It would be wrong to claim that Liechtenstein is stuck in time – this is a country dominated by exclusive banks and modern sports cars. Still, it could serve as the archetype for the imaginary kingdoms of micro-state Europe. It is little more than a valley and a few dramatic peaks, it’s inhabitants number only 35,000, the tractors have license plates and the land is ruled by a prince who validates or negates all laws and taxes. That prince – H.S.H Hans-Adam II von und zu Liechtenstein – lives in Vaduz castle on a hillside above the capital town of Vaduz. It isn’t a magnificent castle, but it has an interesting history and it is visible from most of the country. Also, there aren’t many castles that can claim to be the functional and permanent residence of a ruling monarch. Rebecca claims that it’s the most politically important castle in Europe, but that seems like hyperbole. This is, after all, the sixth smallest country on earth.
Liechtenstein’s castle has been mostly ceremonial since the 1870’s, when the country’s army was disbanded (after their last military engagement – the Austro-Prussian War in 1866 – all of Liechtenstein’s 80 troops returned home alive, and brought with them one extra soldier, who is often described as “an Italian friend”). The fortification fell into general disrepair over the decades, serving as a prison and then a garrison in advance of the army’s dissolution. For a few years, it actually served as a tavern, before being completely abandoned in 1896. In 1905, though, the ruling prince began extensive repairs. In 1938, much spiffed-up, it became the permanent residence of the ruling princes of Liechtenstein, which is its current function.
There is a stub of an older, ruined castle higher up on the hill, about an hours steep walk from Schloss Vaduz. It is called Burgruine Schalun or Wildschloss Vaduz, and very little of it remains. Built in the 12th and 13th centuries, it was a more secure fortification above the increasingly residential castle downhill. Eventually its remoteness proved more of an impediment to its survival than its defenses, as it survived for several centuries until the royals decided that it was too inconvenient to keep up. Today, it isn't even mentioned in Liechtenstein's tourist information, even though they are relatively starved for things to mention.
When we walked up to Wildschloss, a family was roasting ears of corn on a small heap of coals. They asked, very courteously, if we “needed any fire.” We didn’t, but it was still very nice of them to ask. A map of the castle’s original walls was posted on a signboard, showing how much bigger the structure once was. It was difficult to see any trace of masonry on the brushy slopes, and only the one stump of tower rose preserved from the earth.
The surviving Schloss Vaduz is the evolutionary embodiment of a fortress that was first documented in 1322. It’s main tower dates from the 12th century, and remained largely intact over the years. It was initially a stand-alone defensive structure with an auxiliary fortified house just adjacent, but circling walls were built along the knoll eventually. After partial destruction during the Swabian wars, the castle was expanded and refurbished in the 16th century, when both round tower-keeps were added.
Vaduz sits on a well-maintained plot of meadowland, flanked by closed gardens and kept very private by the prince. It is possible to walk right up to the walls and in the pastureland above, but the building itself and formal gardens are closed to the public. The castle is said to have some 160 rooms, which seems like more than its walls could possibly hold, but it might be deceptively small from the rear. There certainly aren’t many windows or visible chimneys; I can’t imagine that Hans-Adams really spends too much of his time here. Still, it’s nice to think that countries like this continue to exist, where the ruling prince lives in a castle on the hill and surveys his lands from the ramparts.