A crisp October morning feels a bit colder in the shadows. While it is already almost 10am, the sun has yet to peek above the mountains marking the border between Liechtenstein and Austria, mountains towering over 8,000 feet, rising steeply from the Rhine Valley below. I crossed the Rhine this morning from my hotel in Buchs, Switzerland, eager to explore one of the smallest nations in the world (it is the sixth smallest by area, and fourth in Europe).
For most travelers, a visit to Liechtenstein is a search for a check mark, an attempt to cross every country off of a list. And I’ll be honest, when I started planning this trip, including Liechtenstein as a side trip from Munich – about four hours away via two trains – that’s what it was for me, as well. But here in the early morning hours, walking south on the Landstrasse (literally road of the country) from Schaan to Vaduz, watching the light change with each passing moment as the sun reaches that magical instant of appearing, I know I was wrong. This place is special.
My day begins in Buchs, a tiny town just across the Rhine, which acts as the border between Liechtenstein and Switzerland. Buchs, and Feldkirch in Austria, makes for a more affordable base to see Liechtenstein, and I chose Buchs for the easy one-change train from Munich. One short bus ride later, and I am in Liechtenstein!
Buchs sits across from Schaan, one of a few towns in Liechtenstein, and I grab a coffee at Demmel to arm myself for the chilly half hour or more walk from here down to Vaduz. (Yes, I can take the bus, but with the mountains beckoning, a walk seems prettier.) Thanks to the generosity of Liechtenstein Marketing, I am armed with an Adventure Pass, and a free latte at Demmel is a great way to start. It is consistently ranked in the upper echelon of coffee roasters in Europe, and the drink lives up.
My walk to Vaduz is all mountain views and changing sunlight, as the tiny nation moves from shade to a bright, beautiful day. Vaduz itself is a tiny town of around 6,000, although both the largest city and capital of the country. I swing past the St. Florin Cathedral, its stone tower dwarfed by the peaks, skirt the Landtag (parliament) building, and find the entrance to Liechtenstein’s national museum, again included in my pass, along with an audio guide.
The small museum is lovely, with exhibits on the archaeological history of the region, life in Liechtenstein, and more. But I am here for the history of the country, one best appreciated in a room with portraits of each ruling prince, as my audio tour gives highlights of each one’s reign.
In 1699 and 1712, Prince Johann Adam Andreas of Liechtenstein purchased the domains of Schellenberg and Vaduz, respectively, from their impoverished rulers. The area took on the name of its new princely family, and the borders have been largely unchanged since. The history gets fascinating here. Prince Alois I ruled from 1781 to 1805, and was the first Prince of Liechtenstein to actually visit the realm, as it was purchased initially only to provide the family with lands directory subordinate to the Holy Roman Empire to improve their prestige. However, the family continued to reside in Vienna (where they still have palaces) until 1938, when Nazi Germany annexed Austria. At that point, Prince Franz Joseph II became the first ruler to reside full time within the principality.
The country remains the private domain of the princely family, who have in modern times threatened to quit, or to sell the nation, over popular movements to limit their powers. In addition, the family put the entire country on Airbnb in 2010, for the small cost of $70,000 per night. (I can’t find a current listing, so I am not sure if that is still a possibility.) Fascinating!
Just as interesting is the mere fact that the country has remained independent. Whether or not Nazi plunder played a role in this – rumors circulate but nothing is proven – it is beyond doubt that the tiny nation enjoys one of the most impressive economies in the world. GDP per capita sits at $167,000, second in the world to Monaco. Liechtenstein has a rate of 18.3 patents per 1,000 residents, easily highest in the world, and a research investment of nearly 9% of its GDP (compared to 2.8% in the US). Unemployment is effectively zero, as the country counts 40,000 jobs and only 39,000 residents (some of whom are obviously children, seniors, and other who are not part of the work force). This economic might ensures the ability to remain independent as long as the princely family and subjects so desire.
My intellectual and political curiosity sated for the moment, it is time to satisfy my stomach. On the recommendation of the front desk of the museum, I head to Engel, a restaurant specializing in both Asian and local dishes. I feast on kasknopfli, dumplings similar to German spaetzle, with cheese, fried onions, and apple compote.
Full now, I head up toward Vaduz Castle. The castle itself is the private residence of the Prince, but there is a viewing platform just below that offers what is said to be one of the best views of much of the country. Unfortunately, the trail/road is closed for construction, so I get as high as I am able before having to turn around and walk back down to the town below. It is still impressive. Liechtenstein, you are a beautiful country!
My last stop before heading back to Buchs is at the Hofkellerei, the royal wine cellars. It isn’t every day that one gets a chance to drink wine made at the Prince’s private vineyard, but my Adventure Pass allows me to do just that. Here in Vaduz, the vineyard is primarily pinot noir, although other lands owned by the family in Austria produce chardonnay and other varietals. I am poured a white and a red, and toast the princely family, and the beautiful place they call home.
A quick bus ride back to Schaan, and another back across the Rhine, and I am back in Buchs and ready to return to Munich. It was but a single day in Liechtenstein, and yet it was an amazing experience. I am amazed at the natural beauty of the country, at the fascinating history, and at the shocking amount of fun I had crossing the tiny state off my list. I hope to return!
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