I love Christmas. I love everything about the season. The decorations, the lights, the food, spending time with family and friends and the feeling of good will to all men. On a business trip to Munich several years ago I was lucky enough to be in Munich over the holidays, it was beautiful. To my bucket list I added a Christmas Market River Cruise down the Danube. Hubby and myself celebrated our 50th anniversary in June of 2015, we decided to celebrate our anniversary in December with a Viking Cruise http://www.vikingrivercruisescanada.com/video/christmas-markets.html# We were really excited as my parents had decided to join us for our Christmas Cruise.
Our travel started in Toronto with our flight to London, where we would get our connection to Munich. It was an extremely long travel day but we finally landed in Munich then we had a long drive to Passau where our Viking Cruise River Boat awaited.
Day 1 – Passau, Germany
Our first stop on our journey leads us into Passau. A beautiful city with a lovely “Old Town”. Here is home to the largest cathedral organ in the world, with 17,974 organ pipes, 233 stops and four carillons.
Our walking tour of the old town ends at Cafe Simon, where we were greeted with a warm holiday punch and a gingerbread presentation. Passau is famous for its gingerbread. The family that owns Cafe Simon has been baking warm, spicy dark cake for four generations. We take some time to visit the store where of course we purchase several yummy gingerbread treats.
An impressive Christmas Market is in front of the St Stephan cathedral in the old town. Here my eyes were huge with wonder as I experience Lebkuchen, Gluhwein, Snowballs, Plum filled donuts, and of course Pretzels.
Day 2 – Linz, Austria
Today we enjoyed an on-boat presentation where our Chef demonstrated the making of traditional apple strudel. The famous family recipe was passed out and several tricks of the trade were shown. I even got chosen to roll and fill my own apple strudel.
Day 3 – Salzburg, Austria
Day 3 we make the long bus ride to the truly spectacular Salzburg. Home to Mozart, Sound of Music and the lesser know Mozartkugeln. What is a Mozaratkugeln? A green pistachio marzipan covered in a layer of nougat and encased in a sphere of dark chocolate. Paul Furst entered his creation in 1905 in a Paris confectionery fair competition and won a gold medal.
Myself and hubby had visited the city many years ago, but never at Christmas time. The city was extremely crowded so it was hard to maneuver within the small narrow cobbled streets. After our brief walking tour we headed straight for the Christmas Market. It was amazing; beautiful handmade ornaments, dried cinnamon swags, hand-carved wooden decorations, and hand-painted eggs. The food booths were a sight for sore eyes. We settled on schnitzel on a bun for myself and my mom and Sacherwuerstl (sausage with mustard, horseradish on a Kaiser roll) for hubby and my dad. To accompany our Austrian lunch, we ordered some hot spiced wine punch with notes of orange and cinnamon placed in a souvenir mug.
Day 4 – Melk, Austria
Today we toured the 900-year old Melk Abbey – a Benedictine monastery that was originally one of Leopold’s ll’s castles. Dramatically situated on an outcrop rising above the Danube, it stands resplendent in golden hue, crowned by towers.
After our tour of the Abbey we take the long walk down into the small quaint village of Melk. We rest our weary bones with a hot mulled wine for me and a cold brew for hubby. As we huddle around the warmth of the log fire stove we talk with friends from the boat about our Abbey visit.
My stomach was starting to growl so we left the small Christmas Market to find a local place for lunch. We found a restaurant well off the beaten path and proceeded to make our way inside. We speak no German so when the waitress suggested beer and their pork dinner we just agreed. I looked over at the neighbouring table and I couldn’t believe how much food was on these people’s plate. It looked like half a pig that was accompanied with 5lbs of potatoes. Saints help us if this was what we had just ordered. Thankfully our food came and it was a MUCH smaller portion and was delicious. Pork loin with dumplings and a side of sauerkraut. Food is savored and meals are celebrated in Austria. In taverns, restaurants and cafes, you are likely to witness a sense of gemuetlichkeit – a feeling of well-being that comes with good company and good food. We definitely experienced this first hand at Piccolo Bistro.
Evening dinner on the boat was A Taste of Austria. When we arrived in the dinning room it was decorated for a typical Austrian dinner. Red and white tablecloths with pretzels waiting to be gobbled up. The buffet had a wonderful assortment of cheese, cured meat, goulash, dumplings, schnitzel, an endless amount of pork and of course lots of beer. The staff was all dressed in traditional garments and we were serenaded with Austrian music while we enjoyed our feast.
Day 5 – Vienna, Austria
On day five we arrived in Vienna – the city of music. A beautiful city with incredible architecture and one of my favourite Christmas Markets. We toured the city in the morning and we were left in the afternoon to enjoy all the wonders of the city.
We were starting to get a little peckish so we decided to have lunch at a very famous coffee-house called Cafe Landtmann. For more than 300 years it has been a Vienna custom to gather at elegant cafes complete with stringed quartets. Cafe Landtmann met every expectation. I started with the most amazing drink I have ever tasted. It was called TigerMilk – essentially steamed milk with honey and rum. We ordered a platter of local cheeses and charcuterie followed by goulash and potato soup. Everything was so delicious. We skipped dessert opting for obtaining a sweet treat at the market.
The Vienna Christmas Market was full of beautiful Christmas decorations and some of the most incredible sweets.
We settled on a donut, but not just any donut. This bakery delicacy could feed all four of us. It was the size of a dinner plate covered in powdered sugar and filled with a sweet plum filling.
Next on my list was a visit to the Sacher Hotel. I was not leaving Vienna without taking home the very famous Sacher Torte. Hubby was not the least bit pleased with the combined long ques and curious attendant service, but we finally persevered and I returned to the Skadi with my Sacher Torte in hand and a smug grin on my face.
Demel is a famous pastry and chocolatiers established in 1786. In the early decades of the twentieth century a major legal battle over the use of the label “The Original Sacher Torte” developed between the Hotel Sacher and the Demel bakery. The battle lasted seven years and in the end the Hotel Sacher won out the right to use the phrase “The original Sacher torte” and gave Demel the rights to decorate its tortes with a triangular seal the reads Eduard-Sacher-Torte. Prices were insane in this store even for me. I wanted to buy my kids a decorated gingerbread cookie (they were beautiful), but they were 17 euros – that’s about $24 CDN for ONE cookie!
In the evening we ventured back into the city to enjoy a Mozart and Strauss Concert. Our evening was filled with beautiful music and a drive afterward along the famed Ringstrasse where the elegant architecture was lit up for the holidays. It was a beautiful ending for our day in Vienna.
Day 6 – Bratislava, Slovakia
We did not have much time is Bratislava (only a couple of hours) which was a real shame as it is a lovely place with an interesting history and warm friendly people. There were several Christmas Markets throughout the old town. After our walking tour we settled in by a fire to enjoy our warm drink. I enjoyed a cherry punch and hubby got an Absinthe.
Day 7 – Budapest Hungary
We arrived in Budapest around 10.30 in the evening. Our cruise director urged us to stay up to experience cruising into Budapest at night. We got bundled up and went to the top deck, with hot mulled wine in our hands we were ready to enter the city. At first we thought we were not going to see anything as it was extremely foggy. But then the fog opened up and the city came to life on both sides of the Danube. They call Paris the city of lights, it has nothing on Budapest. I have travelled all over the world but I have never seen such a spectacular city as Budapest. The Parliament Building alone was light up with over 6,000 lights. Went to bed as anxious as a child on Christmas Eve with anticipation of exploring this magnificent city the next day.
Day 8 – Budapest Hungary
We had a tour in the morning of the city and then we were left to explore the city on our own in the afternoon. We be-lined directly to the largest Christmas Market in the city. The shopping was amazing, this was by far the best market to buy authentic products. From hand-knit sweaters to traditional folk art embroidery your choices were endless.
One of the treats I was anxious to try was Kurtoskalacs or sometimes referred to as “Chimney Cakes”. A sweet bread that is rolled onto a spindle and baked over hot coals, then rolled in sugar or some other kind of sweet. The nick-name “Chimney Cakes” comes from the shape and the steam that comes out from the top, making it look like a chimney. They were quite large so the four of us shared our hot Kurtoskalac rolled in cinnamon sugar and it did not disappoint. Another sweet that Hungary is known for is marzipan. My hubby was very excited as this is one of his favourite treats. Our first store we went into was a bit of a disappointment as the almond flavour was very subtle. But then we found a booth at the Christmas Market selling dozens of varieties and they were amazing!
We made reservations that evening at Szazeves, one of the oldest restaurants in Budapest. The restaurant was quant with musicians playing traditional music from the country. The menu was vast, with endless amount of pork dishes, which apparently if you asked our cruise director what is the main vegetable eaten in Hungary he would answer “Pork”.
Day 9 – Budapest Hungary
Today we toured a small town just outside of Budapest called Szentendre. A very quant town with narrow cobbled streets lined with unique shops. We visited Margit Kovacs Museum which was housed in a baroque merchant house where her beautiful ceramic works were displayed.
After our museum tour we had some free-time to shop and investigate the towns small Christmas Market, where we enjoyed yet another hot mulled wine.
Two dessert treats that Hungary is known for are the Flodni Cake and the Esterhazy torte. The Flodni Cake was originally a popular Chanuka cake of Eastern-European Jewish families. It is a layer pastry with poppy seeds, apples, walnuts and plum jam. The Esterhazy Cake is named after Prince Paul lll Anton Esterhazy de Galantha, a member of the Esterhazyt dynasty and a diplomat of the Austrian Empire. The Torta consists of buttercream spiced with cognac, sandwiched between four to five layers of almond meringue dough.
For our last evening in Budapest we had reserved tickets for the Ave Maria concert in the Matthias Church. We left the hotel early so we investigate all the wonderful food options that the outdoor market had to offer. We settled on sausages on a bun, which were delicious.
My last souvenir to purchase was the famous Hungarian Paprika. Everywhere we went there were chiles hung out to dry. I couldn’t leave the country without buying sweet and hot paprika
It was an incredible trip that I would highly recommend. The history, the markets, the food was all amazing! Would love to hear if any of you have visited the Christmas Markets in Europe. Let me know your story and if you enjoyed them as much as our family did.
PS – only in Hungary would you see Christmas Trees decorated with Sausage, Cheese and Paprika – HaHa