected, and made newfound friends from around the world. We even had a multi-generational group onboard – a family with a 22-year-old granddaughter through to her 87-year-old great grandmother. All these factors showed me that the beauty of river cruising with Avalon is that there isn’t a bias for one age demographic. It’s for those who enjoy a quiet and more immersive way to travel.
I found comfort in the relaxed luxury that Avalon’s elevated cruising style offers. Being able to unpack once, and retreat to your cabin if you needed some quiet time was wonderful. The days seemed to melt away at the perfect rate, while the views were second-to-none. When the ship is cruising and you’re tucked away in your Panorama Suite with Open-Air Balcony and a hot cup of tea, you get exceptional views. Picture cobblestoned European villages, mountain peaks covered in snow, castle ruins and cathedrals built before 1090 AC. River cruising means you dock right in the heart of, or very close by, these villages. You’ll wander through the cobblestone streets while learning about the history with a Local Guide, then you can tailor the rest of your day with time at leisure.
After a glorious week of wandering around Christmas markets in Austria and Hungary, there are two that stand out as personal favourites – both in Vienna.
The first is the main Christmas market for its overwhelming feeling of Christmas. It’s the most famous in Austria and feels like what Santa would want a Christmas market to be. Strong in tradition with an emphasis on families and sustainability, its history dates back to the 18th century. On any typical year, there are over 100 vendors and makes for a great spot to spend the night – snacking along the way with a variety of local flavours and the added atmosphere of Christmas lights decorating the adjacent park. Almost anything your heart desires can be found here; from traditional mugs filled with mulled wine to maroni (roasted chestnuts), sausages and strudel. As I do so often when in new countries, I ask the food vendors what their favourite meal is and order it. Not only does this instantly spark a connection, but it also means that the meal you are about to devour is made with love, kindness and authenticity.
My other favourite market was in front of Schönbrunn Palace. There were less crowds, more space to roam and (considering they are in front of one of the biggest sights in Austria) seemed to have less tourists! The vendors have less of a focus on mass-produced mugs and snow globes, and more on homemade crafts. You’ll find Christmas wreaths and decorations made of dried fruit, local honey farmers, small family-run gin distilleries, a little Grandma and Grandpa stall with wooden train sets that are hand crafted, and ceramic Christmas tree decorations made by a lady who fires them in her kitchen oven. Not only is the backdrop of the palace nothing short of spectacular, but the markets have a more authentic ambience and undertone.
One thing to keep in mind is that no matter what market or city you may be exploring, there really is something incredibly special and unique about any Christmas market in Europe and I believe it’s something that everyone should experience. Perhaps it’s because we have nothing like it in the Southern Hemisphere, or it could even be the contrast for us to experience a winter Christmas. Or perhaps, because you will feel like you are in a fairytale.
Take a look at our full range of festive river cruises with Avalon Waterways today.