Savoring the holiday spirit along Germany’s Rhein, Main and Mosel rivers

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One of many festively lit stalls at Frankfurt’s Christmas market.

by Beth Habian, ITN

Living on the West Coast, it’s a very rare occasion when I get to see the landscape covered in snow. It might be a romantic notion, but I think that during the holidays it’s something that helps to usher in the Christmas spirit, especially after my senses have been repeatedly assaulted by the commercialization fest that seems to start earlier each year.

So when the opportunity arose to spend a week on an AMA Waterways small-ship winter cruise visiting the Christmas markets along the Rhein, Main and Mosel rivers, I got excited. And what says Christmas better than a steaming cup of mulled wine, a warm bag of roasted chestnuts and… bratwurst?

Getting there (maybe)

My plan was to fly on Dec. 11, 2009, from Eugene, Oregon, to Sacramento, where I would meet my friend, Brenda, who was to travel with me. The next day we would catch our direct flight from San Francisco to Amsterdam, where our ship, the MS Amacello, was docked. Mother Nature, however, didn’t get the memo.

Ceiling-to-floor windows made it easy to enjoy the scenery while staying warm inside the ship’s lounge.

Around the time I should have been boarding the flight, the Eugene airport declared itself closed due to freezing rain, with no option to fly out the next day. I was told that if I could get myself to Portland I could be rebooked on a morning flight to San Francisco with time to make my KLM flight to Amsterdam.

Since I had been dropped off at the airport and had no transportation, I proceeded to the car rental counter in order to make the two-hour drive to Portland. It was then that I learned my first lesson of this trip: when traveling internationally, it is important to have not only your passport but your driver’s license.

That plan foiled, I got myself to a motel for the night and took the 5:30 a.m. Amtrak. As it turned out, I had plenty of time after arriving in Portland, as that flight was delayed due to weather, reducing my three-hour connection time in San Francisco to just over an hour. Long story short, I met up with Brenda and we made it to Amsterdam (albeit without my luggage).

As I stepped out into Amsterdam’s brisk afternoon air, lesson two became apparent: no matter how much of a hassle it is to lug a winter coat through the airport, don’t pack it away in your checked bag.

Settling in

A representative of AMA Waterways whisked us away to our waiting ship, marking the beginning of our “Winter Wonderland” river cruise.

We were warmly greeted and presented with hot beverages and baked goodies while we waited for our cabin, which was larger than I had expected. Even with two twin beds, there was plenty of room for the TV/computer monitor, a sitting area, ample storage space and a well-designed bathroom with a large shower.

The sliding glass doors of our balcony, a feature of the majority of cabins on board, stayed closed for the most part due to the winter chill but provided nice views of the towns we passed along the way. (And it was fun to open them up when going through the many locks along the rivers, as the sides of the ship cleared the walls of the locks by mere inches.)

That evening we enjoyed our first of many delicious meals before falling into our beds to rest up for the next day’s explorations.

To market!

After a few hours of touring Amsterdam by bus and canal boat, we began our journey along the Rhein.

The itinerary included stops in Düsseldorf and Cologne before we would branch off on the Main River to visit Frankfurt, backtracking to Koblenz, which sits at the confluence of the Rhein and Mosel. Continuing along the Mosel, the ship would call at Cochem, Bernkastel and, finally, Trier.

The ms Amacello at Bernkastel.

We encountered our first Christmas market in Cologne. After touring the city’s impressive Gothic cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, we took a brief walking tour of the immediate area. This included a glimpse, through a window, at some amazing Roman artifacts — remnants of the Roman settlement on which Cologne was built — housed in the Römisch-Germanisches Museum. Our tour ended at the nearby market, one of several Christmas markets spread across the city (including a floating one).

As our ship was docked in Cologne until just before dinner, we had a couple of hours free to browse. Brenda and I stopped first to warm up with hot chocolate, presenting vouchers provided by the ship for one free hot beverage per person, good at any such market stall.

Though the market was small, it was enjoyable, the soaring spires of the cathedral peeking out above cheerful crowds, bright lights and laughing children speeding around on a carousel.

Carousels, some modern with sparkly cars and fire trucks, others ornately painted with wonderful traditional horses and carriages, were present at every market we visited. One thing they all had in common — speed! I didn’t know if the surrounding parents were there to wave to their kids or catch the odd one that might be thrown free from the ever-increasing centrifugal force!

On the loose

Perhaps my favorite market experience took place in Frankfurt, where flakes of snow made their first appearance. (Luckily, minutes before we headed out on foot to tour the city, I heard a knock at my door. My luggage had arrived, my down coat tucked inside.)

The façade of Cologne’s imposing cathedral.

We were docked in Frankfurt well into the night, so this was the first time we had a chance to explore on our own without worrying about when we had to be back on the ship. Brenda and I had salivated over the gastronomical goodies available at the market in Cologne and we decided the time to indulge had come, so we chose to skip dinner on board and headed out, appetites in tow.

The first item on the menu? Bratwurst. We passed stalls with wagon-wheel-size grills covered with every type of meat in a tube that you could think of, but we decided to go for the basic grilled bratwurst. It wasn’t a bad decision.

Slathered with mustard and served on a brötchen just big enough to provide a place to hold onto the sausage without burning my hand, it hit the spot! (My mostly vegetarian friend, who makes exceptions for sausages, agreed.)

Next it was time for a bit of tradition, so we picked up a bag of roasted chestnuts, which were a little dry but still enjoyable. Needing a brief break from eating, we delved into the crowd, pushing our way past revelers packed in tight. (There’s no being polite about it; if you don’t give a gentle nudge, you won’t be going anywhere.)

Resuming our quest, we went in search of a different type of nut: gebrannte Mandeln. These roasted, sugared almonds come in an incredible array of flavors, but the plain ones are still my favorite. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find them hot — the best way to enjoy them, I think — but they were yummy, nonetheless.

Our guide during the day had told us about his favorite market food, Kartoffelpuffer, basically a potato-and-onion pancake, so we decided to make that our finale. This wonderfully greasy treat (try not to look at the giant slabs of lard being thrown into the frying trough) can be enjoyed with either applesauce or garlic sauce.

We split one three-piece order and I could barely make my way through. That’s not to say they weren’t good — they were — but light they were not and I was officially done for the night.

Having eaten my way through the market, I took some time to look around at friends and families laughing and sharing Glühwein; kids carrying paper cones of sweet treats, and the twinkling lights illuminating the falling snow. It finally felt like Christmas was on its way.

While we did have a couple more markets to go before the end of our journey, most were quite small and didn’t really offer anything new. I didn’t get tired of them, though, as I worried I might.

Sightseeing

The charming town of Cochem under a light dusting of snow.

Of course, our sightseeing included more than just markets. In each city we visited we were given a city tour by local guides. Some tours were brief, while others were more comprehensive, depending on how much time we had at that particular destination. All were interesting.

My favorite visit was at Cochem, where in addition to touring the picturesque small town, we visited Reichsburg Castle, situated on a hill overlooking the river. At the end of our castle tour we stepped out onto a wintery scene. The charming little town in which we had arrived, with its pastel-painted buildings lining the river, was being gently blanketed in snow, transforming it into the setting for a fairy tale.

The tour of Trier, our final stop, was also noteworthy. Claiming to be the oldest city in Germany, Trier is filled with Roman ruins, including the Porta Nigra, one of the best-preserved Roman city gates in Europe. Nearby, the city’s Christmas market glittered with lights and had the prettiest carousel I’ve ever seen.

The guides

While we didn’t have a lot of time to spend in each city, our itinerary provided a good introduction to the area. The walking involved was not at all strenuous (though on one particularly icy day it was somewhat treacherous) and the tour moved at a casual pace. Occasionally, a separate walking group was designated for those wishing to move at a slower pace, with more stops to rest included.

I have to commend AMA Waterways on their selection of local guides. They were among the best I’ve encountered. Each was enthusiastic, friendly and knowledgeable.

Even Trier’s buildings get dressed up for Christmas.

The only problem that arose was in Amsterdam. After departing our bus tour, we were given some free time to explore on foot. Noting the time we were to meet and the location, my friend and I set out on our own. Unfortunately, we got turned around and got lost, arriving four minutes late to our meeting point. No one was in sight.

Knowing that our ship was setting sail in a half hour, we frantically tried to locate a taxi, but we realized we didn’t know at which dock our ship was moored. Luckily, I spotted our bus driving down the main street and was able to flag it down.

While I take full responsibility for being late, it was only a few minutes, and I couldn’t understand why the group had departed without us. I discovered later from others in the group that two passengers from another tour bus had joined our group, having missed their own bus back to the ship, and our guide mistakenly thought her group was complete. I understand that mistakes happen; still, it was a bit disturbing when the bus picked us up in the middle of the street and our guide made no comment to us at all.

Lessons three and four — plan to be at your meeting point at least 10 minutes early, giving yourself a bit of wiggle room in case you get lost, and make sure you know where you need to go in the event you have to grab a taxi. (Our daily schedule, delivered to our cabin each evening, detailed the next day’s activities and included the docking place for the day. After that first day, it was always with me.)

The ship

I was hugely impressed by the ship’s onboard staff, who by the end of the trip felt like family. Everyone was so friendly, without being intrusively attentive, and someone was always available to offer assistance, advice or simply a smile.

It was a pleasure to return to the ship each day. While not grandly decorated like those of some of the larger cruise lines, it was comfortable. Each time I stepped back on board, it felt like returning home.

Dress was casual, with only one semiformal night, the final night’s Captain’s Dinner.

The food was well prepared and offered a nice variety. Breakfast was buffet style, with cooked-to-order eggs available, while lunch was a combination of buffet selections and soup and entrée choices from the menu. A lighter lunch was available each day in the lounge. The four-course dinners usually included a vegetarian selection.

The wines served during meals represented the region through which we were traveling at the time.

The details

Unfortunately, this seven-night holiday sailing is no longer being offered by AMA Waterways (Chatsworth, CA; 800/626-0126), but an almost identical itinerary, “Amsterdam to Paris,” including a three-night post-cruise Paris stay, is available. A number of 2010 dates are scheduled, with April, October and November departures.

Trier’s pretty Christmas market carousel.

Cruise-only prices run $1,999-$2,399 per person; with the Paris extension, the price ranges from $2,689 to $3,089.

If ending in Trier, as I did, you will have to schedule your flight home from Luxembourg, the closest airport, which requires transfer from the ship via taxi, a 35- to 45-minute journey (€70, or $97).

Our flight home was delayed nine hours due to snow in Amsterdam, causing us to miss our connection to the US. After a stressful night in the Schiphol airport and a six-hour early-morning wait in line, we were able to get rebooked on a direct flight to San Francisco, arriving, unfortunately, a day later than expected (again, sans luggage).

This caused me to miss my scheduled flight back to Oregon. As it was booked on a separate airline, I was charged not only the increase in fare but an additional change fee of $100 when rebooking my flight.

Last lesson learned — especially if traveling during the winter months, get travel insurance that covers your flight, making sure it provides coverage due to weather-related issues.

Three Christmas market cruise itineraries are also offered in 2010 by AMA Waterways, though the destinations scheduled are different from those visited on my trip.

Beth Habian was a guest of AMA Waterways.

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.
One of many festively lit stalls at Frankfurt’s Christmas market.

by Beth Habian, ITN

Living on the West Coast, it’s a very rare occasion when I get to see the landscape covered in snow. It might be a romantic notion, but I think that during the holidays it’s something that helps to usher in the Christmas spirit, especially after my senses have been repeatedly assaulted by the commercialization fest that seems to start earlier each year.

So when the opportunity arose to spend a week on an AMA Waterways small-ship winter cruise visiting the Christmas markets along the Rhein, Main and Mosel rivers, I got excited. And what says Christmas better than a steaming cup of mulled wine, a warm bag of roasted chestnuts and… bratwurst?

Getting there (maybe)

My plan was to fly on Dec. 11, 2009, from Eugene, Oregon, to Sacramento, where I would meet my friend, Brenda, who was to travel with me. The next day we would catch our direct flight from San Francisco to Amsterdam, where our ship, the MS Amacello, was docked. Mother Nature, however, didn’t get the memo.

Ceiling-to-floor windows made it easy to enjoy the scenery while staying warm inside the ship’s lounge.

Around the time I should have been boarding the flight, the Eugene airport declared itself closed due to freezing rain, with no option to fly out the next day. I was told that if I could get myself to Portland I could be rebooked on a morning flight to San Francisco with time to make my KLM flight to Amsterdam.

Since I had been dropped off at the airport and had no transportation, I proceeded to the car rental counter in order to make the two-hour drive to Portland. It was then that I learned my first lesson of this trip: when traveling internationally, it is important to have not only your passport but your driver’s license.

That plan foiled, I got myself to a motel for the night and took the 5:30 a.m. Amtrak. As it turned out, I had plenty of time after arriving in Portland, as that flight was delayed due to weather, reducing my three-hour connection time in San Francisco to just over an hour. Long story short, I met up with Brenda and we made it to Amsterdam (albeit without my luggage).

As I stepped out into Amsterdam’s brisk afternoon air, lesson two became apparent: no matter how much of a hassle it is to lug a winter coat through the airport, don’t pack it away in your checked bag.

Settling in

A representative of AMA Waterways whisked us away to our waiting ship, marking the beginning of our “Winter Wonderland” river cruise.

We were warmly greeted and presented with hot beverages and baked goodies while we waited for our cabin, which was larger than I had expected. Even with two twin beds, there was plenty of room for the TV/computer monitor, a sitting area, ample storage space and a well-designed bathroom with a large shower.

The sliding glass doors of our balcony, a feature of the majority of cabins on board, stayed closed for the most part due to the winter chill but provided nice views of the towns we passed along the way. (And it was fun to open them up when going through the many locks along the rivers, as the sides of the ship cleared the walls of the locks by mere inches.)

That evening we enjoyed our first of many delicious meals before falling into our beds to rest up for the next day’s explorations.

To market!

After a few hours of touring Amsterdam by bus and canal boat, we began our journey along the Rhein.

The itinerary included stops in Düsseldorf and Cologne before we would branch off on the Main River to visit Frankfurt, backtracking to Koblenz, which sits at the confluence of the Rhein and Mosel. Continuing along the Mosel, the ship would call at Cochem, Bernkastel and, finally, Trier.

The ms Amacello at Bernkastel.

We encountered our first Christmas market in Cologne. After touring the city’s impressive Gothic cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, we took a brief walking tour of the immediate area. This included a glimpse, through a window, at some amazing Roman artifacts — remnants of the Roman settlement on which Cologne was built — housed in the Römisch-Germanisches Museum. Our tour ended at the nearby market, one of several Christmas markets spread across the city (including a floating one).

As our ship was docked in Cologne until just before dinner, we had a couple of hours free to browse. Brenda and I stopped first to warm up with hot chocolate, presenting vouchers provided by the ship for one free hot beverage per person, good at any such market stall.

Though the market was small, it was enjoyable, the soaring spires of the cathedral peeking out above cheerful crowds, bright lights and laughing children speeding around on a carousel.

Carousels, some modern with sparkly cars and fire trucks, others ornately painted with wonderful traditional horses and carriages, were present at every market we visited. One thing they all had in common — speed! I didn’t know if the surrounding parents were there to wave to their kids or catch the odd one that might be thrown free from the ever-increasing centrifugal force!

On the loose

Perhaps my favorite market experience took place in Frankfurt, where flakes of snow made their first appearance. (Luckily, minutes before we headed out on foot to tour the city, I heard a knock at my door. My luggage had arrived, my down coat tucked inside.)

The façade of Cologne’s imposing cathedral.

We were docked in Frankfurt well into the night, so this was the first time we had a chance to explore on our own without worrying about when we had to be back on the ship. Brenda and I had salivated over the gastronomical goodies available at the market in Cologne and we decided the time to indulge had come, so we chose to skip dinner on board and headed out, appetites in tow.

The first item on the menu? Bratwurst. We passed stalls with wagon-wheel-size grills covered with every type of meat in a tube that you could think of, but we decided to go for the basic grilled bratwurst. It wasn’t a bad decision.

Slathered with mustard and served on a brötchen just big enough to provide a place to hold onto the sausage without burning my hand, it hit the spot! (My mostly vegetarian friend, who makes exceptions for sausages, agreed.)

Next it was time for a bit of tradition, so we picked up a bag of roasted chestnuts, which were a little dry but still enjoyable. Needing a brief break from eating, we delved into the crowd, pushing our way past revelers packed in tight. (There’s no being polite about it; if you don’t give a gentle nudge, you won’t be going anywhere.)

Resuming our quest, we went in search of a different type of nut: gebrannte Mandeln. These roasted, sugared almonds come in an incredible array of flavors, but the plain ones are still my favorite. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find them hot — the best way to enjoy them, I think — but they were yummy, nonetheless.

Our guide during the day had told us about his favorite market food, Kartoffelpuffer, basically a potato-and-onion pancake, so we decided to make that our finale. This wonderfully greasy treat (try not to look at the giant slabs of lard being thrown into the frying trough) can be enjoyed with either applesauce or garlic sauce.

We split one three-piece order and I could barely make my way through. That’s not to say they weren’t good — they were — but light they were not and I was officially done for the night.

Having eaten my way through the market, I took some time to look around at friends and families laughing and sharing Glühwein; kids carrying paper cones of sweet treats, and the twinkling lights illuminating the falling snow. It finally felt like Christmas was on its way.

While we did have a couple more markets to go before the end of our journey, most were quite small and didn’t really offer anything new. I didn’t get tired of them, though, as I worried I might.

Sightseeing

The charming town of Cochem under a light dusting of snow.

Of course, our sightseeing included more than just markets. In each city we visited we were given a city tour by local guides. Some tours were brief, while others were more comprehensive, depending on how much time we had at that particular destination. All were interesting.

My favorite visit was at Cochem, where in addition to touring the picturesque small town, we visited Reichsburg Castle, situated on a hill overlooking the river. At the end of our castle tour we stepped out onto a wintery scene. The charming little town in which we had arrived, with its pastel-painted buildings lining the river, was being gently blanketed in snow, transforming it into the setting for a fairy tale.

The tour of Trier, our final stop, was also noteworthy. Claiming to be the oldest city in Germany, Trier is filled with Roman ruins, including the Porta Nigra, one of the best-preserved Roman city gates in Europe. Nearby, the city’s Christmas market glittered with lights and had the prettiest carousel I’ve ever seen.

The guides

While we didn’t have a lot of time to spend in each city, our itinerary provided a good introduction to the area. The walking involved was not at all strenuous (though on one particularly icy day it was somewhat treacherous) and the tour moved at a casual pace. Occasionally, a separate walking group was designated for those wishing to move at a slower pace, with more stops to rest included.

I have to commend AMA Waterways on their selection of local guides. They were among the best I’ve encountered. Each was enthusiastic, friendly and knowledgeable.

Even Trier’s buildings get dressed up for Christmas.

The only problem that arose was in Amsterdam. After departing our bus tour, we were given some free time to explore on foot. Noting the time we were to meet and the location, my friend and I set out on our own. Unfortunately, we got turned around and got lost, arriving four minutes late to our meeting point. No one was in sight.

Knowing that our ship was setting sail in a half hour, we frantically tried to locate a taxi, but we realized we didn’t know at which dock our ship was moored. Luckily, I spotted our bus driving down the main street and was able to flag it down.

While I take full responsibility for being late, it was only a few minutes, and I couldn’t understand why the group had departed without us. I discovered later from others in the group that two passengers from another tour bus had joined our group, having missed their own bus back to the ship, and our guide mistakenly thought her group was complete. I understand that mistakes happen; still, it was a bit disturbing when the bus picked us up in the middle of the street and our guide made no comment to us at all.

Lessons three and four — plan to be at your meeting point at least 10 minutes early, giving yourself a bit of wiggle room in case you get lost, and make sure you know where you need to go in the event you have to grab a taxi. (Our daily schedule, delivered to our cabin each evening, detailed the next day’s activities and included the docking place for the day. After that first day, it was always with me.)

The ship

I was hugely impressed by the ship’s onboard staff, who by the end of the trip felt like family. Everyone was so friendly, without being intrusively attentive, and someone was always available to offer assistance, advice or simply a smile.

It was a pleasure to return to the ship each day. While not grandly decorated like those of some of the larger cruise lines, it was comfortable. Each time I stepped back on board, it felt like returning home.

Dress was casual, with only one semiformal night, the final night’s Captain’s Dinner.

The food was well prepared and offered a nice variety. Breakfast was buffet style, with cooked-to-order eggs available, while lunch was a combination of buffet selections and soup and entrée choices from the menu. A lighter lunch was available each day in the lounge. The four-course dinners usually included a vegetarian selection.

The wines served during meals represented the region through which we were traveling at the time.

The details

Unfortunately, this seven-night holiday sailing is no longer being offered by AMA Waterways (Chatsworth, CA; 800/626-0126), but an almost identical itinerary, “Amsterdam to Paris,” including a three-night post-cruise Paris stay, is available. A number of 2010 dates are scheduled, with April, October and November departures.

Trier’s pretty Christmas market carousel.

Cruise-only prices run $1,999-$2,399 per person; with the Paris extension, the price ranges from $2,689 to $3,089.

If ending in Trier, as I did, you will have to schedule your flight home from Luxembourg, the closest airport, which requires transfer from the ship via taxi, a 35- to 45-minute journey (€70, or $97).

Our flight home was delayed nine hours due to snow in Amsterdam, causing us to miss our connection to the US. After a stressful night in the Schiphol airport and a six-hour early-morning wait in line, we were able to get rebooked on a direct flight to San Francisco, arriving, unfortunately, a day later than expected (again, sans luggage).

This caused me to miss my scheduled flight back to Oregon. As it was booked on a separate airline, I was charged not only the increase in fare but an additional change fee of $100 when rebooking my flight.

Last lesson learned — especially if traveling during the winter months, get travel insurance that covers your flight, making sure it provides coverage due to weather-related issues.

Three Christmas market cruise itineraries are also offered in 2010 by AMA Waterways, though the destinations scheduled are different from those visited on my trip.

Beth Habian was a guest of AMA Waterways.