Why a Rhine river cruise is a stress-free way to see Germany’s Christmas markets – Scotland on Sunday Travel
Call me sentimental, but nothing beats singing Silent Night among friends on a crisp winter’s night with a mug of steaming mulled wine in hand to get into the Christmas spirit.
And when you are joined by a swaying 40-strong choir cradled in the shadow of the colossal Cologne Cathedral, lit up with tens of thousands of fairy lights, you have the makings of an unforgettable evening.
I’m getting my first taste of an authentic German market, an early present for my Christmas-loving wife, Carole, during a four-night Enchanting Rhine and Yuletide Markets jaunt with Riviera Cruises.
Festive markets abound along this famous river, but the Weihnachtsmarkt am Kölner Dom (Christmas market at the cathedral) is the daddy of them all.
Excited children with colourful bobble hats weave through the crowds, sizzling brätwurst (sausage) and reibekuchen (a type of potato pancake) compete with glühwein (mulled wine) to lure parents from the neighbouring shops, while glittery decorations and beautiful, handmade gifts adorn colourful stalls.
It’s a heady mix of gold, scents and mirth.
How fitting, then, that the shrine of the Three Kings from the fabled nativity story can be found on the high altar of the neighbouring cathedral.
As a resident of Salisbury and now York, I have a soft spot for cathedrals and Christmas markets, but I admit to feeling choked when first clasping eyes on the golden sarcophagus that is believed to contain bones of the biblical Magi (the Three Kings).
The sheer scale of the place, with its 5,15ft spires and cavernous ceiling, is quite humbling, and it’s easy to see why it is Germany’s most popular landmark with 20,000 daily visitors. It has been a UNESCO world heritage site since 1996.
It has certainly enjoyed a charmed life, escaping the worst of the Allied bombing during the Second World War when the majority of the city was destroyed.
Snow starts to fall as I make my way through one of seven markets in the city and my spirits are instantly lifted by the bonhomie that seems to permeate both young and old, with none of the hustle and bustle that mars markets back home.
Soon it is time to make our way back to our floating home, the gleaming five-star MS Geoffrey Chaucer, for festive cocktails. We are among 160 or so all-British guests, served by 43 crew, having jetted in on a 90-minute flight from Manchester with Ryanair.
Many are seasoned river cruisers who have sailed with Riviera on the Danube or Douro in other parts of Europe, or are returning for more festive fun.
It’s 25 years since my own Rhine cruise, albeit in warmer climes, and a relief to finally make good on my promise to share the experience with Carole.
To say she loves it is an understatement.
Painful memories of storm-lashed seas, claustrophobic cabins and a compulsion to overindulge on previous cruises are banished as we sail serenely along one of the most famous and important stretches of rivers in Europe.
The relaxed programme allows us to take in views of the beautiful landscape while enjoying a morning cuppa in bed, with dozens of hill-top castles and fortresses interspersed by pretty timber-built villages and rolling hills.
First stop is the chocolate-box town of Rüdesheim, rebuilt after the Second World War with the same quirky, crooked houses along tiny streets, but with the addition of a life-sized nativity scene in its centre for the festive season.
Before tackling the market stalls, and while there is still daylight, we make a beeline for the cable car in the centre of town and, for €10 (£8.80), take a trip up in a two-seater gondola over the vineyards to the imposing Niederwald Monument – built to honour the unification of Germany after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.
As usual, I struggle with acrophobia but the gondola feels safe and the far-reaching views are fabulous, especially heading back down in the dark when Rüdesheim and the river cruise liners are lit up by countless twinkling lights.
We head for one of numerous cosy taverns in town to get warm and opt for one of the renowned Rüdesheim coffees laced with locally distilled Asbach brandy and a big dollop of whipped cream.
A warm glow comes over me as I saviour it, with a warning from the ship’s engaging compère, Peter, ringing in my ears. “Those coffees are delicious, but have more than one and you’ll never find your way back to the ship!” he’d warned.
We stick to the one, which sets us up nicely for a spot of browsing among the stalls, where handcrafted figurines, tree decorations and tasteful music boxes grab our attention, before heading back for a sumptuous dinner and wine.
After a leisurely morning spent soaking up views of the magnificent Middle Rhine, said to be the most picturesque stretch of the river and a magnet for English landscape painter William Turner, among others, we disembark at the historic city of Koblenz.
Famous monuments and pretty churches abound in this much fought-after city, with the huge statue of Emperor William I dominating the landscape at the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle rivers, and we forgo a visit to their Christmas markets to join a guided tour to soak up the history.
That night, we cruise to Bonn, capital of West Germany until its reunification in 1990 and birthplace of one of the greatest composers of all time, Ludwig van Beethoven.
After a pleasant stroll around the modern shops and markets we stumble on what appears to be Beethoven’s rather modern former home and take selfies. We then realise to our embarrassment that his birthplace is, in fact, on the other side of the road, a building considerably older with ‘Beethoven-Haus’ plastered across it, and make a hasty exit.
The old master has the last laugh from that great gig in the sky. As we head back to the ship in the gathering gloom I slip on the icy paths, fall and break my mobile, losing all my pictures.
At least the holiday will live long in the memory.
How to plan your trip
Riviera Travel (rivieratravel.co.uk; 01283 893780) offer the five-day Enchanting Rhine and Yuletide Markets River Cruise from £849pp (two sharing), including full board accommodation, some tours, transfers and flights from Manchester to Cologne or Eurostar.