I stand on the side of the road, eyes squinted against the bright sun. Snow-capped mountains jut towards the cloudless sky behind me. It smells like cow dung, hot asphalt and sweat – mine, probably. It’s been a long day of standing by the road in black jeans and a heavy backpack but that hardly shows on my face. I stand there smiling at oncoming traffic, mere 15 kilometres from my destination, and for the first time in forever I feel excited to be getting into a new country.
The cardboard sign in my hands says VADUZ.
Liechtenstein had been on my radar for years. I think it all started from an inside joke with an old travel buddy; as we listed the strangest places we wanted to see, he mentioned “Liechtenstein”. ‘It’s such a weird little country and no one ever goes there.’
Now, it’s been a few years; I can’t remember if those were his exact words. But I took the idea from him and wore out those words to answer the question that, without exception, I would get asked throughout my whole Euro-trip: ‘Why the hell would you go to Liechtenstein??’
I had a hunch it might be awesome. Turns out I was more than right.
Finally, as I’m waiting under the cruel sunlight, a white car with Liechtensteinian register plates pulls up. The first two letters of the plate read FL which stands for Fürstertum of Liechtenstein, “Principality of Liechtenstein”; I joke with the driver that I first thought it meant “Florida”. The man speaks heavily accentuated German and I just assume it’s the local accent.
‘You must be the first person I ever met from Liechtenstein,’ I tell him.
He laughs, not maleficently but it comes out almost as a scoff. ‘I’m not from there, I’m from Switzerland! That’s where they got it all from, the culture, the language… I just work there.’
I try to pry him more details about my destination but either we’re separated by a language barrier or one of distaste since he doesn’t seem too eager to talk about it. ‘Lots of Chinese tourists, there’s not much to see…’ he grumbles.
He lets me off by the edge of the city centre. Or what counts as a centre here: you can walk through the town in ten minutes, and if you walk too far, you’ll probably end up in the next town over. With a population of just 37,000, the whole country is little more than a town itself.
First things first. The tourist information centre is located in the middle of the main street – just opposite to the bank and a literal stone’s throw from the town hall and the art museum – and while I would normally prefer to get my information from local friends or other travellers, today I need some pointers about hikes that I’ve planned around the country. Or should I say: across the country. You can hike through the whole principality in three days, and that’s if you take the hardest possible route and make a little detour.
A gaggle of Asian tourists stand around browsing post cards and selections of local wines and cheeses, crowding around the desk. I approach, unsure if they’re actually getting serviced or not. The girl behind the desk doesn’t seem to know either but she waves at me to come forward.
‘Umm, I wanted to ask about some hikes here…’
She’s not from the country, so she tells me to go talk to the other girl. She picks up a brochure and spreads it on the table.
‘So, this is a map of the whole country’, she says.
Taking jabs at Liechtenstein’s size seems like such a cheap shot – it’s about as original as noting that Italy is known for good gelato and Argentina for steamy tango. But I just can’t get over it.
The sixth smallest country in the world is so small you could walk from one end to the other in a day – from Feldkirch, Austria to Balzers, 23 kilometres. It’s so small that the cyber security team of the entire country consists of only eight people. It’s so small that there are only two active Couchsurfing hosts, and one of them is also one of the eight previously mentioned people.
It’s so small that famously neutral Switzerland keeps accidentally invading it (https://www.news.com.au/travel/world-travel/europe/liechtenstein-the-country-thats-so-small-it-keeps-being-invaded-by-its-bigger-neighbour/news-story/08eee6f0d3dab6467c8c1dd8566c2514), last time in 2007 when 170 soldiers got lost at night and instead of their base wandered into Southern Liechtenstein. Liechtenstein didn’t even notice until they got notified the next day. An interior ministry spokesman was quoted saying: ‘No problem, these things happen.’
The working title for this post was ‘Liechtenstein, the Most Ridiculous Country in Europe’.
It would be easy to dismiss Liechtenstein as a two-hour stopover en route from one big Central European country to the other, and it is indeed how most people treat it; every day busloads of tourists heading to Austria or Switzerland or school groups on field trips park for a few hours at the main bus terminal, take a stroll around and leave.
Which could be a smart decision: Liechtenstein might just be the most expensive country I have ever travelled in. Yes, even more so than Switzerland. Booking.com lists only 22 accommodation options in the entire country with even the cheapest one – a youth hostel in Schaan – charging you 40-50 euros per night in the summer.
Living in Liechtenstein must be grand, though. The salaries are some of the highest in Europe, and the country has the world’s highest GDP. Good for them that the Swiss Franc is so strong – that’s what they use as a currency. Despite insignificant little invasions, the two countries are still very much buddies.
And maybe just a stopover is enough for some travellers: Vaduz doesn’t offer many options for sightseeing. The capital boasts a few museums – including a postal museum where you can pay three euros to obtain one of the rarest passport stamps in the world -, a couple of overpriced restaurants and various bizarre statues that do make the stroll around the otherwise nondescript centre more interesting.
(There’s also a city beach, complete with red beach chairs and a cute little truck selling drinks to thirsty tourists. Don’t expect water though – the “beach” is just a built in sandbox on the main square and nowhere near water.)
Liechtenstein does have one competitive edge over many of its neighbours, though: pretty much the whole country is located on a mountain. In just 160 square kilometres, Liechtenstein has established over 400 kilometres of hiking trails.
For hikers, Liechtenstein is a natural paradise – perhaps not offering much more variety than the surrounding Alpine countries but providing incredible natural beauty in regal solitude. Liechtenstein is one of the rare places in the Alps where you can actually re-enact Sound of Music including all of its musical numbers without the fear that anyone’s going to hear you. Well, except for some marmots.
But more on hiking in a later post. Now I’m headed to see some of the man-made attractions. Which, to be honest, still require some hiking.
Schloss Vaduz is undoubtedly the most famous attraction in the country, adorning every postcard and magnet in Vaduz’ little souvenir shops, but since it is the full-time residence of Hans Adam II, the reigning prince of Liechtenstein, you can’t actually visit inside.
If you’re lucky, you might still spot the big chief himself. Apparently the prince can frequently be seen strolling about without as much as body guard. “His Serene Highness” is also in the top 500 richest people in the world: the man with a net worth of 4.4 billion USD – ten times more than Queen Elizabeth II – owns a collection of Renaissance art and two palaces in Vienna. You know, casual.()
The castle with its red-tiled roof and round stone towers is an imposing sight, hanging on the precipice over the city that lends its name from the castle. (Actually, the whole country gets its name from the reigning family, von Liechteinsteins.) The Swiss Alps rise behind, giving the royal habitation a picturesque backdrop.
On my way back down, I stop on the viewing platform to stare down to the city. I watch cars driving down the highway on the other side of the river that separates Liechtenstein from Switzerland – easy to cross without any border checks – and let my eyes wander around the housing below. From here, you can see Rotes Haus, the second-best favourite in Liechtensteinian postcard motifs.
For all that I know, the Red House is mostly famous for being red. It was built late in the Middle Ages and belonged to the St Johann monastery for a few centuries before being bought by the Rheinberger family in 1807. Should I know who they are? Most likely not. All I know is that the house is famous for being famous, and you can’t visit inside.
Seems to be a common theme in Liechtenstein.
I return to the city to buy a few postcards and an ice cream before meeting up with my Couchsurfing host. (One of the most delicious ice creams of my life but one that made me sweat – I paid almost seven euros for two scoops.) After shopping for some (expensive) groceries we hop in a green city bus and drive up the mountain.
Earlier at the tourist information, I had been told that I wouldn’t be able to do the hikes that I had wanted to because the highest peaks were still covered in snow. That had dampened my mood for a while; but as the bus climbs higher and higher on the road that snakes on the side of the mountain, and as the view gets better and better, I forget my worries. I might not be able to reach the highest peaks on this trip, but even hiking the lower trails will surely be satisfactory.
In Triesenberg, where my host lives, we toast Liechtensteinian craft beers and snack on peanuts as we’re waiting for the chicken on the grill to be done. The sun sets behind the terrace somewhere into Austria. As I watch the sky turn purple and the Alps in front of me get covered in shadows, I sit back and say out loud:
‘Man, I love Liechtenstein.’
And to myself I think: I hope we don’t get invaded by Switzerland tonight.