For the last six years or so I’ve made it a travel tradition to spend some time in Europe in December, to enjoy the holiday festivities. It’s evolved over the years and while I have revisited some places, in general I like to travel to new cities and regions I haven’t seen during Advent. Even my favorite European cities transform during the season, they drop the mantle of tourism and embrace the holiday for themselves and not for visitors. It’s a wonderful time of year to visit for a number of reasons and it has become my favorite trip of the year. In 2017 though I did something a little different. I didn’t rent an apartment and I didn’t hop on a river cruise, both travel styles I’ve enjoyed on previous December trips. No, this year I enjoyed a different way to travel that also enabled me to see a variety of regions during Christmas – a Mediterranean cruise. Joining my friends at Viking Ocean Cruises, I sailed from Barcelona to Rome not only to enjoy the onboard service and inherent beauty of the coastal cities, but also to experience more southern areas of Europe during the holidays. Looking back at the experience, it was just as fun as previous trips, but it was also completely unlike my normal forays into all things Christmas. It’s a way of experiencing Christmas markets though that I don’t think many people consider, which is why today I want to share my experiences and why I think it’s a good alternative to the more traditional Christmas market river cruise.
The Cities and Markets
For most cruise lines, the Barcelona to Rome itinerary is one of their most popular and with good reason. The ports of call along the way aren’t only amongst the most beautiful in the world, but they include some of the world’s most exciting cities. I know the stops are what finally convinced me that this would be the perfect itinerary: Barcelona, Marseilles, Monaco, Nice, Florence and Rome and plenty of excursion options to even more towns and regions. Since I normally spend December in more northern countries like Belgium and Germany, I have become used to terrible weather over the years. One does not visit Germany in December for the weather, one visits for the amazing experiences and I’ve been fine with that. But I also don’t mind seeing sunny skies and the weather was probably the most notable difference for me this year. For almost two weeks as I meandered from Spain to Italy, there wasn’t even a hint of a cloud in the sky, much less rain. The views looked summery, even if the temperatures were on the chilly side. Personally, it was wonderful to travel around Europe in December and not have to fight the elements. Sure, inclement weather does in fact make hot cocoa and glühwein taste better, but it was nice to experience something different this year.
The markets themselves were the biggest difference between taking a river cruise and an ocean voyage. In Germany, France, Austria and Belgium, every city, town and village has a market, each one seemingly more festive than the last. I love Christmas markets and was especially excited to see how Southern Europe manages the tradition. As it turns out, it’s not their forte. While Barcelona has had a Christmas market in front of its cathedral for centuries, it’s not a large one and is mostly full of traditional crafts. No food or other tasty snacks were offered, which was an odd theme I found throughout the trip. Most of the stops we made whether in St. Tropez, Monaco or Lucca, did include Christmas markets, but none were large and none had the same festive atmosphere I’ve enjoyed in countries like Germany. They weren’t bad, but they were decidedly different. Even as I write this though, I realize they were important for me to experience. There’s a reason why I didn’t return to Germany this year for Christmas, I wanted something different. I had grown tired of sausages and gingerbread and instead wanted to see how other cultures celebrate the holiday, which I accomplished. In Barcelona I learned all about the strange Christmas tradition of Tió the log and in Rome I enjoyed special delicacies served only for the holiday season. My education into all things Christmas may have been more subdued this trip, but the lessons were no less important and were certainly fun to experience.
The Cruise Experience
How I visit Christmas markets is an important part of my annual experience and has evolved over the years. Initially, I rented an apartment and took day trips to other cities every day. The problem with that was that I spent most of my time in train stations and the trips were exhausting. For the last three years I have taken different Viking river cruise itineraries, which was a revelation for me. Not only were the cruises fun, but every day I found myself in a new town, ready to experience the best that it had to offer. Viking eliminated all of the annoying transportation aspects I hated and instead delivered the classic Christmas market experience. This last trip was a variation on that theme and I think it worked well. While Viking doesn’t call their December ocean cruises Christmas trips, they really should. I knew that by sailing on their luxurious small ship from Barcelona to Rome that I would experience Christmas in a variety of different countries, with all of the conveniences that only a cruise can offer.
It wasn’t my first time sailing on a Viking ocean vessel and although I knew what to expect, it was reassuring to find the same level of service and care in abundance. Viking does a great job at being Viking and it’s that consistency of product that I have come to admire the most over the years. Room comfort, small perks, food, onboard service and included tours all came together to create a wonderful cruise experience that is fun and exciting no matter what time of year it is. I plan on writing another comprehensive review of their services, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t include the important role the ship itself played in my 2017 Christmas market adventures.
Still Take a River Cruise
All of this being said, I think it’s important that everyone still take a Christmas market river cruise at least once. Having sailed on three different Christmas itineraries in Europe, I can say confidently that they really are the classic experience. Viking leans into this and enables even more added value from shipboard festivities to small perks like warm glühwein after a long day of sightseeing. Most of us have a romantic image of the European Christmas market, and with good reason. They’re unique, they’re different and no other destination in the world does them as well. I know I’ll take more Christmas river cruises in the future not just to visit new cities, but to recapture that Yuletide magic found only there. No, a Mediterranean Christmas market ocean cruise should not be your first introduction to this important cultural icon but, if you’re like me, and have experienced markets in Germany and Austria before, then I think the Mediterranean cruise is a fantastic way to add some variety to your travel calendar. The combination of amazing destinations and more subdued holiday cheer is a fun combination that offers insights into how other regions around the continent mark the holiday season.
Am I sorry that in 2017 I didn’t find myself bundled up against the elements, wandering the streets of cities like Heidelberg and Colmar? No, not at all. I love those places and the experiences they offer and I know I’ll return, but it was a lot of fun to do something different on my annual December trek to the Old World. How people in the south of France or in Monaco celebrate Christmas is very different from how residents of Amsterdam or Paris celebrate. As travelers, it’s important for us to see those differences, to learn from them and to enjoy the experiences offered. Walking around Barcelona on a sunny day may not be the classic Christmas image we all have in our minds, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less fun or even festive. It can be and by the time I left Rome to head back home I was confident that I didn’t just experience the best Christmas traditions these regions have to offer, but that they in turn had imbued me with the holiday spirit which, after all, is what it really is all about.