27 April 2014

CRF: The Best Of Liechtenstein

"CRF" is not a crime show you've never heard of, it stands for "Cutting Room Floor." It's been more than a year since we returned from Europe, and we've started to get seriously nostalgic.  To give us all an extra travel fix, we're posting some of our favorite photos that never made it onto the blog.  Here are our favorite unpublished memories and pictures of Liechtenstein - a tiny, odd, forgotten place.
These Swiss browns with Switzerland in the backdrop were photographed from a berggasthaus just like the ones we'd hiked to in the Appenzell Mountains.  We were carrying Swiss francs in our wallets at the time and trying to speak Swiss German.  Surprise! Du bist nicht in der Schweiz!
Liechtenstein might not look like much on a map, it doesn't have its own language or currency, but we left The Principality with a real sense that we'd visited a country all its own.  Sure, there are more registered businesses than there are citizens, but this tiny country's identity as an unlikely survivor rings truer than its status as a tax haven.
Not to say you're left to forget that Liechtenstein has the highest GDP per person in the world, the world's lowest external debt and Europe's wealthiest ruler.  It feels moneyed in the capital, Vaduz, even if it also feels like a farm town.
Their National Museum had one of the finest Natural History exhibits we've ever seen, anywhere.  Their Kunstmuseum is world-class and their ski museum and stamp collections are as cluttered and quirky as can be.  The public spaces are filled with art.  If there was a roundabout, it had a sculpture at its center.  The capital's center plaza was sleek and modern, though very tiny.
The food was... expensive and alpine.  There were some great local specialties at the Bauernmarkt, Weinfest Trieson, Sommernachtsfest and at "Oldie Night," but we otherwise had little success eating well.  We did cook some great forellen und rösti, and had plenty of camping picnics, but white asparagus toasts in aspic aren't our idea of inspiring, even if they did come with a squirt of mayonnaise and a bit of pickle.
The heat at the end of August, dusty with the last cuts of hay, drove us to the water.  The Rhine is too swift and sharp-bottomed to swim in, but there were plenty of pools.
Liechtenstein isn't tiny tiny, by microstate standards.  At 61.78 square miles, it's about three hundred and sixty three times larger than Vatican City - but that's like comparing grapes and poppy seeds.  In terms of micro-ness, it's closest to San Marino, though Liechtenstein's still over two and a half times larger.
Still, it's the third smallest place we visited on the trip, and every larger country felt a LOT larger.  You can walk across Liechtenstein in a day.  Luxembourg, which many people confuse with Liechtenstein, is sixteen times larger, and has a functioning train system.
This greenhouse was situated alongside our walking path from campsite to capital.  The walk took less than an hour and covered more than a quarter of the country's length.

But that's on the flats along the Rhine river valley.  Along the Austrian border on the other side of the country - locally referred to as the "Oberland" - Liechtenstein is mountainous and harder to get around.  We spent a sunny day hiking the ski resort of Malbun and watching a falconry show, and another few days on a long, trans-nation hike.  The peaks here are part of the Western Rhaetian Alps. Cowbells clanked on the summer breeze.
One of the trip's wierd animal experiences was at "BIRKA Bird Paradise," a zoo-like aviary that we never really figured out.  There were plenty of parrots and chickens, but who the heck knows why they were there?
In some ways, Liechtenstein feels a bit like a roadstop along the expanse of our trip.  We visited just after returning from a trip back home - we flew back into Ljubljana airport, where we'd left our car, and drove up into the Austrian Alps feeling excited and full of energy.  Two weeks later, we left Liechtenstein bemused and restless, driving on to France and broader horizons.  What had we seen?  What had we done?  Walked, looked at postage stamps, wandered around a garden, gotten confused, felt hemmed-in - and seen some strange birds.  It's not that it wasn't pleasant, it's just that we wanted to get back on the road.
There's a romantic myth about Europe: that it's filled with tiny kingdoms, where princes and kings and queens sit in their castles, ignored by the rest of the world.  Two and a half centuries ago, before Napoleon and the fall of the Holy Roman Empire, there really were little duchies and comtés scattered amongst and beside the major countries - in Germany alone there were around 300 sovereign states.
Today, almost all of those little kingdoms are gone, and you'll find only three micro-states ruled by royal families: Luxembourg (which isn't really that micro), Monaco (which can hardly be called a forgotten kingdom) and Liechtenstein.  In a lot of ways, this little place is a unique throwback.
Approaching Vaduz, a traveler passes through farms and orderly vineyards.  The mountains rise to one side, very green and lush in the late summer, but topped by glaciers and distant rocks. There's a quaint little castle just above town, where a real prince lives.  A few Victorian-Gothic steeples rise above the beech treetops.  It looks, from afar, just like the capital of a fairytale, middle-european, lost-principality should look.
Of course, close up, it's full of Toyota dealerships, pizza places, bank buildings and shopping complexes.  Theres too much traffic and not enough places to park.  If modern concrete is your thing, maybe you'll like it. If you want to visit a peaceful principality town, though, avoid the capital.  You can stay anywhere else in the country and still drive to Vaduz in twenty minutes, if you feel like it.  Better yet, take the bus.
This picture was taken at dusk from a third story window of the one old Inn still left in town, Gasthof Löwen.  The timber-framed building has literally been walled in by roads and development.  On the last night in the country, we went to sleep under the eaves, listening to the grumbling roundabout outside in the night, dreaming of bigger places to explore.

To see all of our posts about Liechtenstein, just click here.