Friday 23 March 2018

Liechtenstein: A bite out of Europe

Princes, pistes, postage stamps... and false teeth. Thomas Breathnach travels to Liechtenstein and discovers intrigue and charm through the tiny mountain principality

Thomas Breathnach

Thomas Breathnach

So seldom does Liechtenstein crop up in current events, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the Alpine microstate is a fictitious European country created by an American romance novelist.

Absent from the EU due to a lack of national interest, and from Eurovision due to a lack of a national broadcaster, the only historical reason for Irish travellers to cross its borders has been the occasional Euro-qualifier match in the capital Vaduz.

But is there more to Liechtenstein than being the whipping boy of international football?

Liechtenstein and its tiny frontiers are inconspicuously tucked between the Swiss and Austrian Alps, 110km east of our starting point at Zurich Airport. Disconcertingly unable to deactivate the Russian-language setting on our rented car's sat-nav system, my friend Katie and I set off across the mountainous cantons of eastern Switzerland to the sounds of Knight Rider's road trip to Vladivostok.

Just one hour later, we're flanked by the Alps of three nations and, as we bridge the open-border crossing at the Rhine, we unceremoniously arrive in the world's fourth smallest country.

The initial venture out in Vaduz has a novel element of incongruity -- after all, we're in a capital city with just 5,000 inhabitants. Yet the agrarian town with a financial twist seems like the poster child for model civilisation. Its immaculate, almost sterile, town centre is a one-stop shop of cubic municipal buildings, banks and high-end boutiques.

Horse chestnuts and national flags of royal blue and red shadow over café terraces, which uniformly extend out on to the pedestrian zone of Städtle.

As we wander down the main thoroughfare of Äulestrasse, a woman coasts past us in her Porsche Boxter, dutifully obeying the speed limit, while a farmer tails behind her in a tractor and trailor. Not many capitals can offer such a sight.

But this is a capital city in the true sense of the word -- Liechtensteiners enjoy an average annual salary of €86,000, making them the richest citizens on the planet. Aside from being a known tax haven, much of the principality's wealth comes, curiously, from its status as the world's largest exporter of false teeth.

Being such a rarity, postage stamps are also big business in Liechtenstein, and Vaduz's very own Briefmarkenmuseum (stamp museum) is one of the town's several museum and gallery options. We pay a visit to check out its historical exhibitions, which attract thousands of avid collectors every year. A couple of Austrian tourists emerge from the building after us wielding a set of first issues with such enthusiasm that we almost expect them to break into a Charlie Bucket-esque tap dance.

Playing no small part in keeping this well-oiled machine ticking over is Prince Hans-Adam II. He and has forefathers have been ruling the roost here in Liechtenstein since 1719. And, following a controversial referendum in 2007 which gave the Prince the right to veto any government decision, the country is, in effect, Europe's last functioning monarchy.

A jovial lady at the local souvenir shop is quick to ellucidate his popularity. "Herr Prinz is a real man of the people you know -- you can even see him at the post office!" she exclaims in her lilting German dialect.

More eager than ever to brush shoulders with this stamp-collecting royal, we head up the steep romantic walkway which leads to Schloss Vaduz, the royal palace. The medieval fortress is built around an impenetrable 12th-century keep and a tall Teutonic order tower. It's a magical setting, perched on a steep bluff over Vaduz, while overlooking the vineyards of the Rhine valley and the Swiss Alps of St Gallen and Appenzell.

The castle is not open to visitors and, unfortunately, there's little sign of Herr Prinz, nor the woman he married in a tale of 'verbotene liebe' -- his cousin, Princess Marie. The Liechtenstein story book is getting more American fiction novel and less kiddies' fairytale by the second.

Feeling positively peasant-like, we peek through the castle gates, which reveal a secret walled garden of herbacious borders and sheared shrubbery. A groundsman struggling to transplant a poplar tree garners our initial sympathy, until we surmise that his green fingers probably earn him a salary comparable to a junior banker back home.

Following our failed attempt to flush out His Highness, we return 'downtown' to grab some lunch at the local hotspot, Brasserie Burg. Weaving down the eponymous avenues of the royal dynasty we're overtaken by the country's only operating train service. Not quite on par with the bullet trains of its neighbouring nations, Liechtenstein's City Train is the Noddy express of locomotives, but, with the €7 (children €3) Park & Ride service providing a veritable national tour, it's just the ticket to travel low carbon.

Despite a population so low it almost deserves conservation status, the restaurant is bustling with locals. The stone-baked pizzas topped with fresh rocket look tempting, but we sample some more traditional local fare of cured game and seasonal veg. Two sprucely dressed yuppies who may well be royal offspring, or at the very least national soccer stars, sit down at the table next to us. We pick their brains on their native land. "Ja Liechtensteiners! Well, we're proud and friendly people, but the older generation can be a bit conservative," one of them informs us over the gurgling of espresso machines. His point is underlined by revealing that Liechtenstein was the last country in the Western world to give women voting rights.

"I don't even think they really minded!" he adds in jest. The suffragette movement didn't get the ball rolling here until 1984.

As the afternoon heats up, scenes of an Alpine summer are abound. Schwimmbad Mühleholz, the capital's main pool (adults €4; children €2), has vibrating dive boards where teenagers are cooling down after a set of beach volleyball. This, it seems, is the magnet for locals to bronze as the mountains melt.

That evening we take a drive up the Oberland mountain district to discover more of the principality. Upgrading to our Audi estate seemed like a good idea back in Zurich, but negotiating it up Liechtenstein's tight, one-way network of hairpins is not for the faint hearted, and we can only brave an occasional glimpse of the fine vistas deep below us.

The lofty dorf of Triesenberg is our first station and offers us a medley of bell ringing, courtesy of the gothic church and the herd of Braunvieh cattle grazing on the alp. Following that is the tiny ski-resort of Malbun, 1,600m high on a snow-capped vale. Malbun is literally the end of the road in Liechtenstein, so we take advantage of the village's splendid hiking routes through forests and mountain trails, before warming up with a cup of Grüntee tea in the local hotel.

As the sun sets in Malbun, the friendly Liechtensteiners turn the lights off on their principality. While the resultant nightlife is enough to turn the average Josef Soap to a life of philately, we're happy to soak in the silence of this intriguing and enchanting land.

It's certainly won our stamp of approval.

Irish Independent

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