Guess Where I’m Going? Our Writers Have Been Already & Now It’s My Turn. Hashtag Hint: #VikingLongships

Christmas Bells

My first Christmas Markets river cruise was on AmaWaterways in 2006. Today, Christmas Markets river cruises are beginning to boom, with more and more ships sailing the rivers of Europe during November and December. © Ralph Grizzle

It seems that everyone I know is — or was — on a Christmas markets river cruise this year.

Several travel agents who I have spoken with either have been — or are on their way. Writers for Avid Cruiser and its sister sites have been (see their stories on River Cruise Advisor, From The Deck Chair and on Cruise Buzz).

Even my friend who is the CEO of the American Queen Steamboat Company is headed to Europe for a holiday cruise on the rivers. Shouldn’t he be on the Mississippi? No matter, it’s good to see everyone in the holiday spirit. And now it’s my turn.

I’ll be heading to Budapest on Saturday to board Viking River Cruises’ Viking Odin for a sailing along the Danube to Nuremberg.

What’s so special about Christmas Markets river cruises?

River cruises are great to begin with. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t be seeing such a building boom in river cruise vessels.

One example: Continuing on an expansion that began earlier this year, Viking River Cruises will have 24 new ships (that’s right, two dozen new ships) by the end of 2014. I think that’s testament enough that river cruises are popular.

Then there’s the markets themselves, which are essentially street markets that date back to the Late Middle Ages in the German-speaking parts of Europe.

One of the oldest markets, in fact, was held in Dresden, Germany, in 1434. Some sources say the Vienna “December Market,” dating back to 1294, was a forerunner of today’s Christmas markets.

It’s pretty impressive that on a Christmas Markets river cruise, you’re experiencing something of historical significance.

Nuremberg Christmas Market

Next week, I’ll be visiting the Nuremberg Christmas Market, thanks to Viking River Cruises. Photo courtesy of Roland Berger (Wikipedia)

Where do Christmas Markets river cruises operate?

Christmas Markets river cruises take place primarily along the rivers in Germany, Austria and Alsace — and are generally held in the town squares. You’ll find vendors selling food, drink and seasonal items from open-air stalls — and the festivities are sometimes accompanied by traditional singing and dancing. See The Magical Christmas Markets River Cruise on River Cruise Advisor.

Christmas Markets river cruises, while not widely known, provide the perfect platform for experiencing all of the different Christmas festivities along the rivers of Europe.

My first Christmas Markets river cruise was in 2006, and I’ve been on one every year since, either with loved ones or family. It’s a great way to celebrate the holidays. See How I Spend Christmas: On The Rivers Of Europe With Family & Friends

It’s also remarkable for me to have experienced the growth not only in river cruising but also winter river cruising over the holidays in Europe. If you haven’t tried cruising the Christmas Markets, I encourage you to give it some thought. Yes, it can be cold, but for that we have what is called “proper clothing.”

Tomorrow, I’ll post my itinerary. In the meantime, check out our review of Viking Odin on River Cruise Advisor — or to get a sampling of the Christmas Markets river cruise experience, check out the report below, filed by Aaron Saunders who cruised on Viking Freya earlier this month.

Setting Off To See The Christmas Markets On Viking Freya

Viking Freya sails past Vác, Hungary located at the 1680 kilometer distance marker along the Danube. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

A fierce arctic wind whipped at Viking River CruisesViking Freya this morning at her Budapest berth. The Holiday spirit was definitely in the air.

Christmas Decor out on display aboard Viking Freya adds a decidedly festive touch. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

With Viking Freya scheduled to sail at 8:30 a.m., guests could either participate in the tour of Buda and Pest or remain with the ship as she made her way up the Danube to Visegrad, Hungary, where tour participants would be picked up. Because I’ve done the tour of Buda and Pest before, I decided to enjoy a relaxing morning onboard Viking Freya as she left Budapest. As much as I love the Fisherman’s Bastion and Gellert Hill, sailing past the Hungarian Parliament, completed in 1904, is one of my most cherished experiences.

Guests aboard Viking Freya could take part in an excursion to Buda’s Fisherman’s Bastion, shown here at the top of the photo. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

Once again, I am amazed at how quiet Viking Freya and her Longship sisters are when they’re underway. Even at the most extreme aft end of the ship, vibration and noise are nearly non-existent. In my stateroom, located near the forward end of the ship, I can’t feel or hear a thing. It’s exactly like being docked alongside, yet the scenery doesn’t lie: We are underway.

Sailing past the Hungarian Parliament, with Viking Freya’s chess set in the foreground. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

The Danube is a fascinating river. No one knows exactly where its source is, so distances are measured from the Black Sea, wherein Kilometer Zero is located at Sulina. In Budapest, the distance marker is gauged based on nearby Margaret Island, which is easily recognizable by the mustard-yellow colored Margaret Bridge. It’s at this point that our journey begins, at the 1651.5 kilometer marker. Our journey to Visegrad will take us some 43 kilometers up the Danube, to marker 1694.5. After a short stop to pick up the guests on tour, we will continue sailing overnight to distance marker 1915 – Vienna.

Passing under Budapest’s Margaret Bridge, underway to Visegrad, Hungary. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

The Danube officially concludes at Kelheim, Germany – some 2415 kilometers from the Black Sea. We’ll pass Kelheim shortly after departing the lovely town of Regensburg on Friday, whereupon we’ll enter the Main-Danube canal for our voyage to Nuremberg on Saturday.

Unlike much of Europe, this engineering marvel has only existed since 1992 and has made travel from Amsterdam to the Black Sea possible. The chief issue here was how to accommodate the change in water elevation from the Main – which is just 450 feet above sea level at Wurzburg – to Kelheim and the Danube, which is roughly 1,200 feet above sea level.

Departing Budapest, Hungary aboard Viking River Cruises’ brand-new Viking Freya on a cold December morning. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

The answer was the Main-Danube Canal: a set of 16 locks that raise and lower ships between the two rivers across a distance of 106 miles. Without this engineering marvel, we would have no way of reaching Nuremberg.

The idea of creating a canal was nothing new; in fact, rudimentary locks and bypasses had existed since the 18th century, but most – if not all – infrastructure in and around Nuremberg was wiped out during the Second World War. By the late 1960s, plans were drawn up for a replacement canal that would run as far as Nuremberg, and the rest was history.

River cruising as we know it today owes much of its success to this single stretch of water.

Stateroom corridors aboard Viking Freya, like all Viking Longships, are attractive and welcoming. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

My decision to spend the morning enjoying Viking Freya’s scenic cruising was an excellent one. Christmas music in both English and German is playing in the lounge, and the smell of fresh-baked gingerbread wafts throughout the room from the small gingerbread town placed by the Aquavit Terrace entrance, created by the ship’s culinary team.

One of the Gingerbread Houses created by Viking Freya’s skilled culinary team. It smells absolutely wonderful. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

The floor-to-ceiling windows let in absolutely stunning views of the passing waters, and are one of Viking Freya’s greatest features. Sandwiched between another ship and the tall banks of the Danube, the Lounge felt slightly claustrophobic last night, but no more: it is a veritable window to the world here on the Danube today.

Read the rest of the story on River Cruise Advisor.