30 August 2011

The Oberland

This blog has mostly concentrated, so far, on the part of Liechtenstein where most people live and where it's easy to get around. There's a whole different side to the country, though. This is, after all, the only country that lies entirely within the Alps. Towering above the western Rhine valley, where the farms and major towns are, is the Liechtenstein highland, or "Oberland" - a microprovince of rugged slopes and thousands of cowbells, where men wear feathers in their caps and the streams begin with snowmelt.
Up here, it's a little easier to get a handle on the size and shape of the nation. At just over sixty square miles, Liechtenstein is certainly tiny. Most of this area isn't flat, though, and away from the lowlands the country feels much bigger.
From the edge of the mountains, looking to the west, the major towns of Schaan (the collection of buildings in the nearest foreground of the picture above), Vaduz (the capital), Triesen and Balzers lie in a narrow strip of flat land along the river. The Rhine is heavily banked here, and proceeds through the valley in gentle, man-made angles. Across the water, Switzerland's own peaks shoot up and Swiss towns and factories crowd along the flatland.
Looking to the east, the unbroken mass of Austrian Alps stretches for hundreds of miles. Liechtenstein seems to "face" away from this no-mans land, being mostly arranged downhill of a ridge of mountains that runs roughly parallel to the river. It is only from the higher peaks that you can peer over the Austrian border, into emptier and more remote space.
The bulk of Liechtenstein's mountainous land seems - at first glance - suitable for nothing more than rock climbing or paragliding. But a vast network of trails slithers through the gaps and passes, allowing hikers to reach far into the upper valleys. Here, an amazingly untouched culture of dairy farmers herd their Brown Swiss on meadows that reach as high as 7,500 feet above sea level. These are summer pastures, unusable in the winter, and they are filled (though not in the picture above) with wildflowers. One joy - watching the herdsmen walk at elevation with quick, efficient steps that propel them up and down the hills with surprising velocity.
There are a few towns in the Oberland: Triesenberg is the largest, and stretches over much of the visible slope above the valley; Planken is small and sunny; Malbun is a ski town. Steg, a preserved village laid out in a traditional square, lies just around a valley bend from the low country. The houses all have their own patch of meadow for hay or grazing, and the land around them is protected from development - there is a fear that the frantic construction by the river will eventually engulf much of the upper parts of Liechtenstein as the population expands.
In Malbun, nestled in the remotest occupied sliver of grass, skiing is the big draw. In summer, things quiet down, but one lift still runs, servicing a high gasthaus and restaurant. We heard American voices on that patio and didn't linger for long.
The views are spectacular, though, and the sound of cowbells echoes in the high bowl. It's said that Prince Charles learned to ski at this resort while visiting the royal Liechtenstein family. The slopes must be beautiful in the dead of winter, with all the avalanche fencing and snowmaking equipment covered up - it must feel like the end of the earth, snuggled into the snowy mountains of a tiny country.
Having mentioned cowbells so many times, it seems appropriate to give you an idea of what they sound like. From the window of the hiker's refuge, Gafadurahütte, at 4,700 feet, we couldn't make out much of the misty mountains or valley, but the sound of grazing animals was clear and beautiful.

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