Europe's Christmas Markets are the best holiday tradition that we never adopted in America.
The concept is simple -- like a weekend “farmer’s market” that is open seven days a week, morning to late evening, but only for four weeks. Traditionally, the markets open on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, known as “Advent Sunday,” and run through Christmas Eve, selling yuletide food, drinks, gifts and handicrafts.
The Christmas Markets tradition started in the Germanic regions of Europe, but you can now find them in European cities from Oslo to Barcelona. The German term is Christkindlmarkt (literally “Christ child market”), and one of most notable ones is held at the City Hall in Vienna. Indeed, the Vienna “December Market” (started in 1294) is said to be the birthplace of this tradition.
Several European river cruise lines offer Christmas Market cruises for American travelers, and they are becoming more popular for good reason: These markets offer a potpourri of the best Christmas traditions -- simple but sumptuous seasonal foods, regional dance and music, and home and farm-crafted goods to buy as gifts for your loved ones.
Danube River Christmas Markets Cruise
I just returned from a Danube River cruise aboard one of Viking River Cruises' beautiful new “Longboats.” We started at Budapest, Hungary, and in the course of seven days visited shoreside Christmas Markets in Vienna, Linz and Salzburg (Austria), Bratislava (Slovakia), and Passau (Germany).
Each market has a unique flavor and at least one thing you can’t find anywhere else, like the Schneeballs of Vienna or the Christmas edition Mozart Balls in Salzburg.
My favorite unique confection, however, was the steamy hot bread called kurtoskalac from Budapest. It starts as plain dough rolled onto a wooden cylinder; then it is baked over hot coals. When the dough is hot and sticky, it is rolled in a tray of sugar and cinnamon, or cacao or hazelnuts. It is then slipped off the roller and directly into a sealed bag. When you open the bag to peel off a piece of the freshly baked hot bread it emits a hot, fragrant, steamy vapor into the cold winter air.
Food – Hot and Plentiful
All the markets sell certain traditional Christkindlmarkt items such as Gluewein, a hot, spiced red wine served over raisins with an optional shot of brandy. Mulled honey is a simple mixture of honey, hot water and grain alcohol. It is sweet and strong, and warms you from your nose to your toes. Among the hot ciders available are cherry, berry, raisin, ginger, cinnamon and of course, apple.
Several stalls sell hot food, especially every variety of sausage imaginable (including Bratwurst and Debreziner). A Frankfurter is a short and fat sausage eaten with mustard, but a “hot dog” uses a “hole punch” on a soft roll, inserting the sausage into it -- along with mustard and catsup.
Since winter is not as popular for tourists as summer, one interesting challenge is the lack of the usual peak-season English subtitles on signs and menus. In one case, however, I was glad to see an English translation for a tasty-looking Hungarian dish called Kakastöke Porkölt. It turned out to be “Rooster Testicle Stew.”
There were plenty of chestnuts roasting on open fires, but then there were the sweets. Some stalls sell nothing but marzipan in dozens of flavors, or pieces of fruit dipped in chocolate. Whipped cream seems to be an indispensible condiment in Vienna. Remember the kurtoskalac from Budapest? In Vienna they have something similar, but they fill the gaping hole in the middle with whipped cream, or as they call it, schlagobers.
Viennese Schneeballs are raw cookie dough first rolled flat and then roughly twisted into a ball shape. They are then deep-fried and finally dipped in chocolate and nuts.
Wienerbrezels (Viennese pretzels) have more girth then the average waistline. They are infused with chocolate, marzipan, cream cheese or cherries, then baked and dipped in chocolate, cinnamon, hazelnuts and powdered sugar.
Other stalls sell homemade handicrafts such as leather and wool hats, gloves, socks and scarves. Some stalls have spinning wheels right on the premises to make wool items to order. Fresh honey and bee’s wax candles are also plentiful.
Christmas ornaments are copious and beautiful -- though most appear far too fragile to transport all the way home. If you love intricate crèche nativity scenes, you could spend a lifetime collecting any saint or species of animal ever mentioned in the bible. Each market specializes in locally made ornaments and nativity characters, making the variety endless.
All the markets have stages for local performers, mostly children who offer traditional folkloric songs and dances accompanied by accordion and violin. Occasionally, a spontaneous dance line will break out, like one I saw in Budapest led by a dashing young priest dressed in his finest robe. He led a line of at least a hundred locals shaking their hips behind him – many of them nuns beset with curiously unctuous smiles.
The Best Christmas Markets
Which are the best Christmas Markets in Europe? I no longer see it as a contest, because the abundance and diversity of offerings we encountered on our cruise were always more than satisfying. Each market has a unique ambiance; I loved the provincial quality of Bratislava's, while Vienna's is more sophisticated and Salzburg's is vogue. I could easily become preoccupied with visiting as many of these markets as possible throughout Europe, but that would take far too many Christmases.
Viking River Cruise Options
Viking River has become enormously successful in recent years. The line’s newest state-of-the-art “Longboat” vessels are stunning, and so popular with cruisers that the company has plans to deploy 18 more within the next few years. The staterooms are very comfortable, with full or French balconies, king-size beds, large-screen TVs, free 24-hour Wi-Fi on your own laptop or in the Internet center, and more delicious variety in the meals than ever before.
The vessels' interiors are open and airy, finished in glass and reflective chrome so you constantly feel in touch with the passing scenery. Even the bathroom walls are made of glass so you could actually watch the scenery go by as you shower – if you didn’t mind leaving the drapes open. (In truth, with the tinted windows no one would be able to see you; but if you have a roommate, you can make the glass bathroom walls translucent to preserve your privacy with a simple flip of a switch.)
Dress for cold weather; bring waterproof shoes and gloves, a hat, scarf and long johns. Layering works best. Beyond that it’s just a matter of enjoying yourself.
Paul Motter is the editor of CruiseMates.com, an online cruise guide. Follow him on Twitter @cruisemates.