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Viking Freya arrives in a festive Passau, Germany
A veritable snowstorm was raging this morning asViking River Cruises’ Viking Freya approached the Bavarian town of Passau, Germany. In fact, I almost didn’t know we were pulling up alongside Passau – the snow was so thick and heavy, it completely obscured my view of the town. This is everything I ever could have hoped for, and more. Snow isn’t really guaranteed during December (January and February are typically “whiter”), but nothing is more festive than seeing the Bavarian countryside blanketed with snow. It is absolutely breathtaking.
Seeing this remarkable snowfall, I realized just how well-suited these Viking Longships are to the colder Christmas Markets voyages. Sure, they’re great in the summertime – the Aquavit Terrace can be fully opened to the elements, and the expansive sun deck offers the ability to really soak in the sights, but this morning I was able to enjoy the snowfall from my sheltered balcony and the Atrium, where I watched as the glass skylight became blacked out with snow.
Since I have been here before, I disembarked Viking Freya just before 9am to stroll around town. There is a great walk you can take from any of the cruise ship berths; just turn left when disembarking your ship and keep following the path, which eventually slingshots around a quaint city park and onto the other side of the city, which sits at the confluence where the Inn and Ilz rivers join the Danube. And because it was still snowing cats and dogs, I took the opportunity to purchase a wool hat made in Germany.
Passau is exceedingly navigable on your own, but I was amazed that I managed to discover an entire shopping district that I had never been to on my previous two visits. It really speaks to the repeatable nature of river cruising; you’re unlikely to have the same experiences twice – something I can’t say about my trips to the Caribbean.
Passau is quaint, beautiful and inviting. In fact, it’s so gorgeous when it snows here that it is difficult to reconcile the fact that three concentration camps, part of the larger Mauthausen-Gusen facility, were located here during Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime. There may have been a subtle reason for that: Hitler lived here for a brief time as a child between 1892 and 1894. Today, a monument honouring the victims of the Holocaust stands along Passau’s picturesque riverbank.
The heart of Passau in December is dominated by two things: the baroque St. Stephen’s Cathedral, and the Christkindlmarkt au Dom.
Unlike the mainly Gothic cathedrals that litter Lower Bavaria, Passau’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral is a stunning example of ornate baroque architecture and styling. It’s also exceedingly bright and airy: during the 15 or so minutes I was inside, the ever-changing weather conditions outside were causing the interior to constantly shift brightness and hue, a result of large, oversized windows being added to its upper structure.
I was never terribly interested in Cathedrals until I read Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth a few years back; while set in England, it’s a startling look at the generational quest constructing these masterpieces involved.
Another noteworthy feature: Passau’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral (or Dom) has the largest pipe organ in Europe, with 17,774 individual pipes!
Passau’s Christmas Market is one of my favorites. It’s small, but the wares on offer here are reflective of the town’s reputation as a center for arts and crafts. Because of that, you’re likely to spend more money here than in Vienna – and my lightened wallet today is a testament to that!
Rather than indulge in my traditional Gluhwein, I sampled the Passauer Punsch that was sold from several booths. This contains all sorts of fantastic things, from rum to fruit pieces and various peels. It’s also got a taste that’s irresistible; highly recommended if you are in Passau during the Christmas period! A place called Simon’s also offers it for purchase in one-litre bottles.
Lunch at the market was a no-brainer; I took the lead from everyone around me and ordered a ½ meter-long Bratwurst on a bun. And it was as delicious and warming as I had hoped! In fact, that’s half the enjoyment of these Christmas markets: sampling the food and the drinks that vary slightly with each one.
As I was about to return to the warmth of the Viking Freya, the skies darkened and it began to snow again in earnest. And once again, I was all smiles. This is, after all, what a Christmas Markets river cruise is all about!
Once we had set sail, German coffee was served in the Viking Lounge as the snow kicked up outside. But this isn’t any ordinary coffee; instead, it’s black coffee with peach schnapps, designed to keep you wired and warmed up at the same time. After two (okay, three) glasses Passauer Punsch in town and the Gluhwein they just served in the Lounge, I call it the Bavarian Blackout.
Some cool things worth mentioning: one, in every guest stateroom, Viking has provided two bookmarks – one on each end table. I know that sounds like an odd feature, but it’s cool – no one else is doing that.
So what can you use your bookmark in? Well, for one thing, the spectacular guide to the rivers that the line ships out with each guest’s documentation. My guide on the Danube is extremely thorough; I wish I had had it on my past trips, because it has been an invaluable insight into what we’re passing and seeing. There’s even a kilometer-by-kilometer guide to the Danube on the back pages. I wish Viking offered these for purchase; I’d easily buy volumes for rivers like the Rhine and Moselle.
The food onboard Viking Freya seems to get better with each passing day. I was initially lukewarm about the entrée offerings on our first night in Budapest, but I’m happy to say that the diversity of menu items has improved dramatically. I particularly enjoy dining in the Aquavit Lounge, located forward of the Viking Lounge. It’s cozy, intimate, and perfect for a casual dinner!
All over Passau today, I saw balloons tied to traffic signs that read “Escape the Ordinary.” I think this journey aboard Viking Freya has been exactly that. I’m sitting in the Viking Lounge, watching snow fall past the floor-to-ceiling windows that make up so much of this amazing Viking Longship.
Each day, guests get the chance to go ashore and reconnect with some of the most treasured traditions in Europe, and every night, they get to come back and enjoy the casual elegance that is Viking Freya, and the service from her fabulous crew. There is Maria, who has my room immaculately made up each morning in the short span it takes me to have a light breakfast. Or Sandra at the front desk, who takes the time to find out what I’m up to every time I go to exchange my room key for my shore pass. Or the talented bar staff who all know I enjoy a small decanter of Linie Aquavit after dinner.
Hotel Manager Cornelia tells me today is Advent. In North America, December 6th is just another day. Tonight, it’s a celebration across many European cities, with parties gathering at the Christmas Markets or taking place elsewhere. It’s almost as big as December 25th. Here, people still proudly wish each other a Merry Christmas, despite the fact that in North America we’ve been bullied into saying, “Happy Holidays” instead. Here, friends and loved ones gather in outdoor markets, braving the snow and the cold to socialise over a cup of hot Gluhwein or perhaps a plate of bratwurst mit sauerkraut.
When I go back to North America, I will return to a world where people fight over parking spaces at a shopping mall, eager to prove their affections for those they love and care about by battling the masses for a cellular telephone that has had $10 slashed off its price, or the latest-and-greatest gadget. We don’t get together with the people we care about; we buy them things instead.
Having experienced this wonderful day in Passau aboard Viking Freya, that absolutely breaks my heart.
Our Live Voyage Report from onboard Viking River Cruises’ Viking Freya continues tomorrow as we visit Regensburg, Germany and begin to make our way to our final destination of Nuremberg!
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