The Legendary Danube Christmastime Cruise
November 25 – December 2, 2011

I’ve been home from an amazing river cruise on board AmaWaterways beautiful ship, the AmaLegro for a couple of weeks now and I still can’t stop looking at my pictures and reliving it. This was my first river cruise and my first trip to Europe and I have to say that just like my first ever ocean cruise on Holland America’s ms Maasdam, I feel like I’ve been spoiled for life for any future river cruises and trips to Europe from here on out. I just can’t say enough about the exemplary service provided by Ama, their attention to detail and wonderful itinerary.

My older sister, Vicki joined me on the cruise and we were forturnate enough to be on a Christmas Markets cruise. For those of you who have done a Christmas Markets sailing, you know exactly what that means — the unique decorations, the gluhwein, the gingerbread, the twinkling lights and the music that all combine to move you into the joy of the Christmas season. And while sunshine was rare and we didn’t see any snow, neither mattered…we had the sites to see and fellow passengers to meet.

 The beautiful AmaLegro

With just 118 passengers onboard the AmaLegro with us, we ended up knowing many of them by the time we left. Getting on and off the ship, finding a quiet spot in the lounge to watch the world go by, meeting new friends for dinner in the open dining room and enjoying a drink or complimentary cappucino were effortless with such an intimate ship.

Our journey began in Nuremberg where we boarded the ship and had some time to get to know the layout of the ship and take in the scenery around us. We arrived just after lunch, looking I’m sure, a little worse for wear after our overnight flights. Even though check-in didn’t begin for a few hours, the staff allowed us to go off to our room for a nap and worry about checking in later. I’d only been on the ship a few moments and already was delighted with the service.

Our stateroom was very spacious considering the ships are restricted to such tight quarters to fit through the locks. And we had a french balcony, which some may think, “What do I need that for in the winter?” But I can’t even tell you how many times we opened it…to take pictures, to check the outside temperature so we knew how many layers to wear that day, to wave to passing boats and barges, and just to enjoy the wind on our faces…we were sailing down the Danube and very, very excited about it!

Our french balcony stateroom

Dinner that night was absolutely wonderful. With local foods, wines and beers to choose from, as well as North American fare for those less adventurous, we all felt quite pleased with our fate for the next 7 nights. I do have to note that one of the things I enjoyed most, was that the portion sizes on board were not the typically huge ones that you might find when going out to dinner at home. It was nice to feel that you hadn’t stuffed yourself by the end of the night and of course, it also meant I had enough room left to enjoy dessert! This, combined with all the walking tours allowed me to happily still fit into all of my pants by the end of the cruise!

 A delicious, traditional German dish at dinner

After a wonderful nights sleep and a delicious buffet and made-to-order breakfast we were eager to go out and explore the city of Nuremberg with our fellow passengers. We had the option of 2 different excursions and chose the Historic Nuremberg. Nuremberg is a beautiful old city filled with history which made us feel like we had jumped in with both feet the moment we stepped off the bus. The castle, the old fortified walls, the traditional Bavarian architecture and of course the Christmas decorations all made for a great outting.

 The rooftops of Nuremberg

Our walking tour ended at the Christkindlesmarkt. Nuremberg’s Christmas Market is the largest and most famous of the traditional markets. Open from the Friday before Advent to Christmas Eve, this market sees over 2 million visitors a year, which is hard to imagine in such a short period of time.

 Traditional Nuremberg prune men at the Christkindlesmarkt

One of the small touches provided by AmaWaterways that made such a huge impact on us was them treating us to our choice of a cup of the tradtional gluhwein, allowing us to keep the mug or some tradional lebkuchen or as we know it, gingerbread. It’s the things like this that just seem to go above and beyond to make your travels that much more memorable.

That afternoon we finally set sail and began our journey down the river towards the Main-Danube Canal. We learned all about the many different types of locks and of course we made our way through a few of them. It’s such an interesting experience and everyone on board was gathered in the lounge or up on the sun deck for the best views and photo opportunities.

 Entering one of the many locks we went trough between Nuremberg and Budapest

The next day we awoke in the quaint medieval town of Regensburg. This morning we would all be on the same excursion but we were given the choice of normal walking speed, fast walking speed and gentle walking speed. We originally decided to stick with the normal speed folks, but our Cruise Director, Sue came along and gently nudged us to join the fast tour — which we were glad of. It was definitely not any faster than the one the previous day and we didn’t miss any of the sites, but we had a bit more time on our own at the end to just roam around and take some photos before heading to the Christmas Market.

 View of Regensburg from the famed old stone bridge

Regensburg is home to more than one Christmas Market and we decided to visit the Thurn & Taxis market. Held at the beautiful Thurn & Taxis Palace, it is the most romantic of all the markets we went to and again, going above and beyond, AmaWaterways paid for everyone’s admission. After trying some of the mulled apple cider and some schnitsel on a bun we made our way through the grounds. If you ever have the chance to go to Regensburg, you could easily spend a day here roaming the palace grounds, taking a tour of the castle or just enjoying the unique market stalls.

 Enjoying a cup of mulled apple cider by the fire at the romantic Thurn & Taxis Christmas Market in Regensburg

 They look like rusty old tools, but they are actually chocolate – one of the many unique items at the Thurn & Taxis Christmas Market in Regensburg

We decided to cut our stay here a little short though because I wanted to do the afternoon bike tour offered by Ama. Roundtrip the tour was 15km and our destination was the Walhalla Temple. Modelled after the Parthenon in Athens, the temple was built to honour the famous people of German history. The bike ride, though crisp, was an easy ride along the river on Ama’s own personal bike collection. The bikes are free to use whenever you want. While there are a limited number of them on board, on an itinerary like ours, there weren’t many riders — we had 22 sign up, but only 8 of us were brave enough to test the cool temperatures! Once back on the ship, the cappucino machine was getting a workout and people were enjoying the rest of the afternoon as we began sailing away for our next port – Passau.

 Our little bike group making our way to the Walhalla Temple in the background – what a view!

This morning we woke up in Passau, the last of our German ports, to sunny skies and a very pretty view of the town. Some passengers, including us, were taking the day’s optional excursion to Salzburg. I have to admit, I was very torn as to whether I was willing to miss the beautiful sailing from Passau to Linz, as I’d heard this was the pretty area of the trip, but my love of The Sound of Music since childhood and desire to see Salzburg won out and we boarded one of the two busses taking passengers on to the famous city.

We couldn’t have asked for a better day – if the sun was going to decide to finally shine on us during the trip, this seemed like the perfect day. We enjoyed listening to the history and culture of the area from our guide which made the bus ride fly by. Once we arrived at our destination, he gave us a run through of our meeting points and times and then Vicki and I decided to head out on our own to explore the city, the shops, the castle and of course, the Christmas Market!

 The city of Salzburg

 Handmade Christmas ornaments – a feast for the eyes and nose – in Salzburg

 The hills were alive in Salzburg!

You can take the funicular up to the top of the castle or you can walk up on your own…but take your time, it’s a pretty steep hike! Once at the top of the castle, you have amazing views of the city and the famed Austiran mountains. After enjoying our time in this beautiful and elegant city, we boarded the coach to head back towards the ship. We were to meet our ship in Linz, but our arrival time was a bit early so we had time to drive around this little town and see the lights of the season at the market. Back on board the ship we met with fellow passengers for dinner and each told our stories of the day and looked forward to tomorrow’s stop in Melk.

 The pretty Linz Christmas Market

The beautiful sunshine of the previous day didn’t carry over to the next day and our morning’s arrival Melk was cool, mistly and damp, but it didn’t dampen our spirits. Melk is a tiny little town home to the striking and magnificent Melk Abbey. The abbey began as a castle, then changed to a monastery which it continues to be today, as well as a school, mostly for girls, though they do accept boys as well. The price for children to go to school here is a mere 87 Euros a month, which when you see it is hard to believe. I couldn’t help thinking that this is likely as close to going to school at Hogwart’s as you can get – a bit of a different curriculum of course, though!

 The view walking down to Melk Abbey

It was just a quick morning stop here though, with a little walk back through the town to the ship if you wanted and then we were off. During the afternoon we sailed through the famed and picturesque Wachau Valley – known for it’s wonderful wines which we had been enjoying on board during our dinners. It was so nice to finally put the two together.

 A misty view of Durnstein Castle

During the afternoon we had the option to visit the wheelhouse and learn a bit about Captain Vlad and what it’s like to be captain of a riverboat, the schooling, the rivers, etc. We had been learning a bit, of course, throughout our sailing about the water levels due to the total lack of rain that the area had been suffering through for the last few months. The water level of the river plays a big part on sailing these rivers as they need to be able to fit under the bridges in high levels and be able to sail in the low levels too. Thankfully, Ama’s ships have the lowest draught of all the ships on the waters so we hadn’t had any problems yet, though Captain Vlad was definitely working hard for his dollars on our sailing!

 Captain Vlad and I in the wheelhouse

That night we arrived in Vienna and had the option to take a coach into the city centre to see the lights and wander around the pedestrian area and a couple of small Christmas Markets. What a beautiful sight it was! Each street had a different ‘theme’ for their lights and decorations but all of them were so pretty. We poked our head into St. Stephen’s Cathedral as, Sue had let us know that during Advent they light up the inside of the church, and we were happy that we did. After a stop at the Sacher Hotel for some chocolates and a gelataria for something sweet, we were ready to head back to the ship and get rested up for the next day.

 One of many streets of Vienna lit up beautifully at night

 Inside St. Stephan’s Cathedral which is lit up at night during Advent

Vienna at night was so pretty, but seeing it again in the daylight was just as great. It’s a very upscale city with lots of history and beautiful architecture. And coffee shops! Vienna is home to more than 2000 coffee shops! But it’s not just about coffee….there’s the Rathaus, the Opera House, Schonbrunn Palace, the Cathedral and so much more. It would be so easy to spend a few days in this beautiful city.

 Christmas Market in front of Vienna’s Parliament building – The Rathaus

 Shonbrunn Palace – the summer home of the Hapsburg’s

With over 1000 rooms, the Hapsburg’s used to employ over 3000 servants – Wow!

After dinner that night, we were all treated to a very special show by the staff and crew, who sang Christmas carols to us. They were a little nervous as we were their first Christmas sailing of the season but they did a great job! And then Santa stopped by with a present for everyone before we all tucked in to bed for the night.

 Arturo, the Hotel Manager and Santa!

The next morning we awoke in Komarom, not our scheduled port, but due to the low water level, we were unable to make it all the way to Budapest. They hadn’t had rain in 3 months by the time we arrived and it was hard to believe that the water level in Komarom was just 28cm!

So we boarded a coach and made our way to Budapest. One of the most beautiful cities in Europe, Budapest spans both sides of the Danube and much of the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After visiting the Fisherman’s Bastion and Hero’s Square, and seeing the famed Chain Bridge, the massive and impressive Parliament Buildings and so many other beautiful, old buildings throughout the city, it’s easy to see why Budapest is so loved by many.

 Budapest’s Fisherman’s Bastion

Our guide (who was the best of the whole trip) was so sad about the weather and couldn’t get over how misty and foggy it was — she said “It’s so terrible…I have to say, today is not the beautiful blue Danube I have to show you…today is the Milky Danube!” But it made for some unique photos and just gave us a reason to have to come back someday! We spent the afternoon warming up in the traditional market hall, where we had lunch (goulash!) and made any last minute purchases – including buying lots of paprika and saffron for everyone back home!

 The Chain Bridge connecting Buda and Pest

Paprika for sale at the market hall – a MUST to bring home!

Our last stop before heading back to the ship was at one final Christmas Market. It was the perfect way to end our day in Budapest – a city that I would love to come back a visit again one day.

 Enjoying kürtöskalács, a traditional Hungarian sweet pastry coated in cinnamon sugar – delicious!

Once back at the ship, we were treated to the best show of the entire journey…a local Hungarian dance troup came aboard and not only danced and sang and played for us, they even got many of the passengers to join in on the dancing. It was the cherry on top of an already amazing 7 day journey.

Hungarian dancers on board the AmaLegro

The next morning it was an early departure as we boarded the coach to catch our flight home. What a wonderful journey onboard the AmaLegro. I can’t wait to meet her or one of her sisters again soon…the only question is…which itinerary will I do next?