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Aug. 9, 2020 | Sunday
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Hometown Traveller: The Christmas tour of a lifetime



ALSO: Don't miss Ward Simpson's poetic ode to cruising here.


Ward and Oresta Simpson

Special to The Lake Report

Well, calling our European Christmas Market Cruise a Prague-to-Budapest journey is not exactly correct – as the cruise was from Nuremberg to Budapest. But we did spend three days in Prague prior to boarding the ship.

Our first taste of a European Christmas market was in Prague’s main square, a short walk from our hotel. The first thing that caught our eye was the famous Astronomical Clock, which dates to 1410 and is the oldest clock still operating.

The market was spectacular, dominated by a huge decorated tree and nativity scene in the centre with hundreds of stalls surrounding it. These stalls offered traditional Czech food and drink, handmade souvenirs and gifts – and, of course, mulled wine. (Although the Czech Republic is part of the EU, it has its own currency, the Czech Coruna (or Crown). And 100 Coruna is about $6 Canadian, it is relatively easy to convert.)

As we were wandering around this and many other Christmas markets on our trip, we thought what a lovely idea this would be for Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Simcoe Park would be a great location, where the market would be somewhat protected from the elements. Queen’s Royal Park would be ideal, too, but the weather, especially the wind, might be a deterrent. It could be held on weekends in December in conjuction with the Candlelight Stroll, the Rotary House Tour, the Santa Claus parade, etc.

We also did a walking tour of Prague, exploring the beautiful architecture and restaurants. It was a lovely start to the trip.

After a bus ride to Nuremberg, Germany, where we boarded the Scenic Ship Amber, we settled in to our room for a brief nap and set off to see the sights.

The “Nurnberger Christkindlesmarkt,” also in the central square, is one of the largest Christmas markets in Germany and one of the most famous in the world.

It also had the traditional foods and drinks, souvenirs and gifts, and a special mulled wine called “Feuerzangen-bowle,” a strong red wine punch. It has a sugar cone soaked with a robust rum (54 per cent alcohol) which is placed over the red wine. The rum-soaked sugar-cone is lit, allowing hot rum and melted sugar to drip into the pot, where it infuses with the red wine and spices. Delicious.

When you buy a drink you are also required to buy a mug with it. The drinks are usually 3 or 4 euro and the cups can be another 3 or 4 euro. Each market has its own distinctive cup and if you don’t want to keep the mug you can return it to any of the mulled wine stalls and get your money back. Neat idea.

Back on the boat, we set sail for Regensburg and a tour of the Thurn and Taxis Christmas Market. This is a smaller market but located in a castle courtyard. The Thurn and Taxis families still live in the castle and it was incredible to see all their wealth as we toured it. We were then set free to enjoy the market, which is much smaller than Nuremberg’s but still romantic and unique in its own way.

Next we sailed to Passau, arriving in the morning. We chose to do a bus tour to the picturesque town of Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic. The bus took us slowly up through the mountains and hillsides to arrive at a beautiful little town surrounded by the Vitava River.

Cesky Krumlov is dominated by its 13th-century Rosenberg castle. It was a nice break from the Christmas market tours as the quaint village offered us a tranquil setting where we could relax and watch the locals. We headed back on the bus to meet the ship in Linz, Austria, ending a unique day in which we set foot in three countries in one day: Germany, the Czech Republic and Austria.

The next day we arrived in Melk, Austria, where the highlight was a tour of the Abbey of Melk, a Benedictine monastery overlooking the Danube River. This abbey is not only majestic when viewed from the river but inside you are surrounded by famous frescos and countless medieval manuscripts and an overwhelming amount of gold leaf.

In the afternoon we boarded the ship and set sail for Durnstein.  This small village of about 250 reminded me of the villages in Greece. It is located on the steep slopes of the Danube with tiny, narrow streets that are decorated with Christmas lights and bulbs.

There is no real market here because there are few shops, so the whole village becomes the market. One shop had its products on display right out on the street with a bell and a sign simply saying, “For service please ring.”

Durnstein is a well-known wine-growing area but I was intrigued by the blue and white tower of the abbey of Augustinian Canons founded in 1410. After a quick visit to the abbey, I found a cute little bar and enjoyed some of the local wine.

Vienna was our final stop in Austria. In the morning we had choices of various tours but decided a relaxing morning on board would help us rest up for the Vienna markets.

This was a good idea. There are over 20 markets in Vienna alone, but we chose the most famous outside St. Stephen’s Cathedral. It’s called the  Stephansplatz Christmas market.

There were over 40 stalls completely surrounding the church, with many restaurants nearby. Here I picked up my favourite mug. It is a Christmas boot, festively decorated and filled with Jameson Whisky Hot Apple Punch. Needless to say, I paid this stall a couple of visits.

Oresta enjoyed the shopping here particularly because there were the regular retail shops in the same area and the prices were quite reasonable. The evening in Vienna ended with a classical music concert at Palais Lichtenstein.

On our last day Sunday we arrived in the beautiful city of Budapest (pronounced Buda Pesht). We did a guided bus tour of the city, which took most of the day, ending with a beautiful piano recital in a concert hall at the School for the Blind, where each child has the opportunity to learn using instruments, join a choir etc. On the ship for our final night, we were treated to a traditional Hungarian folk show with lively dancing and music.

This trip was very special as we not only toured several Christmas markets but also visited many historical areas and sights along the way. The meals, service and entertainment on board were 10.5 on a scale of 10, so we have to congratulate Scenic Cruises for their hospitality.

This cruise was recommended by the staff at Upper Canada Travel here in Niagara-on-the-Lake and I extend to them a sincere thank you for what was the trip of a lifetime – and one that certainly got us in the Christmas spirit.

Merry Christmas to all and a happy, healthy New Year.