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Cruising for a cold Christmas

Cultural compensations ensure December in Europe is far from an endurance exercise.

River Beatrice, Buda Castle
River Beatrice tied up in Budapest.

I’m still kicking myself for missing the marzipan museum. That’s marzipan in the Madame Tussaud’s sense: life-sized statues of Michael Jackson, Princess Diana, the Muppets – all done in almond paste and painted and polished to perfection. It is a marvel, apparently.

For that I blame the mulled wine. December in Europe means two things: cold, and glühwein at the Christmas markets that spring up in every town square at the beginning of Advent. When it’s cold enough for six layers of clothing, rain on the cobbles is reflecting the decorative lights and it’s dark at 3pm, a mug of hot, sweet, spicy red wine seems more a necessity than a treat.

So there I was swigging wine by the Danube in Budapest, seduced by the cinnamon in the air, the marzipan museum completely passing me by. You can’t have it all.

Actually, aboard Uniworld’s River Beatrice, which was about to take eight days to pootle along the river to Passau, I felt that I did have it all. Comfy bed in my elegant suite: check. Quantities of excellent food and wine: check. Friendly crew: check. Enthusiasm, information and bad jokes from cruise director Tamás: check.

Tamás is Hungarian, so it was appropriate that this cruise began in the country’s capital. Budapest is a city with a grim history and the grey wet weather suited the sad stories we heard from Barbara, our guide on a coach tour. We passed the House of Terror, painted blue with a row of portraits around its walls. “The name sounds like something made up in Hollywood,” she said, “but it’s much worse than that. It’s real.” It was where the Arrow Cross militiamen took their cue from the Nazis and instigated a reign of terror over their countrymen, graphically illustrated inside.

There is more horror in the Holocaust Museum of the Grand Synagogue, and in the starkness of the 60 pairs of cast-iron shoes along the edge of the river in memory of Jews shot there, the Danube running red as it carried away their bodies.

Book Cafe, Budapest
The Hungarian capital’s Renaissance Book Café. Photo/Pamela Wade

But Budapest has its glories, too: beautiful, grand buildings, open squares, art galleries, bookshops and cafes – the last two combined at Book Café, a Renaissance extravaganza of mirrors, chandeliers and frescos. Sailing away that night between Buda’s towering castle and cathedral on one side and Pest’s majestic Parliament building on the other, all of them floodlit, was a spectacle even Hollywood couldn’t match.

The Slovakian capital of Bratislava, a half-day’s cruise upriver, has all the same ingredients on a smaller scale. Battered trams scoot around the pedestrian centre of the Old Town, where wooden huts hung with lights and pine garlands and selling crafts, chocolate, decorations and refreshments cluster in the squares. Ice skaters swirled beneath a towering Christmas tree while the antics of a baby goat in the Nativity scene delighted watchers.

The markets spring to life at 5pm when offices close and workers gather around high tables to drink and tuck into specialty foods. They seemed to be mostly potato-based. Cheesy hash browns, deep-fried spiral-cut crisps, potato-flour pancakes filled with bacon or Nutella, plain baked spuds: solid, warming food, perfect for when the temperature’s hovering around freezing. Inside the cosy cafes, the theme continued with rich chocolate drinks flowing like lava – hot, thick and slow.

Music is big in Bratislava, with Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss and Liszt associated with the town. While living there, Liszt wrote a piano piece for three hands, commissioned by the father of a one-handed boy. There was entertainment aboard our vessel that night with two local musicians giving an energetic performance on piano, accordion, violin, pan pipes and Slovakia’s national instrument, the wooden tubular fujara. The range of sweet notes wrung from the instrument had me thinking the Aboriginals have been slacking with the didgeridoo.

Gingerbread hearts, Bratislava
Austrian Christmas treats. Photo/Pamela Wade

Vienna was the next port of call, where centuries of practice have refined the Advent market to its highest form. There are many scattered throughout the city, but the biggest is a small village of pretty wooden huts in front of the magnificent Town Hall, across from the even more imposing Opera House. Here, scores of decorated stalls sell ornaments, crafts, china, food including roasted chestnuts and iced gingerbread and drinks under trees hung with illuminated cupcakes and hearts. More locals than tourists gather to enjoy this colourful compensation for the chilly temperatures.

Along the Ringstrasse are statues of Mozart and Strauss, long-time Viennese favourites, and in an elaborately decorated wood-panelled music room cruise passengers enjoyed a private concert of the composers’ works. The acoustics were perfect and, as much as the music, it was a delight to witness the musicians’ evident pleasure at being able to give an intimate performance in such surroundings.

Yet more music followed at our next stop, the small medieval town of Krems, where on a nearby vine-covered hillside the 300-year-old Göttweig Benedictine monastery houses a Baroque chapel with a splendid organ.

As the notes of Stille Nacht and O Tannenbaum swirled around the gilded columns and up to the painted ceiling, it felt like the essence of Christmas. Cold and colourful, spark­ling in the darkness, scented with cinnamon and ginger and tasting sweet and spicy: it’s a bright, undiluted season of joy. After a lifetime of summer Christmases, a single cold one has converted me.


Pamela Wade was a guest of Uniworld and Emirates.

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