(Princely Palace in Vaduz, with the Liechtensteiner Alps in the background)
The title of this post comes from a writer friend a mine, who used it to describe Liechtenstein as we were visiting on a road trip. It is one of the six “micro-states” of Europe, which are Andorra, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, San Marino, and Vatican City. I like the name, even though none of them is technically a “kingdom”, so I decided to use it for this series on these little countries.
Why write about them? Well, there are several reasons. First of all, not many people visit all of them (or even ANY of them!) They are unusual in that, when you visit them, you wonder how they survived into the modern world, given all the land-grabbing that has been a central feature of European history for millenia. There is also something quite “cute” and quaint about these places that have hung on to their independence and culture despite being surrounded by larger and more powerful neighbors. Some visit them just to add another country to their “list” (and there’s nothing wrong with that!) And of course for passport stamp collectors like me, these places have some of the coolest passport stamps in the world! What’s not to like?
The Principality of Liechtenstein is sandwiched between Austria on the east and Switzerland on the west. It is a rare “double-landlocked” country: it is a landlocked country (no access to the sea or ocean) that is surrounded by landlocked countries. There aren’t actually that many countries in the world that have this geographic distinction, which is yet ANOTHER reason to visit!
(Here’s a map of Europe, showing where Liechtenstein is.)
(And here’s their flag!)
Liechtenstein is not a big place: it has an area of 62 square miles (160 square kilometers) and is the fourth-smallest country in Europe. There are around 37,000 people in the country, with around 5,000 in the capital “city”, Vaduz. The Rhine River flows through the capital and also forms much of the border with Switzerland.
(The Rhine River near Balzers, Liechtenstein, with Swiss Alps in background.)
Liechtenstein owes its existence to Napoleon, oddly enough. In 1806, after numerous French victories, the Austrian Emperor, Franz II (who was also Holy Roman Emperor) was forced to sign the Treaty of Pressburg in 1806, by which he gave up a ton of territories to the France and its allies. One of those allies, Bavaria, became a kingdom as a result of that treaty, while Liechtenstein was taken away from Austria and given its independence.
(Painting of the surrender of Austrian Emperor Franz II to Napoleon at the Battle of Austerlitz, in 1806, which led to the Treaty of Pressburg.)
The country is closely tied to Switzerland: the currency in Liechtenstein is the Swiss franc, though euros are also taken everywhere, at a 1:1 ratio to the Swiss franc, so you can use either currency. However, this is very much a separate country. It is also a very Catholic country, one that is highly loyal to its princely family. Indeed, the national motto is: “For God, Prince and Fatherland”. German is the official language.
The country is currently ruled by the Prince-Regent Alois, who takes care of the day-to-day business of government for his father, Prince Hans-Adam II, who stepped down in 2004. Prince Alois is married to Sophie, the Duchess of Bavaria, and they have 4 kids.
(Prince Alois, Princess Sophie and kids at the palace)
Liechtenstein has the world’s third highest per-capita income (behind Qatar and Luxembourg.) The Prince is said to be worth $5 billion by himself.
Liechtensteiners (yes, that’s what they call themselves!) are very sports-minded. Soccer (football) is popular, with the best local teams playing in the Swiss Football League. The biggest sports successes for Liechtenstein have come in the Winter Olympics, in alpine skiing. The country has won 9 Olympic medals and on a per-capita basis, has won more Olympic medals than any other country: go figure! It is the smallest nation to win a medal in any Olympics, Winter or Summer, and the only nation to win a medal in the Winter Games but not in the Summer Games. Whenever someone wins an Olympic medal, there are big celebrations all over the country.
(Hanni Wenzel on her way to one of two gold medals at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics)
So when should you visit Liechtenstein, and what should you see? Well, the National Day is August 15th, and it’s the ONLY day that you can visit the Princely Palace in Vaduz and meet the royal family! They put on a big show up at the palace, with food, entertainment, tours of the palace, and of course the chance to mingle with royalty. In the evening there’s an amazing fireworks show, and it’s a total party day in the Principality. There’s also a big “Funfair” in downtown Vaduz all day, which is great for the kids.
(National Day festivities at the Princely Palace in Vaduz)
The town of Malbun is a great place to go, winter or summer. It’s where you’ll find Liechtenstein’s only ski resort, and in summer you can ride the chairlift up the mountain for incredible views. There’s plenty of other activities in Malbun too. For example, you could visit the Galina Falconry Center, which takes you on an alpine hike with a mountain eagle! This video is just a taste of it:
The Hotel Gorfion in Malbun has a large petting zoo, where kids can get up close and personal with lots of different animals.
Speaking of animals, want to try something REALLY different? How about llama and alpaca trekking in the Alps? Yes, you read that right: LLAMAS AND ALPACAS! IN THE ALPS! You can do it in Triesenberg: a 2-hour experience, with 1.5 hours of hiking with the animals. This is REALLY cool!
Continuing with the animal theme, if you like birds, you’ll want to head to the town of Mauren, for a visit to the Vogelparadies (Bird Paradise) Birka. Entry is FREE and there are some really cool birds there. Like THIS one:
You want culture? I’ll give you culture: how about cows and bells and flowers? Yes, we’re talking about the annual Alpabfahrt (departure from the Alps), where the milk cows that have been kept up in the high alpine meadows all summer are brought down for the winter. This is something you see throughout the Alpine countries, but the event in Liechtenstein is special because it’s not crowded with tourists and everyone can get close to the cows and the herders. It’s much more of a “family” thing than it is in other places.
For those that may not be familiar with this tradition, it goes like this. The dairy cows are herded up the mountains to spend the summer feasting on lush, alpine meadow grass. The herders (mostly teenage boys and girls) spend the entire summer with their cows, milking them twice a day by hand, and then making large wheels of Alpine cheese from the milk. At the end of the summer (here in Liechtenstein it’s in early September), they bring the cows back down to the valleys for the winter, and there’s a big celebration for the cows and the herders. In some areas the cows are decorated with flowers (which they get to eat after the parade!) but the cow that gives the most milk over the summer gets a special headdress, as you can see in the next photo.
The cows all wear large bells, so you can hear them coming from a LONG ways away!
Honestly, how cool is THAT?
I hope you enjoyed this short tour of Liechtenstein. If you have further questions, or need more help planning a trip to this “tiny kingdom”, just contact me and we’ll get to work!