Searching for a new way to enjoy Europe's Christmas Markets? Neil Lancefield recommends a river cruise through Germany, Hungary and Austria

Hearty food, mulled wine, unusual gift buying opportunities... what's not to like about Christmas markets?

It is possible to have too much of a good thing though, and visiting a different one each day for a week could feel more like an arduous market marathon than a winter holiday.

But it turns out that seven days of sausages, gluhwein and decorative bauble-shopping across Germany, Austria and Hungary is the perfect way to get into the Christmas mood.

It helps that rather than checking in and out of hotels each day, I'm travelling along the Danube on board the AmaCerto, a 164-passenger vessel that makes managing the packed itinerary feel effortless.

The ship is one of around 20 boats operated by luxury river cruise line AmaWaterways, and is essentially a floating hotel, calmly sailing through the night, so each morning, I wake up ready to discover a new destination.

One of German city Regensburg's most popular attractions is the Palace of St Emmeram, the royal residence of the Thurn and Taxis dynasty.

Walking down the entrance pathway, gently lit by burning torches, feels like I'm entering a fairy tale world. They call this the Romantic

Christmas Market and it's easy to see why, as I breathe in the sweet scent of burning wood and operatic music plays through speakers attached to the imposing palace facade.

The temperature on this chilly December afternoon is just above freezing, so I grab a hot chocolate and a packet of warm, cinnamon-coated pumpkin seeds and stand next to one of the open fires dotted around the courtyard.

There's no sign of Princess Gloria from the Thurn and Taxis family, who I'm told likes to browse the stalls on her doorstep, but there are plenty of tourists examining the goods on offer in the wooden huts. There is a clear emphasis on handmade products, and I see blacksmiths, basket-weavers and hat-makers all demonstrating their skills.

Budapest's main Christmas market is much more lively and typical of a European capital city. I'm surrounded by tourists and locals gathered around the stalls, while children crowd in front of a noisy Punch and Judy-style show.

I join the long line at the Hungarian chimney cake stand and after about 10 minutes, I'm handed a foot-long, freshly-baked, steaming pastry, straight off the coals. I know this is going to be good, so I quickly unravel the first piece of the open cylinder-shaped treat.

The initial taste is of the crisp, cinnamon-coated outer layer, which is soon followed by the deliciously soft, fluffy, white inside.

Vienna's City Hall market provides a feast for the eyes on Ringstrasse, the capital's magnificent boulevard, as enormous displays of colourful lights illuminate the darkness. Even the trees in the adjoining park are decorated with violin-shaped neon lights. More than three million people descend on the market each year to take in the festive cheer, and it feels like most of them are here tonight, as I squeeze my way around.

During daylight hours, Christmas markets mainly attract tourists who browse for handicrafts and tree decorations. But once the locals finish work, they pile into the markets to devour a meaty snack and get stuck in to the gluhwein.

This being a Friday night, they're hitting the sauce hard, so I decide it's a good time to obey one of the golden rules of travelling: do as the locals do.

I enjoy mugs of gluhwein - both red and white - and punch in various flavours, and as I make my way back to the ship I'm feeling the 'merry' in Merry Christmas.

I get snap happy with my camera on a visit to the market in front of Vienna's Schonbrunn Palace the following day. Flurries of snow fall over the Unesco World Heritage Site, which was the residence of the Habsburg emperors from the 18th century to 1918.

It is a truly beautiful setting as hundreds of people gather around the stalls and admire a huge Christmas tree, while a brass quintet bravely persevere on stage despite the conditions.

The trip has raised expectations for the presents I'll be handing out on Christmas Day. Gift vouchers would seem even more thoughtless when the recipient knows I spent a week surrounded by festive stalls, and fortunately, the gift-buying opportunities are endless: a glass harp-playing angel for mum, chocolate in the shape of a spanner for dad and a wooden reindeer wearing snazzy red velvet boots for my brother are sure to earn me extra brownie points.

One of the attractions of purchasing presents from the markets is the belief that they are produced in the same country where they are bought. I overhear an American tourist quizzing an evasive German stallholder in the charming town of Passau, who says he "thinks" the model train he is trying to sell her was made in his homeland.

Two products that are definitely made locally are Nuremberg'sgingerbread and unusually small sausages. An authentic Nuremberg Rostbratwurst is just seven to nine centimetres long, so I order two in a bun. The freshly grilled pork sausages are gently flavoured with marjoram and taste so good, it's no surprise to learn their content and size was first established in 1497.

The mouth-watering experience is over all too soon, but the air is filled with the scent of gingerbread so I know my next treat is just around the corner.

Nuremberg Lebkuchen is exported around the world and 70 million are produced each year. There are myriads of flavours available, so I ask a stallholder for his favourite type and I'm so impressed by the distinctive sweet and spicy flavours that I buy a handful more as presents.

Whether they make it home uneaten is another matter, but at least there's no shortage of delicious food on the AmaCerto.

There are a number of river cruise lines tripping along the Danube, but, talking to other passengers at the farewell dinner, everyone feels they made the right choice.

The service of the crew, quality of the locally-sourced food and condition of the cabins and public areas are all noted for their high quality. The number of items included also earns universal endorsement.

Some raise a glass to the free-flowing wine, beer and soft drinks with every lunch and dinner, but I really enjoy the smaller touches, like a voucher for a hot snack at a market, or unlimited hot chocolate at the ship's bar, to warm up after a cold day outside.

As well as the main dining room there is Erlebnis, an intimate speciality restaurant, where passengers can go for dinner once during the week. Despite being treated to a delicious tasting menu by a creative chef, there is no extra charge.

Luxury comes as standard on board the AmaCerto, making this market marathon feel like a walk in the park.


:: AmaWaterways (0808 256 8422; offers seven-night Christmas Market Cruises along the Rhine and Danube between mid-November and late December, from £1,259 pp, including free flights from London, transfers, breakfast, lunch and dinner, with free-flowing wine, beer and soft drinks served with lunch and dinner, daily tours and excursions, complimentary wi-fi and free use of on-board bicycles. Flight packages from UK regional airports available on request.