Friday, January 24, 2014

Danube Christmas Markets Cruise 2013-1

Budapest-Sausage Booth
Is January really almost over?  We returned from our Christmas markets cruise December 13, anticipating the birth of our grandson any day.  He finally entered the world on December 27 after Christmas...and after his uncle and aunt had already flown back to Pennsylvania; but it was a season of joy for all of us!  We hope you had a wonderful holiday season, too. 

After the damp cold in Europe and added snow in Austria, we thought we’d be pretty much done with the worst of our 2013-14 winter experience way down here in San Antonio.  Then came the polar vortex that keeps extending its fingers into South Central Texas, and as I post this today, the city is virtually shut down due to ice on overpasses and bridges. I’m thinking winter won’t go away until I complete my blog on this Christmas markets cruise, not to mention before I forget it all!   

Ben and I had thoroughly enjoyed the Christmas markets cruise we took down the Rhine several years ago and couldn’t wait to try the Danube version.  On this cruise there was clearly a greater variety of markets since we spanned four countries (Hungary, Austria, Germany, and Czech Republic) rather than the two countries visited on the Rhine:  The Netherlands, and Germany—plus Paris where markets are not the big tradition.   We found in general that markets in non-Germany cities focused more on food and local crafts, whereas Germany markets are filled with well crafted wooden ornaments, nutcrackers, nativity scenes, and a host of other traditional Christmas products, plus stall upon stall of gluhwein (hot spiced wine), beer and food.  Each type of market bore its own charm and own version of hot, spiced wine. 
Budapest from Buda Castle on the Buda side;
Parliament is across on the Pest side
We began our trip with a two-night stay in Budapest to once again take in the Buda Castle, St. Stephen’s Basilica, and Matthias church, as well as sail past the magnificent Parliament House at night.  One of the Christmas markets was located just a few steps from our hotel, but we found others perched on nearby during squares during evening strolls.  All exuded a warm, cozy ambiance.  One included a stage where a traditional folk group performed.  I felt I was back at the Texas Folklife Festival. 

Statue of Archduke Charles
Heldenplatz, Vienna
There is always so much to do and see in Vienna, our next stop.  An optional tour was offered to Schonbrunn Palace, but Ben and I had visited there previously and stuck to the city tour with visits to the Vienna Opera House, marvelous St. Stephen’sCathedral, the city’s historic center, and visits to a couple of Christmas markets along the way.  Both were lively even during the day, and several craftsmen occupied booths demonstrating their skills and sometimes personalizing their wares for guests. 

Say the word Vienna and music comes first your find.  Mozart, Haydn, Gruber, Schubert, Strauss—the list of famous composers who were born or lived in this city goes on and on.  While on our first trip there in 1972, I even got Ben to an operetta and he continues to enjoy sharing  classical music events with me in many of the countries we visit.  On this trip, AmaWaterways had arranged a special concert for us in the lovely Palais Auersberg featuring the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Johann Strauss selections—an excellent ensemble of singers and musicians.   
Melk Abbey

As we sailed overnight toward Melk, the weather worsened, ushering in cold winds...and snow.  After breakfast we bundled up and headed out into elements and up to our waiting motor coaches, trudging against the cold, blowing snow.  A few backed out and retreated to the warmth of the ship, but we knew our delightful Melk  guide from two previous tours and anticipated seeing her again on what was sure to be a picturesque day at the famed Melk Abbey.  We were not disappointed.  Because it was winter (and perhaps partly due to the weather), crowds at this famed 11th century Benedictine Abbey were sparse, thereby allowing clearer unobstructed views of the magnificent medieval manuscripts, frescos, and religious artifacts that chronicle the history of one of Europe’s largest and most revered Baroque monasteries.  Blanketed with the new-fallen snow, it looked straight out of a fairy tale. 
With our wonderful Austria Guide
Lisi Alscher-Bruck, Melk
From Linz, Austria, guests could choose between a walking tour of Passau or an excursion to Salzburg.  I never miss an opportunity to visit that Sound of Music city nestled in the hills against the backdrop of the Alps, so off we rode.  Salzburg is magical, just magical.  Our tour led us to the Mirabell Gardens where Maria and the children sang “Do Re Me”; to Mozart’s birthplace and Salzburg Cathedral where he once served as court organist; through the charming pedestrian streets and alleys to the city’s own Christmas market.  At this point, Ben and I broke from the tour to peruse the market, walk up toward (but not all the way TO!) the impressive Fortress Hohensalzburg standing guard over the city as one of the largest medieval castles in Europe, for a glass of the city’s famed local beer at StieglKeller.  En route, Ben was charmed by a street violinist whose repertoire ranged from classic to popular.  We each relive that free concert each time we play his CD. 

Fortress Hohensalzburg

Those in our group opting to stay onboard and take the Passau tour learned that it is also known as the “City of Three Rivers,” because it lies where the Danube is joined by the Inn and Ilz rivers.  St. Stephan’s Cathedral is home to one of the largest pipe organs in the world with 17,774 pipes and 233 registers.  Pretty impressive. 

Next up:  Regensburg, Germany

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