Highlights of Eastern Europe
|Resort:||Highlights of Eastern Europe|
This trip is perfect for first time travellers to Eastern Europe as it visits the best known cities as well as exploring the dramatic mountain scenery. Travel by a mix of rail and road to discover Krakow, Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna and Prague.
Dunajec Gorge – Marvel at this impressive gorge while rafting along the gently meandering river past the towering limestone cliffs
Day 1 Join the trip in Krakow, Poland
Arrive in Krakow, where we spend the next two nights. It was Poland’s former capital until 1596 and due to its very distinctive character; it is on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Its historic architecture survived World War II unscathed, unlike most other Polish cities, and its rich culture has been preserved to the present day. It was the residence of Polish kings and has nearly one hundred churches, as well as the country’s oldest university. Among its most important architectural treasures are Saint Mary’s Church, which contains the world-famous altarpiece carved by Veit Stoss, the medieval buildings of the Jagiellonian University and Wawel Castle and Cathedral.
For those arriving on time our Leader plans to meet you in the hotel reception at 6pm for the welcome meeting and for those that wish, there is the chance to go out for dinner. There are no other activities planned today, so you are free to arrive in Krakow at any time. If you would like to receive a complimentary airport transfer today, you’ll need to arrive into John Paul II Krakow-Balice International Airport (KRK), which is around 30 minutes’ drive . Should you miss the welcome meeting, your Leader will inform you of any essential information as soon as you catch up.
There is a lot to see and do in Krakow; if you can spare the time, we suggest arriving a day early to make the most of this fascinating city especially if you are going on the optional excursion to Auschwitz or Wieliczka Salt Mine tomorrow.
In the city centre you will find numerous good Polish restaurants and the ‘pierogi’, Polish dumplings, are especially tasty. There are also many bars selling a range of local beers and of course a wide range of vodkas. Such as Chmiel, which is a basement bar beneath the forecourt of Wawel Castle, C.K. Browar, which is a popular micro-brewery or Starka Restaurant and Vodkas where you can try out an array of homemade flavoured vodkas.
Day 2 Walk in the Old Quarter; option to visit Wieliczka Salt Mine
This morning our Explore Leader will take us on a short orientation walk around the city’s stunning Old Quarter to help us get our bearings.
The rest of today is left free for you to explore Krakow and further afield if you wish. The Jewish Kazimierz district, the setting for the film Schindler’s List, has many points of interest, including the Old Synagogue and the Museum of Jewish Life. You may like to make an excursion to Oswiecim, the site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp, which is a haunting reminder of the terrible atrocities that took place here during World War II.
Alternatively it’s possible to visit the Royal Castle, perched high on Wawel Hill, which overlooks both the Old Quarter and the Vistula River. Constructed in Renaissance style, the castle houses exquisite treasures collected through the ages by Polish monarchs. Next to the castle is Wawel Cathedral, which is the final resting place of the Polish Kings.
Another option is to visit the fascinating Wieliczka Salt Mines, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At up to 300 metres underground you’ll see a 400 year old chapel, a subterranean salt lake and chambers large enough to hold the Eiffel Tower! The Chapel of Saint Kinga is the mine’s most spectacular feature and you’ll no doubt be amazed by what can be sculpted from salt. Please note that there are 350 steps down into the mine at the beginning of the tour and then a further 450 on the route through the various corridors and 20 chambers visited. The temperature underground can be much cooler than on the surface, so be sure to bring a jumper.
There is only time to visit Auschwitz or the Wieliczka salt mine today. We suggest you extend your stay in Krakow if you would like to visit both. Please see the Optional Activities section of our trip notes about pre-booking the optional excursion to Auschwitz prior to travel. This excursion books up quickly so it is important to book this at least one week in advance of your arrival.
Day 3 Rafting in Dunajec Gorge; arrive in the Tatra Mountains, Slovakia
This morning we depart for an inflatable rafting trip on the Dunajec River to a point close to the Polish border near Lesnica. It’s a chance to get active and probably get wet as well as enjoying the picturesque surroundings. Bring a change of clothes and shoes that you don’t mind getting wet and a towel with you today. This river has been a famous attraction since the middle of the 19th century, when tourists came here to cruise on log built rafts. We meander along the bottom of the spectacular canyon that bears the river’s name, passing a landscape of towering limestone cliffs, blanketed in lush forests of fir, beech, larch and spruce. Part of the Pieniny National Park, the gorge is one of the most stunning in Europe and its verdant slopes attract a diverse collection of wildlife including lynx, wolf, stag and some 14 species of bats. Birdlife includes eagle and pygmy owls, three toed woodpeckers and rare black storks can sometimes be spotted along the river’s edge.
We will also pay a visit to the impressive Spis Castle. Sat on a hilltop above the town of Spisske it was once home to the Hungarian kings and it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the ruins show both Romanesque and Gothic architecture.
We then board our bus and continue to Novy Smokovec in the High Tatra Mountains. This area of Slovakia can justly claim to be the Switzerland of the country. Snow-capped for most of the year, the compact High Tatra range is sliced by beautiful valleys and lakes. An ideal region for winter sports, in summer the network of well-marked trails is a hiker’s delight.
Day 4 Hiking in the Tatra Mountains
Today we take a public bus to Biela Voda and from here we’ll start our full day trek in the beautiful Tatra Mountains. We begin with an uphill walk to the picturesque Green Lake. We take in the view and have the option to have a picnic lunch here. For those that wish to walk further there is then the possibility to continue to the Great White Lake before returning to Biela Voda on foot. We return to Novy Smokovec by public bus for the evening.
The trek is graded moderate. The first section is 5 kilometres long and goes from 915 metres to an altitude of 1550 metres and should take approximately 2.5 hours. If you continue to the Great White Lake it’s a further 2 kilometres and goes to an altitude of 1615 metres and should take an extra 35 minutes. We then need to walk the same distance back to the original starting point of the walk, so we will cover between 10-14 kilometres and walk for 5-6 hours in total today. Please make sure you bring comfortable walking shoes or boots and you may also find walking poles useful.
Alternatively if you’d prefer a shorter walk then you can take a local train to Lake Strbske and enjoy a gentle walk around the lakeshore. This large glacial lake offers great views over the surrounding pine covered Tatra Mountains with their jagged rock peaks.
Day 5 Train to Banska Bystrica with an orientation walk on arrival
This morning we travel by rail to Banska Bystrica (the journey will involve changes of train). On arrival our Explore Leader will take us on an orientation walk of the city. The pretty town is set on the Hron River and is surrounded by mountains. The main square is a hive of activity in summer and the City Castle, which is one of the main attractions, is located on the edge of the square. Back in 1944 it was in Banska Bystrica that the Slovak National Uprising began against the invading German forces and their own collaborationist government. Although most were defeated a few members managed to hold on until 1945 when the Soviet, Czechoslovak and Romanian armies arrived and liberated the country from under Nazi rule.
Whilst here you might like to try the traditional and delicious folded potato pancakes followed by the original ‘Tatratea’ liqueur, which a tea based strong herbal drink that originated in the High Tatra Mountains, as a way of keeping warm on cold winter evenings.
Day 6 Excursion to Banska Stiavnica and visit to the Mining Museum
Today we depart on an excursion to Banska Stiavnica – a preserved Medieval town that is yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site. The town is unusually located in the centre of a huge caldera of an ancient collapsed volcano and is surrounded by dense forested hills. Whilst here we will visit the Open Air Mining Museum, which dates back to the 17th century and offers an interesting two kilometre long underground excursion. The museum not only explains the mining history of Slovakia but also the cultural heritage of the town itself.
Day 7 Drive to Budapest, Hungary and take a guided walking tour
We start our day with a visit to the Hronsek Wooden Church and then stop in the small village of Sebechleby where you may choose to go wine tasting. From here we continue our journey to Budapest. Situated on a beautiful stretch of the Danube River, Hungary’s capital consists of two parts: Buda and Pest. Buda is the older, more graceful part, with cobbled streets and Medieval buildings, whilst the latter is the modern business centre. Utilising local transport, this afternoon’s guided walking tour takes in the major sites of this impressive city. We discover the Basilica of Saint Stephen and the Parliament buildings before crossing the Chain Bridge to the Castle District and Watertown. Here lie Buda’s most ancient gems – Castle Hill with the Old Town, Fisherman’s Bastion and the Royal Palace.
Day 8 Join trip in Budapest, Hungary; orientation walk of the city
Today in Budapest is left free for you to further explore its many attractions. You may like to visit one of the city’s famous thermal baths or take a boat cruise on the Danube. Another recommended attraction is Szentendre; an artist’s town with a Serb minority located on the bank of the river, which can be reached by train or bus.
Day 9 Drive to Bratislava, Slovakia with a walking tour on arrival
After the journey from Budapest we will spend a nice leisurely afternoon in historical Bratislava, the capital city of Slovakia. It used to be the capital of the former Hungarian Kingdom and was known as ‘Pressburg’ and went through tough times at war with the Ottoman Empire. We will walk through the Old Town’s maze of pretty Medieval streets and squares surrounded by numerous cafes and trendy bistros. We pass by Michael’s Gate which is the only remaining old entrance to the city, the pretty Main Square, Neoclassical Primate’s Palace and Cathedral of Saint Martin. After the walk you can continue your discovery by visiting one of the oldest castles in Slovakia or by enjoying a birds eye view from city’s most famous landmark, the so-called UFO bridge, which affords views over the ‘panelaky’ typical communist era blocks of flats and various other fairly radical urban projects.
Day 10 Train to Vienna, Austria; chance to travel back by boat
This morning we take a short train ride (about 1 hour) to Austria’s capital, Vienna, where we enjoy a walking tour of the Old City with a local guide. This should offer a good initial overview of the history and the structure of the city. Sights during the walk will include the Karlsplatz, Heroes Square, Hofburg (Imperial Palace Complex), Imperial Treasury, National Library, Spanish Riding School, Vienna’s ancient housing estates, Saint Stephens Church and the Opera. We won’t have time to enter any of these places on our tour but afterwards you will be free to return to visit any that you wish. You can choose to return to Bratislava by train at your leisure (we will provide a return ticket) or you may prefer to book a boat trip back along the Danube River (taking approximately 2 hours).
Day 11 Visit to Lednice-Valtice and wine tasting in Mikulov, Czech Republic
We start our day with a train trip (taking around 1 hour), followed by a short bus journey to the beautiful town of Mikulov. Filled with history embodied in architectural monuments, this small town offers something for everyone. Situated in the very heart of the wine region, it has plenty of walking paths with local and family run wine cellars or wine tasting centres along the way. En route to Mikulov we stop at Lednice-Valtice Cultural Landscape, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s one of the largest artificial landscapes in Europe and here we will take a walk around the castle park of Chateau Lednice.
In the afternoon we visit the Jewish Cemetery in Mikulov with centuries old tombs and it is the final resting place of many prominent rabbis. Following our visit we’ll enjoy a wine tasting of Mikulov’s local produce.
Day 12 Train to Prague and explore on foot
A train journey takes us to our final destination of Prague, the capital city of the Czech Republic. Our train travel today will involve a change of trains and take approximately 4.5 hours in total. Twelve centuries have adorned it with a labyrinth of old streets and wonderful palaces and bridges. We enjoy a guided city tour, which will take in some of the main highlights including the Old Town Square and City Hall, set amid antique houses and arcades. Other sites include the Astronomical Clock, Powder Tower and Prague Ghetto, which includes the Jewish Cemetery and Synagogues. We also see Charles Bridge, the most handsome bridge over the Vltava River and the area of Hradcany which contains the castle of the Bohemian Kings.
Day 13 Free day in Prague with the option to visit Konopiste Castle
On our second day in Prague you are free to enjoy the city at your leisure. You may wish to head by local train to the 700 year old Konopiste Castle. The castle was once owned by Archduke Ferdinand, whose assassination in Sarajevo triggered the start of World War I. A boat trip on the Vltava River is another possibility. There are also many classical music concerts to be found. If the timing is right, you may be lucky to see a performance in one of the old atmospheric churches. There the option of visiting the Bunker Museum, where a range of Cold War relics are on display from an age when paranoia and spying was at an all-time high, which is housed in a former communist bunker underneath the city.
Day 14 Trip ends in Prague
The trip ends after breakfast at our hotel in Prague.
There are no activities planned today, so you are free to depart from Prague at any time. If your flight is departing later in the day, luggage storage facilities are available at our hotel. If you would like to receive a complimentary airport transfer today, you need to depart from Prague Airport (PRG).