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Little Liechtenstein

The country of Liechtenstein is essentially a family firm, headed by His Serene Highness Hans Adam II von und zu Liechtenstein. He resides with his immediate family in the fairy-tale 12th century stone castle, Schloss Vaduz, perched on a hill above the capital. Special talents of the 32,000 inhabitants is making money - several billion francs per year.

I was in Vaduz on a whim. When I was 15, I spent about an hour there. Curious to see it again, I decided to give it a go being in nearby Switzerland, anyway. To get to Liechtenstein, the fourth smallest country in the world, I took the post bus from Sargans.

Where to find any action on a Friday afternoon wasn’t immediately apparent, so I asked the proprietor of a lingerie shop who smilingly pointed me to the centre of town, all of one street up (duh!). Car-free Städtle was about two blocks long and lined with interesting sculptures, part of the exhibit Bad RagARTz in Vaduz and neighbouring Swiss town, Bad Ragaz, where sculptures leave museums and collections to go on open-air exhibitions from May to October.

Soon, a man on a scooter approached me, asking if I was looking for a hotel and did I want to stay at Hotel Residence and pay a lot of money, perhaps? I vehemently shook my head and was promptly escorted to the Engel. There he introduced me to the receptionist. "She wants our most expensive room." She looked me over and volleyed back. "Looks like she spends a lot of money." A practiced routine, no doubt. And that's how I came to spend a night in Liechtenstein. Somehow, I hadn’t expected touts in an alpine village. But the room was nice, not too expensive, and Engel means Angel. Always good to know I'm being watched over by that ethereal species.

This is the only country named for the family who bought the land - the Liechtenstein family of Vienna. The year was 1699 and the purchase was the only way for this powerful family to get a seat among the ranks of Imperial Princes. A sovereign nation since 1866, the billionaire head of state wields more power than his colleagues around the continent. He is frequently political. In other European monarchies, that would cause a major stir and demands that the monarch withdraw and can we get rid of that archaic state form already.

Hans-Adam is confident, though. In a booklet entitled Das Fürstentum Liechtenstein - gestern, heute und morgen, the regent declares that "the strong position of the monarchy that is repeatedly criticised by anti-royalists is deeply rooted in the people’s mindset".

Also, confidently spread out among pamphlets for museums, tours and sightseeing were big brochures presenting Money and the Stock Exchange and Investorama 2006 by SGT, the private bank of the royal house.

A short walk from Engel - all of 50 metres perhaps - was a tourist information-cum-souvenir emporium. I headed in for a map and some guidance. Who was behind the counter if not scooter man, trying to peddle Schloss Vaduz or something, to a group of Russian tourists.

Nearby, a plaque on the Rathaus, City Hall, proudly announced that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe stayed in Vaduz on his way from Italy, from the 1st to the 2nd of June, 1788. His short stay has been turned into yet another tourism opportunity with the "Visit Vaduz with Goethe" experience trail.

Inside a small plaza, Café Nexus beckoned with laughter, music and welcoming, cosy torches. Liechtensteiners were dressed for a night on the town; the men in handsome suits and the women in trousers, pretty sandals and discreet jewellery. It was obvious - though not in a brash way - that this was a wealthy town. They seemed to be social, lively people. A table meant for two, was easily shared by nine Vaduzers who didn’t mind sitting close. There was something pleasantly Italian about the atmosphere here.

Next to me was a stylish outdoor bar with sleek black leather couches and ottomans. One man had put his feet up, taken his jacket off, loosened his tie and gotten himself a beer. Mobile phone in one hand, he handled a laptop and what looked like a contract with the other. Also, two women sat with their feet up, heads close, beers in hand, discussing a spreadsheet - business, but no stress.

The prince's castle looked suitably spooky, illuminated against the evening sky. It's not open to the public, but judging from pictures in my little booklet, Lichtenstein, the inside is warm and rustic rather than grandiose. Even the chandeliers seem modest. I like that in a castle. Also, it had the appearance like a slight tremor of the earth might throw it head first on top of Hotel Residence. I was glad I hadn't been persuaded to part with a lot of money.

Here's an interesting titbit about Liechtenstein. Women got the vote in 1984! I asked about this, and everyone I spoke with, women and men, said this had not been a problem, just a formality, really. Everyone knew women were the real decision makers anyway. I wasn't convinced. Sometimes that formality is what matters.

Early the next morning, strolling along the Rhine, I discovered a fabulous old wooden covered bridge - for walkers, bikers and riders only. As I made my way across, the floorboards squeaked slightly and an aroma of horse tickled my nostrils. At intervals, shutters afforded glimpses of the Rhine floating vigorously by.

About halfway through, a white metal sign told me I was now exactly on the borderline; Liechtenstein to the left and Switzerland to the right. Crossing, I walked for a bit in the Swiss village, Sevelen, but the bridge drew me back. I hopped across the border a few times: Now I’m in Switzerland, now in Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Liechtenstein - until that got old.

On the way back for breakfast, I passed a builder whistling "My Blue Heaven" and three women leaning out of windows, cleaning ledges, laughing and chatting gaily. Cheerful people, these Liechtensteiners. Happy visitors, too. As I sat enjoying my coffee on the covered terrace overlooking Städtle, four Australians - one man and three women, and none of them a day under 70 - sat down at the next table. They were laughing and telling frisky jokes. The Melbournians asked me what I had been doing and I told them about the old bridge. I suggested they go see it, and wouldn't it be romantic to kiss on the border line. They took to that immediately, giggled like naughty school children and set off for the Rhine. That was the last I saw of them.

An interesting concept, now that I think of it. Kissing at borders. Even more interesting than merely jumping back and forth. A great idea for a travel theme, no? I kind of envied those friendly pensioners as I saw them potter on down the street. Or maybe I was just feeling lonely."

Many visitors leave after an hour or two, slightly disappointed. Liechtenstein is not the medieval little kingdom they expected. It's rather a modern country. Is it fair to expect a country to remain in another age to please jaded tourists and passing travellers searching for times gone by? The laid-back little capital is not a hub of nightlife activity, but you don’t go to the Alps for that, anyway, do you? It’s a green and flowery country and it’s easy to spend a few pleasant days here.

After breakfast I hopped on a bus and headed for the hills. About halfway up, little Triesenberg looked cosy with its toy-size Rathaus, alpine restaurants, wooden chalets on rolling green meadows, mountains towering behind and a grand view of the Rhine Valley. I was going to get off, but was prevented by a raving lunatic who seated himself next to me. He kept moving his head back and forth and talked loudly to no one in particular. Luckily, he didn’t spit or anything.

The bus zigzagged up the winding road and soon a police car blocked the road. Our driver stopped, got off and lighted a ciggy, leaving us passengers in the dark. Most didn’t seem to mind, though. Some dug out their lunch packs and started nibbling on dark bread. After five minutes, a herd of cows were shepherded by, some of them with flower garlands. One cow tried to lick my face. I think she may have been Ludmilla, the cow pictured in my little booklet. Luckily, a windowpane separated us.
At an altitude of 1,600 metres, the landscape around Malbun was less jagged and gentler than many other alpine villages. Liechtenstein has had several Olympic downhill winners and this is also where Prince Charles learned to ski - and you can too.

I got off the bus, bought an ice cream, trudged along, and soon noticed a chairlift, offering to take me to Sareiserjoch at 2,003 metres. Forgetting for one insane moment that I hate those wiggly things, I purchased a return-ticket. Half a minute up, I had to start breathing deeply and hold on for dear life. Don’t know why such an irrational fear had struck me lately. I had heard others say the same and wondered if cowardice comes with age.

The elderly German couple sharing the lift with me shot that theory right out the window. In their 80s, they were flirting, touching, laughing and eagerly pointing out places of interest to each other and to me with enough vigour to rattle the damn chair.

On the top, excellent hiking trails tempted. The nearest mountain appeared close enough to touch - at least for a mountain goat of average agility. The terrace of Bergrestaurant Saris afforded magnificent views of Malbun below - little clusters of alpine homes in the hills along the winding way down. I could have remained for hours, just enjoying the view and my lemony ice tea.

But I had places to go, things to see. Also, two black crows hovered over me and my packet of crisps. I idly wondered if they were discussing lunch or thinking of using my head for a toilet. While I debated whether to brave the lift back down or chicken out and walk, a man jumped off the chairlift, carrying a tiny baby in a pink blanket, kind of haphazardly on one arm. That did it. If he could do that with a baby in hand, I could too.

Going down was even worse. I had my eyes closed the whole time, except a peek now and then - to reinforce the fear, you understand. Whenever I passed a chair full of people coming up, I pretended to tan, a good reason for closed eyes. I felt very lonely in chair 34 and prayed it wouldn't stop. It's not that I'm afraid of heights, exactly. Cable cars are fine, but in the wiggly chairlift, I felt so exposed to the vagaries of nature and even more, the vagaries of man-made machinery. The thought of stopping and remaining still up there for any length of time… well, I know I must have looked white as a freshly laundered tablecloth in a five-star restaurant.

Coming down the mountain, I was annoyed with myself for this ridiculous fear. Back on solid ground, however, I decided to shift my perspective. The fact was, I was courageous. After all, it isn’t brave if you’re not scared. Feeling pleased with myself, I even considered taking another lift up to a mountain on the other side of the valley, but thought better of it. Enough stomach-churning for one day. Time to move on.

Having six minutes to spare before the next bus to Vaduz, I decided I had enough time to sprint up a steep hill towards an interesting-looking mountain chapel, have a quick look-see, run back down and hop on the bus. Halfway up, I could hardly draw a breath past my throat. My pulse was so fast and hard, my heart was about to jump through my skin. Two sturdy old women with walking sticks passed me, made clucking sounds and shook their heads disapprovingly. Yes, yes, I should have known better. A quick uphill sprint at this altitude differs somewhat from one at sea level. I should have walked like them, 20 metres an hour. After my pulse was back to normal, I reached the top ahead of them and revelled inside the cool interior of the Friedenskapelle Malbun.

Outside, an attractive wellspring was thoughtfully provided for fools who walked the hills without carrying water - like me. As I gorged myself on the fresh mountain water, I noticed the Vaduz-bus was about to leave. Rushing back down the hill, I shouted like a madwoman for the bus to wait. I barely managed to stumble on board. The driver and a group of preschoolers on an outing stared at me as if I had escaped from a mountain spa for the terminally deranged. I plonked down on the first available seat - next to the loony from earlier, talking to the air. We must have looked quite the pair.

After about an hour in Vaduz, I considered naming this "Vaduz: is it worth the trouble"? I was ready to dismiss Liechtenstein as a curious, but slightly dull destination. But after my early morning walk, seeing more of the country, I viewed its merits in a new light. Now I could call it "Liechtenstein: you’ll love it". It's an attractive little country with an excellent setting, a peculiar history, polite, kind and cheerful people. And who am I to blame a country for focussing on what it does best, even if it's money.

Here's what I've learned and which I'm happy to share. Don't trash a place before you've spent at least 24 hours there. For me, those early morning walks have become essential to getting a feel for a place, outside the hurried tourist trails. There's nothing quite like watching a city wake up - camera and notebook in hand.

Back in Vaduz, I decided to follow Goethe's lead and move on north. And so I headed for the Austrian border, hoping for another interesting border crossing to investigate - and perhaps someone to investigate it with.

Other things to do and see in Liechtenstein:
The prince may not invite you to the castle, but at his cellars, you’re welcome to a princely wine tasting at Hofkellerei.

The city train offers a popular 30-minute Vaduz experience and Liechtenstein has several good museums, among them the cool Museum of Fine Arts and the very popular (seriously!) Postage Stamp Museum.

Apart from great hiking/walking and skiing in Malbun, you can also get close to falcons, eagles and hawks at Galina Falconry. If you want your passport stamped (a rare occurrence in Europe today), head for the nearest tourist office and fork up two francs. Forty thousand visitors fall for this every year. I did too.