I have always been amazed at the photographs of familiar European cities transformed to sparkling Christmas Markets. Deciding it was time to see them in person and what better way to do it than aboard a lovely river ship? My husband is a huge fan of European travel so talking him into experiencing this timeless tradition was easy. We chose AMA Waterways and the beautiful AMA Sonata sailing from Basel to Amsterdam.
AMA Waterways had the brilliant idea to overnight their ships in the departure cities so there is no worry about missing the ship with a delayed flight. So, upon our timely arrival in Basel we were able to drop our bags at the ship and walk along the river to our very first market, the Basler Weihnacht Markt.
Basel really pours on the Christmas charm with rustic wooden chalets laden with decorations selling everything from toys and ornaments to jewelry and scarves. It is impossible to visit without trying the local delicacies like waffles on a stick, genuine Basel Läckerli (a kind of gingerbread), delicious Swiss raclette or the popular grilled sausages. Don’t forget the glühwein, a hot spiced wine that literally translates to glow-wine, served in tiny decorated souvenir mugs. Glühwein is traditionally made with red wine, but we found it made with white wine and a non-alcoholic version similar to cider.
Riquewihr, France pictures don’t do this village justice! Beautiful rambling streets lined with 16th and 17th century half-timbered houses. Better come hungry to Riquewihr, because you will want to sample everything from the tarte flambé and baeckeoffe (wine simmered stew) to the amazing selections of cheese and pastries! This charming village is surrounded by vineyards and in the heart of the Alsace Wine Route. The Christmas market was wonderful, and we will visit Riquewihr again... in the summer.
Beautiful Strasbourg with eleven Christmas markets scattered around the old city, combined with the usual fabulous French shopping, is outstanding. Strasbourg is also home to the European Parliament. The Council of Europe’s Palais de l’Europe is housed in futuristic glass crescent and tours are available. Enjoy Flammekueche for lunch, it is rather like a very thin pizza covered with cheese, lardons and onions. A walking tour of the old center “La Petite France” with free time to explore the charming side streets and Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg made for a perfect day.
In the evening we took a quick trip to see the world’s largest advent calendar! This year’s calendar featured the art of Andy Warhol. Adorable school children costumed as cats and mice performed a play about a New York cat in Germany. Interesting vendors, more Glühwein and very friendly locals made for a truly enjoyable evening.
Historic Heidelberg is even lovelier with Christmas markets scattered about the city! Make sure to visit the Schloss Heidelberg, a palace in partial ruin with a birds eye view of the city. Don’t forget to bring home the Heidelberger Studentenkuss or “Student Kiss” chocolates with a flirty history. Heidelberg boasts the longest pedestrian shopping street in Europe, making window shopping a breeze. There are Christmas markets in each of the city’s five squares with ice skating, roasting nuts and even more Glühwein! We happily parted with some euros in this shopper’s paradise
The storybook town of Rüdesheim!! Wonderful wine tasting in the evening and Christmas markets during the day. Rüdesheim is devoted to Riesling, which has been produced in this steep-hilled town since the middle ages. This city’s markets celebrate Christmas from all over the world with many international vendors, displays and traditions. I really enjoyed the visit to Siegfried’s Mechanical Musical instrument Museum and the history of self-playing pianos and music boxes in their huge collection.
Rhine River Gorge
The Rhine River Gorge. So many beautiful castles!!! Even with the December drizzle we sipped hot spiced wine as we floated past the castles. My husband loves the castles so this was a favorite day for him. The Rhine gorge has the highest concentration of castles per kilometer in Germany.
Unforgettable Cologne, my all-time favorite Cathedral, is now surrounded by a Christmas market. These folks know how to enjoy the holiday season! Everyone turns out to eat, drink and be merry in this fabulously friendly city. Take time to try the reibekuchen mit apfelmus, potato pancakes with applesauce along with the local Kolsch beer.
Bustling Amsterdam! This busy city has something for everyone - art, world class museums, history, architecture, cobblestone streets, canals and millions of bicycles! I always enjoy a stay in Amsterdam and was happy to extend our stay a few days.
The AMA Sonata
Our home for the week was the AMA Sonata. The ship was lovely, well-appointed and we received the highest levels of service. We chose a lower level room with a ½ high window; it was small but we did not spend much time in the cabin so it was fine.
If I were sailing in the summer I would move up to one of the double balcony cabins, with both a French balcony and a walk out balcony in the same cabin these rooms were very spacious. AmaWaterways is the only river cruise line to be inducted into the prestigious La Chaine des Rotisseurs - an exclusive international culinary society.
We were not disappointed. Each delicious meal is a work of art, paired with distinctive wines from the local regions from seemingly bottomless bottles. There is a special Chef’s table restaurant that is not to be missed. You can make reservations for this once you are on board the ship. If you are starting to see a theme here, you are not wrong. The Christmas Markets cruise is undeniably an eat, drink and be merry vacation!
I can’t say enough about the wonderful crew aboard the AMA Sonata, everyone from the cruise director to the cabin steward were always helpful and friendly. The dining staff was outstanding. Since the ship’s capacity is under 200 passengers (the staff to passenger ratio is 1 to 3), they are dedicated to providing the highest level of service.
Several tour options are included in your cruise price and are available in every port. We enjoyed the walking tours in all ports and the free time to explore on our own. Biking and hiking tours are always available to those who love exercise more than the Glühwein!
There is a workout room on board and starting in 2019 some cruises will also offer yoga classes. The on-deck pool is heated in the winter and the crew is happy to supply a bartender for the swim up bar if you are of the heartier type. Even though we did not spend much time on the top deck, I can see how this space would be wonderful on summer cruises.
On board entertainment is varied and very good with local musicians coming aboard for the evening’s entertainment. We enjoyed Bavarian music one night, classical pianist another. If we were sailing during the day there were lots of activities.
The pastry chef even taught us to make apple strudel, he made it look so easy! We met many wonderful people and made some lifelong friends. The guests were varied from married couples, singles and generational families all enjoying timeless traditions of the holiday season. My husband and I agree, this cruise we will take again.
Sandy Hunt has been in the travel business for over 35 years. She has traveled extensively in Europe, Mexico and the Caribbean and specializes in custom international and vacation travel. Sandy is an AMResorts Master Agent, AMA waterways and Viking River cruise specialist. She enjoys booking family, multi-generational travel, river cruising and adventure travel. Some of Sandy’s favorite destinations are Egypt and Costa Rica, some favorite cities are Vienna Austria, Budapest Hungary, Cologne Germany and Riquewihr France.