Toronto Star, December 24, 2015: COLOGNE, GERMANY-The gorgeous scents wash over you as you walk past dozens of outdoor stalls covered in green boughs and red ribbons. Every few steps brings a new olfactory delight. Potato pancakes hot off the grill, freshly baked pastries and cookies, sauerkraut and bratwurst and the spices of the mulled wine — especially the spices of the mulled wine.
A Christmas market along the Rhine River is a feast for your senses and about a million times more fun than going to the mall to do your holiday shopping.
As your nose dies and goes to heaven, you hum along to the band playing Christmas carols and wander around the shadow of the Cologne Cathedral, smiling back at the vendors who are wearing Santa hats and big grins.
This is only one of dozens of Christmas markets to visit during the December Viking River Cruise down the Rhine. It’s an eight-day, four-country trip that starts in Amsterdam, Netherlands, makes several stops in Germany and France before ending up in Basel, Switzerland.
It’s a lovely leisurely trip, with plenty of time on board to relax or read a book and rest up for the real star of the show: the Christmas markets, called Christkindlmarkt or weihnachtsmarkt in Germany and marché de Noël in France.
Many of the 180 people on board the long ship have packed away an extra suitcase to bring home goodies to put under the tree. Vendors are selling something for everyone on every list. Clothing — from chunky sweaters to delicate scarfs —cheesy ornaments, classy ones, all kinds of jewelry, wooden bowls, entire booths of just spices, jars and jars of jams and chutneys and mustards. And that’s just one row in one market.
Not surprisingly, a few of my fellow passengers have to buy an extra bag.
The markets open with Advent, four weeks before Christmas, and they offer more than shopping. Little kids ride on festive carousels. Families and couples skate on outdoor rinks in the centre of the action. And for lovers of Christmas décor, there is much to look at — from a singing moose trophy above a vendor’s booth to giant Christmas trees and countless strings of lights.
The Germans started having Christmas markets in the late middle ages. Over the centuries they’ve taken off across much of Europe. These days, even those of us who stupidly did all our shopping before coming to the Rhine can still enjoy a mug or two of mulled wine — glühwein — while wandering through the markets.
You pay 4.5 Euros (about $7) for a colourful Christmas mug of glühwein (or hot chocolate with Amaretto and whipped cream) and get2 back if you return the mug. But loads of people — tourists and locals alike — keep the mug and hit the next market for another drink and another pretty mug. In the name of research, I collected just three but only because I only travel with carry-on luggage. Another passenger who checks his bags brought home dozens to give as presents.
The other gift of cruising down the Rhine’s Christmas markets is you bump into remarkable sights between the vendor’s stalls. Some cathedrals, like in Cologne and Speyer, are UNESCO World Heritage sites. In Strasbourg, France, you can check out the beautiful trinkets for sale outside a cathedral with a foundation that dates back to 1015. In Colmar, France, you find markets in and among the twisty medieval streets.
A final delight is people watching. While they attract plenty of tourists (and more than a few pickpockets), these markets are a big part of Christmas for the people who live along the Rhine. As you wander among them, watching young and old enjoy each other and the season, you feel like you’ve been invited to a giant festive party.