Fly to Vienna and transfer by coach to Bratislava, where we stay for three nights, with breakfast and dinner, at the four-star Hotel Devin. This smart hotel is well-positioned on the banks of the Danube at the edge of the historic old town. The hotel’s swimming pool, wellness centre and sauna offer guests opportunities for relaxation after a day of sightseeing. Our welcome dinner in a local restaurant affords the opportunity to sample some of Slovakia's hearty cuisine, which stems from the country's rural roots. Often found on local menus are ‘kapustnica’, a chunky sausage and sauerkraut soup, and the traditional ‘bryndzové halušky’, a creamy potato dumpling similar to gnocchi served with sheep's cheese and optionally topped with crispy bacon bits.
This morning we enjoy a walking tour of Bratislava before exploring the narrow streets and hidden alleyways of the old town. This tiny capital city is overlooked by Bratislava Castle, which sits proudly on the green hill that slopes to the Danube on one side and the old town on the other. Gleaming white with a russet roof and four corner towers, this storybook castle is the undeniable star of the show, but the charming 18th-century old town hides its own treasures, including the pretty Blue Church of St Elizabeth, which looks like a wedding cake with its 'iced-on', baby-blue Art Nouveau decoration. The aptly named Main Square is a natural place to pause at a pavement café, perhaps enjoying a delicate pastry or work-of-art cake while overlooked by the pastel-coloured buildings – look for the cannonball lodged in the clock tower of the Old Town Hall, which was shot by Napoleon's soldiers during his three-day siege of the city in 1809. You can also see one of the invading French soldiers immortalised in bronze – one of several quirky statues dotting the city. Just outside of the old town walls, which are guarded by the 600-year-old copper-topped tower of Michael's Gate, we pass the crumbling peach façade of Trinity Church, a Baroque beauty with an incredibly ornate marble altar, to reach the grand presidential palace and its pristine gardens. There’s free time after the tour for a wander and perhaps some lunch. Why not browse the quirky shops in the old town for some souvenirs of Slovak specialities, such as sweet currant wine and items embroidered with colourful folk patterns. In the afternoon we meander up the Danube on a cruise* to Devin castle, an extraordinary ruin perched impossibly at the top of a sheer cliff, which looms a hundred metres above the surrounding forested countryside. As you soak in the mesmerising view over the confluence of the Danube and Morava rivers across to Austria, you’ll understand why the castle has such a long and illustrious history, stretching back more than a millennium. At the bottom of the hill stands a moving memorial to victims of the Iron Curtain, unveiled in 2008 by our Queen. *Due to altered sailing schedules our September and October departures will not be cruising to Devin and instead will be driven there by coach.
This morning we follow the curve of the Danube, through a patchwork of fields and forests, to Vienna. This magical, musical city is one of the shining gems of central Europe, boasting beautiful Baroque architecture and exquisite imperial palaces from its Habsburg heyday. Wide boulevards lined with elegant buildings give Vienna an almost Parisian feel, and strolling the main Kärntner Strasse will take you through the refined heart of the city, from the world-famous State Opera House, resplendent in the neo-Renaissance style, to St Stephen's cathedral with its gloriously colourful mosaic roof. If you wish you can peruse the designer boutiques whose shiny window displays contrast with the ornate stonework above them. Perhaps savour a slice of flaky apple strudel or rich chocolate ‘sachertorte’, always accompanied by a mound of 'schlag' or whipped cream for dipping – the café culture here is said to have encouraged the birth of football punditry, as locals heatedly dissected matches over coffee. Wherever you wander in this glitzy city, your path will be enlivened by street entertainers, including the occasional opera singer. A guided tour takes us around the city sights, such as the Hofburg, a former imperial palace now home to a collection of Vienna's most precious and prestigious treasures. We then spend the afternoon enjoying the Imperial Tour at Vienna's other incredible palace, Schönbrunn. While Hofburg was the favoured winter residence of the Habsburg monarchy, Schönbrunn was their summer home – and it's certainly befitting of this powerful and discerning royal house. Recognisable worldwide for its perfectly symmetrical lemon-and-white façade, backed by expansive manicured gardens and lush woodlands, this 18th-century palace resembles an enormous jewellery box, overflowing with the finest furniture, priceless porcelain and enthralling works of art. At every turn the eye is caught by a glittering chandelier, colourful tapestry or gleaming piece of glassware – even the floors and ceilings are intricate pieces of artwork. While it's impossible to cover all 1,441 rooms on the tour, the gilded Mirror Room parlour where a six-year-old Mozart played for Empress Maria Theresa is a must-see.
After breakfast we drive through the bucolic countryside to Hungary. Shortly after crossing the border we stop at Győr, a charming town with peaceful pedestrianised streets that lead to wide flagstone squares lined with Baroque buildings in shades of terracotta, peach, cream, white and yellow. Győr is still something of a hidden gem in Hungary, so you'll find yourself among locals as we pass a leisurely few hours here, taking in the Saint Ignatius Benedictine church – gleaming white with twin blue-topped towers – which overlooks the pink-hued Marian column on Szechenyi Square, and the town hall, a beautiful example of Baroque architecture complete with window ornamentation and a trio of intricate towers. Győr's best-known building is the Puspokvar bishop's palace, perched on Kaptalan Hill overlooking the point where the Danube, Raba and Rabca rivers meet. Just beside it you'll find the 12th-century cathedral, where a 'weeping' icon of the Madonna takes pride of place on a gilded altar. After time for lunch we continue to Budapest, where we stay four nights at the four-star Hotel Museum. Perfectly located on a quiet street just a short stroll from the city's central sights, this hotel even boasts its own small art gallery.
Today we explore the vibrant Hungarian capital, Budapest, both by coach and on foot. Boasting a truly unique atmosphere that comes from the merging of three cities into one, the 'Pearl of the Danube' is a captivating melting pot of influences from the various foreign powers that have ruled over it. The lasting Turkish legacy of Ottoman rule can be seen in the thermal spas that dot the city – there are more here than any other capital city in the world. The Habsburgs filled the imperial city with grandeur, notably on Budapest's crowning glory, Castle Hill, a microcosm of the city with leafy, cobbled streets, contrasting churches on sweeping squares and, of course, the vast Royal Palace and Buda Castle complex. A funicular leads from the Danube to the fairy-tale old town of Buda, whose gems include the Gothic towers of the Fisherman's Bastion, the colourful mosaic roof of Matthias Church, quaint pastel-hued houses, and bronze statues of Hungarian kings and princes – all with enchanting views over the Danube to the Pest side of the city. Crossing the impressive Chain Bridge we come to the incredible Hungarian Parliament Building. Spreading itself grand and glorious along the bank of the Danube, this jaw-dropping neo-Gothic building dominates the city skyline with its dome and symmetrical spires, contrasting a red roof with a gleaming white façade. We take a tour of the equally grandiose interior, before enjoying free time. The neo-Classical St Stephen's basilica and the Moorish-style synagogue boast breathtaking interiors, while the stirring Heroes' Square and the Szechenyi thermal baths draw visitors to the edge of the city centre. Why not relax over a coffee or a warming drink of 'pálinka', a traditional Hungarian fruit brandy, in the lovely park that lies between them? This evening when we dine at a local restaurant you may be tempted by a hearty goulash or spicy chicken paprikash, followed by a slice of Dobos torte, a thinly layered, chocolate sponge cake.
Today we drive through rural Hungary, passing lavender fields that, when in season, blanket the countryside with fragrant swathes of purple. Breathe in the wonderful scent of this aromatic perennial and you could easily believe you’re in the south of France. The sea of lavender gradually gives way to the silky sea-green waters of Lake Balaton, where the little resort villages that dot the shore add to the seaside feel. Our first stop is Tihany, a tiny town perched on a high peninsula that juts out into the lake. The twin-spired waterfront abbey is the jewel in the crown here, but the whimsical village, with its thatched cottages, rustic restaurants and charming souvenir shops, provides a refreshing contrast to our previous big city destinations. Look out for the pepper shop on the flower-hung high street – its white walls are decorated with rows of red chilli peppers. From Tihany we take a relaxing hour-long cruise along the lake, drinking in views of the surrounding green fields and densely forested hills dotted with the occasional cluster of red rooftops. Afterwards we visit smart Balatonfüred, one of the oldest spa resorts in Hungary. Here you can stroll the tree-lined lakeside promenade, perhaps stopping at a marina café to enjoy an ice-cream overlooking the bobbing boats. Worth a visit is leafy Győgy Square, where a pump house sits in front of the grand State Heart Hospital. Here you may wish to fill your bottle with refreshing mineral water taken from the nearby springs – the water reportedly cures all sorts of ailments!
Our final full day begins with a visit to Gödöllő Palace, just outside of Budapest. Less ostentatious than Schönbrunn in Vienna yet undeniably appealing, the palace features a white Baroque facade with pastel pink and baby blue touches. It was a favourite palace of Hungary's beloved Queen 'Sisi' and you'll find a statue of the 'people's princess' in her memorial garden. Inside, sumptuously decorated royal suites showcase fine furniture and paintings, revealing glimpses of the 19th-century golden era of this palace. During Soviet rule the palace became a care home for the elderly before work began in 1985 to restore it to its former glory. Afterwards we travel to the rural Puszta, the 'Great Hungarian Plain' – a stretch of flat, fertile lowland with a smattering of horse ranches giving a wild-west feel. Nestled among the lakes and forests of the Gödöllő Hills, we find the Lazar Equestrian Park, owned by champion carriage racers, the famous Lazar brothers. Here we enjoy an exciting afternoon being entertained by this traditional sport and some incredible displays from the majestic horses and their skilled riders. We'll also take a carriage ride around the 'ranch', meet the horses and animals in the smallholding, and have the opportunity to admire the Lazar brothers' impressive trophy collection. The day ends with a lively farewell banquet, during which we'll no doubt toast to a memorable tour of central Europe with a glass of schnapps, while Hungarian musicians provide a spirited soundtrack.
Transfer to Vienna airport for your return flight.