I’ve always wanted to go to Europe in wintertime to experience the Christmas decorations and rituals of the Old World.
So when a friend invited me to join her for a 6-day Viking River Cruise in December from Frankfurt to Nuremberg, Germany I said “why not, sounds like fun!” Germany is known for its Christmas Markets and the tour covered cities that I had never seen before, such as Heidelberg, Rothenburg, Bamberg, and Nuremburg.
Gluten-Free on a Cruise
Like all good gluten-free travelers, I asked Viking to provide gluten-free options for me. Gluten-free dining on cruise ships can be wonderful, not-so-wonderful, or somewhere in between (see my Alaskan Cruise experience earlier this year for a so-so experience).
To address these issues, Mark Roseman wrote a helpful ebook called Cruising with Special Diets, so check it out. You can also follow Mark on Twitter at @cruisediet. My experience was on the Viking ship named “Freya” so all of my remarks pertain specifically to that ship.
Gluten-Free on the Viking Freya
In a nutshell, the food on the Freya was fabulous! Not only was it high-quality and beautifully plated, my gluten-free options were delicious. Breakfast was served buffet-style, with many gluten-free options to choose from including eggs, bacon, roasted vegetables, gluten-free bread (see photo),
fruits, cereal, yogurt, etc. The servers were knowledgeable about what was gluten-free, but quick to query Chef George
if they weren’t sure.
Lunch always started with a salad buffet, but then we ordered entrees from the menu and I had plenty of gluten-free options such as a Reuben sandwich.
Dinner was more elaborate; a sit-down affair. Each evening, the maitre ‘d, Jochen (a strapping 6 foot, 7-inch German fellow) greeted me at the door of the restaurant and discussed the menu, pointing out my options and how they could modify most dishes to be gluten-free. That way, I was confident about what I could eat even before I sat down at the table. (By the way, there were also vegetarian options as well.) Though most of our waitstaff was from Eastern Europe, all of them spoke excellent English so communication was never a problem.
Each dinner began with an “amuse-bouche” or surprise chef’s treat. Mine was usually different from my colleagues, such as a beautiful mini-collection of fresh fruit or cheese.Then we chose an appetizer, which might be soup, salad, etc. The main course offered at least 3 choices, usually fish/seafood, beef, or poultry and was beautifully plated. One of my favorites was the Salmon on Celery Root Puree with Brussels Sprouts.
Then there was dessert. One night, Pastry Chef Melanie prepared a fabulous gluten-free Tiramisu just for me. Some nights I had sorbet, but each was handmade on board and quite nice. One night I had a gluten-free bread pudding, which was very homey. The wine flowed freely throughout the meal and the coffee was top-quality.
Each meal took about two hours, so if you’re not inclined to long meals there was a “quick” bar menu in another part of the ship but we never got there so I can’t say how that went. We had a very collegial group of 6, so we looked forward to each night’s debriefing around the dinner table about what we had experienced during the day.
Throughout the cruise, I was impressed by the dedication to “hospitality” that every single staff member conveyed to us. Always smiling, they simply wanted us to have a wonderful time and bent over backwards to make sure that happened.
Accommodations on the Viking Freya
Our rooms were small, but very tastefully designed and appointed…complete with heated bathroom floors! The Freya is only about a year old, so quite new-looking. The ship holds under 200 guests so it is a small, intimate experience. The ship is 3 stories high, but looks like a very long white barge, with lots of windows. We opted for a French balcony, which includes sliding glass doors that give you a good view, but there is no balcony to stand on (despite the name). Each room had two electrical outlets that were compatible with our American appliances, but we needed adapters for the other outlets. Each room had TV, music, and air conditioning (although that certainly wasn’t necessary in December).
The whole point of this cruise, as far as I was concerned, was to experience the Christmas markets (ChristKindlMarkt in German) because they are magical. They are decorated with evergreen boughs and homemade Christmas crafts are everywhere. The air is perfumed with gingerbread, glühwein (mulled wine), and smoke swirling from bratwurst grills. Of course, I had to be careful about what I sampled, but the atmosphere is absolutely wonderful. Of course, it’s cold but we’re bundled up. I wear my heaviest, longest winter coat with layers underneath…plus a hat, gloves, and scarf. My tour group looks like a bunch of penguins as we waddled down cobblestone streets, so tightly swathed in warm clothing that we can hardly move. But we’re lucky that the temperature hovers in the high 30’s, with only one day of rain. We even had sunshine in Frankfurt, a rarity in wintertime Europe.
I think my favorite city was Rothenberg (pronounced “Rotenberg”) because it is a walled city and each store was decorated to the hilt with Christmas decorations. I also liked Bamberg, though it was a bigger city. But the largest Christmas market was in Nuremberg, with blocks and blocks of Christmas Market booths.
Gluten-Free on Lufthansa Airlines
My gluten-free meals on Lufthansa were good—maybe not as good as on the Freya—but I was always served first before any of the other passengers and even had German bread on the flight home. Dessert was always fresh fruit (rather than a sweet, yummy from the oven) but maybe that’s a good thing…!