As our ship glided slowly through Austria's famed Wachau Valley, a silhouette of a medieval town gradually emerged from the soft white mist at a bend in the river. Near the tip of the peninsula, a blue Gothic church spire rose high above a set of timeless gray buildings; a thick fortress wall snaked up the hillside behind the town, ending at the ruins of a mysterious castle whose tales of triumph and tragedy now lay silent. This moment confirmed our decision to embark on a Danube River cruise during the holiday season.
"This is something you have to do once in your life," said Brigitta, my enthusiastic German neighbor. "The people are especially happy this time of year and they love to go to the local Christmas markets to meet friends and shop for small gifts, eat special foods and drink hot gluhwein -- red wine mixed with cloves, cinnamon and sugar."
We decided to travel with AmaWaterways, and we felt that this choice suited us perfectly. The family-owned AmaWaterways (Ama for short) has tailored its cruises to attract travelers with different fitness levels, including active visitors like us.
Probably the biggest plus of this cruise was the small number of passengers (averaging 130 to 160 on Ama ships), which made getting on and off the ship a breeze. When I heard that Craig and Lorna Allen from Ontario, Canada, had cruised 46 times with AmaWaterways, I was curious to find out why.
"We've done many ocean cruises and a few other river cruises, but we like traveling at a slower pace on the European rivers, particularly on AmaWaterways," Craig said. "We find that the crew always makes us feel so welcome and they genuinely want us to have a good time. We also like the local wines that are changed according to where we are."
As we cruised along the Danube from Vilshofen, Germany, to Vienna, Austria, we saw firsthand why this has become such a popular means of travel. There is no discernible motion on a river cruise, so motion sickness is not an issue. Security, too, was off the list of concerns since the crew tightly monitored everyone who got on or off the ship. I particularly liked the fact that our excursions, drinks, meals and fitness programs were included in the fare (only special excursions and concerts cost extra). More sedentary passengers could join "gentle walker" tours while my wife and I appreciated having the option of going with the fast walkers. In addition, we loved being able to start each day doing Pilates and yoga with the ship's fitness instructor.
It was easy to make friends in the intimate lounge and restaurant settings, and I found myself chatting regularly with a jovial U.K. cruise expert, James Hill, about the pros and cons of river cruising.
"People ask me about the difference between ocean and river cruises," he said. "It's like the difference between a shoebox and matchbox in relative sizes. People like the smaller ships, and once they've done their first cruise, they tend to do four or five more." We stayed so active that we didn't spend much time in our comfortable room or on our cozy balcony, though occasionally we sat on our bed and gazed at the passing scenery through the large glass sliding door. During particularly scenic stretches we joined the other passengers in the lounge where we sipped wine and hot coffee and watched the world drift peacefully past us.
Each day the ship stopped at one, sometimes two, towns where we had the option to join a walking tour, a bike tour or to go off on our own. Some of our favorite places included Passau, Germany; Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic (a medieval town and UNESCO World Heritage site); Melk Abbey, Austria (900 years old, with a beautiful, ornate Baroque church); Durnstein, Austria (where England's King Richard the Lionheart was held prisoner in 1193); and Bratislava, Slovakia (with a rainy but fun Christmas market). My favorite tour, at Castle Clam in Austria, was led by its owner, Count Carl Clam, who represented the 16th generation of a family that has lived in the castle since 1454. Paintings of many of his noble lineage surrounded the massive stone fireplace, and before entering the family's 500-year-old private chapel we passed their collection of knights' armor, lances and captured Ottoman swords.
When our ship finally docked in Vienna, we were eager to explore some of the city's 20 Christmas markets, ranked among the best in Europe. We started with the largest and most colorful market in front of the Rathaus, or town hall. There we ambled past rows of booths offering spicy sausages, sweet pastries, hot, spiced wine and an endless assortment of colorful Christmas ornaments. Twinkling lights filled the trees, and skaters of all ages glided along an ice-skating path that curved for hundreds of feet through the gardens next to the market.
We spent three days discovering a city with plentiful and inexpensive transit options, world-class art and history museums, frequent music events and the incomparable Vienna Opera House. Add in the charming Christmas markets and the city was even more irresistible.
Our Christmas adventure exceeded our expectations. Snowy landscapes and bustling Christmas markets provided an indelible memory of our first winter river cruise.
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