European river cruises (known in the travel industry as ERCs) are the next big American travel trend. Did you know that they’re already eating into the "big boat" ocean liner cruise market? I know. I know because I just spent four days on an ERC with 40 travel agents. They were there to suss out the situation so they could make recommendations to their clients (and eat a lot of shrimp cocktail, apparently); I was there so I could make recommendations to you (just one shrimp cocktail).
Although I don’t have any financial interest in whether or not you take an ERC — like a travel agent does — I heartily recommend that you take one anyway. Wait a minute. That’s not exactly right. I mean, sure, take an ERC if you want to — they’re like big cruises, only the boats are smaller and so are the hassles, including many fewer of the people with whom you may or may not choose to associate when you’re not on vacation (we’re talking 80 versus 700). No, what you need to do is take a German Christmas Market ERC. Note, an ERC is a fairly sexy experience (for reasons I’ll get to in a moment) and a traditional German Christmas market is pretty much the opposite of sexy, but the latter is such a truly remarkable, glorious, up-with-humanity experience that the two blend beautifully.
River cruising in Europe has been popular among Europeans for decades, and it’s very easy to see why… there are a lot of rivers. They’ve got the Danube, the Seine, the Rhône, the Rhine, the Po, the Moselle, etc., and a cruise gives an intrepid traveler a chance to explore several cities in one voyage, getting a wide overview of a region. Commonsensical as that may be, this is not necessarily an American approach to vacation: We go to Vail. We go to Cancún. We go on ocean cruises in which we don’t see land for several days and when we do it’s through the haze of weak piña coladas. We generally like an experience that involves the narrow and deep appreciation of one activity or culture. Our idea of a trip in which we bounce around from one place to another, freewheeling it along the way, tends to involve a car, and is called a road trip.
That's the beauty of the German Christmas markets: They make an ERC much more like a road trip, giving us something to do that requires an appreciation of the exact things we Americans like to do when we’re on vacation: drink, shop, see a little art (nothing too modern), experience a little culture (not too immersive), and eat. The order of those things varies depending on the traveler’s priorities, but the general song remains the same. And an ERC to German Christmas markets is just like a road trip, but on the water, and without the expectation of doing anything more than attending what is essentially a big outdoor street festival at each destination.
There is one downside to the ERC if you like a family vacation. Here’s where the sexy part comes. The typical ERC is not kid-friendly. ERCs are adult experiences, with actual dining rooms that contain china and fine linen and topiaries made of red roses as centerpieces. The champagne on an ERC is flowing. There is a disco. There are no chicken nuggets. Plus, the boats are small: 30 to 40 cabins or suites is normal, so there’s just not the kind of play space that you can find on, say, a Disney Cruise. The typical ERC has a very large bar, an open roof deck with a hot tub, and a spa where, this being Europe, a state-of-the-art sauna with floor-to ceiling windows looking out onto the river is coed and clothing-optional. (I wore a towel wrapped around the whole of me, but then so did the very chic Italian magazine editor I was hanging with, so I didn’t feel quite so provincial.) ERCs are sexy experiences. Kids are not.
The size and originality of German Christmas markets vary based in part on the size of the cities themselves — although the Christkindlsmarkt in Nuremberg, while a small city, is one of the oldest and most beloved in the world, and thus is huge, with more than 180 stalls).
See the German Christmas Market slideshow for a general rundown of what to expect but here are three things to note:
1. German Christmas markets have crowds: The markets are located in town squares and consist of rows and rows of merchants. Tourists are tangential at Christmas markets because they’re the pleasure of the locals, who come out every night from the day the markets open, usually in early December, until they close around New Year’s. And they make beelines to the huts offering hot cups of glühwein (mulled wine) and grilled wursts and the chance to hear live jazz. So prepare to be jostled, usually in the jolliest of ways, and to deal with crowd-induced anxiety (Where’s your husband? Your hat? Do you need that ornament? Should you get the roasted almonds or the roasted chestnuts? Does this stall take American Express?) The smaller the market, the easier to manage. There is a very nice market in the center of Regensburg, for example, but if you head deeper into the city and happen to visit the historic Thurn und Taxis castle (home of one of Europe’s first postal services, circa 16th century), you will discover what locals call a "romantischer-weihnachtsmarkt" (romantic market) which just means a much smaller and more intimate affair with fewer and more well-chosen vendors (and a small cost of admission, as opposed to all the big ones that are generally free). And like any major attraction, off-peak hours mean smaller crowds, so weekdays when the markets open, at around 11 a.m., are much easier to navigate (they’re also dead, so if you like the hustle-bustle, Sunday afternoons are the hot spot times; everyone comes out then.)
2. German Christmas markets have impeccably excellent street food: The rich yet simple heaviness of German food is made for an outdoor, chilly nighttime setting. There are wurst huts lining the blocks, filling the air with smoky, savory aromas, and there are incredibly tasty potato pancake and french fry stands, and homemade hand-pulled candy stands, and roasted nut stands, and the most popular stalls of all, which are the ones that sell the traditional German lebkuchen (cinnamon-ginger spicy, soft-on-the-inside, hard-on-the-outside gingerbread cookies in many permutations, such as covered in chocolate or white chocolate, studded with almonds or not, etc.). If you can find the Hungarian spit-roasted cakes, in which batter drizzled from ladles onto horizontally spinning rotisseries is made to form beehive-shaped cakes that are then sliced vertically, into donut-like ring servings, they are a real highlight. This year the Frankfurt Christmas market features a stall selling Mexican food — chili and nachos — and it was swarmed. To drink there is local beer, the aforementioned mulled wine, and shots of fruit brandy, schnapps, and extremely strong coffee. A nice touch: Drinks aren’t served in tacky plastic cups or even in environmentally tacky Styrofoam; they are served in cute mugs and glasses, for which you pay a small deposit that you receive back when you return the vessel. Highly civilized arrangement.
3. German Christmas markets have outskirts worth exploring, meaning that when you need to take a break from the cheer, the area is usually flanked with a selection of beer halls and taverns that are worth visiting. For instance, very near the famed Nuremberg market is a little restaurant and bed-and-breakfast called the Pillhofer, which has been in that spot since 1646. The outskirts of the markets are generally where you can spy the locals choosing their favorite haunts for their own breaks, and of course you should follow them to see the best ones. After a fortifying break, you’ll likely feel inclined to head back to the market for more treats and more shopping, and you’ll try to remember which stalls had the best beeswax candles and hand-carved Rudolf Steiner Waldorf-inspired children’s toys and felted animals and ceramic Christmas houses for your mantle at home.
Choosing an ERC
A number of tour companies offer ERCs — I saw one in which they were referred to as "advent voyages," which I think takes the nonexistent religious element of these cruises and makes it seem relevant — and these are generally partnered with boutique travel agencies. A lot of them are very well established and may sound familiar to frequent fliers: Viking River Cruises, Uniworld, AmaWaterways, Avalon Waterways, Peter Deilmann, Sea Cloud, etc. You might consider that these cruises are made for European expectations, so they often include buffet service for all meals and German folk music for entertainment, for example.
Some marketing genius realized that the idea of nostalgia to a German is different from the idea of a transatlantic trip to an American, and that person is behind the new "light luxury" American launch of the A-Rosa brand, a 10-year-old German river cruising company that until recently catered exclusively to the German market. As of 2013, A-Rosa will capitalize on the ERC trend by marketing it directly to Americans, with brand-new, extremely spiffy boats and targeted sailings (such as "Christmas Markets") as enticements. I noticed that my boat, the A-Rosa Silva, was appointed with a very modern and hip color scheme, all burgundy and chartreuse, while some of the other river vessels I peered into had more traditional white-and-navy nautical themes; by looks alone A-Rosa was the hippest thing on the Danube. It also had high-end booze brands at the bar, and table service for dinner at night as opposed to the dreaded buffet. Did I feel pandered to, as if I were having a more Americanized experience? Yes. Was I glad? Yes … the Christmas markets are one thing; an evening traveling, at the almost unholy slow speed for a boat of 10 to 15 miles an hour, from Regensburg to Nuremberg while listening to traditional German folk music and eating gelbwhurst after gelbwhurst would not do.
A-Rosa’s "all we care about is luxury" pretensions were much noticed and appreciated — and a great example of why an ERC is a very good match for the German Christmas market extravaganza. Instead of beating a path back to a hotel room in, say, Frankfurt, where we’d inevitably awaken to a city still aglow from its market and with nothing much to offer at that time of year but that, it was a pleasure to go back to the Silva, unwind with a cocktail and schvitz in the sauna, and rest our heels between expeditions. A little more gingerbread, and that’s a vacation.
Itineraries vary on Rhine-Danube River Christmas cruises, but if you go you’ll likely find yourself in the following three cities. Here’s where to explore beyond the market.
What to do:
Die Kleinmarkthalle: A two-story food hall with wursts galore, an oyster bar, a tapas bar, and a small restaurant in the center of Frankfurt, a marvelous place for lunch and a beer or a frankfurter on the go (Schreiber, stall 8, is the place).
Goethe Museum: Goethe was born here in this house, and what remains is a gorgeously spooky, intense, serious space, complete with cloisters and underground exhibit space, that is a good place to ponder German history. It offers excellent reminders of the fact that Germans have always been excellent craftsmen — the early swords and helmets and other metalsmith-forged items, the wooden arches and architecturally details on display are fascinating. This museum is not for children. It is for un-ironic contemplation of Sturm und Drang.
What to eat:
Lorsbacher Thal: Some guidebooks I saw called this place a "gastropub" but it’s not: Imagine a small convivial indoor beer garden and you’ve got a better idea. There are long communal tables, platters piled high with an assortment of traditional cuts and cooking methods of the pig (pork chops, frankfurters, wursts, smoked pork shoulder) served with all the traditional accompaniments, including vinegary potato salad, sauerkraut, a selection of excellent spicy mustards, and handkäse, a regional specialty of very young fermented whey that is a little too immature to call "cheese" but a little too mature to call "butter." One Texan dining at Lorsbacher Thal described its acquired taste as "barking," but it’s actually quite good spread on the rich dark rye bread. Do drink an apfelwein, a German-style cider and specialty of Frankfurt that tastes rather like a cross between natural unsweetened apple juice and Heffeweizen and goes down way too easy.
What to do:
Das Kunstforum Ostdeutsche Galerie: Open since 1966, Das Kunstforum Ostdeutsche Galerie is a relatively modern museum on the outskirts of the city that was originally meant to foster artistic connection between the country’s East and West. Its collection is varied and impressive, especially of Eastern Bloc artists; a special exhibit on the work of Emil Orlik, the Prague-born painter and lithographer who lived and worked in Germany for a time (and eventually all over the world) was planned with clear devotion and expertise. Overall a refreshing, manageable-in-an-afternoon dose of culture that feels a million miles away from the gingerbread and licorice down the hill.
Regensburg Cathedral: Even if you’re not a church-visiting type (ahem), you should experience this Gothic masterpiece, dedicated to Saint Peter and built in the Carolingian Era (around year 700). The current pope of the Catholic church, Pope Benedict, is said to have a special place in his heart for this cathedral: For a time, it was his place of worship. He was a theology professor at the University of Regensburg from 1969 to 1977, and vice president of the university from 1976 to 1977; his brother Georg Ratzinger was the director of the church’s choir for many years and still lives in Regensburg. (Domplatz 1; 0941 5971660)
What to eat:
Teehaus Bachfischer: Teehaus Backfischer is part of what is clearly Regensburg’s thriving tearoom scene, and if you happen upon it on your way to the town’s venerable Cathedral then you are lucky because you’ve happened upon the best of the lot. This is a tea lover’s tea shop, with bins and bins to explore and sniff and dream about, a small ground-floor tea bar, and an upstairs café. Teas are imported from around the world, but a local almond-vanilla black tea, a traditional German variety, was just-right for a damp, sleety day in December.
Wurstkuchl: The Wurstkuchl is a more than 500-year-old hot dog stand on the banks of the Danube that sells one thing: Regensburg’s signature bratwursts, which are garlicky in flavor and noteworthy amongst Germans for their diminutive size, about a third of the size of a typical brat. Instead there’s an enormous charcoal grill, an old woman tending it, and two or three waiters. The sauerkraut is homemade and aged in the cellar, and the mustard is made in the tiny kitchen. "Seating" is outdoor tables. This will be the best thing you put in your mouth in Germany.
What to do:
Nazi Documentation Center: The Nazi Documentation Center (Bayernstraße 110; 0911 2315666) is not a Holocaust museum; it’s a museum devoted to exploring the sociological conditions that lead to the Third Reich. It seeks to answer the "how did this happen" question in a way that considers the political climate and state of mind of the German people after World War I. The permanent "Fascination and Terror" exhibit is less a tear-jerker than a jaw-dropper, as visitors experience shock that they’re standing on the grounds of what was Hitler’s 50,000-capacity Nazi Party Rally Grounds (Reichsparteitagsgelände).
Pillhofer: Erected in 1646 as a spice market, this tavern and bed-and-breakfast is a humming little place filled with locals sitting booth-to-booth with Korean tourists. The draw is the authentic Franconian regional food — lots of wursts, pork in guises from carpaccio to schnitzel to stewed knuckle, and lots of beer. The Pillhofer manages to be a beloved tourist trap, and the vibe is reliably convivial. Yes, the waitresses wear dirndls, but this place manages to avoid theme-park status with its honest, hearty food, and very cheerful ambiance (Königstraße 78; 0911 21456-0).
Hospitality was provided to the writer by A-Rosa. Kelly Alexander is a Special Contributor at The Daily Meal.