A French Christmas on the Danube

I have something of a love/hate relationship with Christmas, for a host of complex personal reasons too dull to put into a blog. For this reason, every few years my husband and I decide to dispense with the whole shebang and spend it Somewhere Else – this year we will spend 25th December somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico between Progresso and New Orleans.

The first time we chose to extricate ourselves from the enforced jollity of a “family” Christmas (that is to say, a Christmas spent with other people’s kids as an ever-present reminder we will never have any of our own) we chose an altogether more traditionally “Christmassy” destination – the capitals of the Danube, decked out with festive markets and obligingly covered in snow and ice. We found ourselves on the fabulous Vivaldi, part of Croiseurope’s fleet of river cruisers, accompanied by a cast of fellow travellers and crew to which any self-respecting travel writer would have been grateful.

The Vivaldi in a snowy Budapest

Croiseurope is a French company with a mixture of French and local staff. The French staff included a superb and illustrious Maitre D who remained remarkably calm in the face of some of his more demanding guests (of which more later), and two delightful “les Animatrices” – hosts charged with keeping us all entertained during the evenings and travel days, which they did expertly with an eclectic and always-enthusiastic mix of line dancing, shuffleboard and quizzes. Other staff included those in the kitchen, bar and restaurant, who seemed to change daily – at each stop, staff would disembark to go home for part of the festive period, our lovely Slovakian waitress leaving us in Bratislava to spend a late Christmas with her young child. One fixture of the journey – and I do hope he’s still there – was Laslo, our ever-present entertainer, glued to a Casio keyboard and sporting a haircut (or possibly toupee) straight out of a 70s gameshow. One of his favourite songs was White Christmas, but it seemed he only knew a small and apparently random selection of the lyrics, so it went something like “I’m dreamum ba-dap-dap da….  CHRISTMAS! Ja…dum.mm.ONES….ba-dap da KNOW.” (A man of great versatility, he later handed out presents dressed as Father Christmas, albeit one with unlikely dark hair.)

Laslo performs to an adoring crowd

The issue on a smaller cruise, though, is always going to be the other passengers. On large cruise ships it’s usually possible to eventually gravitate towards Your People, the likelihood of there being someone with similar hobbies and tastes being almost inevitable. On a small river cruise, however, this is far from inevitable, and the chances of being able to avoid those with whom you don’t necessarily click are pretty much zero. The problem we had on this particular trip came in the form of the other English passengers.

We had booked the cruise directly and at the last minute, along with two other people, who came to be known simply as Les Japonaises – they were a young Japanese couple who had been temporarily living in Oxford while the husband studied for a Master’s in Business. All the rest of the passengers were French, save for a group of 12 English over-50s who had paid (they later discovered, causing some disharmony) a much-inflated rate to be accompanied – and corralled – throughout their trip by an English “guide” whose main role seemed to be berating the French crew of a French boat for having the audacity to persistently address their overwhelmingly French guests in French.

The other English people proved a cause of discomfort for us throughout the trip. For a start, they openly pitied us. They saw us as this hapless English couple surrounded by French people and encumbered by two inexplicable Japanese youth, without the funds to pay for a superior trip such as their group was enjoying, complete with guided tours of each location and interminable classical music concerts complete with wigs and period dress. Our protestations and the fact we were happily attending the French excursions (where I would burrow into my brain to extract my schoolgirl French to translate into English, and Hisato would translate to Japanese for Yuka, so frankly it was anybody’s guess what information she took away from those tours) were met with a mixture of horror and sadness, and at our last stop, Bratislava, they selflessly invited us (after a vote, apparently) to tag along with them. Whether anyone had suggested Les Japonaises also go along remains unknown, but they were allowed to scurry off to the castle and enjoy themselves, whereas we found ourselves on one of the most excruciating guided tours we’d ever attended.

The main reason the tour was so excruciating was that the other people had zero interest in listening to anything the tourguide, a Slovakian with a degree in the history of her region, had to say, as they were more intent on educating HER on everything that was wrong about the country. An hour or so into the walk, after a (in my opinion) very interesting explanation of the peaceful break-up of Czechoslovakia into Slovakia and the Czech Republic, a brief interlude on the benefits of EU membership and a diversion into local Bratislavan street art, as she paused for breath, one of our group said loudly “but it just seems so STUPID to me. I mean, you HAVE TO be in the EU because you’re such an insignificant country. Wouldn’t it make sense to just join with one of the countries nearby, like Hungary?”

Street art, Bratislava-style

At dinner later, we heard this same woman’s husband declaring to all around him – context unknown – “yes, jolly resourceful, you know, the Africans, but I suppose they have to be.”

It was with great relief when they left the evening’s entertainment in protest because it was – horror of horrors – in French. They went off into town amidst much sighing and outrage, and we settled down to listen to the story of Le Petit Sapin (in my case), and of goodness knows what in Yuka’s case.

Enjoying organised entertainment

Embarrassment at any association with our compatriots aside, this remains one of the best trips we ever did. We visited a snowy Budapest on Christmas Day, walking around the castle grounds and feeling more like we were in Narnia than central Europe; we started and ended in a regal and elegant Vienna, dazzling and confident in its Christmas robes; and we discovered with pleasurable surprise the tiny yet picture-book Slovakian capital, to which we plan to return.




While many cities draw in tourists with just one or two world-famous sites, Pisa is perhaps unique in that its continuing success as a must-see destination is based solely on fortuitously bad architectural engineering. Thanks to a combination of inappropriately soft ground and a poor grasp of physics, the economy of this small and otherwise unremarkable Tuscan city can rely almost exclusively on a steady flow of tourists from around the world, who flock enthusiastically to its famous square where they stand grinning inanely with their arms at an angle, while the relative holding the camera says “left a bit…now down a bit…” in a quest for the perfect picture where they hilariously look as though they’re propping up the tower.

Left a bit…now up a bit…

Of course, if anyone had ever succeeded in propping up the tower it would probably having damaged Pisa’s economy instantly and irreparably. There are lots of beautiful cities in Italy, and most who currently come on day-trips are staying in bigger and arguably more romantic Florence nearby. Would this university city of less than 500,000 people be worth the trip without it?

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The sun sets over the Baptistery

Well, we liked Pisa. We visited for an obscure conference, giving us (as I’ve often found) evenings and a single morning to snatch a glance at our host destination, and Pisa didn’t disappoint. The Cathedral square, as you’d expect, was a relentless, hot tangle of tourist groups so focused on their cameras and their tour guides holding aloft brightly-coloured umbrellas that they didn’t look where they were going. And the square, of course, is worth not only a visit, but a good couple of hours. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and aside from the tower itself the Duomo and baptistery are astounding examples of Romanesque architecture both inside and out, with their dazzling, wedding-cake facades and elaborate, intricate mosaics. You can go up the tower (for a fee) if you want, but there’s something more than a little disconcerting about standing at an angle and looking down, even though it isn’t really all that high.

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One of Pisa’s many belltowers

But I’d recommend doing what many tourists do not: stay in Pisa. We watched as hot, sweaty crowds scrambled back onto their buses for onward/return trips to Florence, and where that city is undeniably worth a visit too, it’s a shame not to stick around in Pisa a little while longer. Like any city in Tuscany, Pisa is beautiful, with endless streets and alleyways of pink and orange buildings and crumbling belltowers. And once you’re a hundred yards or so from the square, it’s practically deserted. It’s one of those cities where you could eat in a new restaurant every night and never have a bad meal, where you can stumble upon an ancient church on almost any street corner, enjoy gelato in almost any flavour imaginable, and watch the sun set from a rooftop terrace (I recommend the bar at the Hotel Grand Duomo, though I wouldn’t recommend staying there unless you have a fetish for 1970s decor and amenities).

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View from the roof terrace of the Hotel Duomo

With budget flights taking just over two hours from a range of UK airports, compact, friendly Pisa is the perfect city for a weekend break, where you can feel you’ve seen everything and still had time to relax.