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Europe by road, rail and river
Europe by road, rail and river

The break-up of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia and the dissolution of the Soviet Union left a jigsaw of new nations linked by land borders and great rivers.

There's a remarkable blend of cultures in a relatively small geographic area; a godsend for tour companies who are able to develop coach, river and rail itineraries comprising multiple countries but without long empty days of travelling between attractions.

Many use the Austrian capital Vienna as a gateway to the east, particularly for tours through the Balkans and to the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Poland.

Vienna is easy to reach, as well as wearing the splendour of its status as the former capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The Austrian capital bookends Highlights of Eastern Europe, a 17-day coach package from Trafalgar, which provides a taste of eight different countries at a relaxed pace. The program starts with a guided walking tour focusing on the glories of the Hapsburg dynasty.

The sprawling Hofsburg Palace has been the seat of power of empires and republics for more than 700 years and today comprises museums, the national theatre and the famed Spanish Riding School of Lipizzan horses.

When Emperor Franz Josef ordered the building of the Ringstraase boulevard in 1857, royals and the rich engaged in a battle of the grandiose, trying to outdo each other by racing to build extravagant palaces and leaving a dazzling sight for the tourist of today.

With its multicoloured roof and enormous southern tower, St Stephen's is a distinctive building and is said to be where Ludwig van Beethoven realised he'd gone completely deaf when he saw startled doves fly from the belltower but could not hear the tolling. As with all Trafalgar's guided tours and included sightseeing, audio headsets are included.

From Vienna, the tour takes to the road, climbing the Southern Limestone Alps into Slovenia and arriving at the resort town of Bled, which is famous for its glacial lake. Above it, Bled Castle, first mentioned 1000 years ago, completes the picture-postcard setting. The tour spends two days at Lake Bled allowing time to relax, explore the castle or to enjoy a boat ride on the lake with a visit to the 20km-long Postojna Cave system an optional extra.

Right at the heart of Slovenia is the national capital Ljubljana which has long been a crossroads and has the mix of Slavic, Germanic, and Latin influences to show for it. In fact, the city draws inspiration from far and wide; Greek legend says that Jason and the Argonauts stopped nearby after stealing the golden fleece, while Saint George is the patron of the chapel at Ljubljana Castle. Either way, there was a dragon involved and travellers will see plenty of the mythical beast on a guided walking tour that visits the opera house, cathedral, national museum, the castle and the Triple Bridge.

The itinerary then heads south-east to Croatia before arriving at Zagreb for a two-night stay and ample time to explore a city that is a mix of Western and Eastern Europe. Highlights of the guided tour include visits to Zagreb Cathedral, the Archbishop's Palace, St Mark's Church and the opera house.

Further north, the two-night stop at Budapest includes a Be My Guest dinner which allows travellers to try traditional Hungarian cuisine in a family-run restaurant. A walking tour includes the Fisherman's Bastion hill terrace which overlooks the Danube.

The itinerary moves through Slovakia and into Poland for a two-night stop in Krakow, the national capital for more than 500 years. The city's Old Town was one of the first sites on UNESCO's World Heritage list and travellers will see the grand Cloth Hall, once an international hub, and St Mary's Basilica, which houses the world's biggest wooden altarpiece, as well as the Royal Castle on Wawel Hill.

There's also an optional excursion to Wieliczka where salt was first mined in the 13th century. At Auschwitz, west of Krakow, the concentration camp stands as a reminder of the evils of the Third Reich while on the way to Warsaw, the tour party will visit the Jasna Gora Monastery to see the Black Madonna of Czestochowa.

En route to Berlin, the tour passes through Poznan, a city of churches where Poland's first rulers are buried and then over the German border to one of Europe's most exciting cities. In recent years, Berlin has gained a name as a tourist hotspot with travellers drawn to its mix of history, art and nightlife. The Brandenburg Gate, Reichstag building and the Checkpoint Charlie Museum are all included on a walking tour of a once-divided city and, with a two-night stop, there's time to explore further.

Through the Spreewald Forest, there's time to explore Dresden before the tour moves into the Czech Republic for a two-night stay in one of Europe's most scenic capitals, Prague.

Once the seat of the Holy Roman Empire, Prague is studded with landmarks such as the Old Town Square, the Cathedral of St Vitus and Charles Bridge, and although these are included on the guided tours, as with all of Trafalgar's extended stops, there's time to explore at your own pace.

Dinner at a Czech restaurant is included before the Highlights of Eastern Europe package moves through Southern Bohemia and back to Vienna for a one-night stay, including a farewell meal.

Rising in Germany, the Danube flows through four European capitals as it winds for nearly 3000km through the heart of the continent before spilling into the Black Sea. A legion of river boats ply its course allowing travellers to see as many as 10 countries without the inconvenience of constantly having to unpack and repack.

Uniworld will have three ships, River Countess, River Duchess, River Princess cruising east from Vienna to Bucharest on the 15-day Eastern European Explorer package during 2012. The package which visits Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania, includes a two-night stay in Bucharest and a lecture entitled Musical Magic along the Danube: The Great Composers. There are 13 shore excursions with four "Choice Is Yours" options.

In Bulgaria, for example, travellers can choose between a full-day excursion to the Black Sea resort town of Varna where the archaeological museum holds the world's oldest gold jewellery, or instead take a half-day tour to the cave churches of Ivanovo and Basarbovo and Rusensky Lom Nature Park. The package includes coach tours through cities such as Belgrade and Budapest.

River cruising between Moscow and St Petersburg is one of the most popular of all European itineraries with art, scenery and exquisite Russian churches enrapturing travellers. And some companies are extending itineraries further west.

APT's 22-day The Baltics and Russian Waterways package begins in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius and, with travel by coach, rail and ferry, explores the Baltic nations Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia and the Finnish capital Helsinki. There are tours of the capitals and options including a Finnish sauna or indoor cross-country skiing. Travellers can explore the Estonian capital on a walking tour or in a kayak in Tallinn Bay. At St Petersburg, the tour joins the MS AmaKatarina for an 11-night cruise to Moscow.

Less well known but just as fascinating are itineraries along the Dnieper River which flows through Russia, Belarus and Ukraine into the Black Sea. Viking River Cruises has a 12-day package through Ukraine between the capital Kiev and the Black Sea port of Odessa which explores Tatar and Cossack culture visiting sites such as Yalta and the Odessa Steps.

The cruise, on the 102-cabin Viking Lomonosov can be taken in either direction and there are comprehensive tours of both Kiev and Odessa as well as Zaporozhye, the ancestral home of the Cossacks, and Kherson, a small city founded by order of Catherine the Great.

·For more, contact travel agents, trafalgar. com/aus, uniworldcruises. com.au, aptouring. com.au, vikingriver cruises.com.au.