Christmas Markets Cruise - continued

| Wednesday, 12 Dec. 2012

A food stall in Bratislava Christmas market

Viking River Cruises Longboats

I am currently on a Christmas Markets cruise on the Danube from Budapest to Passau, Germany - near Munich. I gave my first report on Monday, and now it is time for an update.

But first a little more about the vessel. I took a Danube cruise just last summer, but on a previous-generation river boat. Now I am on the newest model Viking River "Longboat," and I am amazed at how quickly the technology has changed.

We all know river cruises have become the fastest growing sector in the cruise industry. Part of that success must be attributable to these new riverboats. Viking River is just one of many popular river cruise lines, But the company alone already has an order for 18 of these new Longboats - an astounding number - to be built and put into service between now and 2016.

I am currently sailing upon Viking Njord, and it is impressive. Yes, it is long; as you can see of this picture of the hallway down one of three passenger decks.

The long hallway down Viking Njord.

But it is also beautiful, all of the guests agree. The décor is ὓber-modern, open and airy, resplendent with open glass only sparsely punctuated with reflective, mirror-like chrome.

The spacious, high-teech main lobby on Viking Njord.

In the 1990s river boats were claustrophobic; air-tight staterooms with non-opening windows. Most were without disabled access such as elevators and automatic doors. Dinner came with one choice; meat or fish, and you had to select one the night before.

See the photo albums for this cruise: Christmas Markets and Aboard the Viking Njord.

Have you tried Christmas Cruise? Tell us here: Viking River Cruise Forum

Next Generation Riverboats

Then just a few years ago river boat staterooms with "French Balconies" became state of the; floor to ceiling sliding glass doors that opened up to a railing. Yes, it gives you fresh air and is a significant improvement, but it isn't a real balcony. This Longboat has both types of rooms, and the ones with French Balconies are a bit roomier inside, but the balcony staterooms on this Longboat would make any cruise ship proud. The not only do they have king-sized beds; they feature spacious showers, heated bathroom floors and a generous 40-inch flat screen television in front of the bed. The balconies have two chairs and a table.

As I mentioned in my first article, most impressive is the use of glass to add a feeling of space to a room, even if it is not see-through. The bathroom walls in this stateroom are all glass, so if you are brave enough to open the drapes you can watch the scenery sail by as you take a shower.

I realize that sounds a bit odd, but there is also a switch to transform these walls from transparent to translucent (to allow light through, but with no visual detail). This may sound a bit pretentious - but only until you actually try it. You will be amazed how much it adds a sense of real space to the stateroom.

The Luxury of Inclusiveness

Viking River (and most river cruise lines, but be sure to check before you book) now includes wine and beer with its meals - as much as you want. The staterooms come with bottled water at no extra charge.

There is a much wider menu selection in the restaurant, generally a choice of three salads, three appetizers, four main entrees and three desserts.

At least one, sometime two, shore tours daily are included in the cruise fare. In your stateroom is a pair of in-ear listening devices that allow your guide to speak into a small microphone and broadcast (technically the term is "narrowcast") into your personal earpiece as she guides your tour. The system works so well that tours with as many as six different guides can work the same spots simultaneously, and never interfere. The devices can cover up to 100 yards, so if you get lost you can still find your guide. The devices stay in your room in a recharging holder, ready for use at the beginning of each day.

See the photo albums for this cruise: Christmas Markets and Aboard the Viking Njord.

Have you tried Christmas Cruise? Tell us here: Viking River Cruise Forum

Christmas Cruise Tours Included

As I mentioned previously, I am on a "Christmas Markets River Cruise" on the Danube. These cruises stick to pretty much the same routes as the summer cruises, but they also add tours and/or shuttles to the various Christmas Markets happening in most of the stops along the way. So the cruises are essentially the same, but the markets are an added bonus.

These markets are a European tradition where every autumn the cities allow local merchants to sell mostly locally homemade crafts and foods in temporary stalls set up in city centers. They are open seven days a week, and late into the night. Thiss boat remains docked in most cities unil 10:00 pm or later as well. Shoppers have plenty of time to find the type of authentic gifts that we associate with old-fashioned Christmases; wool gloves, socks and hats, cakes and pies and local honey and beeswax candles.

The stalls also feature local foods cooked on the spot; plenty of indigenous sausage, goose, venison, breads and pastries. There are many kinds of alcoholic cider and no age limits. There is apple, cherry and a very popular drink called "mulled honey" which is an alcoholic form of liquid honey. It is very sweet and surprising strong in content, especially on the first taste although one adapts quickly; A very effective way to warm up when the wind is blowing.

Day by Day

We arrived in Budapest our first day where the boat stays overnight. This gives one a chance to get to the boat from the airport, check in and unpack followed by a nice dinner and a good night's sleep. The second day we remained in Budapest, where the first free tour included a visit to the palaces and castles on the "Buda" side of the Danube River. We returned to the boat for lunch and then we were free for the afternoon to enjoy the "Pest" side of the city, where the Christmas market is located.

Budapest is now a large, vibrant city, which means the Christmas market is also sizeable and diverse in its offerings. It is a good combination of local foods and crafts, but known to be a bit pricey compared to the next market.

Day three we were in Bratislava, now the capital city of Slovakia, (formerly the second city in Hungary after Budapest. Bratislava was once the capital of Hungary during the Austro-Hungarian Empire due to its close proximity to Vienna - about 40 kilometers). We started with a bus tour of the city followed by a walking tour in the city square, location of the Christmas market. The market was close enough to the boat dock that when we reached it we were able to go our own ways and make our way back to our boat in our own time, the boat did not sail for six more hours.

Night falls around 4:00 p.m. in this area - so by the time we hit the market it was already after nightfall. The city came alive with lighting Christmas decorations throughout the square. Bratislava is a more authentic and traditional Christmas Market because it is not a tourist town. The Christmas market was small but rich in authentic Slavic culture. The food stalls featured homemade pastries, rather than the more gimmicky massive cream puffs and cotton candy I would see in the bigger cities to follow.

See the photo albums for this cruise: Christmas Markets and Aboard the Viking Njord.

The fourth morning we were docked in Vienna. During breakfast the wind was blowing snow onto the riverboat. I was here just last summer so I chose to skip the morning excursion, which included a long walking tour of the downtown Ringstrasse. I did not want to wear myself out too early, but if it had been my first time in Vienna I would have gone for a Sacher Torte and to see the Lipizzaner Stallions. The afternoon optional tour to Schonbrunn Palace is also very highly recommended.

Fortunately, I had the opportunity to focus on the "City Hall Square" Christmas Market, said to be one of the best in the world. It was lively and sprawling. The Viennese seem to have a very large sweet tooth. There were booths selling pastry twice the size of normal (picture an 8-inch glazed donut). There were also stands for sausages including original "Frankfurters" where they cut a hole in a long bread roll and stuff it with a sausage. One could also buy mulled honey, cider, beer, ham, weinerschnitzel and cotton candy.

That night I attended an optional tour (€59) to see a concert featuring the compositions of Strauss and Mozart. I admit, I expected something touristic, but I was wrong. The performance featured some very talented singers, dancers and players. I suppose the pool of talent is pretty deep in Vienna, so it is not hard to find truly talented performers even if the show is mostly for tourists.

Day five we visited the Abbey at Melk. This is a stop on every Danube cruise, as it should be, as it is a World Heritage Foundation site. I skipped this tour when we were here last year as I had work to do, but I went this time and I was very impressed. I now see why it is included on every river cruise in this area.

The Abbey is essentially a monastery founded in 1089 when an Austrian Margeave (the German equilalent to a "marquis"), Leopold II gave one of his castles to the Benedictine order of Monks. The abbey was expanded in the early 16th century and became something of a "home away from home" for traveling Hapsburg royalty. The royal dining hall in the guest wing rivals Versailles, but the real attraction is the library which contains thousanmds of Medieval manuscripts.

There was no Christmas Market in Melk, as the actual village has only about 8000 occupants. So, this is the end of report number 2. Tomorrow we are in Linz and will take a tour to the renowned city of Salzburg, home of Mozart and the location for the movie "Sound of Music." It is also known for having an elaborate Christmas Market.

See the photo albums for this cruise: Christmas Markets and Aboard the Viking Njord.

Have you tried Christmas Cruise? Tell us here: Viking River Cruise Forum

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