Towns and villages throughout Europe take on a festive atmosphere strolling through old-fashioned Christmas markets, originally created in the middle ages to celebrate the beginning of Advent. One of the best ways to experience some of the many markets is on a river cruise where you can relax and enjoy multiple stops in charming hamlets all decked out for the season. Often established near the principal church, cruise passengers may also have the opportunity to attend services at an historic church or hear church and children's choirs singing from performance stages as part of their itinerary. Characterized by twinkle lights, regional foods, wooden vendor stalls and Christmas curios, the markets are filled with the festive spirit of the season. Make the most of the season by experiencing the best the markets have to offer.
What to try. . .
Glüwein. This drink of warm mulled wine has been served for centuries. Typically, it is a red wine heated with cinnamon and other spices, sugar, and citrus. Non-alcoholic Kinderpunsch is a fruit juice with similar spices is available for children.
Lebkuchen and Lebkuchenherzen are soft, chewy gingerbread shaped into hearts and decorated and inscribed with icing.
Currywurst, pfeffer sausages, reisenboulette meatballs. Created from family recipes, sold in food booths, and served on a paper plate with a little wooden fork, these are hearty snacks to enjoy while shopping in the markets.
Chocolate covered fruit skewers and pretzels. A delightful sweet treat to munch as you explore the vendor's stalls.
Stollen. A dense, cake-like traditional Christmas bread containing candied or dried fruit, nuts, spices, and decorated with icing or powdered sugar.
What to buy. . .
Nutcrackers. Handpainted wooden carvings of soldiers, knights, kings and other professions have been popular since the 15th century.
Glühwein mugs. Each market has its own mug design. When you purchase your beverage, the cost of the mug is included and can be refunded when you return the cup. Or, keep as a delightful souvenir!
Räuchermann. Since the 19th century, the Smoking Man has been displayed at Christmas with an incense cone inserted in the body allowing smoke to leave the hole carved in its mouth. The figurines are usually craftsmen of the area such as peddlers, soldiers, miners, or foresters.
Ornaments. Glass ornaments, straw and paper stars, and wooden nativity figures make outstanding market mementos.
Winter hats, mittens, and scarves. Look for handcrafted items in traditional designs or artistically inspired patterns.
If you go tips. . .
While the markets are open from late morning until 8-9 at night, the most magical time is at dusk and evening when the lights and decorations create a fairytale atmosphere.
Bring cash. Some of the larger stalls may be set up to accept credit cards but many are not.
Avoid mass-produced items. You can tell by the price or the sure-giveaway "made in . . . " sticker. Look for a business card from the artist.
Watch for regional food, craft, and one-of-a-kind gifts.
Bring shopping bags! Vendors seldom give bags with purchases.
Celebrate nostalgia and create holiday memories to savor forever on a Christmas markets cruise. Appealing? Want to plan a holiday river cruise for 2019 or 2020? I would love to make this happen for you.
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Scooter Tessari, MCC, owns The Cruise Center, Inc. in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and operates the website Tasteful Journeys devoted to enrichment vacations with a culinary accent and featuring cruises, tours, and custom designed vacation packages.