For those of us who don't do our Christmas shopping before Halloween, this weekend can be a time to reflect on how our lives could be put together better. Stores are open all year-round, after all, and there's no reason we shouldn't buy presents for people in August (or at least November). But we don't. And we never will. So instead of feeling like slackers, I suggest making a virtue of our commercial lassitude and next year do as Central Europeans do: head to the Christmas markets.
Of course, this means going to Central Europe, home of King Wenceslas, gingerbread and five kinds of heated booze. And if you want to hit more than a couple of these markets, which sprout up in town squares across the region starting at the end of November, you may want to take a river cruise up the Danube.
Now, when I say river cruise, don't assume it's all shuffleboard and over-the-top buffets. A river cruise is more like an extremely comfortable bus tour. It's for people of any age who like a little flexibility mixed in with their comforts -- you can take guided tours where the boat docks (or not); eat three meals a day in the open-seated dining room (or not). It's also for people who like cities, since it has been cities' habit over the millennia to erect themselves by the sides of rivers.
Of course, you could drive from Budapest to Vienna, and from Vienna to Nuremberg and on to Prague. It would certainly be faster. But you would have to stop at highway restaurants along the way, which, with some self-denial, might look charmingly European. But they would still be Burger King.
The meals on the European Waterways cruise I took -- on a ship called the Amadagio -- were uniformly good, with playful menus that included daily fruit-cream soups made from things like bananas and cherries, and mains like Danube-caught pike-perch and veal entrecôte wrapped in Parma ham. The wines, meanwhile, were chosen from whatever region we were sailing through at the time: a tannic 2005 dornfelder as we sailed through Bavaria, for instance, or a gentle 2003 Karolyia merlot as we sailed away from Budapest.
In my suite, there was a queen-sized bed, flat-screen TV, phone and waterfall shower, as well as Internet access. (Wireless access was available in one of the two lounges.) A Juliet balcony put me less than a metre away from the water. If you keep your curtains open at night -- as you can on the nights you're sailing, as there's no one to look in -- you can open your eyes at first light with Central Europe loping slowly by, a castle here, a village there.
Though Christmas markets have been a Central European tradition for a long time -- the most popular one today, in Nuremberg, Germany, has a documented history from 1638 -- the idea that they might provide a midwinter boost to tourism is quite new, only taking off in the last few years. As a result, at least for the moment, these markets are aimed at and mostly populated by locals, drawn by the aforementioned grog, punch, hot wine, jagertee and hot mead, which is cheap, plentiful, unrestricted by North American-style serving laws, and therefore to be found warming the hands and cockles of almost everyone.
The cruises generally go between Budapest and Nuremberg, with optional extensions to Prague, where the Christmas market in the gorgeous Old Town Square doesn't close till January. There are the usual sorts of city tours at every stop, but since -- with the exception of Nuremberg -- the ship parks in the hearts of the cities, you can also just ask the staff for a couple of tips and walk off on your own, as many of us did.
The Budapest Christmas market is a great place to start your shopping. It's big enough to offer a variety of mostly handmade goods, but small enough to avoid the sort of ornament fatigue the markets in Vienna and Nuremberg can induce. The drink here is forralt bor (hot wine), and the stuff at the stalls tends toward the modest and charming, things like handmade candles, cornhusk ornaments and walnut-shell miniatures. Since the market is in the middle of the shopping street of Vaci utca, halfway between the river and Heroes Square, the 36 hours you have in Budapest can be portioned out between the market and, say, a Sunday brunch of crispy-roasted leg of pork and Transylvanian-style layered cabbage at Gundel.
As you make your way up the Danube from Budapest to Vienna, and on through Linz and Passau, you'll notice that the Christmas markets fall into three categories: small and charming, big and bustling, and Nuremberg. The less said about the huge, crushing, Macy's-on-the-day-after-Thanksgiving experience of the Nuremberg market, the better. Since you have the option, skip it, take a tour through the Triumph of the Will grounds and what little is left of the medieval town. Buy your lebkuche (gingerbread), which originated here, in one of the many specialty shops well away from the market grounds.
Nuremberg would be much more depressing than it is were it not for the fact that you will have spent the previous evening in Regensburg, in a market so preternaturally beautiful, so outrageously storybook, you may reconsider notions about the place of aristocracy in modern life.
Although there's a market in the town square here, which is just fine, when you see dusk approaching, head to the southwestern tip of the old town, to the still-occupied Thurn und Taxis palace. Once past the gate, you will be led down a path lined by gas torches and split timbers burning, crackling and smoking from the inside out. The four-year-old market itself is lit almost entirely this way, and by about 10 bonfires, several of them heating the German version of hot wine, called gluhwein, in iron cauldrons. The goods here are not only handmade, but for the most part stall-made, with a laternmacher planing boards for his candle lanterns, alongside a blacksmith, glassblowers, a woodworker, a brush-maker, painters, potters and weavers.
As you chat with the craftspeople and munch on your chunk sliced off the wildsau turning on a spit, you can look up into the lit windows and see the baroque finials and the tops of outsized portraits of Thurns und Taxises past. You may, as I did, feel like a peasant enjoying the munificence of his feudal lord, and at the same time get a little feeling for how satisfying aspects of that might have been, at least around Christmas.
After enduring Nuremberg, it's on to Prague by bus. By this time, you will have bought several dozen gifts that all come with lovely stories about the nice man with the big beard who made the teddy bear, or the girl with the long, thin fingers who painted the blown-glass ball. Good thing, then, that Prague is all about eating and drinking. Sausages, pancakes, made-to-order pastries and every sort of hot beverage provide a fine excuse to spend hours on end in the Old Town Square, looking up at the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn, and the Powder Tower, and the sorts of spires that make you think of princesses in pointy silk hats day-dreaming of dragons and princes.
Actually, while on a Christmas market cruise, you'd better watch your mead intake.
Pack your bags
Danube cruises generally go between Budapest and Nuremberg with a coach connection to Prague. MALEV Hungarian Airlines (416-944-0093; malev.com) is the only non-stop carrier between Canada and Hungary, with two flights a week from Toronto in winter. Czech Airlines (416-363-3174; http://www.czechairlines.com) provides the only non-stop flights between Prague and Canada, with two flights a week to and from Montreal and Toronto.
European Waterways: Markham, Ont.; 905-258-7778;
http://www.europeanwaterways.ca. Packages from $1,520 to $3,445.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
Gundel: Allatkerti utca 2, Budapest; 36 (1) 468 4040; http://www.gundel.hu.
WHERE TO SHOP
Nuremberg market: http://www.christkindlesmarkt.de/english.
Thurn und Taxis palace: Emmeramsplatz 5, Regensburg, Germany; 49 (941) 50480; thurnundtaxis.de.
Prague Christmas markets: http://www.prague-info.cz.