By SARAH JAQUAY
I’ve long wanted to visit Germany for the holidays since so many of America’s seasonal traditions come from there: decorated evergreens, Advent calendars and carols such as “O Tannenbaum” (Christmas Tree) and “Stille Nacht” (Silent Night, whose lyrics were written in German and music composed in neighboring Austria.)
So last December, when my husband and I had the chance to cruise the Danube River on one of Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours’ intimate (max. 163 passengers) and upscale ships to see the Christmas markets of Germany, Austria and Hungary, we started shopping for winter cruising accoutrements right after Thanksgiving.
It was the trip of a lifetime to countries we’d never visited, except for Germany where my husband experienced Leipzig’s Christmas market years ago on a business trip.
He raved about how well the Germans “do Christmas.” By that he meant how entire families bundle up and wander through outdoor markets to buy presents and decorations, listen to music and sample holiday delicacies, all while sipping glühwein (spiced wine) to fortify against the shivers.
We boarded at Nuremberg and defied the adage “save the best for last.” It was our favorite market; perhaps because it’s one of Europe’s oldest. Dating from the 1600s, Nuremberg hosts its main market in the old city where visitors can smell hot pretzels and cinnamon-spiced beverages as soon as they pass through the imposing stone gates. What follows is a vibrant mix of oompah bands playing carols, choirs performing in front of dramatic cathedrals such as Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) and St. Sebaldus, plus exquisite holiday crafts and ornaments for sale.
What I knew about Nuremberg was its role in WWII. What I didn’t realize was its pivotal role in Germany’s First Reich as a seat of the Holy Roman Empire for more than 1,000 years.
Indeed, Hitler chose Nuremberg as the Nazi center for propaganda because he hoped the Third Reich would last as long. Visiting the Imperial Castle of
Nuremberg is a must as well as the Nazi Party Rally Grounds (where Hitler’s annual rallies took place) and Documentation Centre.
Our ship, the Scenic Amber, made stops at Regensburg and Passau, Germany (with an excursion option to Salzburg) plus Linz, Melk and Vienna, Austria, finishing in Budapest. We enjoyed unseasonably warm weather and spent time between ports relaxing in sunshine on Amber’s private room decks or watching what was ahead on our flat-screen television’s “bow cam.”
We weren’t on board much of the day due to interesting excursions (included in Scenic’s one price for everything approach.) Whenever we were, however, we were socializing on this congenial vessel or eating a fabulous meal with whoever we gravitated towards. One of the culinary highlights was a multi-course extravaganza at the captain’s table paired with Austrian and Hungarian wines.
We gravitated toward the Gillies family from Wilmington, North Carolina, who were traveling with their college-age daughter. Elliot Gillies is the president of a public relations firm whose clients include Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours and it’s represented Scenic since they started to market in the U.S. a dozen years ago. Because Scenic is Aussie-based, it’s not quite as well known to Americans as other European river cruise lines. That’s changing because of Scenic’s all-inclusive pricing, luxury accommodations and pampering service. Elliot believes what distinguishes Scenic is their extreme attention to the guest experience. “It’s one of the few [cruise] companies that reads every guest survey and makes changes based on their responses.”
Elliot has cruised often, but the portion of the Danube from Nuremberg to Budapest is one of his favorites. “There’s so much culture at every stop,” he notes. His wife Jeanne did lots of exploring and retailing, while daughter Julia’s highlights included an exclusive performance by renowned pianist Csaba Kiraly at a synagogue on the Budapest Jewish heritage tour, plus seeing the lights of Budapest’s Christmas Market after dark, which Amber guests could enjoy even on board.
Although cruising is challenging right now (some Christmas markets have cancelled this year, including Nuremberg’s – the first time since WWII), Scenic has adapted to pandemic realities and is working with government health agencies. It expects pre-trip medical evaluations and testing for passengers and crew. There will be fixed seating, more room between friends and family groups; plus smaller excursion groups and no self-serve buffets. Hopefully by the 2021 holiday season there will be an effective vaccine allowing travelers to circulate more freely, including with Scenic’s “Tailormade” app that provides narrated information for every shore excursion. Scenic also offers a “book with confidence deposit protection” program.
It allows guests to cancel until 90 days before departure and use their deposits to re-book another cruise up to 24 months from the date of the original departure.
The wonders and markets at each of these enchanting Danube River stops enhanced our holiday season tenfold; but celebrating with Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians and a smattering of North Carolinians really topped up our Christmas spirit tanks. When we arrived home after extending a few days in Budapest, we played Strauss’s classic waltz, “The Blue Danube,” whenever possible through New Year’s Day. Every time we did, visions of Central European Christmas markets danced in our heads as we tried to waltz in our slippers.
Please see www.scenicusa.com for more information.