Travel destinations go in and out of fashion, but there are some locations and itineraries that keep on drawing holidaymakers year in, year out. And this year, Great Rail Journeys celebrate 35 years of one of their most popular itineraries, Grand Imperial Cities.
Their 13-day escorted holiday links Vienna, Budapest, Prague and Berlin, four cities that have between them seen significant changes in the lifetime of the tour. When the holiday first ran in 1983, Berlin was still divided by the infamous Wall and none of these elegant destinations had yet experienced the full force of the city break boom. But whilst visitor numbers may have increased over the decades, so too has the tourist offer, with new attractions and excursions ensuring that every visitor enjoys each city to the max.
Already visited one of the destinations or want a shorter trip? Then do as I did and tailor-make your own itinerary with GRJ Independent to include quality hotel accommodation, excursions, and non-rail connections. I chose an early morning flight with Wizz Air to Budapest for the start of my 5-night trip, travelling on by rail to Prague and Berlin, before heading back across Europe to Brussels to pick up Eurostar to London-St Pancras.
Budapest is a stunner in any season, but there’s something very magical about a winter visit when darkness falls early and the glorious buildings along the Danube are bathed in golden light. Cosy up in a historic café over a slice of scrumptious gateau and, if you travel in December, there’s the added bonus of the Christmas market, repeated also in Prague and Berlin.
My package with GRJ Independent included entrance to the lavishly decorated Matthias Church in Old Buda; a river cruise past the Gothic Parliament building and Fisherman’s Bastion viewpoint; and an 11km-ride on the unique Children’s Railway. Built in 1948 to take youngsters to an activity camp in the hills, it is now a regular service, staffed by 10 to 14-year-olds, though not- it’s important to point out – as drivers!
I liked the Art Deco atmosphere of the Hotel Continental in Pest which has been through various changes of use, including a public baths, before becoming a 4-star hotel. The city centre location, close to Europe’s biggest synagogue and Pest’s main shopping streets, inevitably involved a bit of street noise, but nothing my trusty ear plugs couldn’t block.
After two nights in Budapest, I arrived at the city’s imposing station entrance for the 6.5 hour journey to Prague, my first class carriage offering a front seat view of the changing countryside through Hungary, Slovakia and finally into the Czech Republic. Here, the 4-star Courtyard by Marriott Flora was outside the city centre but well situated on a quiet street next to a modern shopping mall and metro station.
At which point, a couple of tips. Resist any temptation to take a large suitcase. I found luggage storage on Continental trains was almost exclusively overhead and whilst there was always some kind gentleman willing to do the honours for me, there are steps up to the trains to negotiate too. People don’t dress up here and smart casual is fine for restaurant evenings, so you don’t need a lot of clothes. Just comfy walking shoes and a few mix-and-match combinations. A separate holdall or backpack is perfect for all these small items you want to keep close or use on the train.
Prague – or Praha in Czech – is a town that’s easy to explore on foot, the Old Town Square with its eclectic mix of beautiful buildings divided by the Vltiva river from the vast Castle complex that includes St Vitus Cathedral and St Wenceslas Chapel. Charles Bridge, the oldest and most famous river crossing, is thronged with pedestrians, buskers and street stalls but an essential destination for any visitor with some great photo opportunities over the river. And if, like me, you’re an Art Nouveau fan, take a peek inside some of the period hotels and cafes, and don’t miss the Mucha Museum dedicated to the internationally famous Czech artist Alphonse Mucha.
Last city on my GRJ Independent tour was Berlin, just over four hours by train from Prague. Two nights at the delightful 4-star Maritim Hotel gave me time for a half-day guided coach tour of the main sites including the Reichstag building, the Brandenburg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie and a decorated section of the infamous Berlin Wall. As our guide pointed out, the Wall is rarely as high as people imagine – the difficulty was not escaping over it but through the open section behind it, under the scrutiny of armed guards.
I was moved to see the locations of chilling events that unfolded during my lifetime but Berlin is also a very upbeat city with a vibrant cultural scene from concerts to cafes, restaurants to nightspots. I chose to spend my free time exploring some of the fabulous collections on Museum Island – home to five vast museums – and indulging myself in the café at Rausch, world’s biggest chocolatier. Another day and I’d certainly have been browsing the extensive shopping areas, especially KaDeWe – the Berlin equivalent of Harrods.
My return journey involved a change of trains in Cologne with lunch on board as we sped through Germany towards Belgium for our Eurostar to London. On the way home, I thought back over my taster trip and three very different cities that once stood at the heart of historic empires. I’d only spent a short time in each, but it had been a great introduction and travelling by rail was a relaxing way to combine them all. I’ll definitely be going back to try them in a different season and am determined to stay for longer next time.
The 13-day Grand Imperial Cities escorted group tour starts at £1,895 to include guided tours of Vienna, Budapest, Prague and Berlin, plus excursions on the Danube and The Children’s Railway.
Gillian travelled on a 6-day trip with GRJ Independent, prices starting from £875 to include 5-nights 4-star hotel accommodation, all internal rail, and selected meals and excursions.
For more information visit www.greatrail.com or call 01904 734 812.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Great Rail Journeys.