Now's the time to think about a romantic snowy Christmas in the Northern Hemisphere. Ewan McDonald takes a Yuletide cruise on the Danube.
I saw three ships come sailing in
On Christmas Day in the morning
So this is the Danube. Fabled, fought over, for centuries. History has been written, empires and emperors rose and fell beside this hundred yards of dark grey water that shivers in midday midwinter malaise. Palaces and hills on that side; squares and monuments on this. For a Kiwi who's spent rather too many years in Hamilton, it's like the Waikato with more water and better architecture.
And this is our ship: River Beatrice, a long, white, four-storey riverboat that will have thick duvets, quality restaurants, eager-to-serve staff in the bars. It is picturesquely moored under one of Budapest's most attractive and historic bridges. The next few days are feeling warmer already.
Rather more elegant and luxurious than the workaday barges we'll pass between the Hungarian capital and Krems, a medieval river-port near Mozart's home town of Salzburg, in Austria, it's one of the new breed of floating five-star hotels on Europe's waterways.
The theme of our cruise is central Europe's Christmas markets: we'll sip mulled wine, eat pastries and shop for seasonal trinkets from Budapest to Bratislava and Vienna. The ship will continue to Passau, Germany; I will rail to Prague, which has a couple of super markets of its own.
Fellow cruisers - River Beatrice can host 156 in surprisingly spacious, well thought-out staterooms and suites - are mostly American. Some Australians. No, they're not all on their third hip replacement and fourth divorce; many are far too young. Yes, this is not backpacking; a reasonable level of discretionary income is necessary.
Dah-doo-da-da dum the brown Danube, here, is not especially enchanting, more of a motorway with current. Even the 53 crew (mostly locals, one for every three guests) agree, when I'm trying to photograph the passing scenery and they're on a smoking break. But it is kinda fun to chug down a river when one bank is in one country and 20m off the other side of the boat is a different nation.
This is Middle Europe in middle December: chilly, so the sundeck doesn't really come into play; it's dark by 4pm. But that's not what we came for. We'll walk cobblestoned, castled cities and markets in the morning; probably have another outing after lunch; enjoy an onboard or onshore concert after dinner. Meals are Riviera-resort standard. So is the selection and ambience in the lounge.
Away in a manger, no crib for his bed
The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head
From our side of the world we think of Europe's Christmas as carols, dinners, masses, traditions going back centuries. We forget that many of these countries, some only recently restored to nationhood, were - shall we say - not in a position to celebrate those customs for most of the past century. That those histories have been recreated since the 1990s. History can be painfully young in these medieval cities.
Budapest. One of the oldest centres of Christian heritage has been permitted to hold Christmas markets in the heart of the city only since 1998. Fifteen years on, they have been crafted into an adzed, polished, glazed showcase for the young-emerging and old-remembered talents of Hungary: glassblowing, knitting, carving, candlemaking, pottery, leather.
Overnight, woken by the gushing of lock waters, the brutal concrete of suburban communist architecture bows to the stubborn hilltop castle of brave, defiant little Bratislava. The Slovak outpost was the first to say, "No way" to Moscow; it paid the price, thought again and said, "F*** you" for a second time. Europe's smallest capital, it is the quintessential conveyor of the Yuletide market tradition. Since, like, oh, about 1993. Cuckoo-clock squares thrum with ceramic, wood, glass, corn husk and textile crafts.
Oh, Vienna. Did the Austrians invent bureaucracy? If the French named it, this nation refined it. The Association of the Guild of Historical Crafts has allotted each one of its most delicate quartiers to host the prettiest of markets. In this square, ancient and modern children's gifts. In that, handcrafted ornaments. To the left, pastries. To the right, organic foods and wines. A block away, ceramics. The holy mother and father of all Christmas markets is in front of the city's town hall, the Rathaus, a particularly appropriate name for a meeting place of local-body politicians. Stalls. Food. Mulled wine. Decorations. Idiocies. Balloons. Rides. Lighted things hanging from trees. Thousands of happy, smiling, children. This is what Christmas should be. It must be, tonight.
Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright
There are some days that you will have only once in your life. There are some nights that you will have only once in your life. Last night was one; today is the other. Both came about as treats for our cruisers.
I am sitting in a carved wooden pew in a baroque chapel in a 15th century abbey on top of a mountain in the Wachau Valley, Austria. This has been a place of worship, reflection and defence for more than 900 years. We have driven up from the river, from the village of Krems, to this Benedictine bastion of faith, truculence and royal patronage.
Imagine you are a guest in the wedding cake chapel of The Sound of Music and Julie Andrews is about to walk up the aisle.
From an eyrie behind, the organist powers into an anthem like a V8 Supercar driver hitting the metal: all 200 of us know the notes.
Last night we were in Vienna. We bussed from the river-port into the city and were ushered up several flights of stairs into a dark, wood-panelled hall. It was the 150-year-old meeting room of the Austrian Institute of Engineers and Architects and we were there for a private concert of Mozart and Strauss, those sweet-as-Sacher torte composers of Viennese airs and waltzes and, no, I didn't realise that engineers and architects were great admirers of music, especially fripperies with too many notes.
The chamber orchestra of 10 cajoled, wheedled and entranced with Mozart airs and arias, mostly using the original scores rather than more modern stylings. The second stanza was devoted to Strauss: four young Austrians in formal suits and scarlet decolletage, waltzing and polka-ing.
"I have one dream for this trip," I'd told a friend before I left.
"I want to hear Mozart in Vienna. Don't care about the Strauss whanau: too chocolate-cake, all of them." Dream come true, I emailed her that night. "And I didn't really mind the Strauss."
Today, the organist thunders Adeste Fideles, O Come All Ye Faithful, and I am 19,000km away in a little whitewashed concrete church in Lyall Bay, my late mother and father beside me, my sister and brothers along the pew.
He finishes the concert with the sweet chords of and yes.
It's a silent morning near Christmas and I'm that far from home and the ones I love. I lose it. I'm not alone.
Good King Wenceslas looked out on the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even
Wenceslas Square in December. There's no snow round about but it's not far off: I am wearing five layers plus beanie, scarf and mittens. It has been dark since oh, you read that bit. Chestnuts are roasting on an open 40-gallon drum, hams are spit-roasting and indefinable sausages are grilling. Wine is mulling. Pastries rejoice in unpronounceable names like trdelnik.
Hawkers in wooden huts offer glassware, jewellery, lace, wooden toys, ceramics, scented candles, folk-costumed dolls. Five minutes' walk away in the Old Town Square, is a funfair with live sheep, goats, donkeys. Happy, glowing, excited little faces in woollen bonnets and mittens.
I fumble in my jeans and find Czech notes, try to make myself understood to the girl in the stall. Carved wooden trinkets. A star, a nativity scene. Simple gifts for friends' Kiwi Christmas trees. In summer.
It was Christmas Eve babe
In the drunk tank
Gluhwein. From Budapest to Bratislava and to Prague and Berlin, the thick, sweet, cinnamony red-winey fumes of the hot drink hang in the chill air.
Three of us buy our first from an old man on the hillside above the river dividing Buda and Pest; a sugar and alcohol hit to give us energy to kick on up to the panorama of the Hungarian capital that must be somewhere down below the mist.
Yes, it's a necessity to get through the long winter afternoons; one is more than enough to bring on the Christmas spirit and, as families gather at outdoor tables in the long, dark afternoons, there's not a sip of over-indulgence.
Each capital, each nation brings its treats to the table: kurtos kalacs, chimney-shaped Hungarian pastries; honey cakes; gingerbread.
A day later in Bratislava, gutsy gastronomy: cabbage soup, lokse or potato pancakes, honeyed mead, Austria's strudels and vanillekipferl biscuits.
Budapest's markets lure me, the gastro-gnome, with a cathedral of sizzling, grilling, stewing street food around the national Christmas tree. With the same companions I'm looking for a special taste, not the sausages, not the duck thighs that are standard across central Europe. A vendor dollops a tomato-ey broth with what look like little white dumplings floating in it.
They have a kidney-like texture and a faintly metallic after-taste.
Next day's walking tour of Bratislava is cut short, and I'm mightily pleased Europe's smallest capital has a McDonald's with the facilities that chain is famous for, and I will never again ask a street vendor for a bowl of rooster testicle stew.
Getting there: Emirates flies daily to Budapest via its Dubai hub.
Uniworld offers luxury river cruises to and from Budapest.
The writer travelled as a guest of Uniworld and Emirates.