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Spirit And Substance: A 2017 Christmas Markets River Cruise On the Rhine

Cruise On the Rhine

Photo Credit: Susan Kime

"Carry me on the waves to a land I've never seen," Enya sang on her album, Sail Away. It is a potent lyric, especially since rivers have often been called liquid highways, having carried the interchange of ideas and traditions, creating new interests on distant soils. And each December, on the liquid highway of the Rhine, passengers are carried, often for the first time, to European cities and towns to experience the new spirit and substance of Christmas market traditions, a little different in each destination. 

We were fortunate to be passengers on the AmaPrima, an AmaWaterways vessel, on the 2017 Christmas Markets Rhine River cruise. Being carried on waves for nearly ten days, we experienced Christmas markets in four countries: Switzerland, Germany, France and the Netherlands, noting differences in each as we sailed the Rhine's legendary waterway.

Cruise On the Rhine
Photo Credit: AmaWaterways

The history of the European Christmas Market, also known as Christkindlmarkt, Marché de Noël and Weihnachtsmarkt, originated in Germany and Austria. The Vienna December market was a forerunner of the Christmas market and dates back to 1294. This small event began as a one-day experience, created originally to fragment the seasonal angst of the dark, cold winter. The market allowed townspeople to gather, and eat, drink and buy Christmas decor and Christmas food.  The popularity of this event expanded from one day in the 11th century into four weeks in the 21st. 

Cruise On the Rhine
Photo Credit: AmaWaterways

It was in Basel, Switzerland where we experienced our first Rhine Christmas Market. The Basel market is one of the largest in Switzerland. Culinary delights include hot chocolate, Swiss fondue, waffles, Basler Läckerli biscuits and grilled sausages. This was the first on our Christmas pilgrimage, as late in the afternoon, we boarded the AmaPrima vessel, greeted with hot chocolate and Gluwein—a strong mulled wine drink whose scent of clove and cinnamon stayed in our taste buds for days to come. 

Cruise On the Rhine
Photo Credit: AmaWaterways

Our first stop began at the small, medieval village of Riquewihr in the Alsace region of France. This is a bicultural, German/French area.  As we walked the cobblestone streets, we were seduced by strong scents of German Lebkuchen (gingerbread) but this time, with a French dimension. Riquewihr was the only place where we bought gingerbread in cookies and actual loaves—embedded with French almonds, figs or pistachios. 

After eating our bi-cultural gingerbread, we next explored the city of Strasbourg, the capital of Alsace. Their famous cathedral and its spires. consecrated in 1025 AD, dominated the Christmas Market landscape. As with any millennium-old cathedral, it has an exceptional history. Inside is the famous Horological clock that has been keeping time since the 1400's. But outside is the Strasbourg Christkindelsmärik—the oldest Christmas market in France, dating back to 1570. It's no surprise, then, that the city is thought to be the capital of Christmas, at least on the Rhine.  

Cruise On the Rhine
Photo Credit: Susan Kime

 Our next stop was Speyer, a town that harbored two surprises. It was an ancient city with yet another ancient cathedral very close to the Christmas Markets.  The Speyer Cathedral is the world's largest surviving Romanesque-style church, consecrated in 1061. But outside the entrance, was the surprise: something we had never seen before. It was a large Cathedral Bowl, with a liquid capacity of 1,560 liters, or 412 gallons of water or wine. If one bottle equals 1/5 gallon,  then 2,075 bottles of wine could be poured into that bowl. We asked, "What is it?" and were told that on certain religious occasions, the Cathedral Bowl is filled with wine. This ritual occurred most recently at the 950-year anniversary of the dedication of the Cathedral of Speyer on October 2, 2011.

But this destination, with the Speyer Cathedral, Cathedral Bowl and Christmas Market was memorable for another reason—we were caught in an unexpected, and howling snowstorm. We quickly bought hot chocolate, a few antique cookie cutters, a Black Forest mixing bowl and raced back to our thankfully warm bus. One couple from Minnesota came back to the bus, drenched in snow, and said, "A typical day in Northern Minnesota!" 

Cruise On the Rhine
Photo Credit: Susan Kime

Our last major German Christmas Markets city was Cologne, where we explored the interiors of one of the great cathedrals of the world.  The construction of Cologne Cathedral commenced in 1248 and was halted in 1473, leaving it unfinished for 300 years. Work restarted in the 19th century and was completed, to the original plan, in 1880. The cathedral is now the largest Gothic church in Northern Europe, and is a major pilgrimage destination due to the gold sarcophagus that holds the remains of the Magi, or the Three Kings. It also houses the oldest crucifix, called the Gero crucifix—created in 970 for Archbishop Gero of Cologne and is now is the earliest known representation of the crucified Christ on the Cross.

Cruise On the Rhine
Photo Credit: Susan Kime

But outside the grand cathedral was the grand Christmas Market. This time was our last to stock up on Christmas Markets presents to bring home.  We bought three types of licorice—anise, peppermint and salted Norwegian, a handcrafted Music Box that played the Flight Of The Valkyries by Wagner, and a jar of Rose Petal preserves. 

Finally, there was Amsterdam, our last stop. It rained the whole time, so our travels on the canals seemed not as colorful as they could have been. But again, the Christmas Market on Museum Square, or Museumplein, had a colorful Christmas Market with a large skating rink, and the world-renown Rijksmuseum nearby.

Cruise On the Rhine
Photo Credit: Susan Kime

It is notable that in many of these Rhine cities, the most exceptional Christmas markets are near historic city cathedrals.  It seems the markets by their proximity, pay homage to the ancient and contemporary Christmas spirit these cathedrals symbolize.  

The weather, it must be admitted, was cold all during this December trip—yet, each time, as we returned to the AmaPrima, we always felt as if we were coming home—the crew greeted us with warm drinks, the cruise manager Edward knew our names, the chefs and servers did also. This friendliness, combined with the exceptional food on our cruise, allowed strangers from diverse areas and continents to evolve into a lively, engaged Christmas family. 

Cruise On the Rhine
Photo Credit: AmaWaterways

Also, we were allowed to pursue different areas of the main destinations, and at our own speed: from active to gentle walking tours. In addition, many had the option of bicycle touring, as there were many bikes for passenger use, on the vessel. With these options, each of us could explore our own ways of capturing the Christmas spirit, as we were carried, as Enya said, to lands, and experiences we would remember always, on the ancient liquid highway of the Rhine.

Susan Kime

Susan Kime's career combines publishing, journalism and editing. She was the Destination Club/Fractional Update Editor for Elite Traveler, and senior club news correspondent for The Robb Report's Vacation Homes. Her work has been published in Stratos, Luxury Living, European CEO, The London Telegraph, Caviar Affair, ARDA Developments, and Luxist/AOL. She was the Editor-in-Chief of Travel Conno...(Read More)

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