Europe Makes the Holidays Magical

This winter, consider experiencing Christmas the way it was meant to be enjoyed – by booking a European holiday getaway!

by Kim Stefaniuk, CAA Travel Marketing Manager

As CAA’s travel marketing manager and a big fan of exploring the world, I’ve had the chance to see some pretty amazing places. But none were as magical as my trip last December with AMA Waterways, the premier river cruising experts.

My husband and I were fortunate enough to be on their Christmas Markets on the Danube itinerary, which lets cruise-goers experience all the joys and wonder of Christmastime the way it was always meant to be enjoyed: in enchanting landscapes awash with Old World charm. Follow along as I make my way down memory lane (or the Danube River) recalling our wonderful expedition.

We embarked on the river cruise ship AMAPrima in Budapest in the afternoon. The first evening on board began with a welcome reception and dinner and then was followed by a spectacular illuminations cruise. It was a surreal experience on the Danube River in the evening with the city of Budapest twinkling as we sailed past the Parliament in all its golden glory. I had seen this iconic picture of the Budapest Parliament before, but the pictures simply do not do the beauty of this building any justice. It is truly an architectural masterpiece.   

The next day we enjoyed a delightful City Tour and our very first visit to the Christmas Markets.  The sights and smells of the decked-out Christmas market booths with Hungarian specialties and crafts among ornament-laden Christmas trees was quite breathtaking. Some of their local specialties included, lángos (a kind of fried dough with varied toppings), chicken paprika, Hungarian cabbage rolls and marzipan.

The Christmas markets in each destination were truly a dreamy experience. There were a number of times when I was taking a picture of a spectacular Christmas tree, or one of the market displays and if I backed up a touch, there was a castle, cathedral or iconic bridge as a backdrop to the Christmas displays. It was extremely memorable, and one of my favourite experiences of the trip.

What is there to say about Vienna but that it impresses anyone and everyone alike, with its grand architecture, and lovely little quarters with cobblestone lanes. Yet what I especially loved about this stop on our itinerary was that Vienna is home to amazing boutiques and shops, as well as excellent restaurants to indulge your inner gourmand.  

This city was especially wonderful for just strolling around. We got to experience the Vienna Christmas market during the day and also a night – it was all quite breathtaking. Local specialties we were lucky enough to sample included mulled wine, pretzels, doughnuts and gingerbread – my favourite!

We took the Salzburg excursion from Passau. It was well worth the trip. Strolling through the Salzburg historic city center, we visited Mozart’s birthplace and his residence, the Mirabell Gardens, where scenes from the Sound of Music were filmed, and saw the Hohensalzburg Fortress. Our tour guide recommended a little restaurant in the Christmas market area for schnitzel, pretzels and beer.  Definitely some of the best beer we have ever sampled!   

This little gem of a town is a smaller Bavarian village that I remember most for having our favourite Christmas market during the trip. They have a rustic traditional market with a wonderful ambience that includes fire pits to warm up by while sipping on gluhwein (mulled wine).  Some of their specialties were cheese, home-made Bavarian mustard, bratwurst, and of course, Christmas candies.

During our Nuremberg excursion, we experienced great views of the city while visiting the old fortress during the city tour portion of the trip. The tour is perfect for history buffs, as it features retellings of the significance of Nuremberg and visits to iconic WWII sites such as Hitler’s parade square. The guides did a terrific job of sharing details of the infamous Nuremberg trials.   

We left the AMA Prima ship at this time and shuttled via bus to Prague with the AMA Waterways transfer.  I have to say that Prague was one of the highlights of our trip. If you haven’t been, it’s a beautifully historic city with lovely people. We experienced Prague’s medieval castle, which is certainly a site to behold, as well as the Old Time Square that features the astronomical clock and the Christmas Market.

It was truly mesmerizing to stroll across the Charles Bridge while a few musicians overhead played traditional Christmas music as we enjoyed shopping at the local artisans’ shops and visiting the restaurants along the way.

The best thing about seeing all of these wondrous destinations by river cruise was that we only ever had to pack and unpack just once. And while I was also little uncertain of travelling with a group, I have to add that there were simply so many opportunities to depart from the pack and explore on our own.       

The AMA staff did such a great job of breaking the shore excursions into: Active, Medium or Gentle Walkers and even included some bike tours. The Active Walkers had more time in the end to explore on their own, which was appealing to us.

Another surprise for us was that, while we assumed a river cruise would mainly be appealing to an older clientele, I found that it wasn’t the case. There was actually a variety of age groups on this cruise, including a young newlywed couple.

To be sure, a cold-weather winter getaway might not be top-of-mind when you’re planning your winter break – even we had never thought about travelling to Europe this time of year. But I have to say it was one of the best decisions we ever made because we got to see the true spirit of the holiday season in so many European countries; experiencing their local customs and traditions and, of course, shopping at their enchanting Christmas markets.  

We were even spoiled with delicious mulled wine when we returned from a rather chilly day, with traditional Christmas carols sung by the staff and even a visit from Old Saint Nick! The added bonus was that we were able to see so much more at each destination, thanks to fewer tourists at that particular time of year.

In fact, it was one of the first things we noticed about being on a winter river cruise. Having only ever experienced ocean cruising, we were pleasantly surprised at the lower number of passengers on a river cruise. That allowed us to get to know many of the passengers and staff members along the way.  It was a great experience to meet people from around the world – it even provided a great opportunity for us to share a bit of our own Canadian Christmas traditions with others!

Interested in booking an AMA Waterways river cruise for your winter break? CAA’s team of dedicated Travel Professionals have received extensive training in river cruising and AMA Waterways.  They will be able to assist you with the flights, pre- and post-night hotel bookings and any extra river cruise excursions and provide travel tips and information along the way, to make your river cruise truly magical.  Call CAA’s Travel Services at 1-800-267-8713 or visit your nearest CAA Travel Store today!