Festive markets are the highlight of mainland Europe's winter calendar. With roots in religion and tradition, they're perfect antidotes for anyone fed up with the commercialism and retail frenzy that is now so prevalent in the U.S. If you want to buy decorations and gifts that are made by craftsmen, rather than mass-produced, and listen to choirs instead of tinny recorded music, European Christmas markets will fill you with seasonal cheer.
A river cruise is a great way to absorb the atmosphere of the markets, both for their individuality and European ambience, and several lines offer themed seasonal voyages along the Rhine and Danube, which run through the Christmas market homeland of Germany.
However, "Christkindlmarkts" are not only held throughout Germany. Other countries host their own versions, such as the "marche de noel" in France. So, for repeat passengers or those who want to steer clear of the mainstream (and most crowded markets), there are plenty of alternative options.
Markets typically run from mid-November through Christmas and are always held in main squares or town centers. So even if there's not an organized excursion, passengers can easily get to them on foot or with a short taxi ride.
Expect to find charming wooden chalets decorated with fairy lights, where vendors sell a myriad of festive delights. "I haven't seen things like that since my childhood" or similar words will be uttered by all visitors of a certain age as they exclaim over old-style tree decorations, clockwork animals, spinning tops, puppets, wooden toys and board games that don't need batteries or an applied degree in rocket science to make them work. The air will be filled with the scent of spices and gingerbread, with plenty of delicious snacks to sample at the numerous food stalls -- including roasted chestnuts and hot, mulled wine.
Here are some of the alternative towns and cities in Germany, France, the Czech Republic and Portugal where you'll find Christmas market cruises. For itineraries that finish in early November, another option is to book a post-cruise land-based stay to soak up the festive atmosphere in cities such as Paris, Berlin and Prague.
Litomerice: The royal city of Litomerice on the confluence of the Elbe and Ohre is one of the most beautiful in the Czech Republic. The extensive historical center of the city has dozens of streets and squares, and the bishop's residence includes a large library on the ground floor dating back to the 18th century. Litomerice's Christmas lights are switched on at the beginning of the December and, in addition to the market in Peace Square, there are fireworks and street parades.
Prague: Prague Castle is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world's largest ancient castle, and its towering silhouette dominates the Prague skyline. The narrow streets leading down from the castle are lined with small shops, which are particularly colorful at Christmas, and the medieval Wenceslas Square and Old Town Square provide perfect festive backdrops to the seasonal markets in the Czech Republic's capital city. Look out for cut-glass ornaments and delicate decorations made from straw; try the special Christmas fish soup, too.
Berlin: Many river cruises include free time in Berlin prior to embarkation or disembarkation, and a stay in Germany's capital city is also available as a pre- or post-cruise option. This large city hosts more than 60 festive markets, and the biggest and most popular can be found in central Potsdamer Platz -- where there is an open-air skating rink -- and Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, near the Kurfurstendamm.
Magdeburg: This 1,200-year-old city in the heart of Germany was once one of the most important medieval cities due to its strategic location in the center of the European continent. Now home to two of the country's top universities, the most well-known tourist sight is the 340-foot Cathedral of St. Maurice and St. Catherine, which was built on the remains of a Roman cathedral and is the highest in eastern Germany. The Christmas market is set against the historical backdrop of the town hall in the center of the old town.
Wittenberg: The birthplace of the Protestant reformation, this city allows visitors to follow in Martin Luther's footsteps with a tour inside his house and Castle Church, where in 1517 he nailed his 95 Theses -- which detailed his arguments against the Catholic church -- on the door. Each year, festive stalls are set up on Market Square, framed by impressive townhouses and 13th-century St. Mary's Church, Wittenberg's oldest building, where Luther used to preach. It has a famous winged altar painted by the German Renaissance artist Lucas Cranach the Elder.
Torgau: The Renaissance town of Torgau is famous as the place commemorating the meeting of U.S. and Soviet forces during the Second World War. A riverside monument marks the historic convention that took place on April 25, 1945, which has since become known as Elbe Day. Sightseeing landmarks include 15th-century Hartenfels Castle; it overlooks the old town where the Christmas market is held in the main marketplace.
Dresden: Called the "Florence of the Elbe," the capital of Saxony is one of Germany's most beautiful cities. Virtually all the buildings were destroyed in the Second World War, but a painstaking reconstruction programme restored the city to its former glory. The seasonal "striezelmarkt" dates back to 1434, and it's the oldest in Germany. Each year, the Stollen Festival honors the traditional yule cake that gave the event its name, and the market in Altmarkt Square also features the world's tallest Christmas pyramid, which is 45 feet high.
Rivers Rhone & Saone
Lyon: The culinary capital of France is a wonderful place to try traditional festive delicacies, such as the "buche de noel," or chocolate log, which is eaten for dessert. Walk off some of the calories with a trip to the top of Fourviere Hill for panoramic views over the UNESCO-listed city, where notable buildings include St Jean Cathedral and the Palace of Justice. There are two Christmas markets, a covered one in Croix Rousse and an open-air market in Place Carnot. The spectacular Lyon Festival of Lights is also held in December, where amazing illuminations are projected onto the facades of historic buildings.
Avignon: Encircled by medieval walls, the "City of Popes" was home to seven popes in the 14th century, and magnificent rooms can be admired inside the Gothic Palace of the Popes, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Another landmark is the 11th-century bridge, an architectural marvel of its day, where four of the original 22 arches remain. Avignon's Christmas market is held on the Place de l'Horloge, and don't miss the "chemin des creches," with illuminated nativity scenes.
Marseilles: Cosmopolitan Marseilles, located on the Mediterranean Sea, is the largest port in France and also the country's second-largest city. The old port remains a focal point, and the quayside is lined with attractive restaurants and bars. The 19th-century church, Notre Dame de la Garde, perches on a rocky outcrop at the city's highest point, and the climb is rewarded by wonderful views. A unique festive attraction is the "santons" market, held in the grand boulevard Canebiere and Place Charles de Gaulle, where craftsmen sell miniature handmade nativity figures.
Paris: The "City of Light" is even more romantic in the run up to Christmas. The world's most visited city has enduring attractions, such as the Eiffel Tower and Louvre gallery -- home to Leonardo da Vinci's small but enigmatic Mona Lisa -- and the atmospheric street cafes are wonderful places to sit and watch the world go by. From the beginning of November, there are Christmas markets throughout Paris, and the largest can be found on the Champs Elysees, Place Saint Germain de Pres, Place Saint Sulpice and Place de la Nation.
Rouen: Normandy's historical capital, known as the "City of 100 Spires," resembles a living museum with numerous half-timbered buildings and a beautiful Gothic cathedral renowned for its intricate architecture and striking stained glass. It was in Rouen that Joan of Arc, the patron saint of France, was burned to death in 1431, and a tall cross marks the spot in Place du Vieux Marche. Next to it is an extraordinary modern church with an interior roof shaped like an upturned boat. The Christmas market, with ice skating rinks, is held in front of the cathedral.
Le Havre: Situated on an estuary of the River Seine that flows into the English Channel, Le Havre is the second-busiest port after Marseilles. Severely bombed during the Second World War, the reconstructed buildings have been praised as an outstanding post-war example of urban planning. You can get a great view from the top of the town hall of what is on one of the largest squares in France. In winter, the Father Christmas village and workshop is held on the square, and there's a Christmas market in Place Perret.
Honfleur: Surrounding a 17th-century harbor, Honfleur occupies the southern bank of the Seine estuary, opposite Le Havre. It has inspired many artists, including Monet, and many 19th-th and 20th-century paintings can be admired in the Eugene Boudin Museum. The artistic legacy continues today, and many galleries can be found in the charming narrow streets leading up from the harbor. The town is also a gateway to see the D-Day landing beaches. Each year, the Christmas market is held in the town hall square.
Rivers Gironde, Garonne & Dordogne
Bordeaux: Elegant Bordeaux, world-famous for its surrounding vineyards, is built around a crescent-shaped harbor. Stroll across the Pont de Pierre Bridge, also known as Napoleon's bridge because the 17 arches match the number of letters in his name. Then admire the "water mirror" feature with its reflection of the grand 18th-century royal square. Each year, the Allees de Tourny is transformed into an enchanting winter wonderland of little wooden huts and stalls selling gifts and local specialties, such as pear and prune spirits, chocolate and, of course, fine wine.
Lisbon: The only European capital with Atlantic beaches, continental Europe's westernmost city is built on seven hills with distinctive neighborhoods. Historic Belem is home to many museums, the landmark Jeronimos Monastery and lavishly decorated Belem Tower. The main shopping area is Baixa, with its distinctive black and white tiled pavements. Nearby, the Saint Justa Elevator, designed by an apprentice of Gustave Eiffel, provides great views of the city. Although Portugal does not have the Christmas market tradition of Germany and France, you'll find seasonal items in year-round markets in the different districts and the chance to try traditional foods, including bol rei (king cake) and bolo rainha (queen cake).
Porto: The country's second-largest city nestles in a gorge on the banks of the River Douro, and the picturesque old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Harry Potter fans will want to head to the Lello & Irmao bookstore. Author J.K. Rowling was working in Porto as an English teacher when she stared writing her first book, and the bookshop's fancy interior inspired the staircase at Hogwarts. Mercado do Bolhao is a bustling two-story indoor market in Rua Sa da Bandeira, which is fun to visit during the festive season. And, of course, what better city to pick up a bottle or two of the traditional Christmas drink port, which can be combined with a tour around one of the port wine lodges, such as Taylor's.
Who Goes There?
The following river cruise companies offer selected itineraries to these ports in November and December, which can also be linked to land-based add-ons: AmaWaterways (www.amawaterways.com), CroisiEurope (www.croisieurope.com) Viking River Cruises (www.vikingrivercruises.com), Tauck (www.tauck.com) and Uniworld (www.uniworld.com).