The coming of winter is often a happy time, as defines a well-earned rest from all forms of Harvest, and to celebrate holiday gatherings.
Synchronously, it is also a time when, due to cold and snow, every cell enlivens upon seeing twinkling lights on Holiday trees and wreaths, coupled the scent of good food everywhere.
It is also a time where many European River cruise lines sail to the many European Christmas Markets, taking their guests to discover the Christmas Market spirit on the major rivers of Europe, especially the Rhine and the Danube. Viking River Cruises, AMA Waterways, and others take to these rivers during the season of Advent, the four weeks prior to December 25th. This is when Christians celebrate, through tree lighting, gift-giving, and carol-singing, the coming, or the advent, of the birth of Jesus on December 25th.
Long History of the Street Market
The Christmas Market has been a tradition in most parts of Europe, and is known as Christkindlmarkt, Marché de Noël and Weihnachtsmarkt. The history of these street markets goes back to the Late Middle Ages in the German-speaking parts of Europe and in many parts of the former Holy Roman Empire. that included many eastern regions of France and Switzerland. The Vienna “December Market” was a forerunner of the Christmas Market and dates back to 1294.
Travel to the Christmas Markets by Water
We sailed on a Viking Christmas Markets Cruise on the Danube, and the AmaWaterways cruise on the Rhine, docking at major ports where there were Christmas Markets nearby. From Passau to Budapest, and from Basel to Amsterdam, we experienced glorious Christmas Markets, each a little different in texture and taste, due to cultural histories of the areas. In all of these great street markets, the spirit of Christmas was felt, not only by sampling different food and drink, but of seeing the different handmade Christmas décor: silver angels with white ribbon, red Santa Clauses, ice skating reindeer to name a very few. Here are some of our favorites.
The Christmas Market is close to the famed St. Stephen’s church, at Cathedral Square. About 70 small stalls sold Christmas foods, but Passau is known for being the original town where Lebkuchen (gingerbread) was first created. The scent of spiced gingerbread was ever-present at the Passau market long with the meter and a half long bratwurst and those who ate it certainly had no worries about cholesterol. This is the town where we first tasted Glühwein, a drink made from hot mulled wine, usually red, with spices, cloves and vanilla pods.
The Salzburg Christmas Market is located at the foot of the Hohensalzburg fortress, and all around the Cathedral of Salzburg. In addition to the marzipan and Stollen cakes, is a Bratapfel – a form of baked apple – and roasted chestnuts. It is a dessert that has a smoky, cinnamon apple taste. And in discussing nuts, Gebrannten Mandeln, a candied roasted almond, is also unique and endemic to this Salzburg Christmas Market. A specialty of Salzburg is the Mozartkugel (or, Mozart balls) mainly because the great composer Mozart was born in Salzburg. The original Ball is made of green pistachio marzipan covered in a layer of nougat, then has a dark chocolate coating.
Another city visited was Strasbourg, France, called the Capital of Christmas because it was here in 1570 that the first true Christmas market in Europe took place. It is said that over 300 vendor stalls are spread out over the Strasbourg city locations, making Strasbourg one of the largest Christmas markets in Europe. Also, there are memorable markets in Cologne, Germany, where the long shadows of its magnificent cathedral, which began construction in 1238, touch the many Christmas markets in the area.
There were other scents and tastes on the Christmas markets Rhine Cruise, especially at the medieval village of Riquewihr, in the Alsace region of France. This is a bicultural area, due to all of the battles and changes of monarchies. For many hundreds of years, the French ruled, then the German, then the French again. The gustatory consequence is the unique dual French/German food combinations found at the market.
Even though there are many Christmas markets in Vienna, we experienced the largest one — in front of the Rathaus (City Hall) in downtown Vienna. In all, however, the food sold were very like the others: roasted chestnuts, Lebkuchen, Glühwein, and all types of strudel: cherry, apple and blueberry, as well as sizzling Bratwurst. But because we were in Vienna, we went to a patisserie close to the Rathaus Christmas Market that’s famous worldwide, called Demel. Founded in 1786, it is a dark wood, tri-leveled dessert palace.
At Demel, we sampled Sachertortes (the Hotel Sacher, where the original Sachertorte was originally created was right down the street,) Esterhazy Tortes, hazelnut tortes, and hazelenut and apricot filled tortes. In the display cases, we saw hundreds of pies and cakes and candies. One of their most popular exports worldwide is candied violets.
This is the capital of Slovakia, which is a landlocked country clearly in the direct geographical center of Europe. It is bordered by the Czech Republic, Austria, Poland, Ukraine and Hungary. The Danube passes through it, and is near the Carpathian Mountains, making this area a cross cultural and cross culinary paradise. We had just come from Vienna, home of every known kind of sweet torte, candy, and whipped cream, to Bratislava, home of much wilder, heartier food. No candied violets here!
At the Christmas market, held on the main square in Bratislava, we sampled food we had never seen or heard of before, made from ham, pork, and goose. Examples of traditional dishes included cigánska pečienka (roasted pork or chicken in a bun with grilled onion and mustard); lokše –potato crepes– stuffed with goose fat, poppy seeds, or cabbage; and hriatô, a plum brandy, as well as mead, a strong fruit brandy made from plums, or blackcurrants, or cherries. One gentleman on our cruise brought back some ham he had purchased at the Market, so his cruise colleagues could taste what fresh, smoked, non-preserved ham tasted like. It was fabulous!
Hungary is south of Slovakia, and very much like its neighbor, borders on many other countries. Thus, the food we found at the Budapest Christmas Market was again such a combination of high cholesterol, wild food that could have been eaten by Turkish and Magyar conquerors. There were massive amounts of strudel, with large filling of poppy seed. Then, there was stuffed cabbage rolls, blood sausage, all types of bratwurst, goose thigh, pork knuckles, duck breast, and roasted chestnuts. We washed that all down with Krampampuli, a Hungarian punch, made from dates, figs, dried, plums, and candied orange peel. We felt afterward as if we were warriors of old.
Toward the end of these journeys, the season, the destination, the rivers, the sailing journeys merged into one culinary, yet cultural adventure. But there was something else, also. Sailing on the ancient waterways, to markets that had been in existence for centuries, allowed cruises to become odysseys of the spirit, as travelers may again discover how the Christmas season introduces a wistfulness – combining a melancholy for year almost passed with a happy anticipation of the year to come.