Back to main site

Spirit of Christmas


Jane Morton unwraps the many festive charms of Bruges on a Christmas Markets cruise

Martin Sterry and his partner Stephanie

Martin Sterry and his partner Stephanie

The countdown to Christmas can be far from jolly. Hectic dashes around hot, crowded shops trying to find thoughtful gifts is a dispiriting prospect. I’m therefore hoping that a Christmas Markets cruise will put the sparkle back into my festive preparations.


My first, bound for Bruges (tours from Zeebrugge), is fun right from the get-go. As the grey of a Southampton Saturday disappears in Oceana’s wake, we soon feel the good vibes on board: great food and drink (first up, a rather tasty mince pie with mulled wine), the rare chance to do nothing but relax and unwind and the charming smiles of the crew.


The ship is lovely, too. Oceana’s Atrium dazzles, decorations sparkle and lights twinkle. There’s a diverse mix of guests on board with family pods, cosy couples, retired friends and groups of child-free mums all laughing, chatting with each other and having a great time. Stories and experiences are shared and top tips for exploring and shopping are swapped. I’m keen to join in the chat.


Martin Sterry and his partner Stephanie are full of eager anticipation. ‘We want to see Bruges and see the Christmas market as we’ve heard it’s beautiful,’ says Martin. ‘Enjoying entertainment on the way there and back makes a weekend of it. We’re looking forward to buying presents and souvenirs, and seeing it all.’


Little Faye and her mum Danielle and dad Kevin are first-timers, too. ‘We haven’t had a holiday for a while so we’re looking forward to the Christmassy experience, buying chocolates and going on a canal-boat ride. We also can’t wait to watch Christmas movies on board. My daughter’s loving the buffet and all the entertainment they’re putting on,’ says Danielle.


Other guests are old hands. ‘The Belgians do fantastic chips, double-cooked, with mayonnaise. We love them,’ recommends Sue Green, while Margaret Moorhead never tires of the overall experience: ‘The Christmas market is beautiful. The whole place is, and the people are lovely and friendly. The atmosphere on the ship at Christmas is special – it’s a lovely time to be on board.’


It is indeed. Even getting dressed up for dinner is fun – no husband yelling up the stairs that the taxi’s here as you’ve just put your hand through your only pair of 15-denier tights. Aperitifs in Champagne bar Magnums followed by dinner in Café Jardin hits the spot before I retire to my cabin to get ready for a big day on shore.


And so to Bruges and, oh my, it’s pretty. The medieval old centre is film-set perfect and delightfully compact – the ideal size for a day’s exploration.


Aside from the Christmas market, the main stalls of which can be found in the central Market Square beneath the 13th-century Belfort belfry, Bruges boasts amazing architecture, charming cobbled streets and a canal network worthy of its nickname, Little Venice. Boat trips are a great way to see the city, or you can hire a bike and take to the tow paths and side streets. For something more sedate, snuggle up under a blanket in a horse-drawn carriage or amble around the centre on your own (you can’t get lost) or with a guided walking tour (the place is steeped in history). However you choose to explore, be sure to stop off at cafés to refuel with hot chocolate and waffles or local beer and a bowl of moules et frites (yes, Sue, those chips are indeed fantastic).


The city’s famous lace and chocolate are just two of the great ways to tick off your gift list. You’ll find them at the market, along with a whole lot more: beautiful wooden decorations, carved ornaments, wooden toys, candlesticks, sweet treats such as gingerbread, lebkuchen and stollen, artisan leather goods, handmade jewellery and scarves and hats, to name a few.


‘You can get some lovely gifts, completely different from the things you get at home,’ says Amanda Stephen Jones, hitting the market for the fifth year in a row. ‘I’ve bought a hat from the same market stall for the past four years. The stallholder is from Machu Picchu and he recognises me every year.’


Back on board, Kate Johnston and a group of friends are showing each other the wooden toys, decorations and chocolate they’ve bought for their children. ‘There are nine of us, all mums having a little time away together without our children,’ explains Kate. ‘Bruges was beautiful. It’s a stunning city anyway, but add in Christmas trees, decorations and a Christmas market and it’s magical. We headed straight to the market for a glühwein and hot chocolate and to stock up on presents. We then enjoyed a lovely lunch and drink by the canal before heading back to the ship in time for dinner. This cruise has been like a Christmas present to ourselves!’


Being on board certainly is a treat, as is spending the day in a stunning medieval city and coming home with lovely gifts (with no luggage limits, I’d cut loose at a wooden toy stall having spotted a beautiful painted rocking horse).


After a weekend on ship and shore, my faith is restored. The spirit of Christmas is alive and well.


Visit Christmas markets

Get festive with Christmas markets in Bruges, Amsterdam, Hamburg and Copenhagen.