Christmas cracker on the Danube

Sailing on the Danube in winter has a festive flavour when aROSA Donna embarks on a Christmas cruise.  

The Austrian village of Engelhartszell is where all aROSA Danube cruises depart from and it’s much quieter than the busy port of Passau further along the river.

I’m travelling with my eight-year-old daughter Zara – we’re on the lowest deck in a cabin that can comfortably sleep three passengers with a convertible sofa-bed under the large picture window. After a quick shower and change we head up to deck three and enjoy a complimentary drink from the bar – gin and tonic for me, apple juice for Zara. Most drinks are included in the cost of the cruise. In fact, when I check the list I count more than 80 different drinks included and many more have just a small surcharge.

During the night, we sail in a southerly direction towards Vienna. Over the next five days, we’ll transit nine locks on a 560km round trip cruises from Engelhartszell. The landscape is more natural on the Danube than on the Rhine. There’s still river cargo, and the occasional dam but there are many quaint villages, towns and vineyards lining the river banks. 

We arrive in the Austrian capital early, just after noon, and will remain in our berth until 6pm the next day giving us time to discover some of the wonderful joys of Vienna. Having been to Vienna many times, I have a list of attractions that I want Zara to see and have done some homework on the best Christmas Markets and activities with children. We’ve spent time with the International Hostess to work out public transport, check opening times and most importantly where the best open-air ice skating can be found.

We walk a few minutes to the U-Bahn station, Vorgartenstr, buy a 48-hour metro pass (about $20 per person) and head off to Schonbrunn Palace with just one easy change of metro line. I wasn’t sure that Zara could handle centuries of Austrian history condensed into more than 40 rooms and a one-hour tour but she loved it. She completely fell in love with the story of Sissi (Empress Elisabeth I).

The palace Christmas Markets are starting to sparkle and a treasure hunt (in both German and English) encourages the children to complete activities to collect stamps and receive a small memento of their experience in Schonbrunn. The floodlit back-drop of the palace, the choir singing carols and the giggles of small children really do add to the magical atmosphere.

Back on the metro, we head for Rathaus (City Hall) Markets which have been operating for more than 200 years and now host ice skating. This ice track through the twinkling trees has the city hall as a magnificent backdrop of City Hall and the atmosphere is electric.  After an hour or so we hang up our skates and head next door to the markets for a hot chocolate and snack before travelling a few stops back to the ship.

The next morning we wander the boulevards towards St Stephen’s Cathedral, home to one of the most traditional markets. Almost 40 cabins around the cathedral sell Austrian souvenirs and festive refreshments.

From the main square, it’s just a short walk to the Spanish Riding School and the Lipizzaner white horses. We take one of the impressive guided tours then venture back on to Michaelerplatz, home of the Royal and Imperial Christmas Markets with its distinctive white and gold huts specialising in traditional Viennese and Austrian cuisine, pewter figurines and nativity characters.  

At Prater Park the Wiener Riesenrad (Vienna Giant Wheel) opened in 1897 and still affords great views from 65m above Vienna. During winter, the Prater Christmas Markets specialise in gluhwein, hot punch and live entertainment.

Back on our floating hotel we take part in a “wine and dine experience” limited to 30 guests, with a cover charge of about $64 per person. The excellent menu and accompanying wines are presented by the Maitre ‘D and Executive Chef, marking a fitting end to our visit to the imperial city of Vienna.

We awaken to a blanket of snow and the scenery is reminiscent of an image on a Christmas card. Zara and I head up to the top deck for a snow ball fight and attempt to make a snowman but the snow is so powdery we settle for snow angels.

A “Behind the Crew Doors” private tour allows us to visit the crew mess, galley, laundry, engine room and bridge.

Our early arrival allows us almost nine hours ashore to explore beautiful Linz. Across the road in the main square we explore the modern Christmas Markets which contrast beautifully at night against the Baroque facade of the buildings.

 At the end of the main shopping street, the Volksgarten public gardens offer a fairytale woodland backdrop for the larger Christmas Markets which have a wide variety of festive, local goods and small rides for young children. The blanket of snow really does add to the magic of our last port of call and we head back to the ship to enjoy the snowy scenery from the ship’s lounge. We sit next to the Christmas tree playing board games and enjoying drinks.

On our final morning we say goodbye and join our included coach transfer back to Vienna. A service offered by aROSA and the German rail system sees your luggage taken from outside your cabin to the train platform in Passau for your onward journey. I was a little sceptical and thought my luggage was to be lost forever but it did arrive in good time for the train’s departure.

All good things must come to an end and there are so may highlights, I can’t settle on a favourite moment from our Rhine and Danube voyages. Zara confirms that the Danube is her hands down favourite. I ask why, expecting Schonbrunn Palace, Prater, or the snow to be the reason but no, it’s the crew of our Danube river-ship aROSA Donna. People really do make a world of difference to your experience! 

Fact File


Barry Downs travelled as a guest of aROSA.


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