Palace with its elegant baroque facade and French classical garden. The palace interior was refashioned by Maria Theresa, archduchess of Austria, queen of Bohemia, Croatia and Hungary, in a lavish rococo style. But this palace has its darker side. It was here that Napoleon stayed when he invaded Austria in 1802 and 1805, and where the last Austrian emperor abdicated in 1918.
The evening is a high point of the trip: a concert in the lush surroundings of the Liechtenstein Museum. After champagne, we are entertained with music, opera and ballet performances of the works of Mozart, Strauss and Beethoven. Even the most reluctant concert-goers enjoy it and we leave determined to return to Vienna.
Next, in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, I climb the medieval tower of St Michael’s Gate to get a view over the old town: the church where Hungarian royalty was crowned, the Franciscan square and the Primate’s Palace. But there are more recent additions: stylish art nouveau buildings and bizarre communist structures from the Soviet era, including the New Bridge from the top of which you can see Hungary, Austria and Slovakia.
Budapest is our final destination and we dock in the centre of the city between Buda on the hill and Pest on the vast plain opposite. After a morning coach tour, I set off to discover the city. Buda or Pest? It is difficult to decide, but the coach guide has tempted me with stories of thermal baths, so I plot a route that takes me along streets bustling with shops and restaurants and through the old Jewish quarter to the Szechenyi Baths.
It is initially disconcerting to realise that this sumptuous building with its columns and fountains is the equivalent of a public bath but, once I grasp spa protocol, it is great fun. In one pool I get caught up in a fast-moving jet stream, crashing into people of all ages and nationalities. In another, I watch a group of men play chess, standing waist-high in the thermal waters.
I then rush back to the boat for my last supper, in this instance superb traditional Hungarian fare. At midnight I leave the boat to view the city from the suspension bridge. From here I can see the floodlit parliament buildings and the art nouveau hotels (in which I am determined to stay next time).
I can hear gypsy bands on the boats travelling down the Danube and I see the Scenic Emerald, nestled below the Royal Palace on the hill. Eithne Nightingale was a guest of Scenic Tours.
Scenic Tours offers a range of European riverboat cruises on its new so-called ‘‘ space ships’’, which claim to offer 20 per cent more room in public areas and staterooms than most European river cruise boats. More: 1300 136 001; www.scenictours.com.au.