The Liechtenstein Experience
A friend had once told me that most people only visit Liechtenstein for a few hours in order to have their passports stamped. They also might buy a couple of postage stamps, before heading on their way into Austria or Switzerland.
As one of Europe’s smallest countries, and the world’s only German-speaking principality, Liechtenstein was also somewhere I had never visited. So in my eyes it was to be an interesting deviation from the beaten path, and certainly an experience no matter what I found inside its tiny area.
Travelling by train from Zurich to the nearest Swiss town of Sargans – for Liechtenstein has no stations of its own – the green Alps set a pleasant backdrop to the lakesides passing by. The final part of the journey into the capital city of Vaduz must be taken by bus, which waits handily outside the train station. It trundles through residential streets, picking up locals and dropping them off at their doorsteps. The crossing of the River Rhein, which is quite in its infancy this far south, is symbolic as it takes us over the border to arrive at the relatively built up centre of Vaduz and the Post Office, which is the end of the line.
Stepping out into the sunlight, a fairly busy street running off in front and behind, and a smaller lane to the right – towards what appeared to be a tiny central business district. A large mountain, with a white castle perched atop an outcrop a little way up, rises above the town. Vaduz is quite possibly the smallest capital city in the world, little bigger than a large village village by the standards of most foreigners.
Choosing the lane to the right I decided to pay for the token stamp of my passport at the Tourist Information office for posterity’s sake. Whilst there, a number of adverts for accommodation posted in the window caught my eye as I did not yet have anywhere to stay.
The first place I called did not answer. The second – in the village of Schaan, about 2 miles away, did answer. “Sprechen Sie English?” I asked. “Nein, Deutsche.” replied the elderly female voice. So without too much hesitation, I enquired about a room in the little German I knew. Surprisingly a few seconds later I had reserved a single room – with an en-suite bathroom – in what looked from the faded picture to be none other than a convent!
Noting the hotel’s address, I took the bus for 2.40 Swiss Francs into Schaan. Again ambling along residential streets, Swiss in character, lucky judgement and guesswork helped me to step off at the correct stop. Little did I realise that I still had to climb half-way up the rather hefty hill in front of me.
Eventually reaching the gates of what was indeed a convent, doubt came over me as I pushed on the heavy door and entered into a deserted and dark hallway with a staircase leading up in front of me like something from a black and white movie. “Guten tag, Herr Falcus!” greeted the elderly woman in the small office to my left, startling me. I felt less confident of my German skills now as she uttered meaningless sounds. Luckily a response didn’t seem required this time and she hurriedly led me up the flight of stairs to a room along a dark corridor. The room was surprisingly quite airy and modern, with an unexpectedly marvellous view.
Liechtenstein occupies a small sliver of land nestled snugly between Switzerland and Austria – almost a token piece of Europe given to the royal family here in a patronising manner. The vast majority of its area occupies lofty Alps, with the lowlands hugging the sides of the Rhein in its wonderful wide valley. The room, with its tiny balcony, faced that valley and Switzerland on the far side. The trek uphill was most worthwhile.
Returning to Vaduz, I spent a few hours wandering the streets of its centre. Small boutiques and restaurants line each one, and an open-air stage was being erected for a summer jazz concert. Quite where the attendees might come from eluded me as barely a soul was in sight, despite it being mid-August – the height of Europe’s summer season.
As dusk drew in, I crossed the rickety wooden covered bridge over the Rhein and took a riverside walk, now back in Switzerland. Sunsets in this part of the world are quite spectacular, when the peaks of the mountains glow orange and the warm air turns still in the darkness below.
Next morning I wandered downstairs to the dining room of the convent, expecting to greet fellow lodgers of this most unusual pension. Yet the room was empty. Expecting I was in the wrong place, I sat and waited then, about to leave, I rose just as a scurry of nuns burst into the room and prepared a veritable feast around me. Toast, cereals, juice, coffee, fruit – much more than I needed. They neither spoke to each other or to me, and disappeared as quickly as they had arrived, leaving me sat in silence once again.
My route out of Liechtenstein was again by bus, and this time to the small town of Feldkirch just over the border into Austria where I could catch my next train. Liechtenstein perhaps suffers from a lack of identity or place in the world. With a tiny area worth little on a map, it seems resigned to the small tourism industry and winter skiing villages, yet has a unique atmosphere and population that seem to care little about where they are heading and what the outside world means. As I had been warned, the majority of visitors treat Liechtenstein as nothing more than a day-stop attraction. But the curious who choose to stay longer may find an experience to delight them with its eccentricities and unexpected hospitality, as I gladly found.
Matt Falcus has spent most of his life travelling by one means or another, and has been writing about it as a freelance since his university days in England. He runs the popular travel writing site DestinWorld.com.