Visiting the Frankfurt Christmas market was as magical as I imagined. Lights twinkled around the vendor stalls while holiday music and a scent of roasting meats cheerfully filled the evening’s crisp air. As my youngest sister sat on the stool next to me, we stayed warm in our cozy winterwear and sipped glühwein, a mulled wine. This was the first of several German Christmas markets we visited during a 10-day river cruise and the trip fulfilled a lifelong dream.
Christmas markets date to the Middle Ages with Vienna’s December Market to mark Advent was first recorded in 1298. The first Christkindlemarkt, a winter street market associated with Christmas, was in 1384 in Bautzen, Saxony, which is eastern Germany, about a two-and-a-half-hour drive south of Berlin. Today, Christmas markets, or Christkindlmarkets, which translates to “baby Jesus market,” are during the four weeks of Advent throughout Europe and beyond. In these markets, you can find the perfect gift or souvenir such as holiday ornaments, toys, and winterwear. Another highlight is tasting delicious German fare such as potato pancakes, bratwurst, roasted chestnuts and lebkuchen, a soft gingerbread. Whether day or night, you’ll find a festive spirit and good cheer.
Although we did not visit Bautzen, we found a cornucopia of yuletide cheer while cruising the Main River with Viking River Cruises. The 10-day adventure began in Frankfurt and ended in Nuremberg with several enchanting stops in between. This was my first time experiencing Germany’s Christmas markets and touring them on a river cruise was perfect for many reasons.
VISIT FAIRYTALE LANDS
Not everything was about Christmas but there were holiday connection. Shore excursions provided access to sweet German villages where I often felt I was the main character of a fairytale, or the lead actress in a Hallmark Christmas movie. Stepping into the medieval town of Rothenburg was like stepping into a real-life version of a Disney princess movie and I kept a keen eye out for Prince Charming. The town is part of Southern Germany’s Romantic Road which connects picturesque towns and charming castles. It is surrounded by a wall and welcomes visitors to walk its cobblestone streets and to shop and dine in adorable buildings painted in colors of mustard-yellow, rich-peach and spring-green.
Heidelberg also has the fairytale feel, especially with its 12th century red sandstone Heidelberg Castle. These towns are adorable any time of year but dressed in their Christmas best with festive decor and holiday music, makes them more magical.
A DESIGNATED DRIVER
Glühwein plays a major role in the German Christmas markets. Traditionally, this mulled wine is red, however, many markets have a white mulled wine. When cruising, the ship is typically within walking distance of a Christmas market so there’s no need to worry about choosing a designated driver back to your hotel. If the market is not within walking distance, the cruise company typically has ground transportation to and from the market.
An extra special glühwein I enjoyed was called Feuerzangen-Bowle at the Heidelberg Christmas Market. It’s a hot red wine punch prepared in a copper pot and is sweet, spicy and warms the body. A sugar cone is soaked in rum and placed over the copper pot fill with wine, then lit. The melted sugar and rum drip into the wine brew. This festive beverage was made world-famous by the 1940s film “Die Feuerzangen-Bowle.”
A proper trip to Germany must include beer and during a stop in Bamberg, I sampled Rauchbier. It is a smoked beer and tasted almost like a smooth glass of bacon.
No one will go hungry during a river cruise, but watch how much you eat because you will want to taste food at the Christmas markets. My sister and I must have visited about a dozen markets and I ate something at most of them. We visited the Frankfurt Christmas Market three times. Each visit, I ate the most delicious potato pancakes. In Nuremberg, the last market visited and probably the most well-known, I noshed on one of their famous rostbratwurst sandwiches.
All German Christmas markets will have some type of sausage or meat roasting on an open flame. The rostbratwurst sausages are skinny and three are typically served on a round bun. In Wertheim I ate wild boar sausage. If you have pommes frites (French fries), enjoy them German-style with a combo of ketchup and mayonnaise to dip them in.
And you’ll find cookies. Oh boy. We know them as gingerbread, but they are Nuremberg Lebkuchen and are so much better than gingerbread. It is believed the cookie originated in Nuremberg during the 13th century. They can come as round discs or in shapes such as hearts and carefully decorated. They also hang from pretty ribbons in Christmas market stalls and make a nice souvenir.
LEARN GERMAN HERITAGE
By nature, the holidays can be stressful, but some of the pressure was relieved during the cruise. The wonderful staff do the baking and show you how to properly make a gingerbread house and cheery Christmas cookies. During the cruise, the Viking crew prepared a traditional German feast which included attire and music.
Glass Christmas ornaments as we know them originated in Germany during the late 1590s. As we cruised between ports one day, glassblower Karl Ittig gave a demonstration on board. He shared a brief history of glass blowing in the southwestern German town of Wertheim on the Tauber and Main Rivers. Afterward, the ship docked in Wertheim. We explored this adorable town, shopped the glass boutiques and practiced basic German words and phrases taught to us earlier on the ship. Several guided shore excursions were offered and immersed the group into more German culture.
I unpacked my bags once during the trip and let the capable Viking crew navigate my sister and me to some of Germany’s finest markets. The care they gave in making sure all passengers had a merry adventure allowed me to peacefully sleep each night with sugar-plum fairies, sipping mugs of glühwein, dancing in my head.
My sister, who is nine years my junior, still lives up in Western New York and we see each other at least once a year. We shared a bag of chestnuts roasted on an open fire while in Heidelberg and it reminded us of our childhood. Growing up, we had Castanea chestnut trees which yielded hundreds of chestnuts each year. It was tradition to gather them before the squirrels, score them, and roast them in the oven. There were several moments during the trip that sparked memories and conversations of Christmases as kids in snowy Buffalo. When the trip was over, I had fulfilled a dream of visiting some of Germany’s Christmas markets and they were as enchanting as expected. The greatest gift was spending time with my sister and creating new holiday memories.