Chiaroscuro — the contrasting movement of light and dark, background and foreground — usually found in static paintings is present on Viking River Cruises' Christmas Markets tour. The moment-to-moment land and waterscape changes cruising down the Danube are defined across the wake of Central European history. Unlike most rivers, the Danube moves 1492 miles, from west to east originating in Germany's Black Forest, and cutting through ten countries, finally emptying into the Black Sea in Romania.
It is and has been, as much of an aquatic trade, idea, and religious route as any river in the world. But it is more than this: rivers to the geographer are bearers of trade; to the historian, bearers of culture and conflict; and to the journalist, the Danube is a bearer of both and a place from which to explore the Christmas markets.
From the longship’s balcony, on a mid-Winter afternoon, homes, churches, castles, hotels, small towns, vineyards, farms, graveyards, schools, all come into focus, then fade from left to right on the Danube’s banks. They come into sight, then move away, reminiscent of old reel to reel films — images flickering into view, then fast-fading.
With frost on the mountains and fog in the hills, the contrast of river movement and land stasis provides complementary identities for both, as the longship moves on toward the next Christmas Market. Unlike many of my newfound cruise colleagues who fall into bed after a long day's touring, I sit outside on the balcony feeling the rise and fall of the river and watch the flickering lights defining life on shore.
This brings to memory Heraclitus’ statements about how you can never step in the same river twice, or Hermann Hesse in Siddhartha, where he thinks about "... that secret from the river: there is no such thing as time, [as] the river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past nor the shadow of the future.” This latter idea resonates, as on this cruise, it seems that time somehow is lost, and the only way it can be found is through the story of destination and season.
Though you can’t see it from the Danube, it is Christmas time, and a season taken very seriously and joyfully in this part of Europe. Christmas Markets, like the Danube, flow into view each year as they have for hundreds of years. The history of the European Christmas Market, also known as Christkindlmarkt, Marché de Noël, Christkindlesmarkt, Christkindlmarket, and Weihnachtsmarkt, are street markets associated with the celebration of the holiday during the four weeks of Advent. These markets originated in Germany, Austria, South Tyrol, Northern Italy and many French regions.
The history of these markets goes back to the Late Middle Ages in the German-speaking part of Europe and in many parts of the former Holy Roman Empire. The Vienna December market was a forerunner of the Christmas Market and dates back to 1294. Generally held in the town square and adjacent pedestrian zones, these markets sell food, drink, and seasonal items from open-air stalls accompanied by traditional singing and dancing. It is a time when vendors sell many handmade items such as hand knit gloves, hats, scented clove and cinnamon candles, breads and pastries, gingerbreads of every stripe and just about anything else that can be made by hand locally.
The first stop in Passau, a town with a wonderful Christmas Market, included Gluwein (a mulled wine with spices) and many types of gingerbread. Indeed, Passau was the first city to make gingerbread, and the scent of that, plus the scent in the exceptional pastry shops enveloped the air, making the experience an enormously sensual one. Next we arrived at Linz’ market and went by bus to Salzburg, Austria. The markets in both places are lovely, but at the time, Salzburg’s seemed brighter, probably because the sun shone so brightly, reflecting the Christmas ornaments and décor.
In the stalls were a multiplicity of decorative ornaments, silver angels with white ribbon, red Santa Clauses, ice skating reindeer, and, of course, there was Mozart. He was born in Salzburg, and the MozartHaus and the Mozart Chocolates and Café Mozart, were all very present in city’s Christmas Market. In addition, horse drawn carriages, and pedestrian cobblestone walkways, all gave Salzburg a sense of timelessness.
The next day, before setting off for Vienna, the Viking Longship docked in Melk, Germany for guests to tour the Melk Benedictine Abbey dating back to 1089. The Monastic Library there is renowned for its extensive manuscript collection, and the monastery's scriptorium, where Monks copied medieval manuscripts, is also part of the itinerary.
Onward, Vienna and their Christmas Markets (all 20 of them), are formidable contrasts to the smaller ones at Linz, Salzburg, and Passau. I came to understand after seeing Vienna’s, that each market reflected the culture and character of its own city. Held at City Hall, Vienna’s is the oldest and arguably the largest in Central Europe. The building, which looks very much like a cathedral, was illuminated and near the nativity scene, the trees were filled with colorful lights and red balloons.
The stalls sold aromatics, hoilday décor, spices, white and red Gluwein, gingerbread and sparkling Mylar balloons, all reflecting and refracting the exhilaration of the season. There are other Christmas Markets in Vienna as well, two dazzling ones at the Schonbrunn Palace, and at St. Stephen’s Place, close to St. Stephen’s Cathedral. But with the exceptional amounts of Christmas street décor hanging above and on the streets, the city redefined the spirit of Christmas and seasonal night life.
The final Christmas Market experience was in Budapest. There are a few markets there, but we went to the largest one on Vorosmarty Square. This one reflected the enormous cultural diversity of Budapest, in its foods with items for purchase such as regional delicacies pumpkin seed oil and Paprika, Kürtös Kalács (a Hungarian pastry also known as chimney cake or stove cake, as it is baked on a tapered cylindrical spit over an open fire), pizza baked in a clay oven, stuffed cabbage, roasted goose thigh, and pork knuckle. Apart from food, they also sold hand-carved wooden toys, leather journals, and many handmade flutes, with an actual flautist playing one in a stall.
What held all of these diverse experiences tighter was not only the Danube, but also the great Viking Longship cruise. Unlike large ships, there is a kind of friendly intimacy about the longship, allowing people to know each other and become more collegial as the trip progressed. This type of gemütlichkeit (cordiality) was further underscored by the markets themselves, as the spirit of the season infused the cruise even more so. And beyond that, there is always a cadence of both calm and excitement about a river cruise.
The season, the destination, the river, the sailing adventure merged into one, as we came to feel the holiday spirit. The food, the ambiance, and the shimmering beauty of the markets melded into the European chill-frost winter during the holiday season.
Beyond a river journey, this Viking Christmas Markets Cruise was an odyssey, an event where time is left in the Danube's wake, when travelers discover how the past informs the present, how the Christmas season introduces the coming year, and how the cruise is a liaison of a merging and emerging holiday awareness. Sailing down the Danube, I understand the profundity of Norman Maclean's words, “All things merge into one and a river runs through it.” Words to ponder as you celebrate with renewed hope, the merriness and gentleness of this good season.
This eight-day journey begins at $1,756 per person/per night and includes six guided tours in three countries from November 28 to December 21. Next year’s dates are currently available for purchase with early booking discount rates and $400 off airfare per person roundtrip.