The Liechtenstein Trail bounces New York Times off my bucket list

Martin Knopfel, who designed the Liechtenstein Trail, and I at about the midway point before it opened in May. Photo by Marina Pascucci

TRIESENBERG, Liechtenstein — I’ve always had two bucket lists: one for travel, one for writing. My travel bucket list has shrunk rapidly after 105 countries. My writing bucket list remained frustratingly stagnant, even after retirement 5 ½ years ago. It sat on my computer screen, mocking me like an old boss saying I should find another line of work. I had plenty of time on my hands to knock off goals. I thought I would X-out Publish in a Major Magazine four years ago when Penthouse agreed to buy my story on a hotel in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, that specializes in S&M. Then Penthouse got sold, its direction changed and all I got was a nice kill fee and nightmares about leather-clad women in cages.

Marina and I holding up our New York Times debut.

I’d tell you the cliche that I could wallpaper the inside of my apartment with rejection notices from The New York Times. But I never received any. I didn’t get a single response. However, my sportswriting background turned me into a bulldog at a young age and now I’m just a stubborn old dog. A year ago, I made a friend who knew someone at The Times who knew the travel editor who put a bug in his ear about me.

The result came May 26 when The New York Times published my story on Liechtenstein along with photos from my girlfriend, the uber-talented Marina Pascucci. My writing bucket list just got shorter, finally.

Why Liechtenstein? Where is Liechtenstein? What is Liechtenstein? Good questions, all. I visited and wrote about Liechtenstein in 2016. The tiny principality in the middle of the Alps between Austria and Switzerland was a fall-back destination after a freelance assignment in Austria fell through. Turns out, the fourth smallest country in Europe has more than just beautiful, oversized postage stamps. From the gorgeous, lightly trodden mountains to the cute villages to the great cuisine, Liechtenstein is Switzerland light, the perfect off-the-beaten-path post for the intrepid traveler.

Last year while researching future travel story topics I stumbled onto this factoid: 2019 is the 300th anniversary of Liechtenstein’s independence. Yes, through Napoleon Bonaparte’s wide swath through Europe, World War I and Nazi Germany, Liechtenstein never lost its country. Or its soul.

I called Liechtenstein Marketing for a story angle. Among the year long list of events, they were creating a 46.6-mile hiking trail that connects all 11 cities in the country. It would open in May 2019 and would include an app that gives information and virtual reality visuals of 147 places of interest (POI).

The views of Triesen from Triesenberg, the highest town in Liechtenstein. Photo by Marina Pascucci

It’s called the Liechtenstein Trail and in October, I was going to be its first guinea pig.

Marina is a gym junkie and not much of a hiker but she loves mountains. I love her photos of mountains. She came along. We had a one-night layover in Zurich then took the train south to the cute capital of Vaduz and a bus to a gorgeous off-season ski resort, Malbun, the only ski resort in Liechtenstein.

Sure, saying I walked across a country, knowing it’s Liechtenstein, is like saying I got published in The New York Times and it was a want ad. I once walked across Monaco. It took 45 minutes. Liechtenstein isn’t that small but it’s all of 17 miles long and nine miles wide. As I wrote in The Times, “It is one cattle farm bigger than Staten Island.” You can drive the length of it in 25 minutes. A middle-aged person with a long-expired gym membership could walk across it in two days and have time for lunch and dinner out both days.

“Many people have only vague cliches about our small country,” Alois, Hereditary Prince of Liechtenstein, wrote in an email. “I hope that the anniversary will help the world to get to know Liechtenstein better.”

Alois, also known as Count Rietberg, is the perfect symbol of Liechtenstein’s friendly, homey, small-town feel. Not many members of royal families in the world can be seen jogging through the streets of the capital, or sharing wine with the public at his own winery or walking the same trails I walked.

The 51-year-old Hereditary Prince, the eldest son of Hans-Adam II, the Prince of Liechtenstein, opens his castle to the public every summer for an annual party. A bigger party occurred Jan. 23, the date in 1719 when the communities of Vaduz and Schellenberg, at the time members of the German state, signed the contract forming the principality of Liechtenstein.

Me and Marina at our Hotel Turna Malbun balcony.

This is heady stuff for the population of 38,000. Vaduz, about as big as some rest stops on Germany’s Autobahn, has all of 5,300 people. Liechtenstein has no airport or military. It has two train stations, two newspapers, one hospital, one TV channel and one radio station.

It also has one very proud boast: It has had the same border for 300 years, something its bigger neighbors can’t claim. In Liechtenstein the only things big are its mountains. This anniversary is bigger.

“Historically, this is the most important event in my life,” said Leander Schadler, 61, a Liechtensteiner historian and hiking guide. “For the people of today’s principality, the (merging) of the earldom of Vaduz and the lordship of Schellenberg to an imperial principality was a fundamental change. My ancestors no longer lived in a German state.”

Liechtensteiners have also waited 300 years to tell the world where they are. Please note: They are between Austria and Switzerland — “not Australia and Sweden” as Liechtenstein Marketing CEO Michelle Kranz often corrects. It’s not just geographically challenged Americans they must educate.

“Good journalists in Switzerland, they don’t know what currency we have,” said Martin Knopfel, Liechtenstein Marketing’s marketing director who developed the Liechtenstein Trail. “They think we have the euro. (It’s the Swiss franc.) This is one of our major tasks: To put Liechtenstein onto the landscape and for us, the 300-year anniversary is a big, big, big chance.”

Before 2019, Liechtenstein was best known for colorful — and large — postage stamps and being a tax haven for companies around the world. Liechtenstein used a low corporate tax rate of 12.5 percent to lure corporations in the 1970s. At one point, 73,000 holding companies were in Liechtenstein. The tax windfall helped give Liechtenstein the third highest gross domestic product in the world behind Qatar and Luxembourg.

In 2008, U.S., Germany and the United Kingdom investigated companies avoiding local taxes by registering in Liechtenstein. Now Liechtenstein is no longer so lenient. It hasn’t hurt the economy. The average annual income is $65,000 and its unemployment rate is 2.4 percent. In fact, there are more jobs than citizens to fill them. About 20,000 people commute daily into Liechtenstein for work, causing what many locals say is the nation’s No. 1 problem: Traffic on the main two-lane road leading into the capital can be a bit slow at rush hour.

That’s it.

Liechtenstein has maintained its culture through 300 years of independence. Photo by Marina Pascucci

“The greatest accomplishment of the last 20 years has been how Liechtenstein has handled the global financial crisis and modernized its financial industry,” the Hereditary Prince emailed. “Liechtenstein has a very internationally oriented economy with a large export industry and an international financial center.”

It also has something that doesn’t make the news: 250 miles of hiking trails. Working with Liechtenstein Marketing, I broke up my trek along the Liechtenstein Trail into five days. I’m an experienced hiker: I’ve backpacked in the Himalayas and the Andes. I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. I lived and hiked in Colorado for 23 years. I trekked for five days in Slovakia’s High Tatras in 2014, in the highlands of Laos two years ago, the Caucasus of the Republic of Georgia last year and the Fan Mountains of Tajikistan in May.

But never have I experienced hikes with such variety as Liechtenstein: mountains, forests, villages, farms, rivers — sometimes all in the same day.

“This is the difference between this trail and other long-distance trails,” Knopfel said. “Nature, nature, nature. This trail is really in the heart of Liechtenstein.”

I’m 63 and pretty fit. But despite the trail having a mile in elevation gain, it is for anyone. Those who want to bail, can stop in any village and grab a bus back to their hotel — as Marina did in the two days she joined me.

The hotel Jacuzzi was a great place to greet me after hikes. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Malbun, our lovely ski resort, sits on the southeast end of the country. It’s a short ride from any town using Liechtenstein’s efficient bus system. And the Jacuzzi, Turkish bath and sauna at the Hotel Turna Malbun were welcome signs upon return each day.

Here’s what makes the Liechtenstein Trail unique to the world: No need to pack a lunch. Because it connects all 11 towns, you can always drop your backpack at one of the plethora of restaurants. I never did. I wanted to cut costs. But I often walked past people sitting outside in the sun digging into kasknopfle, Liechtenstein’s national dish. It’s a big pile of short noodles covered in two cheeses and shaved fried onions. It’s great fuel for hiking up your next mountain if you don’t fall into a food coma first.

The Liechtenstein Trail officially opened May 26. In October, pre-app, I marched off feeling a bit naked using Liechtenstein Marketing’s stack of trail maps and my cell phone’s iffy GPS. With only a few wanderings astray, on sunny October days in the high 60s, here’s what I found (detailed map here: file:///C:/Users/johnh/AppData/Local/Packages/Microsoft.MicrosoftEdge_8wekyb3d8bbwe/TempState/Downloads/Panoramakarten-Grafik_2019_EN%20(9).pdf:

The 12th century castle in Balzers.

DAY 1 — Balzers to Triesen to Triesenberg: 8.6 miles, 1,970 feet elevation gain, 5 hours, 15 minutes.

I stood on the edge of the border town in the shadow of a 12th-century castle high up on a hill. Above the castle the craggy brown peaks of 7,200-foot mountains faced another series of peaks on the other side of me. The only sounds I heard were birds chirping. The rural village road had nary a car.

Schadler met Marina and I in Balzers on the east bank of the Rhine across from Switzerland. The 12th century Burg Gutenberg castle is the first POI on the trail. Schadler explained that it belonged to Austria until 1824 when the community of Balzers purchased it and eventually turned it into a museum which it remains today.

Schadler is the authority on Liechtenstein history and hiking. Short, stocky with short gray hair, he peppered the day’s hike with an oral history of Liechtenstein. It began as the Earldom of Vaduz then became absorbed by the German state and the Holy Roman Empire. The German Reichstag felt that Schellenberg was too small to be a member so it joined with Vaduz to form Liechtenstein, which, in German means “light stone” for the color of the five castles that dot the landscape.

Leander Schadler, perhaps Liechtensteion’s leading historian, and me on a bridge heading to Triesenberg. Photo by Marina Pascucci

“There was a time when Liechtenstein was very, very poor,” Schadler said. “Armies were always going through the Rhine Valley and they took everything they could receive.”

During World War II Switzerland protected Liechtenstein and Adolf Hitler never invaded. “Maybe he had too much money in Switzerland,” Schadler said, half jokingly.

Balzers is a postcard-pretty town with bright white fences, vine-covered houses with a plethora of maple trees and a small creek running through it. We walked through town on deathly quiet streets then followed the Rhine until Triesen, Vaduz’s “suburb” to the south.

The trail then heads east and uphill, in parts, seemingly straight uphill. The steep trail to Triesenberg at 2,952 feet passes through beautiful green meadows with dairy cows whose clanging bells were about the only sounds we heard. We walked by dirt fields ready for farming. The trail turns to a dirt service road that is conveniently blocked off for foot traffic and mountain bikers.

A sign on one of many trash cans in the forest reads, “Don’t make noise in forest. Think also of animals.”

The unmanned souvenir shop.

We passed a small alpaca farm where alpacas graze near a self-service souvenir shack selling everything from cheese to llama wool. You look at the price and leave the money in an open cash register overflowing with money. I bought my nephew’s wife some alpaca wool gloves for Christmas and used the credit card machine to pay. Yes, Liechtensteiners are a trustful lot.

Between cuts in the trees are spectacular views of the Swiss Alps, all brown and craggy and imposing. Below are the tile roofs of Balzers and Thiesen peppering the landscape. Park benches are strategically placed at each vista. As I would learn, around every corner is a new view of this lightly trodden country.

All day we only see five people, all joggers.

Martin and I walk through the forest above the capital of Vaduz. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Day 2: Triesenberg-Vaduz-Schaan, 9.3 miles, 1,970 feet elevation gain, 7 hours.

Knopfel met us at 8:30 a.m. at Triesenberg’s post office. Triesenberg, the highest town in Liechtenstein and the closest to Malbun, rests on a mountain with brightly painted houses sporting vegetable gardens and private vineyards and flower boxes with purple, white and pink flowers.. Grapevines hang over front doors.

Knopfel, 42, is a Liechtenstein native and lifelong hiking enthusiast. After Schadler led me through some thick forests and forks in the trail with no signs up yet, I asked Knopfel what should trekkers bring to Liechtenstein.

“What they should do is before they come here, download the app so they have it on their phone,” he said. “Once they are here, they don’t need Internet connection because the app will know your position by the GPS.”

The view of Vaduz, one of the many around every corner.

Day 2 was mostly downhill but no less beautiful. The main road that snakes its way up from the valley to Malbun has lookouts near cows grazing in meadows. Below I could see the town of Triesen, churches, the Rhine and the Swiss Alps beyond.

The path starts out steep into a forest and past little farm houses before we came to the day’s first Point of Interest: a rock. It looks ordinary, only five meters long and 4 ½ meters wide. However, it is 400 million years old, left over from a prehistoric glacier that 18,000 years ago stretched 35 miles into Germany.

We continued through the forest and, this being October, the leaves had turned to yellow, orange, green and red. It isn’t Vermont but add the view below of Vaduz and the Swiss town of Buchs on the other side of the Rhine and you may not find a better view of fall colors in Europe. I saw all of three hikers.

The 12th century Vaduz Castle is on the main road just above the capital. Photo by Marina Pascucci

As the mountain trail descended into a clearing, Knopfel told me this is the trail the Heredity Prince can often be seen. Then I knew why. Greeting us as we emerged from the trees was the princely family home: Vaduz Castle. If a 12th century castle can be unassuming, this is. While it looks majestic with its many A-frame roofs, tower and turrets, it sits directly above the capital. You can walk to it up the main windy road from downtown like a local market.

It has been in the family name since 1712 and their primary residence since 1938. I walked by the gated entrance, framed by ivy, as if walking by a neighbor’s. The castle isn’t open to the public, except one day a year, but Knopfel’s office negotiated with the princely family to include photos of inside the castle on the app.

We passed the castle and dropped into downtown Vaduz (Va-DOOTZ), where we stopped at a carnival and had bratwursts on brown bread for 5 Swiss francs (about $5), an absolute steal in a country with prices higher than Switzerland.

Vaduz is a small-town capital, with a walking mall lined with restaurants and boutique shops but that all but closes down at 8 p.m. I asked one local what you do at night in Liechtenstein and he said, “Go to Austria.” However, Vaduz also has the most Points of Interests. On the main road we walk by the Kunstmuseum art museum, the Postal Museum, the National Museum and garachly yellow brick Parliament building.

The walking mall in Vaduz.

Knopfel led me back up the hill past the ultra-rich Park Hotel Sonnenhof with a beautiful view of the castle from the gazebo and back into the forest. We eventually descended into Schaan, abrutting Valduz to the north and Liechtenstein’s largest city with a whopping 6,300 people. We stop near the bus stop for a well-earned beer.

After two days of going up and down nearly 2,000 feet, my legs were feeling the first signs of fatigue. Marina, whom I took to North America in August, told me, “I think I lost the two kilos I gained in the United States.”

“I have journalists and they say, ‘Oh, I’m a hiker and all physical and we should go on all the tracks,’” Knopfel said. “Then they say, ‘Oh, I didn’t think Liechtenstein was so big.’”

Church of San Laurentius in Schaan, Liechtenstein’s biggest town.

Day 3, Schaan-Planken-Nendeln-Eschen, 10.6 miles, 820 feet elevation gain, six hours.

Schadler picked me up at my hotel and we drove to Schaan and walked through a string of businesses and past the 19th century Church of San Laurentius, another POI. I noticed there is no garbage. I remembered in Vaduz seeing a woman light a cigarette and walking 50 feet to put the match in a trash can. My street in Rome has so much garbage it looks like an alley in rural India.

Liechtenstein’s trails leading back into the highlands are spotless. Schadler says Liechtensteiners are particular about leaving the country the way they found it. We climbed high into the forest and he pointed out an example: A long expanse over a major drop off to the forest beyond. The country proposed building a 180-meter bridge for $1 million for easier access.

The citizens voted it down and leave it as it was, Schadler said, “No good for the forest, no good for the animals.”

Planken, home to Liechtenstein’s Olympic skiing heroes, Hanni and Andreas Wenzel.

The forest led uphill to the town of Planken, home to large, poster-perfect houses all lined with red shutters and flower boxes in full bloom. It’s also home to the Wenzels, Liechtenstein’s first family of skiing. Between Hanni and Andreas they have won five of Liechtenstein’s 10 Winter Olympic medals making the country, they proudly point out, No. 1 in the world in Olympic medals per capita.

We switchbacked down into Nendeln, walked through town where Schadler left me at a bus stop and told me I could walk to Eschen’s post office at the end of the trail just down the road. We said goodbye for the last time as the final two days it’d just be my maps and GPS.

I was on my own.

A tractor rolls along the street in Eschen, Liechtenstein’s industrial town.

Day 4, Eschen-Bendern-Gamprin-Ruggell-Schellenberg, 14.3 miles, 1,640 feet elevation climb, 5 1/2 hours.

We made a mistake.

The day before we were supposed to walk around Eschen, not make a beeline to the post office. Backtracking, I had to hike the steep, quiet residential streets of this otherwise industrial town for an hour, not a good way to start my longest day on the trail. However, the sun had just come up on almost a panorama of mountains and the dairy cows eyeing me lazily as I walked by a meadow gave me an early second wind.

Eschen represents what the Hereditary Prince mentioned as one of Liechtenstein’s great achievements. It’s the headquarters for numerous multinational companies such as Thyssenkrupp Presta, an auto systems manufacturer.

The trail led to Bendern on the bank of the Rhine, noticeably shallow from the lack of rains in the fall. So shallow, I saw a man sitting on a sandbar nearly in the middle of the river.

In the mid-50s and sunny, the weather couldn’t have been better as I meandered through Ruggell, wedged between the forest and the Rhine and where an old man took a pole to knock down apples from his huge tree.

A stone oven from the Roman Empire in Schellenberg.

From Ruggell I walked across expansive farmland and the length of a forest before ascending through a 100-foot canopy into a clearing. Here I saw Schellenberg’s claim to fame. Liechtenstein was part of the Roman Empire and in front of me stood a Roman ruin, complete with a round stone oven and lookouts over Ruggell, the Rhine and the Swiss Alps.

For a Roman soldier, this wouldn’t be a bad outpost.

A forest trail in Schaanwald.

Day 5 — Schellenberg-Mauren-Schaanwald, 6.8 miles, 820 feet elevation gain, 6 hours.

My last day may have been the most beautiful and the most exasperating. Rising early as I had to catch a flight out of Zurich that night, I found myself high above Schellenberg. At 9 a.m., as I climbed through farmland, a sea of clouds had settled under the mountains beyond. A velvet blanket formed the perfect backdrop for small, lonely farmhouses in the fields.

Inspired that I’d seen it all, I began double timing it to the Austrian border and the trail’s end. However, my cell phone’s GPS failed me. It couldn’t match up with the maps and I wound up asking directions in the town of Mauren three times and backtracking twice. When I finally made it across a huge green field into Schaanwald, I could not find the entrance to my last forest walk.

At the Liechtenstein-Austrian border and the end of the trail.

Fighting the desire to see if primal screams echo in the Alps, I called Knopfel who sent me on the right course. However, I took the wrong exit out of the forest and when I found the Austrian border, I had entered on the Austrian side. I missed one side street.

Still, I ventured 50 feet back across to Liechtenstein, turned around and snapped a memorable photo of the border sign and the end of my, ahem, cross-country venture.

Since the trail opened on the day my story appeared, Marketing Liechtenstein reports that more than 10,000 people have already hiked it. Did my story spoil it? No. In this Internet age, the world has no secrets. It just has more people with more information. Liechtenstein won’t change anytime soon.

Three hundred years of independence will do that.

The morning clouds sit under a small shelter above Schellenberg.

Liechtenstein: The Alps’ last monarchy is a tiny slice of royal beauty

The view of Vaduz Castle over the tiny Liechtenstein capital of Vaduz (Pop. 5,300).

The view of Vaduz Castle over the tiny Liechtenstein capital of Vaduz (Pop. 5,300).

TRIESEN, Liechtenstein — The big van rumbled up the Austrian road, the craggy, jagged Alps stretching to our right like a snowy curtain. Austria laid out behind us. Switzerland stood to the right of us. Ahead I saw a ramshackle wooden shack. It consisted of one room. A small wooden bench was at its side. A flagpole held no flag. It looked like an abandoned tool shed. Nope.

It was a border patrol office.

“Here,” my host said, “is Liechtenstein.”

Border patrol at the Austrian-Liechtenstein border.

Border patrol at the Austrian-Liechtenstein border.

I was about to enter my 99th country (Yes, I count Scotland and Wales, British nationalists be damned.). I am here because I can easily get my hands and thoughts around small countries and I’ve seen pictures of Liechtenstein’s unspoiled mountain scenery, dating all the way back to my days collecting stamps in grade school.

Primarily, however, I’m here because of a twisted knee.

I originally scheduled a magazine story on Mikaela Shiffrin, Colorado’s Olympic gold medalist skier who was going to race one of the biggest slaloms of the season Tuesday in Flachau, Austria. However, she partially damaged her medial collateral ligament during training in Sweden last month and is likely out for the season. Mile High Sports magazine cancelled the story. Lufthansa, Europe’s Nazi airline, wouldn’t let me change my flight to Munich. Not the destination. Not the dates. Nothing. So I came anywhere. But instead of going to Austria, I went to Liechtenstein.

Shiffrin’s pain is my gain.

The Alps are everywhere in Liechtenstein which is covered 40 percent by forest.

The Alps are everywhere in Liechtenstein which is covered 40 percent by forest.

Liechtenstein’s border crossing closed 10 years ago but occasionally it hoists the flag and mans the shack to keep tourists honest. Liechtenstein, like neighboring Switzerland, is not a member of the European Union. You need a passport to enter. Monday I didn’t need one.

My passport was Herbert Aichhlozar, my host in my AirBnB.

“You’re the first person I’ve ever met from Liechtenstein,” I told him when he picked me up at the train station after a three-hour train ride to Feldkirch, Austria, “The Gateway to Liechtenstein.” Herbert smiled. He gets that a lot. He’s a short, stocky fit man with a bald pate. His happy face is void of wrinkles which bely his 60 years. In a place this small with this much money — average annual income is 81,500 Swiss francs a year (about $81,000) and unemployment is 2 percent — I can think of one popular activity.

“I never have problems here in Liechtenstein,” he said. “So it’s paradise.”

The capital of Vaduz has only 5,300 people.

The capital of Vaduz has only 5,300 people.

Herbert was born, raised, educated and still lives in Liechtenstein. He’s one of 37,000 Liechtensteiners (ironically, Shiffrin’s manager, Kilian Albrecht, is one of them) who are scattered among 11 villages. Vaduz, the postcard-cute capital, has all of 5,300 people.

The first thing you must know about Liechtenstein is how to pronounce it. Just imitate a cat coughing up a furball: LEEEECCCHHHHT-en-stein.The fourth smallest country in Europe is all of 62 square miles, the size of Staten Island. From one end to the other is 17 miles. It’s nine miles wide. Driving from one end to the other takes 25 minutes. It takes that long to get out of Heathrow Airport. Yet it still has 240 miles of well-marked hiking trails.

A few things you didn’t know about Liechtenstein. If you did, you need to get out more. Liechtenstein has:

No airport
No military
One train station
One ski resort
One hospital
One TV channel
One radio station
Two newspapers

Internationally, Liechtenstein is best known for some of the most beautiful postage stamps in the world and a tax scandal that made it sound as if every drug lord in the Western Hemisphere had a mountain chalet here.
Instead, it should be known for mountain scenery that is nothing short of breathtaking. As we climbed the windy road to Herbert’s town just south of Vaduz, to our right the Alps seemed to get higher with us. The Alps haven’t received much snow lately but the black craggy mountains provided a pretty backdrop to the gingerbread villages and green farm land in the foreground. The country is tucked between Switzerland and the long, western arm of Austria like a very small paper clip. The mountains I’m seeing are actually in Switzerland but the Liechtensteiners are happy to borrow the view. Liechtenstein’s mountains are over the hill to our left.

Herbert seemingly knows everyone in the country. He waved at three motorists as we drove the 15 minutes to his home. As we drive through Vaduz, I see the basic framework of what has made Liechtenstein.

Banks, banks and more banks. Vaduz is lined with them. Liechtenstein has one of the lowest corporate tax rates in the world at 12.5 percent. In the late 1970s, the country used it to lure corporations. They parlayed that into the third highest gross domestic product in the world behind Qatar and Luxembourg. Today 73,000 holding companies have registered offices in Liechtenstein. The taxes generated provide 30 percent of Liechtenstein’s revenue.

That included a 2008 scandal in which numerous companies in Germany, the U.S. and Great Britain were investigated for avoiding local taxes by registering in Liechtenstein. Liechtenstein officials never asked questions. They do now.

But there are plenty of other legitimate businesses. Liechtenstein is the world’s largest producers of false teeth. Hilti, which makes drilling machines, employs 300,000 people around the world.

Everything is close in Liechtenstein which is 62 square miles, about the size of Staten Island.

Everything is close in Liechtenstein which is 62 square miles, about the size of Staten Island.

The only other things big in Liechtenstein are the mountains. Everything else is small. It has only 40 police officers. One of them runs one of the country’s two breweries.

“When he finishes his work as a policeman, he goes and makes beer,” Herbert said.

He said this as the time nears 5 p.m.

“This is rush hour,” he said. There were two cars ahead of us. Herbert wasn’t laughing. This was no joke.

Vaduz Castle is accessible on one of the main roads.

Vaduz Castle is accessible on one of the main roads.

Above us, the Prince of Liechtenstein’s 12th century castle stuck up over Vaduz. It’s steel gray and looks made of spare car parts but the large tower gives it the air of royalty. Liechtenstein is the last monarchy in the Alps yet it’s different. Prince Alois, 47, can often be seen jogging through downtown, grabbing a pizza or getting his hair cut. Everyone I met over three days in Liechtenstein has met the prince. I’ve never met a person who has even SEEN the Queen of England.
My AirBnB and the view from my front porch.

My AirBnB and the view from my front porch.

Herbert’s house is a split level home with great views of the Alps. I had the downstairs with a double bed, modern bathroom, fully stocked mini-fridge and a flat-screen TV with CNN, BBC and yes, Liechtenstein’s one channel, 1FLTV. Framed children’s drawings and African prints dot the walls.

I asked Herbert about Liechtenstein’s one national dish. It has the tongue-twirling name of kasknopfle, which I’ve read are “cheese noodle dumplings.” Herbert knows just where to go. Wirthfchaft Zum Lowen (wirthfchaft is “restaurant” in Liechtenstein’s Alemannic dialect, which is similar to Swiss German and has the sing-song sound of two actors in “Fargo” speaking Norwegian) is two big bright rooms with wooden floors and yellow tablecloths. The two waitresses wore long, low-cut dresses that looked like native garb you’d see pictured on a beer stein. If you designed the perfect dish for being snowed in, kasknopfle would be it. It’s a big pile of short noodles and covered in two cheeses. Throw on some shaved fried onions and add a side of warm applesauce and you have the perfect mountain dish. It isn’t cheap. It’s 22 euros but at Zum Lowen it’s also all you can eat. The waitress came over to me twice until I could barely walk to the kitchen to photograph her smiling husband, the co-owner and cook, Myriam.

Me, Herbert and Ursi at Wirthfchaft Zum Lowen.

Me, Herbert and Ursi at Wirthfchaft Zum Lowen.



Herbert and his wife, Ursi, say hi or, in Liechtenstein dialect, “Hoi!” to seemingly everyone in the restaurant. This is a small country with a small-town feel I often felt in the rural Midwest of the United States. That has its drawbacks. One local told me, “Everyone knows everyone and everyone knows what everyone else is doing.” Imagine going on a first date with a woman and, before you get home, your ex-girlfriend on the other end of the country hears about it.

That brought up the one question that nagged me over my three-day stay. In a world crumbling from the weight of terrorism, racism and financial collapse, Liechtensteiners do nothing but smile. In a country this size, this rich, this clean (you can eat off the floor of the public bathroom below the post office), I kept asking one question: What is Liechtenstein’s biggest problem?


I asked Herbert this as he gave me a tour of the country — the WHOLE country — on Tuesday MORNING. The tax scandal has had a lasting effect on the economy. Businesses ranging from restaurants to hotels are closing. However, Liechtenstein’s biggest lure will never change. It is an outdoor paradise. It consists of 40 percent forest. Throw in its own share of the Alps and you have Switzerland light. The climb up to Liechtenstein’s lone ski resort takes all of about 20 minutes from the Rhine River. Not surprisingly in Liechtenstein, the Rhine River looks more like the Rhine Creek. It’s narrow, so narrow you could probably wade across it to Switzerland on the other side. You can see how far the Rhine snakes through the valley, however, as you wind your way up Liechtenstein’s narrow share of the Alps. With each switchback, with vast valley stretches farther.

At one switchback three-quarters up the 5,300-foot mountain, a park bench perched at the perfect overlook. Below in the valley was the Swiss village of Sevelen, its little houses spread across a mishmash of different shaded squares of green. Then, breaking through the fog that enveloped the landscape like a soft blanket, came a rainbow. Turquoise, yellow and orange bands stretched seemingly from a back yard high into the mountains. How ironic. Liechtenstein could very well be considered a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

A rainbow sneaks through the fog.

A rainbow sneaks through the fog.

But enough about Liechtenstein’s prices …

More on that later. The “ski resort” well represents Liechtenstein: It’s as small as a postage stamp. Malbun ski area has one chair lift. It has six runs. It’s about the only thing affordable in the country besides fresh air. A half day lift ticket is only 37 Swiss francs. That’s half what it is in Vail. Why?

“It’s so small,” Herbert said. “You ski a few runs and you’re done.”

Malbun ski area has only one chair lift and six runs.

Malbun ski area has only one chair lift and six runs.

If there’s snow. Usually at this time it has a meter to two meters of snow. Tuesday there was about 10 centimeters. The mountain was closed. The lone chairlift went up and down the mountain without a single living soul, like a carnival fallen on hard times.
Gasthaus Hirschen Planken.

Gasthaus Hirschen Planken.

Instead we went to a little mountain cafe for a cup of coffee. Gashaus Hirschen Planken is old Alps. It has a big wood stove where a beautiful older woman in tight stretch pants and heeled boots brought in a big pile of wood. Her pretty, raven-haired daughter served me a cup of hot chocolate with fresh cream on top, perfect for a cold, drizzly morning.

The prince’s castle is on the drive down the mountain which is representative of how close he is to the people. You could be passing by the house of your Uncle Gus. Instead it’s the castle of the Prince of Liechtenstein. Every Aug. 15, he invites the entire country to the castle for a major party. He gives some speeches then lets everyone in the castle for free beer and wine. Imagine Obama inviting the American population to the White House.

The prince even has his own winery which produces a pretty good Pinot Noir.

The prince even has his own winery which produces a pretty good Pinot Noir.

If you don’t see the prince on the streets, you can catch him and toast his country at his very own winery. Hofkellerei is open to the public and has wine tastings for 9 Swiss francs. (Has his own winery. Jogs through downtown. Lives in a castle. I want to party with this guy.) The big pink building has a sprawling tasting room and conference room, big enough for the prince to entertain foreign dignitaries. On this rainy day, Herbert had to yell up some stairs to find someone to pour me some wine. I was the lone customer. They gave me three tastings, all of Pinot Noir. As an Oregonian, I know Pinot Noir and this wasn’t bad. Considering Liechtensteiner is in the middle of the Alps I thought it strange a Pinot could be good here. But the woman behind the counter said the secret is the warm winds that come down the valley. It doesn’t freeze often here.
Ryan Tscjol at Liechtensteiner Brauhaus.

Ryan Tscjol at Liechtensteiner Brauhaus.

Besides wine, Liechtenstein has its own brewery. Liechtensteiner Brauhaus is in the Schaan, Vaduz’s other suburb on the north side. Brauhaus is small by brewery standards. It looked more like a regular bar when we parked on a side street and entered through the unassuming front door.

A young bespectacled kid in a black stocking cap stood behind a bar with four taps. He said Liechtenstein actually had a brewery in the early 1900s. But it closed and Liechtenstein didn’t have another one for 100 years until Brauhaus opened in 2007. It makes eight different beers, the highest a hefty 9 percent alcohol. I briefly met the owner, Bruno Guntensperger, who told me they export to Switzerland, Germany and Hong Kong. However, it’s limited because the beer isn’t pasteurized and only last six months. American commercial beer has the shelf life of Ivory soap.

The bartender gave me a bottle of Alpagold, a light lager of only about 4.5 percent. Ryan Tschol, 22, was born to a Canadian father and Liechtenstein mother who grew up speaking English and lived in Ottawa for four years. That explains why he spoke without a trace of a German accent. He’s serving an apprenticeship as a brewmaster but doesn’t know what he wants to do. He’d like to return to Canada. Liechtenstein is real slow for a 22-year-old.

I asked about small-town mentality. Does Liechtenstein have a small-country mentality?

“Somewhat,” he said. “There’s a lot of people who have it. But there’s also people who think outside it. It’s more of the older people. They’ve lived here pretty much all their life and don’t speak other languages.”

I asked what he liked about living here. He paused, longer than I ever would when someone asks me why I like living in Rome.

“Mountains,” he said. “Everything is nearby. In Canada, everything is far apart. I’m used to this place.”

So, again, I ask him what’s Liechtenstein’s biggest problem. Again, a looong pause.

“I couldn’t think of anything,” he said.

Looking for more answers, I found Liechtenstein’s Cheers. Mab’s, on the main drag in Triesen, has a square bar where an Austrian bartender served me, a German with his Liechtenstein girlfriend, an old Liechtensteiner and two older women sitting in a corner. Over another Alpengold I asked the bartender my mantra.

“What’s Liechtenstein’s biggest problem?”

She paused. Again. This time, the old man answered.

“There are no real men here.”

“Agreed,” said the woman.

I told her this place seems ideal.

“You won’t be here very long, will you,” she said. “If you did, you’d know.”


I’d been there three days and I already knew. Liechtenstein is so expensive, the locals go to Austria to buy goods. Numerous businesses in Liechtenstein have gone bust. Herbert once pointed out a big, darkened store.

“This used to be a big sports store,” he said, pointing in the dark. “But everyone went to Austria to buy for sport. It closed after one year.”

He said he bought a washing machine in Austria for 500 euro. Why? In Liechtenstein, the same machine cost 1,500 euro. Gas in Austria is 90 centesimi a liter; in Liechtenstein it’s 1.30 (about $1.20). On a 25-liter tank, the person would save 10 euros.

Nothing made me lose my appetite more than food costs. The cheapest pizza in a modest Italian restaurant called L’Osteria Alder was 17.50 Swiss francs. The house wine, a pitiful pour of about 3 ounces, was 6.80.

For a tourist, this is Liechtenstein’s biggest problem. I addressed this elusive question with Patrik Schadler, head of the country’s communications department. Schadler is a Liechtensteiner native who once worked as a ski instructor in Australia. In his late 30s with a mop of short curly hair, his mod green-rimmed glasses gave him an air of hipness you don’t see much among Liechtensteiners. His job isn’t easy. As a communications director, he must communicate to people what the hell Liechtenstein is.

“Two hundred kilometers away,” he said, “you have to explain where you are. Austria?

Liechtenstein stretches along the Rhine River between Austria and Switzerland.

Liechtenstein stretches along the Rhine River between Austria and Switzerland.

Luxembourg. Where is it? Yesterday I was in Zurich for a meeting. They looked at their watches and said, what time did you get up this morning?’ It was 9 a.m. I said an hour ago.”

My first softball was, “What do you tell people about why they should come to Liechtenstein?”

“It is one of the smallest countries in the world but you can find anything like you can in a big country,” he said. “We have everything in this country. We have everything Switzerland has but in 160 square kilometers. We can drive up to the mountains now and we’re up there in 20 minutes and can go skiing. We can come back down and go to an art museum.”

Liechtensteiners have the same pride you see in tightly knit small towns. I saw that in San Marino. It’s wedged on a mountain near Italy’s Adriatic coast. It’s the oldest continuous republic and surrounded by Italy. They speak Italian. Yet they fiercely say they are NOT Italian.
Liechtenstein is the last monarchy in the Alps. It also is the only country in the Alps to survive World War II unscathed.

“It’s a miracle that we still exist in the middle of Europe,” Mischler said.

Mischler’s biggest struggle is to convince tourists to spend the night and not treat Liechtenstein as a mountainous souvenir store where you can get your passport stamped for three francs. About 65,000 tourists spend the night here but the number of day trippers is about 250,000-350,000.

“If you just come to Vaduz during the day, you’ll just see Chinese and Japanese people on the street,” he said. “If you come at night and go to dinner with a Liechtensteiner, you’ll see him say, ‘Hoy’ and ‘How have you been.’”

So, what’s Liechtenstein’s biggest problem. Pause. He was searching.

“We see problems around us,” he said. “We don’t have it here. The fear of the people here are those problems are coming to Liechtenstein as well.”

What problems? The biggest one facing Central Europe is immigration. Germany accepted 360,000 refugees from Syria. Liechtenstein accepted 15.

“But if you look at it by population, it’s the same proportion,” he said.

I walked away thinking Liechtenstein is a privileged place for a privileged few. But it’s definitely worth a layover, if nothing else to meet the privileged. On my last night after my long jaunt up the hill from getting fleeced for a pizza, I knocked on Herbert’s door to set up the morning’s pickup time to the train station. He invited me in and we had one last get together over Liechtenstein beer and Spanish wine. I went to my little fridge and brought up my two bottles from the brewery. Herbert, Ursi and I laughed and drank for an hour. It was one person from the most powerful country on earth and two people from a country that doesn’t have a single soldier. We found common ground in a paradise that is hidden away from the chaos all around it, like a cozy hut in the middle of a blizzard.

No matter how bad the storm is, Liechtenstein will always be warm.