“It occurred to me that there is no reason to go to Liechtenstein except to say that you have been there. If it were simply part of Switzerland… nobody would dream of visiting it” – Bill Bryson – ‘Neither here Nor there’
Liechtenstein is the fourth smallest independent European state after the Vatican City, Monaco and San Marino. It is predominantly Germanic but the only German speaking state that does not have a national border with Germany itself.
When the Holy Roman Empire was abolished by Napoleon in 1806 all of Europe seemed to forget about this tiny insignificant Principality and the royal family were able to keep their heads down and have continued to exist as an independent state ever since and as such it is the only state in Europe that can claim direct continuity with the thousand year old Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne. It is one of only two countries in the world that are double landlocked, the other is Uzbekistan, as neither of its neighbours, Switzerland or Austria have access to the sea either. It is therefore safe to say that fishing is probably not an important contributor to the economy in Liechtenstein.
After an excellent breakfast and with Sally in possession of the map and entrusted with navigation duties we set off from the hotel and attempted first of all to plot a route over the mountain behind us. The roads were narrow and after a while it became clear that they just went round in big circles without ever going across the top and down the other side so we had to abandon this course and return to the main road that took us effortlessly to the town of St Gallen, which is a sort of gateway to the Alps.
Here things became slightly more difficult and Sally’s navigational skills were tested to the limit as she was entrusted with the task of getting us through the town and on the road to Vaduz.
It turned out that she is a natural at map reading and that surprised me as she guided us through the town and then selected a minor road and scenic route where the scenery was wonderful with green fields that looked like watercolours in the rain and clean alpine meadows all bathed under a gentle pastel blue sky. In the fields adjacent to the roads there were honey coloured alpine cattle with full udders feeding on the lush grass and clanging noisily about on account of the huge cow-bells that they had hanging around their necks. They were friendly and inquisitive and when we stopped to admire the view they came close and posed obligingly for photographs.
The road climbed through the town of Tregen and continued along the scenic route and through the Ruppen Pass with more impressive views and then we picked up a main road that took us south through the low-lying plains of the Appenzell region. This wasn’t quite so scenic but as we drove the Alps got closer and their high peaks began to loom overhead rising in dramatic style from the meadows and arable farmlands of this relatively flat part of Switzerland.
Unfortunately the weather ahead was beginning to change and dark clouds were hanging in the mountain passes. Just before we crossed the border into Liechtenstein we came across a picturesque little town called Buchs where we stopped to admire the views of the Alps that completely surrounded this delightful little place and its attractive lake. We didn’t linger for long because by now we were excited about arriving at our destination so we moved on and resumed our gentle drive south.
We passed through the unremarkable state capitol of Vaduz with the castle of the ruling Prince, the Schloss Vaduz, perched high overhead and with magnificent views of all that he possesses stretched out below. Out of the city we began our ascent to the village of Triesenberg a thousand metres above Vaduz into the Alps.
As we climbed a road with spectacular hairpin bends it unexpectedly started to rain, gently at first but about half way to the village it really started to fall quite steadily which made driving more difficult than it might have been and we were glad when we arrived at the top. We found a bar with an outside terrace overlooking the Rhine valley below and across into Switzerland and although it was still raining the terrace was sheltered and we took an outside table and enjoyed a drink and the magnificent view.
Although the rain was disappointing and the bar staff and the regulars thought we were slightly daft to be sitting outside we wouldn’t have missed this view for the world and it was so good that after the first drink we had a second and stayed a while longer.
First of all before setting back to Rorschach we drove to the very top of the mountain above the town to the winter sports resort of Malbun. The road was quiet and we made a leisurely ascent through small villages with an abundance of unoccupied winter ski chalets and as the road became steeper the car began to strain in objection to the uphill task. The smell of burning clutch was enough to confirm that it wasn’t altogether enjoying the assignment of taking us to the top.
When we completed the drive and stopped in Malbun we were one thousand six hundred metres above sea level and there were good views to be had all around us. The place was almost completely abandoned because by May there is no snow remaining in the valleys or on the ski slopes and only the very tops of the mountains still retained a miserly covering.
The number of days of snow cover in the Alps is steadily reducing and the snow line is retreating because recent years have seen the warmest winters on record in the Alps and climate projections predict even higher temperatures in the future. Scientists say that this is due to global warming and some warn that within twenty years skiing will not be possible below two thousand metres and already some investors are refusing to offer loans to resorts under one thousand five hundred metres as they worry about future snow cover.
Large numbers of ski resorts now rely on snow cannons to create simulated snow by pumping thousands of gallons of water into the air which turn to ice crystals to provide an artificial skiing surface but unfortunately these machines use so much energy and consume so much water that they are also contributing to the environmental damage and this solution to the no-snow problem may be self defeating.
We didn’t stay long at the top and not being able to get across the mountain because the road terminates at Malbun we returned down the mountain stopping in the Hamlet of Steg where we looked at the charming little chapel of St Wendelin that stands next to the River Samina that was flowing swiftly, full as it was of the last of the melted snow from the mountain top, and babbling excitedly as it surged towards the river valley below.
The views were excellent and we stopped a time or two to enjoy them, although we were reluctant to leave them behind we wanted to leave the Alps and return to the lake where to the east of us we could see that the weather looked much better.
So we drove out of Liechtenstein the way that we came, back through the dreary Vaduz and then across the Rhine and back into Switzerland. Vaduz was a bit disappointing but I don’t really know what I was expecting really, it just sounded as though it should be more interesting than it is, the very fact that it has been able to remain independent through two hundred turbulent years of European history should have given me a clue. If none of its more powerful neighbours had taken a fancy to it or annexed it for themselves in all of that time that probably says a lot.
Although it is regarded now as a wealthy country this hasn’t always been the case because in the immediate aftermath of the Second-World-War the Prince of Liechtenstein had to sell off family heirlooms to stay solvent but in response to this sorry state of affairs the economy of Liechtenstein was completely modernised and the advantage of low corporate tax rates attracted many foreign companies to the country.
These days the Prince is the world’s sixth wealthiest head of state, with an estimated wealth of three billion Euro (by comparison, the personal fortune of Queen Elizabeth II of England is estimated at seven and a half billion Euro) and the residents of the country enjoy one of the world’s highest standards of living. And that’s not bad for the world’s sixth smallest country!
We followed the road back through Buchs and across the alpine plain and back towards the lake at Rorschach taking a different route back across the hills surrounding the town but always making for the blue sky and the sun ahead of us. In the late afternoon we arrived in the town and found a car park and took the short walk to the lakeshore. The sun was shining now and the sky was a brilliant blue, and although the town had a Saga like feel, it was pleasant and safe and all that I needed to make this perfect was a bar.
We found somewhere nearly perfect, a swimming club building built on a promontory extending into the lake and with tables and chairs with a stunning view of the water looking out over to Germany on the other side of the water. We spent a leisurely hour drinking beer and eating ice cream and then we walked along the promenade and back to the car. Sally’s navigational skills continued to astound me and although I had completely forgotten the route back out of the town she negotiated our short drive to the hotel effortlessly.