Even before we’ve reached the ship we’re humming Bing Crosby’s White Christmas. Gazing through the windows of our transfer coach, the misty Bavarian countryside has taken on a suitably Narnia-esque (or is it Lapland-like?) appearance, its fields and forests of spruce and fir coated in fresh white powder.
When we arrive in Regensburg, snow has tickled the roofs and spires of the city’s storybook houses and churches, and there, berthed in the River Danube, strung with fairy lights, is Viking Egil, our home for the next seven nights.
As you may expect from this new cruise titled, guess what, “Christmas on the Danube”, there’s a festive spirit on board with bauble-blessed decorations and crew in good cheer, especially now that cruising is properly back on track after the pandemic.
Hopes are also high that the region’s traditional Christmas markets will be buzzing rather like pre-pandemic times (last year’s were still quite low-key and hamstrung by Omicron).
But will this voyage turn out to be overloaded by yuletide schmaltz? Will grinches find themselves grinching merrily all the way through Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary – four of the 10 countries that the Danube, Europe’s second longest river, flows past on its epic 2857-kilometre journey from the Black Forest to the Black Sea. There’s only one way to find out.
DAYS ONE TO THREE
Regensburg to Passau, Germany, 145 kilometres
The cathedral and town hall of Passau. Photo: Viking River Cruises
So the snow proves a false dawn. It soon vanishes and we’ll see no more of it, dashing my enduring visions of roaming the Christmas markets with snowflakes trickling before my eyes. It is wintry, though (this week’s air temperature fluctuates between 2-7C, but often feels chillier).
Good job we packed lots of layers, fleeces, hats and gloves, and there’s ample storage in the drawers and wardrobe of our cosy 19-square-metre verandah stateroom – one of 95 cabins on this toasty, Nordic-chic “Viking Longship”, ranging from 13-14 square-metre standard rooms to 41-square-metre suites with heated bathroom floors.
Also promising to warm us up are the many city bars, street kiosks and stalls serving gluhwein, spiced cider, hot cocktails and Kinderpunsch (non-alcoholic “children’s punch”).
We sip our first velvety gluhwein and snack on a Regensburger Wurst, a chunky boiled local sausage drizzled with honey mustard – on a guided city walk.
Viking offers at least one “complimentary” excursion in every port, providing guests a summary of the local history and sights, plus tips for your own independent exploring (and shopping).
There are Brits, Canadians and a solitary French (my partner, Celine) on this cruise, but most passengers are American.
I hear the odd grinchy grumble at the lack of festive exuberance in Regensburg (and later in Passau). We’re a bit early, it seems. The cities’ markets won’t kick off for a few days yet (our trip began on November 19, but Viking will start its 2023 Danube Christmas cruises a week later).
In any case, markets or no markets, these Bavarian cities are utterly enchanting. Both boast postcard-pretty pastel-shaded architecture, scenic riverside strolls and cobbled, maze-like medieval quarters, where church bells are usually ringing vigorously.
Leading us through Regensburg’s UNESCO World Heritage-listed old town is Paul, an economics student at the city’s university (and the son of a history professor). He walks us onto the majestic, 16-arch, 12th-century Steinerne Brucke, one of the oldest stone bridges spanning the whole Danube.
The river was once at the northern frontier of the Roman Empire, says Paul, who brings us to Porta Praetoria, an arched gateway from AD179. “This was built for the emperor, Marcus Aurelius. You may know him from the film, Gladiator.”
While detailing Regensburg’s haunting Jewish heritage, Paul points out the house where Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who helped save the lives of 1200 Jews during the Holocaust, lived after World War II.
Paul bids us “auf Wiedersehen” near the city’s twin-spired gothic cathedral, ushering us into a smaller baroque church, where an organ recital has been specially-arranged for us.
In Passau, we head inside another photogenic church for a presentation and sampling of gingerbread with master confectioner Walter, before we learn how to make (and affix candles to) advent wreaths.
My Passau highlight, however, is scaling Veste Oberhaus, a 13th-century clifftop palace-fortress that presents wonderful views over the city and the three rivers that meet here (Danube, Inn and Ilz), plus a peek across the hilly green border into Austria.
The weird weather – drizzle and blazing sunshine spearing the clouds – makes this hike even more invigorating. As does the rainbow beaming above the fortifications.
What’s nice about river cruising (it’s my fourth such cruise) is you’re usually docked centrally, so you can easily pop back for a rest and refreshments. There are always enticing dining options ashore but Viking’s food and drink is satisfying enough – and inclusive of the cruise fare – so we mainly feast onboard.
There are buffet and a la carte breakfasts (I love the fresh berries and mascarpone), and set-time, three-course lunches and smart-casual dinners complemented by dainty appetisers.
Daily-changing menus feature international and regional dishes: everything from chateaubriand and Mediterranean salads to Mitteleuropean stews and soups, plus the likes of Norwegian poached salmon, tuna tataki with teriyaki garlic sauce (delicious) and desserts such as the fondant-like chocolate moelleux (super-delicious).
Push-button machine coffee and infusions are free around-the-clock with biscuits and cakes by the lobby and mini-library.
“Prost!” (cheers!). Departing Passau, we enjoy a “Taste of Germany” evening, with the crew, mostly hailing from Central and Eastern Europe, tonight sporting traditional Bavarian check shirts and dirndls (dresses).
We’re served cold cuts and cheeses, pretzels and wursts, dumplings, red cabbage and sauerkraut with crispy pork knuckle, pumpkin seed-crusted chicken thighs and grilled char fillet.
As ever, regional (mostly German and Austrian) wines and draught beers are generously poured during meals (you can also buy extra beverage packages, or pay-as-you-drink, in the ship’s inviting lounge-bar).
That’s where, post-dinner, Michael, Viking Egil’s gregarious hotel manager, himself in flamboyant Bavarian attire, entertains us with expressions and jokes from his native Germany. Suffice to say the word “fahrt” (journey) makes a few comical appearances.
DAYS FOUR TO SIX
Passau to Vienna, Austria, 308 kilometres
Vienna claims to have staged Europe’s first Christmas market in AD1298. Photo: iStock
Even under gunmetal grey skies, with an icy breeze bringing tears to my eyes, the UNESCO-feted Wachau Valley is a stunner.
From the open-air Sun Deck, I spy wooded mountains with an autumnal tinge, foggy terraced vineyards with ancient Roman roots, crag-capped castles, both restored and ruined – notably the crumbling pile of Durnstein, where King Richard the Lionheart was once briefly imprisoned by an Austrian duke.
We sail past quaint riverside towns and villages lorded over by fortified medieval churches designed to stave off Ottoman Turkish invasion.
Both outside, and below in the homey lounge, speakers broadcast informative commentary from Edina, our endearing program director (she’s at the forefront of Viking Egil’s culturally-immersive offerings, with presentations on topics like Vienna’s coffeehouse culture and life growing up in Communist-era Hungary).
The Wachau Valley is renowned, too, for its baroque monasteries. We’d passed one, Melk, earlier, but from the town of Krems, we’re bussed up to Gottweig Abbey, which receives fewer visitors.
Benedictine monks have been living and worshipping at this serene hilltop retreat for more than 900 years, with some working in the abbey’s vineyards and orchards.
After imbibing some apricot-infused fizz – they also produce brandies, juices, jams and infusions here – we’re shown around the complex, which veers from the humble (a tiny 11th-century chapel with a cedar-carved nativity scene) to the grandiose (the abbey apartments with their spectacular ceiling fresco depicting Habsburg emperor Charles VI as Helios, the Greek sun god).
We dock later, for a 48-hour stay, in Vienna, where the Habsburgs’ former palaces provide an opulent backdrop for our first real markets experience. It’s fitting, perhaps, as the Austrian capital claims to have staged Europe’s first Christmas market in AD1298. The scents of gluhwein, sizzling sausages, incense, roasted chestnuts, leather, candles and cheese wheels swirl from wooden huts scattered about the historic centre (which we reach independently after a short U-bahn metro ride from the slightly out-of-city-centre cruise port).
Market vendors are selling all sorts: hand-crafted decorations and jewellery, contemporary nutcrackers, slippers, socks, soaps, Christmas cards, cribs, patterned rolling pins, spiced breads, sugared apples, tequila-spiked drinks and many other bites and tipples.
Most thrilling are the illuminations. While some European cities are toning down this year’s festivities due to sky-rocketing energy prices (fuelled by the Russia-Ukraine war), Vienna looks sensational.
Around a million LED lights gleam from the chandeliers and cascades hung above the pedestrianised shopping strips. By the bustling stalls near the neo-gothic city hall, we spot lit-up reindeer sculptures, giant tree-hugging red hearts and ice rinks teeming with skaters.
In the nearby MuseumsQuartier, a trendy cultural district set around the Habsburgs’ ex-royal stables, we enjoy gluhwein and dazzling light projections as a DJ spins Madonna, Amy Winehouse and techno dance-floor beats.
We hear some very different tunes the next evening on our optional excursion to a heuriger – a traditional wine tavern – on Vienna’s vine-laden outskirts.
Fruity local white, sparkling and red wines are served with brettljause (an Austrian meat and cheese board), as Marek, an old charmer with a look of Albert Einstein, plays songs on his accordion, from Austrian folk to The Blue Danube by Johann Strauss, a track we’d heard on the ship during a ballroom waltz lesson.
I didn’t dance at that point but I have to admit that by the end of our jovial heuriger evening, Marek has us all doing the can-can.
The next morning, we day-trip to Bratislava, another optional excursion, an hour’s coach journey from Vienna. We lunch in the Slovakian capital’s cute, market-peppered old town and savour sweeping vistas from the hilltop castle.
Most eye-catching is a quirky, Danube-spanning, Soviet-era bridge that resembles a UFO. We see it lit up later, as we sail past on the ship, dining on ribeye steaks.
DAYS SEVEN TO EIGHT
Vienna to Budapest, Hungary, 306 kilometres
Budapest’s parliament building. Photo: iStock
“Wow,” says Celine, when I open the curtains. We’re now in Hungary and it’s the first blue-skied morning this week.
I step out onto our moving verandah and become mesmerised by the silky, watery ribbons rippling from our vessel and the mirror-like reflections of leafy banks and rustic riverside holiday homes, some with kayaks and fishing boats tied up outside.
It’s blissfully silent bar the ship’s mildly-droning engine and the quacking ducks flapping above.
Upstairs the Sun Deck is crisp but living up to its name. As Celine sits down with a croissant, our chipper fellow travellers – couples, parents and grown-up children, mum and daughter, mum and daughter-in-law – pace around the walking circuit or take selfies and photographs (free Wi-Fi means you can share snaps easily throughout).
Viking has encouraged a convivial on-board atmosphere, especially with its set-up in the restaurant, where communal tables seat six to eight people (if you’re not in the mingling mood, the smaller, enclosed Aquavit Terrace has tables for two).
Gradually the countryside idyll blends into Budapest. It’s rush hour, but we’re gliding along fluidly, like Santa on his sleigh. The Hungarian capital’s domes and spires come into view, including those of the huge neo-gothic parliament building.
Cars, buses and yellow trams rattle by the riverside. Construction workers wave from the wrought-iron Chain Bridge. Docking by another bridge, named after Habsburg Empress Elizabeth (Sisi), we head ashore.
Budapest played second fiddle to Vienna during the Habsburgs’ Austro-Hungarian empire, but its glamour and grit have lured me back again and again. It’s my first time for the Christmas markets, though, and after a day bouncing between parks, museums and mural-splattered backstreets, we join local guide Petra for our last Viking excursion.
While enjoying gluhwein and apple strudels, we browse the busy stalls by St Stephen’s Basilica (there’s another cluster at nearby Vorosmarty Square).
A young female busker plays guitar next to a Christmas tree, and the crowd, both Hungarian and foreign, is in good spirits. Browsing the market, some items are now familiar, but each city has different specialities.
Petra shows us popular varieties of paprika products and goose crackling and introduces us to a vendor who has recycled corn husks into hand-made stars, angels and other festive decorations.
There are other local goodies to try: flodni, a rich, multi-layered Jewish-Hungarian confection, and kurtoskalacs (chimney cakes), tube-shaped pastries baked on a spit over hot charcoal and laced with flavours like chocolate chips, coconut and cinnamon.
We decide we’ll return to the ship for our farewell dinner, then head out again for dessert. And probably, let’s be honest, a bit more gluhwein.
Steve McKenna travelled as a guest of Viking Cruises.
FIVE MORE DANUBE CHRISTMAS MOMENTS
Catch orchestras performing Mozart and Strauss in Vienna’s lavish opera houses, and choral music and organ recitals at churches and cathedrals (including Passau’s, which claims to have the world’s largest cathedral organ, with 17,974 pipes).
THE THERMAL BATHS
Nestled on the city’s hot springs, Budapest’s spas are a year-round draw. Options for a steamy soak include the neo-baroque Szechenyi Baths (pictured above, szechenyibath.hu) and the art nouveau-style Gellert Spa (gellertfurdo.hu).
In Vienna, tour the Habsburgs’ decadent imperial apartments at the Hofburg (wien.info) and Schoenbrunn palaces (schoenbrunn.at). The latter also has splendid gardens while at the former, you can watch the world-famous Lipizzaner horses at the Spanish Riding School.
Modern and contemporary art fans will be intrigued by the permanent and changing exhibitions at Budapest’s Ludwig Museum (ludwigmuseum.hu), Mumok in Vienna’s MuseumsQuartier (mqw.at) and Regensburg’s Art Forum (tourismus.regensburg.de/en).
The Danube is flanked by walking and cycling-friendly promenades, but the river’s islands – such as Budapest’s 2.5 kilometre Margaret Island and Vienna’s 21 kilometre Donauinsel – are also great, fresh-air escapes. Bring your runners just in case.
Viking has Danube sailings from March to December, with its 2023 Christmas on the Danube trips departing Regensburg and Budapest between November 25 and December 17 (you can cruise in either direction).
Fares from $3495 a person. You can add pre and/or post-trip extensions in Prague, Nuremberg and Budapest. Optional shore excursions start from €79 ($123) a person.
All passengers must have proof of COVID-19 vaccination (two jabs with a booster recommended). Wearing masks is optional onboard (compulsory for the fully- vaccinated crew). See vikingcruises.com.au
Emirates fly from Sydney and Melbourne to Munich, Budapest and Prague via Dubai. See emirates.com