I rounded the corner on the snow plowed cobblestone streets and my fellow passenger carefully chose her steps heading towards a centuries-old building. She knew the route and while her heavy scarf blew in the wind she smiled with anticipation of what was ahead in the Christmas Markets in Europe. She had been here before but it was my first time and she talked about buying glass ornaments and grilled sausages with her sights set on the old town square. Our small river cruise ship had docked close to town which was helpful because she planned to return to the ship and drop off purchases throughout the evening.
Wearing layers of wool clothing and heavy gloves, I walked the streets to the old village of Passau, Germany. I watched snowflakes land on my hands as I hurried up the cobblestone walkway and in between Bavarian shops. Gothic style organ music drew me into St. Stephan’s Cathedral and looking like a scene from a movie I entered through the massive doors to hear a concert played on the largest cathedral organ in the world. I had arrived to a magical atmosphere of this Christmas Market which I was about to explore with my anxious friend.
I watched women with baby strollers and locals dressed in long winter coats and big fur hats sharing the news of the day with festive merriment in the town center. Colorful lights dressed up the wooden stalls during the normally dark winter time and it appeared no one was in a hurry to leave. My friend pointed out the ceramic mugs lined up in the stalls to drink from the large vats of Gluehwein, the traditional hot mulled red wine with aromatic spices to warm the body and wash down the traditional juicy sausages. The smell of grilled meats led me to see two fellow shipmates sharing a 2-foot long sausage chomping at each end and winding up in the middle with mustard smeared around their contented faces.
Lebkuchen, a gingerbread cookie baked on top a thin oblaten wafer is a specialty item sold during the holiday season and they are piled high on the merchant’s counter. My German friend back home will be so delighted when I bring him a big bag of these delights to dunk in his morning coffee. Other merchants welcomed us with wares of wooden holiday decorations, heavy woolen scarves, and handmade toys. I tried on a red wool sweater with a black reindeer on the back and pom-poms hanging from the collar and decided this would make my fashion statement back home in Southern California. I also selected gifts of woolen socks and scarves all made in Germany and toasty warm for friends across the USA.
At last, my friend made her way to a popped up round building with glass windows encircled with lights and a door to keep in the heat. This is where the handmade glass ornaments were sold, she excitedly told me as we entered to view hundreds of ornaments. We spent a long time casually looking at nearly every ornament watching the light reflect through the prisms of each angle and painted décor. She handed the shop keeper so many ornaments and he had to hold people at bay while he wrapped them carefully for travel. The owner was proud of his wares and with a smile, hoped she would come back next year after mentioning she had been there before.
Carefully clutching bags full of gifts for friends that were neatly and securely wrapped for my trip home, we strolled back to the ship following the path which led us into the markets. Once on the ship, the crew had hot Gluehwein to serve the cold passengers and we excitedly exchanged shopping stories.
The next morning over espresso and thick coffee cake, my friend used her hands to explain the upcoming stop to Nuremberg, one of the biggest markets in Europe.
Along the smooth sailing Danube River with land on each side of the 150 passenger ship, I easily walked off the ship to ports in Austria, Germany and Hungary to enjoy village Christmas Markets filled with handmade regional items. Cruising past castles and maneuvering through locks on the Danube River, our boutique style AMA Waterways cruise ship had docked once again for shopping in one of many European Christmas Markets.
I got my shopping bag ready and smiled, realizing the ports were as much fun as the journey.