By Sarah Jaquay
I’ve long wanted to visit Germany for Christmas, because so many of our holiday traditions originate there: decorated evergreens; Advent calendars; and, the carol, O Tannenbaum. So in December of 2019, my husband and I jumped at the chance to cruise the Danube River on the Scenic Amber, one of Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours’ intimate (max. 163 passengers) and upscale ships, to see the Christmas markets of Germany, Austria and Hungary. Many European Christmas markets were cancelled in 2020. But this year, several companies, including Scenic, Emerald Cruises and AMA Waterways, are anticipating a robust holiday season with vaccinated travelers mingling outdoors to celebrate the season.
It was the trip of a lifetime, to countries I’d never visited. My husband had experienced Leipzig’s Christmas market previously, and he raved about the way Germany “does Christmas.” Entire families bundle up and wander through outdoor markets to buy presents and decorations, listen to live music and carols, all while sampling holiday delicacies and sipping glühwein (spiced wine) to fortify themselves. We were eager to join them, and to embark upon an oenophile’s dream of tasting wines from all of the countries we’d be visiting.
We boarded the Scenic Amber in Nuremburg, defying the adage “save the best for last.” It was our favorite market, perhaps because it’s one of Europe’s oldest. Dating from the 1600s, Nuremberg hosts its main market in the Old Town, where visitors can smell hot pretzels and cinnamon-spiced beverages as soon as they pass through the city’s imposing stone wall gates. What follows is a vibrant mix of oompah bands, choirs singing in front of the iconic Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) and St. Sebaldus churches, plus displays of exquisite holiday crafts and ornaments for sale.
Our ship docked in Regensburg and Passau, Germany (with an excursion option to Salzburg, Austria), and in Linz, Melk and Vienna, Austria, finishing in Budapest, Hungary. The weather was warm and we spent time between ports, relaxing in the sunshine on Amber’s private decks, or watching “bow cam” on our flat screen. We weren’t on board much during the day, spending most of our time on interesting excursions (included in Scenic’s one-price-for-everything approach). Whenever we were on the congenial vessel, we socialized or enjoyed a tasty repast paired with local wines. One of Scenic’s culinary highlights was a multi-course extravaganza at the Captain’s table, paired with Austrian and Hungarian wines.
We tasted many delicious wines onboard, but we extended our time in Budapest at the Aria Hotel, and we visited The Tasting Table’s wine store and tasting cave, which revealed much about Hungary’s diverse winemaking regions. The Tokaj region, for example, produces wines ranging from sweet dessert to dry and fruity?
We indulged in the Aria Hotel’s Christmas Eve, multi-course, Hungarian feast and wine pairing. The selections ranged from a sweet Muscat from Tarcal, to Hungary’s most widely-planted white, Olaszrizling, from the Lake Balaton Region. Our favorite was a 2017 Sauska Pinot Noir Birs from Tokaj paired with roasted venison, brussels sprouts and quince.
Wine lovers with extra time in Budapest will want to set up a tasting at The Tasting Table. This incredible wine store has a cave tasting room and selections from all of Hungary’s 22 growing regions. Our knowledgeable guide led us on a journey that included “Winter Superstars” such as a Kőfejtő Cuvée from Somlo to a lovely Balla Sziklabor Cabernet Franc made by Transylvania’s 2018 winemaker of the year.
The Christmas markets at each of these enchanting destinations enhanced our holiday spirits. We arrived home and decided to play Strauss’ classic, The Blue Danube, through New Year’s Day. Each time we did, visions of Central European Christmas markets danced in our heads as we waltzed around our living room.