Depending on our arrival time there may be the opportunity to have a brief introduction to our surroundings before spending our first night in Slovakia.
We begin our trip with a boat trip on the famous Danube river to the ruins of Devin Castle. The site of this castle is hugely strategic, overseeing as it does the confluence of two rivers, the Danube and the Morava. The earliest settlements here date back to the 5th century, and the castle served as an important boundary fortress during Roman times. Structural improvements were made over the centuries, before it was finally destroyed by Napoleonic troops in 1809. In the afternoon we take a tour of Bratislava on foot, including the Old Town and the castle (entrances optional, payable locally) before spending our second night in the city. The capital of Slovakia, Bratislava is home to approximately 450,000 inhabitants and borders both Austria and Hungary. Not surprisingly it has been influenced by many cultures and was once the capital of the Kingdom of Hungary. Overnight Bratislava.
Our first destination is the ruins at Cachtice which offers beautiful views over the surrounding scenery, but which has a gruesome history. It is known as the castle of the 'Bloody Countess' Elizabeth Bathory, who was convicted of the murder of several local young girls, supposedly in the belief that she could stay forever young by bathing in their blood. From here we continue to the Cigel Colliery, that now welcomes visitors rather than miners. Donning a hard hat and overalls, we board the mine train and journey over 1 and a half miles into the mine, where we start our tour, usually conducted by a former miner. After our tour we have the afternoon free in the spa town of Bojnice with the option to explore or try one of the spa treatments (prices available locally) or visit the castle. This is one of the oldest castles in Slovakia, standing imperiously on a travertine hill overlooking the town. The first written record of the castle dates back to 1113; it has been redeveloped a number of times since the original wooden castle, with the last neo-Gothic rebuilding lasting 22 years from 1889. Overnight in Bojnice.
Today we visit two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the town of Banska Stiavnica and the village of Vlkolinec. Banska Stiavnica is a mediaeval town spread across a steep valley, that in the Middle Ages was the main supplier of gold and silver to the Kingdom of Hungary. It boasts a number of beautifully preserved buildings such as the 14th century Chateau and the Church of St Catherine, and the numerous small picturesque squares. We then proceed to Vlkolinec in the Maly Fatra Mountains. Vlkolinec is something akin to a 'living museum' with 45 wooden vernacular buildings dating back to 1372, set in a remarkable natural environment. The village has permanent residents, however remains untouched and is today a Folk Architecture Monument Reserve. We overnight in the Liptov area.
Our trip moves to the High Tatras, a beautiful mountain range that forms a large part of the border with neighbouring Poland. We will be based in the pretty town of Novy Smokovec for two nights. Here there are a number of beautiful optional walks in the surrounding area for those that wish. Access is via a local cable car and your guide will be able to advise you on the routes available, and on the other local points of interest.
We begin with a trip to the Dobsinska Ice Cave, in the Slovensky Raj range, another Slovakian highlight to make the UNESCO list. The entrance to the cave is at 970m, and has a total length of over 1400m although only 515m is regularly open to the public. The ambient temperature in the cave does not exceed 0 degrees annually, giving rise to a plethora of stalagmites and frozen cascades, a truly memorable sight. Our day continues with a trip to Dunajec Gorge, an area of stunning natural beauty running through the Pieniny Mountains, and one of the longest gorges in Europe. We begin in a traditional-style raft and make our way gently down the river, enjoying the scenery in the company of one of the local boatmen. On the way there may be time to stop in the mediaeval town of Kezmarok. We spend the night in the mountain town of Smokovec.
Moravia in the Czech Republic is our goal, however en route we stop at the mountain village of Terchova, birthplace of Juraj Janosik, a folk hero often compared to Robin Hood. We will visit the site of his log house in the mountains, and there are still living descendants of Janosik in the area today. We also make a stop at Cicmany, a mountain village with rich folk history. Many of the original buildings were restored after the great fire of 1921. As we cross the border into the wine-rich area of Moravia, we visit Petrov, a well known wine producing village on the border with Slovakia. After tasting some of the best local wines in the traditional cellar of a local producer. we will cross the border into Slovakia, entering the Zahorie region. The word Zahorie translates as 'the land behind the mountains', so named due to the Carpathian Mountains which separates this region from the rest of Slovakia. Our day ends in the historic town of Skalica.
In Skalica's main square we will see the splendour of the parish church of St Michael flanked by the distinctive folk-inspired House of Culture with its decorative mosaic façade on one side and the Town Hall, seat of the town authorities since the end of the 18th century, on the other. Nearby is a Jesuit Church with stunning altar painting and crypt and the 12th century St George's Rotunda incorporated into one of the surviving sections of the ancient town wall which still shields the Franciscan Monastery. Here we will get the opportunity to see the making of the famous 'Trdelník' before tasting this light walnut covered pastry, traditionally baked over an open fire. The Trdelník was the first cake to be registered by the European Union, protecting its geographic heritage as exclusive to the town of Skalica. The Chateau of Lednice is one of the most famous Romantic buildings in the Czech Republic and long time summer residence of the Liechtenstein family, wealthy landowners and influential figures. Indeed it remained in the family for 700 hundred years and was redeveloped on separate occasions in Neo Gothic and Baroque styles. There is also the chance to wander through the Baroque-style French park with soft landscaping, Empire Pavillions and reproductions of classic churches. This area is also associated with the Templar Knights, who first visited the area in 1248, and we take the opportunity to visit a wine cellar that they established, though we will not have another wine tasting here, we will visit the cellars themselves and see the produce. Our day ends with a transfer to Mikulov where spend our final two nights.
Mikulov lies at the heart of the winegrowing area, and is another area once ruled by the Liechtenstein family. We take a tour of the city, taking time to appreciate some of the many monuments and buildings. These include the historic square with its Renaissance surroundings, St Anne's Church which dates back to 1623 and the impressive Chateau, a dominant feature of the local landscape.
Transfer to Vienna; fly to London.