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.
You can take a Christmas market ERC anywhere in Europe where there’s a river and Jesus. The reason you need to do it in Germany is because these are the oldest and best Christmas markets in the world. The German Christmas market tradition dates to the Middle Ages, a charming and very old-fashioned way for communities to come together, before there was Facebook, and to share a warm drink and some cheer, and browse among locally made crafts to plant in Christmas stockings.