As the weather turns colder, its time to celebrate the best things Winter has to offer….roaring fires, frosty mornings, weekend trips to see snow with the kids and Santa…..say, what?! Well, perhaps not in the southern hemisphere, but the Europeans know the perfect recipe for celebrating a white Christmas! Take a Winter wonderland, add fairy lights, mulled wine, romantic towns with fascinating histories, a dusting of snow, Christmas markets and of course….Christmas shopping! A river cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest covers four countries and is a magical, dreamy holiday that also grounds you with history. Not only will you float down a river of Christmas cheer, but you’ll also touch 1000 year old books in the Melk library, stand where Hitler delivered his rousing speech in Nuremberg, peddle your E-bike through quaint towns, learn how to bake German biscuits, escape into the music of Strauss and Mozart at a private concert in Palais Liechtenstein, soak in Thermal baths and attend Christmas Mass.
Christmas markets, also known as Christkindlmarkt, originated in Germany in pre-Roman times.
They were born out of necessity as it was the only way to stock up on food and other essentials before everything shut for those days over Christmas. Nowadays, with our 24/7 lives and the availability of supermarkets and online food deliveries, the Christmas markets are more focused on the beauty around this special time of the year – entertainment, mulled wine, decorations, Christmas biscuits and celebrating the four weeks of Advent.
Christmas markets have spread all across Europe and draw millions of visitors each December. Each country has its own unique style of Market and many have different themes. There’s the Angel Market in Cologne, the Nautical Market, the Gay and Lesbian Market…. in fact every market is different, every day is different and every experience will fascinate you. Even non-shoppers will be swept up in the magical lights, the cinnamon smells and the warmth radiating from the locals.
There is plenty of variety to this trip. It isn’t all shopping and glass hand-blown decorations. In Amsterdam, we mixed a dangerous combination of jet lag with ice skating. The result was hilarious and luckily we skated away unscathed. At your peril! If you prefer a more sedate afternoon, marvel at the art on display at The Rijksmuseum. You could easily spend an entire day here, and still want more.
“If you want Vienna to enjoy Vienna, just open your eyes”. As soon as you step one foot into this city, you will be amazed at its beauty. Breathtaking buildings and a sense of history looms down at you. Vienna is also famous for its animals, and in particular The Lippizaner Stallions. To witness the precision of these beautiful horses as they “dance” in perfect unison is awe inspiring.
A behind-the-scenes tour takes you through the tack room (where the individualised saddles are kept in immaculate order) and you can visit the horses in their stables. When they’re not “working”, like us, they want to relax and have some fun. They were so cheeky – trying to bite my jumper, nibble my fingers and push me around! I must admit, I left a little of my heart in Vienna….
Back on the ship and rounding a bend in the Danube, we saw the beautiful Melk Abbey, an 18th Century Baroque masterpiece that dominates the landscape by towering over the Wachau Valley. This UNESCO World Heritage site is unforgettable both for its size and its grandeur. Inside, the Melk Abbey is famous for its library that houses 1000 year old books…which you are allowed to borrow, can you believe?!
It impossible for a city like Nuremberg to escape the history of the Nazis. It was here, in 1927, that Hitler, gave his famous speech at the Nuremberg rally and the city was also the site of the Nuremberg trials. Most of the city was destroyed by Allied bombers but was rebuilt using original material, so has a truly Bavarian feel. A place where you can choose to immerse yourself in history, or enjoy a stroll through the Imperial Castle with its manicured gardens.
Salzburg is uplifting – perhaps it’s the mountains, perhaps it’s the buildings or perhaps it’s Julie Christie. Yes, Salzburg was the location for filming “The Sound of Music”. A guide can show you all the famous locations where the cast sang, danced, kissed their first Nazi boyfriend and finally escaped over the mountains. In a logistical twist of fate, the path the cast headed down (in reality) would have led them straight into the Nazis! But it was the most picturesque route, so that was what they filmed!
The best way to see Budapest is by arriving at night. The Hungarian Parliament is (appropriately) lit up like a Christmas Tree and as its situated on the banks of the Danube, its a picturesque first encounter with this intriguing city. I have fond memories of being rugged up against the Winter chill, drinking mulled wine, laughing and soaking in the lights.
For a totally different experience, “take the waters” in the 125 thermal springs of Budapest . A soak in these naturally heated pools will ease any tension, hangover and may even improve your Chess skills (if you’re brave enough to challenge a Hungarian to Chess, that is!)
What to pack:
Warm, comfortable clothes! You’ll need all your layers to tackle a European Winter – thermals, thick socks, beanies, and a great coat that can handle cold winds and snow.
I took gumboots which was perfect for the cobblestone streets. Admittedly, it wasn’t ideal wearing them on the plane as I couldn’t jam another item into my case, but once you unpack on your cruise ship, life is easy!
As with any trip, you’ll need a few cocktail dresses for the Palace events, concerts and degustation dinners. Make it a stretchy dress and really indulge!
Take touch screen gloves. Lets be honest, most photos are taken on our phones so why get cold fingers while you snap away?
When I travel, and even at home, I always carry a collapsible water bottle. Then I can refill it every morning and I’m set for the day, without the guilt of adding to landfill.
You don’t need to take any Christmas cheer – you’ll pick up plenty along the way and you’ll remember this Christmas forever … for all the right reasons! Its truly a celebration of the birth of Christ, and the meaning behind Christmas – sharing, loving and laughing.