By Angela Caraway-Carlton
It never fails. When summer’s oppressive heat strikes, I begin daydreaming of winter wonderlands and permanently fix my television on Hallmark’s feel-good “Christmas in July” marathon. Last summer, while fantasizing about snow-cloaked landscapes and steaming cups of hot cocoa by a fire, I booked a bucket-list European Christmas market river cruise set for December. As an avid lover of the holidays, romping through the enchanting markets of storybook cities that dot the Danube River felt like the perfect remedy to South Florida’s perpetual summer.
It was difficult to hold back a squeal when boarding AmaWaterways flagship luxury river boat, the AmaMagna. Every inch of the floating hotel that we’d call home for seven nights was dripping in holiday pageantry—including our stateroom door sweetly adorned with a wreath—and the excitement of our cruise director Kriss was infectious. “My job is to make you happy,” she said after welcoming us aboard. “I want you to remember this as the most magical journey that you’ve ever had.” Those extraordinary memories were created the first evening: As we sailed down the Danube through Budapest, the crew gathered guests on the top deck to catch a snapshot of the Hungarian Parliament, the city’s crown jewel majestically aglow in amber lights. Sipping shots of palinka, a traditional Hungarian fruit spirit, we toasted to the epic beginning of our trip.
With stops in the storied capitals of Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, and Germany, each day we’d set off on guided walking tours, comfy bus rides, and strenuous bikes or hikes that are all included in the cruise. In Budapest, our walking tour led us past historic landmarks in a kaleidoscope of architectural styles, including the fairytale Fisherman’s Bastion, an awe-inspiring building that flaunts ornamental turrets and spired towers that offer incredible panoramic views. When the sun went down, the holiday revelry would ensue. We wandered the long-running Christmas market at Vörösmarty Square, sampling mugs of glühwein (mulled wine) and warm, sugary chimney cakes straight from the open fire, while shopping the stalls filled with shiny ornaments and handmade crafts; then moved to nearby St. Stephen’s Basilica to watch a fantastical light show and those gliding along the ice-skating rink rounding a colossal Christmas tree.
Peak holiday magic arrived when we landed in the grand city of Vienna, known for its glittering palaces, plentiful museums, constant parade of horse-drawn carriages down its cobblestone streets, and lavish cafes meant for devouring sweet temptations such as strudel and the rich Sachertorte. While Vienna is stunning any time of year, the beauty is only enhanced during the holidays when its streets are elegantly dressed in giant chandeliers, cascading lights, and hovering angelic hosts. After a full day of sightseeing, we made a beeline for the fabled Rathausplatz Christkindlmarkt, where the moment we arrived a giant red heart shot across a line above the crowd causing everyone to stop and gasp in amazement, as a band broke into festive tunes. Wondrous surprises line the surrounding park, from a tree adorned with hundreds of glowing red hearts to a dreamy carousel and stalls selling delicate glass ornaments and baubles made by Austrian artisans. Renowned for its musical legacy—both Beethoven and Mozart called Vienna home—AmaWaterways capped the night with an unforgettable classical music concert in a palace where dancers waltzed across the stage as musicians played.
Another day, we zipped off on a day-long bus tour to Mozart’s birthplace of Salzburg, making stops at movie locations featured in the holiday classic “The Sound of Music.” One of my favorite moments came as our bus wound through the Austrian Alps and our Christmas-obsessed cruisers belted out every word of the musical soundtrack. Salzburg touts one of the world’s oldest and most beautiful Advent markets surrounding the cathedral in old town, and we were greeted with the sounds of harpists and singing children with angelic voices wafting through the air, along with the intoxicating aromas of roasting nuts and spices. Other standout stops during our week along the Danube included a visit to the revered Melk Abbey monastery, a showpiece of Baroque beauty and exquisite interiors filled with frescoes and art; the 2,000-year-old German city of Passau dotted with scenic landscapes; and Vilshofen, where we shopped for final gifts at a unique floating Christmas market.
Escaping back to the boat between excursions was a welcome respite, with the staff eagerly greeting guests with a hot beverage and a warm hand towel. The AmaMagna is twice the width of traditional European river ships—yet welcomes only 20 percent more guests—and it never felt crowded. When we weren’t exploring, I’d tuck away in the cozy library to sit by the faux fireplace and watch the landscapes of medieval cities and castles roll by. In the evenings, we’d mingle with our new friends at cocktail hour, showing off the prized treasures we’d found at the markets, and then feast our way through the four dining venues. After dinner, our cruise manager kept the holiday spirit fresh with tree-trimming, caroling, and educational talks on the holiday traditions of the places we’d visit. One evening, we hunted for a hidden gherkin — attributed to the Old-World German tradition, where the first child to find the pickle-shaped ornament on the tree on Christmas morning is granted the honor of unwrapping a special gift. Another night before bedtime, we left our shoes outside the stateroom and woke up to find them stuffed with treats—just like the Hungarian children do every year on St. Mikulás Day on December 6. And, like an eager child waiting for Christmas morning, it’ll be another hot summer wishing for my next holiday river cruise. amawaterways.com