Rhine River: Christmas Market Cruising

My wanderlust and love of boating each began at the same time: on the “It’s a Small World” ride at Disneyland when I was a child. At first the exotic costumes and props sparked my interest — then it struck me how pleasant it was to see the world pass by as I floated on a boat, cushioned by the water beneath the hull rather than bounced along a hard, rocky road or sealed inside a tourist bus.

These old feelings flooded into me as I awoke from a short nap in the forward observation deck of the Viking Jarl longboat as it docked on the Rhine River in downtown Strasbourg, France. My wife and I were on an eight-day upriver cruise from Amsterdam to Basel, Switzerland. She had been invited on the trip as a writer specializing in food and wine to experience Viking hospitality. I decided to tag along when I heard my two favorite travel words: “water” and “boat.” “Europe” didn’t hurt either.

"Strasbourg" Germany, Christmas Market
Strasbourg Christmas Market

Viking River Cruises is probably the most well-known to Americans of the European river cruise lines because of its advertising and marketing. The cruise line also boasts one of the most modern fleets on the rivers and it is adding new boats at an intense pace. Already in 2014, Viking has christened 16 new boats, a feat that got them listed in the Guinness Book of World Records.

The Boat

Viking calls its boats “longships” in honor, one supposes, of the earliest Viking ships of that famous name. But they are nothing like the Viking ships of old. The boat we were on was the “Viking Jarl” — long and narrow due to the narrow rivers the longboats ply and the barges with which they compete for space. Still, the riverboat actually feels spacious.

Staterooms at river level have a large porthole window and no balcony, but are appointed with refrigerator, flat-screen TV, a small desk and a well-designed bathroom with high-end counter tops and all the accoutrement you would expect in a land-based hotel. Above this level, rooms are similar, but many have full-floor windows or balconies. At the back are more luxurious suites with bedrooms and sitting rooms. For waterbugs who spend most of their time on small pleasure craft, like the 30 foot sloop I sail, the accommodations are luxurious. For cruise ship aficionados used to rooms on gargantuan cruise lines, the space will feel elegant, but a little tight.

"Viking River Cruises" longboat
Viking River Cruises lounge

The front of the boat is devoted to public spaces — lounges, a library, dining rooms and a well-stocked bar. But these are nothing like the glitzy, cavernous public spaces on a typical ocean-going cruiser. Viking’s longships offer a much more intimate space, designed for quiet comfort. The land-based comparison might be between a small boutique hotel and a Disneyland resort.

Viking’s longships are not for those wanting to blend into the touring masses. They are intimate ships, with only 95 staterooms accommodating about 190 passengers, with 52 crewmembers, a ratio of one crewmember for just four passengers. The Jarl never felt crowded, and there was more opportunity to get to know people at the open-seating meals. There was also a lot of head-nodding and “how you doin’s” to people whose faces you had seen many times but had not actually met.
Mostly, I was struck by how these longboats are purpose-built ships. They honor the passing scenery as the main event, with walls of glass and intimate resting spots where passengers can feel closer to the life of the river and not far from life along the shore.

READ  Carnival Glory - New England and Canada Itinerary from Boston
"Rhine River"
Rhine River

The River

The Rhine is one of the most storied waterways in all of recorded history. There is too much history of the river to be digested on even an eight-day cruise. Everywhere you look there is history oozing from the rocks, literally. Some of the earliest mentions of the Rhine River Valley come from the Roman Empire around 1 BC. The Romans brought their armies and building skills far north and constructed fortifications, aqueducts and lots of swords and shields to the area. Skipping ahead a few thousand years, World War II buffs will find themselves surrounded by names that evoke heartrending battles on both sides, from the Arnheim Bridge — immortalized in the book and film , A Bridge Too Far — to the bridges Nijmegen, and Ludendorff, spanning the Rhine at Remagen, which became famous, when U.S. forces took control of it, keeping open a key entryway for US forces fighting Hitler’s Third Reich.

Christmas Marke, "Strasbourg Cathedral" France
Christmas Market at the Strasbourg Cathedral

The boat generally travels at night and docks in a new locale before sunrise. That is, except for days when the scenery is spectacular. We saw the beautiful sections of the Rhine during the day, like the rapids through the Rhine Gorge below the famous Lorelei, and a stunning stretch of the river studded with castles that each encapsulate a period of European history.

I thought I wouldn’t like traveling so much while asleep, on the theory that I would miss a lot of scenery. Wrong. The trip was scheduled so well that we traversed most of the industrial heart of Germany while asleep, missing most of the smokestacks and car factories, while waking up refreshed and ready for a day of sightseeing and fun. It was perfect: new locales to explore each day but no packing and unpacking. It was “It’s a Small World” for adults. (For anyone fearing motion sickness, the boat was almost too still; hard to tell if it was moving or not without looking outside).
Oops. I guess I started out this story by admitting that I was taking a nap during the day, missing some of the beautiful scenery. But my wife was there to make sure I did touch land on a number of occasions.

Christmas Market "Heidelberg Castle" Germany
Christmas Market under Heidelberg Castle

The Shore

What attracted my wife to the trip was the timing: the Christmas season when the public squares of towns and cities all along the Rhine hold Christmas markets. I figured I would spend my time on the boat. But to my surprise, visiting the cities and small villages along the Rhine during the holiday season was invigorating and entertaining. It looked like each of the places we visited were committed to keeping the celebrations local and traditional, from the music filled markets in Cologne to the food-filled markets in Strasbourg, France. There are themes that carried through all the markets along the Rhine, be they in Germany or France. Warm, spiced wine — called Glühwein — is ubiquitous and comes in souvenir cups. I usually roll my eyes at the overwrought treacle in public relations brochures. But I reread this when I got home: “Songs of local choirs mingle with the aroma of sweet pastries and mulled wines along glimmering streets where local craftspeople showcase their hand-made wares and mouth-watering delicacies.” This was actually what it was like. Maybe it was all the Glühwein.

Our cruise was timed to fit in as many Christmas markets as possible. I thought one market would suffice — “If you’ve seen one … ” — but that turned out not to be the case. In Cologne there are many markets, and each one differentiated itself from the other. Some focused on food, others on toys and crafts, other on Christmas decorations. Some had music, others stunning locations, like the one surrounding the awe-inspiring cathedral in Cologne. Some small towns just had one, like the charming one in Rudesheim am Rhein, a small wine-producing town in the Rheingau area of Germany, where Riesling and some Pinot Noir (known as Spätburgunder) grow overlooking the river. The Glühwein there was a cut above the others I’d had downriver, but that might have been the result of quantity imbibed, or because it was steeped in more fruit and spices like cinnamon and cloves.

"Strasbourg Christmas Market" sausages
Sausages at Strasbourg Christmas Market

Then there’s the food. Some of the time I was there I felt like I was competing in the Nathan’s Annual Hot Dog Eating Contest. The range of sausages available was mind-boggling, eye-popping and waist-enhancing. All kinds and sizes were being grilled and served in brochen (hard rolls), or atop sauerkraut, potatoes or spätzle noodles. And there was always a good German beer within reach. The vendors in each market had their own tales to tell of how they came to make their regional wurst. When the Rhine nudges up against France, as it does in Strasbourg, a city that has passed between German and French control some five times in its history, the cuisine is distinctive, a German-French collaboration that was sublime. In the Strasbourg markets, there were cookies, pastries and crepes but also beignets and some gorgeous chocolate-covered fruit kebabs.

The food onboard was also pleasing, with three substantial meals plus numerous snacks throughout the day. And the chef tried to make sure that at least one thing on our plates each day came from the surrounding area. And since we were on the border of Germany and France for much of the time, the selections were excellent.

A Few Things to Note:
Demographics: Viking must have the best marketers on the planet. They have chosen their preferred customer demographic and they have mastered the skill of getting them on board. The Viking ship we were on was filled with retired Americans, generally from the middle of the country, and some Canadians. The average age of the passengers was 63; when you met someone at dinner the opening question was usually “Are you retired?” The crew is well- trained and prepared to deal with the special issues of the older set; the whole trip seemed wheelchair accessible, and every excursion offered a way for the mobility-challenged to enjoy at least part of it.

"Cologne Cathedral", Germany
Christmas Market Cologne Cathedral

Bareboat Charming: “Bare Boat” is a term used by sailors for a boat one charters without a captain or crew, and with only the essentials needed to sail. While the longships are by no means bareboat, you should not expect all the amenities that you would find aboard a large Princess Cruises ship for 4,000 people. These boats are elegant but simple: no casino, no workout club, no cabaret, no clowns twisting balloons into barn animal shapes. There was not a child (or even a young teenager) on board. There is entertainment fitting to the style and close-in engagement with the local area. Local musicians came on one night to play classical music; a lecturer on the European Union gave a great talk on the politics of the region; local children sang Christmas carols; and a talented pianist played every night in the well-appointed lounge.

The Captain and Crew. The international, multi-lingual team that runs the ship is exceedingly proud of the vessel, as it should be. And the crew is more-than-happy to spend real time with a passenger who expresses interest. The captain held an open visit to the boat’s bridge and after a full hour of heckling him with questions, I asked if I could tour the hidden areas of the ship, including the propulsion, electrical, and waste systems (I know this sounds strange, but not to a sailor). After deciding that a middle-aged American wearing “Nautica” clothes was unlikely to be a terrorist, he hooked me up with the chief engineer of the ship, who spent nearly two hours taking me on an exclusive, impromptu tour of the “hidden” ship. For a boat geek, it was heaven, although my wife was a little taken aback that I was so thrilled to see the waste system (which, by the way, treats the sewage on board and returns only clean water back into the river).
It turns out it’s a large world, after all, and the Viking ships are a lovely way to experience the real thing.

If You Go:
Viking River Cruises

This is a guest post by Spencer A. Sherman who was a guest of Viking River Cruises. Photos courtesy Spencer Sherman.