Christmas will be here again before you know it so now’s the time to plan your next festive escape
In that spirit, a ‘part-time’ Christmas scrooge from Australia rediscovers the joy of the season on a Yuletide Markets cruise with Riviera Travel from Hungary to Slovakia and Austria.
By Andrew Mevissen
Don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas. But like the Olympics, I just think Christmas should be celebrated every four years. There’s so much rushing, stressing and preparing that the storybook magic of the season dwindles – for me anyway – and it all comes around so quickly each year.
But last Christmas this part-time Scrooge rediscovered the joy of the season when I boarded one of Riviera Travel’s Yuletide Markets cruises in Europe. How could I not be swept up in festive traditions and breathless anticipation when I’m in a riverside town’s medieval square festooned with twinkling lights and colourful decorations and brimming with jolly carollers and enchanting timber stalls selling cuckoo clocks, wooden toys, artisan gifts and every type of Christmas treat and trinket you could imagine. Ice skaters glide around glittering fir trees and the sweet scents of cinnamon, honey cookies, mulled wine and roasted chestnuts fill the frosty air.
It feels like I’ve been embedded in a Christmas card. In under 24 hours I’ve been transported from a sizzling Sydney summer in Australia to a winter wonderland in Europe, celebrating our happiest season of all.
‘Our festive cruise had begun’
Our six-day cruise in mid-December started in Budapest when we boarded Riviera Travel’s five-star river ship, MS Thomas Hardy, a modern, gleaming, elegant vessel more akin to a floating, boutique hotel. An impressive line of staff welcomed us onboard in the sparkling, marble-floored lobby. Complimentary bon voyage drinks were offered, our baggage was delivered to cabins in a flash and our festive cruise had begun.
Named after the famous British writer, MS Thomas Hardy is a beautiful and spacious ship boasting an ambience that is stylishly casual and charmingly mellow. There are rich hardwoods, gleaming brass, polished copper, expansive glass and intricate wrought iron – all creating a harmonious atmosphere of understated elegance and all designed to make guests as relaxed as the flow of the Danube. With only 169 passengers onboard, the friendly and personable crew quickly remember your face and name and you get to know your fellow passengers quickly as well.
As soon as you board the ship you feel the yuletide spirit, thanks to colourful Christmas trees and decorations, traditional Christmas delicacies on the restaurant’s menus, nostalgic Christmas movies on your cabin TV and favourite carols performed by the lounge pianist. But the best part is we don’t need to cook, wash dishes or clean – a perfect Christmas celebration in my book!
Our lovely stateroom sported a French balcony – a panoramic, floor-to-ceiling sliding glass door that, when opened, turns our suite into an alfresco sunroom. All cabins enjoy a river view and it was joyfully mesmerising to lie on our big, comfy bed and watch the gentle pastoral landscapes floating by, listening to the gentle, lapping water through our open glass door. Our stateroom offered a sitting area, ample space under the bed for luggage, flat screen TV with a bridge camera channel, individually controlled air-conditioning, phone, hairdryer, handy USB ports for phone charging, bathrobes/slippers and tea and coffee-making facilities including a small coffee pod machine – a nice and unusual touch. The marble bathroom boasted Crabtree & Evelyn toiletries. There’s an evening turn-down service too with chocolates on the pillows.
Flanked by panoramic windows, the tables in the main restaurant were beautifully laid out with crisp linen. A second, smaller bistro at the rear of the ship offered an alternative, casual dining venue overlooking the wake and back along the river. And unlike specialty restaurants on ocean ships, the bistro was complimentary. But like on all ships, there seems to be an unwritten rule in seafaring law that all passengers are never allowed to have more than a few hours between meals. That was certainly the case aboard Thomas Hardy where the tireless chefs were eager to please our palates around the clock. A highlight was a festive, eight-course degustation dinner – a delectable and veritable feast featuring seared prawns, rillette of duck, winter bisque, pan-fried halibut and rum balls.
The River Journey
Our five-night journey aboard Thomas Hardy took us along the storied Danube River from the gilded palaces of Budapest to the romantic old town of Bratislava in Slovakia and the baroque splendour of Vienna. In each port there was a free excursion which typically included a guided coach and walking tour for half a day or so, leaving the rest of the day to explore on your own – including the stunning Christmas markets of each port. My wife and I were like excited little children, following mazes of cobblestoned streets leading to town squares soaked in sensory-filling Christmas magic. We sampled local delicacies and bought Christmas decorations back home for our grown-up children.
I thought Australia showcased Christmas pretty well in the decoration department but Europe wins the prize hands down, with spectacular displays everywhere – and I mean everywhere – especially in front of the Vienna Town Hall where one of Europe’s biggest Yuletide markets unfolds every season. After all, the traditions which we now love about Christmas originated in Europe so it was an eye-opening, bucket list experience for a Down Under summer worshipper like me to finally experience a winter Christmas.
Immersing in the local culture
But as wonderful as the Christmas celebrations were, my wife and I always like to steal away from the crowds and join locals in places that help us authentically experience the cultural fabric of a destination. In beautiful Budapest we immersed ourselves in the huge, steamy, outdoor thermal pools of the historic Szechenyi Baths, wandered the cavernous halls of the giant Central Market Hall, savoured hearty goulash soup in the glorious surrounds of the Central Café for lunch and stood in awe at the magnificent Parliament Building, brilliantly lit at night.
In picture-book-lovely Bratislava, we borrowed two of our ship’s complimentary bicycles and cycled along the river and through backstreets, stopping for hot chocolate. And in magnificent, wintry Vienna, we picked the cosiest, warmest café we could find to indulge in traditional apple strudel and Vienna coffee! In every place, we walked, wandered, watched and wrapped up during the short, cold days, returning always to the luxury and warmth of the Thomas Hardy at the end of the day. And how delightful, before leaving Vienna, for the passengers to be serenaded by an Austrian string quartet which came aboard the ship to perform a spine-tingling concert featuring composers who loved Vienna, such as Mozart, Bach and Strauss.
Our favourite experience
But as appealing as advent markets and grand, historic cities were, our absolute best memory of our short river sojourn was soaking in the ship’s top-deck, open-air plunge pool, heated to toasty jacuzzi temperatures in winter. We were in there at dawn and at dusk and after dinner under the stars, coffee or wine in hand, soaking in the majestic splendours of Europe all around us. Just bliss! It was, indeed, beginning to look a lot like Christmas.
Returning home to a hot summer in Australia, just three days before Christmas, I was now, finally, in the mood to celebrate the joy of the season!
To find out more about Riviera Travel’s Yuletide Market Cruises in Europe, call us at Cruise Express on 1300 766 537 or visit www.cruiseexpress.com.au