DAY 1 EMBARK IN BUDAPEST
Arrive in Budapest, where your five-star floating hotel is moored. The dedicated crew will welcome you on board, ensuring you settle into your comfortable and extremely well-equipped cabin and familiarize yourself with the ship. There is always a sense of expectancy and excitement on the eve of a cruise and after an excellent dinner in the stylish restaurant, conversation is sure to revolve around the delights ahead of you.
DAY 2 ESZTERGOM
Experience one of the great delights of cruising as you awake in a completely different location.
Overnight you have slipped upstream to Esztergom, Hungary’s capital during medieval times and today the seat of the country’s Archbishop. The town is internationally famed for its great Renaissance basilica, Hungary’s largest church, standing sentinel over the Danube and boasting one of the world’s largest altars plus a wealth of gold artefacts. You can explore the castle too, seat of the government until the 16th century Ottoman invasion. Nestling below, there are a myriad of exquisite baroque masterpieces of churches from which resonate the enchanting sound of talented choirs, adding to the unmistakable central- European atmosphere. This is the best of provincial Hungary and little changed since Hapsburg times. As you enjoy your first lunch on board, you gently leave Esztergom in your wake, affording a fascinating opportunity to compare the landscape, towns and villages of Hungary and Slovakia on either bank.
DAY 3 BRATISLAVA
This morning, you explore Slovakia’s fast emerging capital city, Bratislava, on a guided tour.
Until recently swathed in the drab uniformity of communism, the city has shrugged off its greyness, rekindling the splendour of its imperial past, so evident in its beautifully restored baroque old town. Equally impressive is the great 17th century fortress commanding expansive views across the Danube. This afternoon you cruise into Lower Austria, a peaceful, bucolic region and home to some of the country’s best wines. By now, the stresses of everyday life seem very distant as you absorb life on the river, children playing on the banks, young couples strolling arm-in-arm like generations before them, vignerons carefully pruning their vines, cobbled quaysides lined by half-timbered buildings teem with life - with no one giving you a second glance. You will marvel as the captain skilfully navigates the ship with such easy confidence along the serene river and into the fascinating locks as we cruise towards Dürnstein whilst enjoying another superb dinner.
DAY 4 DÜRNSTEIN & MELK
Delightfully picturesque Dürnstein is famous for principally two things. Firstly for the amazing ice- blue baroque tower dominating the river and secondly, having been shipwrecked on his return from the crusades, Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned here, before being reluctantly ransomed for a huge sum by his brother, King John. After lunch, you visit the remarkable monastery at Melk.
Nothing quite prepares you for your first sight of this extraordinary, honey-coloured building, an enormous abbey standing resplendent above the surrounding countryside. Originally a palace it was gifted to the Benedictine Order in the 11th century and although reconstructed in baroque style it has remained a monastic school and monastery ever since. It is famed for its 200m long Emperor’s Gallery lined with portraits of Austrian emperors, plus many fine rooms and a large library containing a unique medieval collection of manuscripts. Rejoining the ship, dinner is served during the last upstream cruise, through the pretty Nibelungengau, now immortalised in the music of Wagner.
DAY 5 SALZBURG
Reaching Linz, you take the drive to Salzburg, once an independent state whose Archbishops turned it into one of the most sophisticated cities north of the Alps. The old town is delightful, displaying wonderful architecture dating from the medieval to 18th century, whilst one of Europe’s largest stone fortresses, the Hohensalzburg dominates the skyline.
Spread below is a maze of tiny streets lined with the exquisite shops that make window-shopping so satisfying. Then there is the wonderful Hellbrunn Palace with its famous trick fountains and the natural beauty of the Mirabell Gardens is a must for the fan of things horticultural. With its genteel atmosphere of bygone times, surrounded by a magnificent Alpine backdrop, Salzburg is a superb spot to relax and explore at your leisure.
Salzburg’s most famous citizen was Mozart, one of the greatest musical geniuses to have ever lived. He played the piano at three; could compose rudimentary music at five and wrote his first opera at fourteen. This morning, you have a guided tour seeing all the principal places of interest then you are free to enjoy the afternoon exploring the city as you wish, before returning to the ship for dinner. By now you will have completely immersed yourself in life aboard ship, the gentility of it all, the peacefulness, the observation of the wildlife constantly surrounding you, the ever-changing shoreline of the variety of countries through which we pass and the stimulating conversation of your like-minded travelling companions – home will seem a very long way away.
DAY 6 VIENNA
Today will probably bring one of the highlights of the cruise – Vienna, whose very name provokes images of elegance, fine music, sumptuous baroque palaces, grand boulevards, noble architecture and a rich tapestry of peoples from all corners of Europe drawn to the city’s magnificent cultural heart. For two hundred years until the First World War, Vienna was the cultural centre of Europe and the huge array of showpiece buildings, galleries, aristocratic palaces and baroque churches you see today were built. Dominated by the striking multi-coloured roofed St Stephen’s cathedral, you have the Hofburg, the former royal court now a collection of museums, home to the Vienna Boys’ Choir, the Spanish Riding School, the crown jewels and the world’s fourth largest art collection. Then there are the Emperor’s apartments and outstanding medieval craftsmanship in the relics of the Holy Roman Empire including allegedly, the crown of Charlemagne himself.
This morning, your sightseeing tour offers an insight into why this can truly be described as one of Europe’s great capitals, seat of the Hapsburg Emperors and home to some of the world’s finest classical composers at the peak of their influence, including Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart and of course a whole family of Strausses. During the afternoon you are free to explore as you wish. Take a stroll in the Stadtpark, with its huge Ferris wheel and the backdrop to many a ‘cold war’ spy thriller. Or for something quite different, visit the Schönbrunn former royal palace and now a world-class range of outstanding museums and galleries. Perhaps though, just take a stroll through the fascinating side streets, enjoy a coffee and a slice of delicious sachertorte in one of the renowned pavement cafés, or admire the skill of the street entertainers and even the occasional opera singer.
This evening, we have arranged truly the ‘icing on the cake’: no visit to Vienna is truly complete without a live musical experience so after dinner, we have arranged for a recital on board. To hear this exquisite music whilst in the city of its creation makes a wonderful finale to the day.
DAY 7 BUDAPEST
Dawn breaks and a glance along the shore as it slips gently past reveals Hungary’s peaceful pastoral landscape, as you majestically cruise to Budapest. After lunch, you enjoy a sightseeing tour of the city. The twin cities of Buda, built around the hilltop fortress and Pest, were fought over through the centuries until the 17th century ousting of the Ottomans. A lasting legacy of Turkish rule is the plethora of thermal baths utilising the hot springs giving rise to the sobriquet “City of the Spas”. Subsequently becoming an imperial city of the Hapsburg Empire, it attracted great cultural and commercial wealth. Explore Castle Hill, the city in microcosm: three churches, five museums and a theatre amongst streets and squares with their own special atmosphere and a dramatic view over the river, its banks dominated by the impressive neo-gothic Parliament building. Endless galleries, museums, outstanding art nouveau architecture and excellent shopping offer a fittingly elegant end to your Danube cruise. At this evening’s gala dinner you sadly bid farewell to your travelling companions and reflect on all the inspirational places, sights and sounds you have experienced on a truly ‘imperial’ cruise.
DAY 8 VISEGRAD & SZENTENDRE
For those continuing their holiday with our three-night extension, we leave the ship and return to the dramatic Danube Bend to explore some of the region’s hidden gems. First we visit the medieval town of Visegrad, renowned for its historic Royal Palace and fantastically preserved citadel. The palace, now beautifully restored, was originally built by King Charles Robert in the 14th century when he decided to move the royal court to Visegrad from Budapest. It was abandoned after the Ottoman conquest and lay buried for centuries under mud washed down from the surrounding hills until a chance discovery by an archaeologist in 1934 helped identify the building’s location. You may wish to visit the palace, gardens and remarkable royal chapel featuring a stunning gilded wooden ceiling before enjoying a tasty lunch. There’s also a chance to visit Solomon’s Tower, a 13th-century hexagonal keep housing a museum with fascinating Gothic and Renaissance discoveries excavated from the town.
We spend the rest of the day in picturesque Szentendre. Nestling below the rolling hills behind, this charming riverside town has a lovely Baroque square lined with brightly painted facades and pretty churches. It’s also one of the sunniest spots in Hungary and consequently home to an artists’ colony. Described as the ‘Montmartre of the Danube’, the rich, rusty reds and warm orange and yellow hues of its handsome townhouses dazzle in the rosy light. This is the perfect spot to while away a lazy afternoon, exploring the Old Town’s delightful maze of cobblestone streets.
We return to Budapest where we stay for the next three nights, with breakfast, at the Hilton Budapest City.
DAY 9 BUDAPEST
Budapest is truly a magnificent city – an alluring collage of palatial buildings and grand churches with dramatic spires and magnificent domes straddling the vast waters of the Danube. Numerous foreign powers have ruled here and this is reflected in the city’s eclectic architectural mix, including Roman ruins and Turkish baths recalling the days of the Ottoman Empire, but the greatest influence on its architecture was Hungary’s union with Austria in 1867, which initiated a period of huge growth continuing up to the First World War. This resulted in some sensational buildings in a range of styles, including the elegant Art Nouveau Gellert Hotel and its sumptuous thermal baths, resplendent with gleaming majolica tiles and colourful mosaics.
The iconic Parliament Building – the world’s third largest – was also built during this period. Constructed in neo-Gothic style and arguably grander than our own Houses of Parliament, it dominates the river bank with its striking central dome and spires soaring into the sky above. Its cathedral-like interior is breathtakingly ornate, with fabulous frescoes, stained glass and mosaics. During an included tour we’ll see the Domed Hall, home to the Hungarian Crown Jewels, the 16-sided Central Hall with its stunning gilded ceiling and intricate carvings, and the astonishing Golden Staircase.
Our next stop is the impressive National Gallery, which is located in Buda Castle and includes a phenomenal collection of Hungarian masterpieces spanning the centuries as well as a crypt containing tombs of several members of the Habsburg dynasty. We enjoy a visit to this world-famous collection, then the rest of the day is free for you to explore this fantastic city and its multitude of cultural attractions. Perhaps spend more time in the Castle District, admiring its panoramic views of the city and exploring its tiny winding passages, Gothic arches and colourful houses, mostly dating from the 17th to 19th centuries. Don’t miss the wonderful Matthias Church, where shafts of light from the intricate rose windows pierce the darkness within, illuminating the splendid altar and statues to great effect.
When it’s time for a well-earned break, try one of Budapest’s many cellar cafés or sample local cuisine in a cosy restaurant. Hungary is legendary for its goulash and dumplings, but you’ll find many other hearty dishes on offer, often seasoned with the locally produced paprika, which ranges from sweet to hot and is said to be the best in the world due to its rich colour and robust flavour.
DAY 10 GÖDÖLLÖ & PUSZTA
Today we leave the bustling city behind for something different. The landscape gradually begins to change as the thickly forested hills of the uplands to the north come into view, while isolated sleepy villages and remote ruined castles are all that interrupt the swathes of lush vineyards of this world-class wine-producing region. Our first port of call is the attractive Baroque town of Godollo, where we have a tour of the impressive Royal Palace. Known as ‘Hungary’s Versailles’, it was used by Queen Elisabeth of Hungary as a residence during the spring and autumn hunting seasons and is surrounded by a large park and gorgeous manicured gardens. Inside we see the stately private apartments, lavishly decorated with exquisite furniture and antiques, and the Queen’s secret staircase linking her bedroom to the library.
Our scenic drive continues south into the Puszta, Hungary’s Great Plain, which covers half the entire country. Although prone to flooding the soil was rich with volcanic silt, and in medieval times vast numbers worked the land here. But in the decades of war that followed, villages were deserted and the once-thick forests destroyed so entirely that the region became an inhospitable swamp. Today this huge, flat expanse is a protected prairie stretching endlessly for miles into the horizon; romantically desolate, the wild, lonely silence of this landscape is broken only by the sound of livestock on the occasional whitewashed farm, where ruby-coloured peppers dry in the hazy sun before being ground into paprika.
We visit the renowned Equestrian Park owned by the Lazar brothers – world coach-driving champions! After a welcome drink, we enjoy a traditional fortifying lunch accompanied by the authentic sounds of Hungarian gypsy music. Later we sit back to watch a spectacular performance by some of the most skilled horsemen in the area, and you’ll have the opportunity to take a scenic carriage ride to experience this unique landscape from a different perspective.
DAY 11 EXTENSION CHECK-OUT
After a wonderful cruise and tour, we check out of the hotel at the appropriate time with memories to treasure of this diverse and unique country.