This article is from the March 2016 Issue of Forever Young

 fyng march 2016 Frankfurt

 Shoppers are bathed in festive light at the Christmas Market in Frankfurt, Germany. The season is many months away but river cruises featuring the markets fill up quickly.

A trip for your wish list.

By AJ Williams

It’s a misty day on the Danube as we set sail from Budapest aboard the lovely Viking Jarl. This romantic itinerary is an absolute must during the winter. You might be thinking winter? Are you kidding? Stay with me….I promise it’s worth it!

Europe in the winter is simply magical, and if you think you’ve got Christmas spirit back at home, you really need to up your game and try a river cruise during November or December. The smell of Gluwein fills the air at all of the incredible Christmas markets along the way. If you haven’t been initiated into the world of hot wine, its ability to warm you from the inside out is guaranteed.

The Christmas markets are everywhere in Europe during the season, and each one is a little different. One thing that’s the same: you won’t find any boxed, mass-produced toys or trinkets at any of them. Instead, you’ll shop for intricately hand-crafted ornaments, gifts and clothing that will make you wish you’d brought another suitcase.

Our ports-of-call along the way toward Nuremberg, Germany were truly the best ‘taster’ of European river cruising. After leaving the beautiful sights, spas and history of Budapest, we made our way toward Austria. At Christmas, Vienna is magical, with strands of lighted crystals (Swarovski originated in this area) strung overhead across the streets.

The Viennese coffee houses are legendary and ordering is a bit of a ritual. No paper cups with check-boxes here. The main square Christmas market was fantastic, with the sights, sounds and delicious aromas of the season. While in Vienna, we made sure to take in an opera, and in spite of my husband’s proverbial ‘eye-roll’ at the thought, he enjoyed it immensely. We took in the Marriage of Figaro, which is light, funny and made for a wonderful Viennese memory.

The next day, we arrived in Melk, touring the incredible Abbey, high above the town. Strolling back to the ship, stopping along the way at some of the quaint shops made for a lovely, small-town Austrian afternoon.

Next up – our stops in Germany. Passau was first, and while each day on a Viking cruise, you can enjoy one of the complimentary tours, you can also ‘free-style’ and create your own walking tour, which we did. Off the beaten path, we found the first of many amazing bratwurst and beer lunches. Delicious! If you prefer to relax, it’s fine to stay on the ship also.

In Regensburg, a beautiful, small city, we chose the ultimate ‘guys’ excursion: An optional trip to the BMW factory and a beer tasting at a pub on the way back to the ship. Touring BMW was to me what the opera was to my husband, before I went.

I’ll happily eat my words now, as I found it interesting, and fun. Fortunately, he resisted the urge to order a ‘large souvenir’, but we did get a few trinkets in the gift shop. The beer and pretzels at the Brew Haus on the way back were the perfect way to top off the day.

Back on board, we enjoyed yet another amazing dinner and great music. If you’ve ever imagined cruising (on the big ocean liners), you’ll need to shift your thinking when it comes to a river cruise. These ships are intimate, and the service levels are world class. With about 200 guests and 55 staff to take care of us, we were spoiled every step of the way. The executive chef and his (surprisingly small) team turned out one gastronomic delight after another.

Our final stop was Nuremberg, and we took in the World War II tour, including the famous Nuremberg Courtroom 600, which was powerful and informative.

The next morning, we said goodbye to many new friends we’d met on board. Along our Danube journey, we navigated 16 locks, both ‘rising’ and ‘falling’ in water level (this route crosses the European continental divide). Engineering marvels!

When we docked for the last time, some guests went on to Prague for an optional three-day visit, organized by Viking, while others headed home, suitcases and hearts filled with Christmas spirit and great memories from their time on the Danube during the holidays…and dreaming about the next river cruise. Plan ahead now and book early for a November or December 2016 Christmas market river cruise. No malls, parking lot nightmares or mass marketing, just the joy of the season you won’t soon forget. Now, pass the hot wine…..

AJ Williams is a regular contributor to Forever Young, and