(My story, “Christmas Enchants Along the Rhine River,” was originally published by Journal & Topics Media Group on September 11, 2015. The photos are also mine.)
By Pamela Dittmer McKuen
Christmas is a magical time everywhere, but especially so in Europe’s grand cities and medieval villages. Gaily lit, open-air holiday markets pop up in public squares to extol tidings of joy and visions of delight. It’s a centuries-old tradition sure to enchant visitors of all ages.
What better way to immerse ourselves in the spirit of the season than on a river cruise, docking at a different harbor each day? And with the ship as a floating hotel, we would unpack and repack only once. We signed on.
Our 8-day cruise along the Rhine River, operated by Viking River Cruises, began in Amsterdam and ended in Basel. In between, we strolled through nearly a dozen German and French Christmas Markets in such diverse locales as Cologne, Rudesheim, Heidelberg, Speyer, Strasbourg and Colmar.
The markets are similar, but they also bear slight regional differences. Typically, dozens or even hundreds of decorated wooden chalets, each one a small store, are arranged in rows and squares to form glittery shopping wonderlands. The purveyors, bundled in thick sweaters and caps, showcase their Old World artistry: delicate glass tree ornaments, wooden toys and puppets, painted nutcrackers and hand-stitched leather goods and clothing.
Food vendors spike the air with the enticing aromas of sizzling hot sausages, roasting nuts and oven-fresh pastries. Provincial favorites include bratwurst, lebkuchen (gingerbread cookies) and gluhwein (a warm, spiced red wine). Wandering musicians and rosy-cheeked carolers serenade the bustling crowds with gleeful harmonies.
“More is more” seems to be the philosophy of holiday décor, at least outdoors. Not a single door, window, light post, statue or rooftop was left untouched. We’re not talking about a single evergreen wreath hanging at a restaurant entrance. We mean dozens of enormous snow-white teddy bears decked in dangling red ribbons and shiny baubles attached to the façade of a four-story building. And fully dressed Christmas trees covering every window of the building next door.
It was block after block of over-the-top glitz. Many displays were fashioned in the traditional red and green holiday hues, but other popular combinations were blue and white or chartreuse and fuchsia.
One of our tour guides explained why the bling: Many European families by custom don’t decorate their homes until Christmas Eve. So commercial enterprises compensate by trying to out-do each other with eye-popping extravagance during the weeks leading up to the holiday.
The first stop on our Christmas odyssey was Cologne, which is dominated by the magnificent twin-spired, Gothic-style Dom Cathedral. On the plaza beside the Dom is the Weihnachtsmarkt am Kolner Dam (Christmas Market at Cologne Dom), an assemblage of more than 100 chalets and a stage for live performances.
Two blocks away is the Heimat der Heinzel market, or “Home of the Elves.” Legend has it that hard-working, friendly elves once lived in the area. The chalets here are topped with elf statues who keep a watchful eye on the activities below. Children are especially fond of this market because of its many toy vendors, carousel and skating rink.
In Heidelberg, remains of the 800-year-old castle overlook the picturesque Old Town and classical stone Alte Bruecke (Old Bridge). Beautifully decorated chalets line Hauptstrasse, a comfortable walk from Bismarckplatz to the famed Heidelberg University.
At the halfway point is a towering Christmas pyramid, a larger-than-life version of the table-top, candle-powered versions popular during Advent. This one is actually an outdoor café serving sandwiches and warm drinks.
On the other side of the Rhine, in France, Strasbourg claims to be the Capital of Christmas. We don’t disagree. With more than 300 chalets and a history dating to 1570, the market is arguably the largest and oldest in all Europe. One of the main sites, Place de la Cathedrale, is adjacent to the Cathedral de Notre Dame, another Gothic masterpiece.
Another is at Place Kleber, where the city’s 10-story Christmas tree, trimmed with white stars and cobalt globes, is anchored. This market is the Sharing Village, and all the chalets here raise money for humanitarian charities.
In addition to massive amounts of ornamentation, including antlers and angel wings, a Strasbourg Christmas honors the resident stork community. These long-legged water birds, which are believed to bring good luck, suffered a massive population decline in the 1970s.
Conservationists in the Alsace region began a successful breeding program, and today many family units hang out in Strasbourg year-round. At the holiday markets, stork images grace tree ornaments, plush toys and even the carousel.
The cruise itinerary provided plenty of options for those who needed a break from the Christmas rush. We toured the world-famous windmills of Kinderdijk and the ruins of Marksburg and Heidelburg castles. We pub-crawled our way through Cologne with a local expert in Bauhaus culture and the city’s proprietary lager, Kolsch.
One relaxing afternoon was spent sailing through the scenic Middle Rhine Valley, past charming villages with timbered houses, dilapidated castles, hillside vineyards and geologic formations.
Winter travel is always risky, but we found temperatures were well above freezing, and most days were sunny. A lightweight down coat made long walks quite comfortable. The only snow we saw was during a coach excursion through the hills and farmlands of the legendary Black Forest, and that was a mere dusting.
Our Viking Longship, a barge-like riverboat, has 95 staterooms on three levels. Staterooms are appointed with private bath and shower, flat-screen television, refrigerator and Wi-Fi. All meals are included as well as complimentary wine, beer and soda during lunch and dinner.
IF YOU GO: Several tour operators offer Christmas Market cruises along the Rhine, Danube, Main and Elbe rivers, including Viking River Cruises, Avalon Waterways, Tauck, Grand Circle Travel and AmaWaterways. The markets traditionally take place between Thanksgiving and December 23, although some may stay open through the New Year.