You fly to Budapest from where a coach will take you to the ship. The dedicated crew will welcome you on board, ensuring you settle into your comfortable and extremely well-equipped cabin and familiarise yourself with the ship, your first-class floating hotel. There’s 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.
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.
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.
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.
Reaching Linz, you will have the choice to stay in the city and take a guided walking tour, exploring its charming baroque old town. At its heart you’ll see one of the finest squares in Austria, lined by grand pastel-coloured facades with an impressive central Trinity Column of white marble, crowned by a gilded sunburst. There’s also the fortress-like castle, built high above the city by Emperor Friedrich III, now a museum housing a fine collection of nineteenth and twentieth-century artworks.
Alternatively, we drive to Salzburg, once an independent state whose archbishops turned it into one of the most sophisticated cities north of the Alps. Dominating the skyline is one of Europe’s largest stone fortresses, the Hohensalzburg, while beneath its walls church domes and spires rise from the delightful Altstadt, or Old Town. Then there’s the wonderful Hellbrunn Palace and the splendid formal gardens of the Mirabell Palace – a must for horticulture fans.
This morning, discover some of the city’s main sights in the company of an expert local guide, then you’re free to explore as you wish. Everywhere there are sights associated with the city’s most famous resident, Mozart, who played the harpsichord aged three, composed rudimentary music at five and wrote his first opera when he was 11!
Please note lunch is not included on this full day excursion to Salzburg; however, the ship will offer a packed lunch. We return to the ship for another splendid dinner.
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.
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.
Today at the appropriate time you transfer to the airport for your return flight.