My guide for the day greeted me with a question I’ve never heard in all my years of traveling. He asked me if I wanted to see his country — the entire country — that morning. But you can do that here.
As he said, “You ready to see Liechtenstein?”
Visiting Liechtenstein Principality
This wasn’t the smallest country I’ve visited. I live in Rome and often walk across the entire Vatican just to mail a letter. I once walked across Monaco in 45 minutes. In Liechtenstein you need a car but it doesn’t take much longer. It is all of 160 square kilometers, about the size of Staten Island, N.Y. But Liechtenstein has 37,000 people; Staten Island has 470,000. Smack dab in the middle of Europe, Liechtenstein is still very easy to miss. It has no airport. It has one train station. Most everyone takes a train to the Austrian border town of Feldkirch where lime green Liechtensteiner buses transport you into the postcard-pretty capital of Vaduz (pop. 5,300).
I came to Liechtenstein, via Munich, partially due to a cancelled magazine assignment in Austria and to the blatant narcissistic goal of reaching my 99th country. But from a cultural standpoint, I wanted to see a country that has avoided all the problems of the Western world. Its European neighbors are flooded with refugees, Americans are voting for a man who wants to arm every one of them and the Middle East is burning like a forest fire fanned by arsonists.
Meanwhile my guide and AirBnB host, Herbert Aichhlozar, tried to ponder my question. The average annual income in Liechtenstein is about $80,000. It has no military because it has no threats. Unemployment is 2 percent. “So, Herbert,” I asked a man who has lived here nearly all his 60 years, “what is Liechtenstein’s biggest problem?”
“I never have problems here in Liechtenstein,” he said. “So it’s paradise.”
Liechtenstein has always held a place in my brain for two reasons. As a young boy, Liechtenstein had the biggest, most colorful postage stamps in my collection. As a young man, I read of its tax scandal in which seemingly every drug lord in South America had a mountain chalet here. It wasn’t that evil. Liechtenstein has the lowest corporate tax rate in the world at 12.5 percent. In the late 1970s, corporations started registering their offices here in order to pay Liechtenstein’s lower taxes and avoid taxes in their own country. Liechtenstein parlayed those taxes into the third highest gross domestic product in the world behind Qatar and Luxembourg.
But in 2008, corporations in U.S., United Kingdom and Germany got nabbed and were dragged through the world economic press, pulling tiny Liechtenstein down with them like a little boy laundering money from his lemonade stand. Liechtenstein has since sewn up its loose ends. Today, the tax rate isn’t attracting visitors as much as Liechtenstein’s one constant. Its mountains make it Switzerland light. Liechtenstein stretches along the Rhine River valley with its own mountains as a backdrop and the craggy, snowy Swiss Alps right across the river. With Swiss and Liechtensteiner villages dotting the green foothills, views in Liechtenstein are more hypnotic than scenic.
The Only Ski Resort
Once during my three-day stay, Herbert drove me up to Liechtenstein’s one — that’s right, ONE — ski resort. 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 ($37). That’s half what it is in Vail, Colo. Why?
“It’s so small,” Herbert said. “You ski a few runs and you’re done.”
If there’s snow. Usually at this time it has a meter to two meters of snow. On this day there was about 10 centimetres. The mountain was closed. The lone chairlift went up and down the mountain without a soul, like a carnival fallen on hard times.
But the drive up was worth it. 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.
Liechtenstein is 40 percent forest. It is only 27 kilometers long and 14 kilometers wide. You can drive from one end to the other in 25 minutes. It took me that long to get out of Munich’s airport. Yet Liechtenstein still has 386 kilometers of well-marked hiking trails.
Halfway down the trail, the Prince of Liechtenstein’s 12th century castle stuck up over Vaduz. It’s right on the main mountain road. You drive by it as if you’re driving by your Uncle Ralph’s. 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 only met one person who has even SEEN the Queen of England.
When we returned to Vaduz, it was reaching 5 p.m. Herbert said, “This is rush hour.” I looked through the windshield. I saw two cars in front of us. Herbert wasn’t smiling. He really meant this was rush hour in Liechtenstein. It’s also happy hour and also a good time to be in Liechtenstein. The country has its own brewery. Liechtensteiner Brauhaus opened in 2007, ending a 100-year drought — a SERIOUS drought, I’d say — of local brew making. It makes eight real good beers, one with a hefty 9.2 percent alcohol content.
The apprentice brewmaster is a 22-year-old named Ryan Tschol. He’s the son of a Canadian father and Liechtensteiner mother and has spent a lot of time in Ottawa. 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 often went back to my original question: What’s Liechtenstein’s biggest problem? I received more puzzled, searching looks than answers from locals but I may have found it. Liechtenstein is crazy expensive. The cheapest pizza I found in a modest restaurant called L’Osteria Alder was 17.50 Swiss francs. The house wine, a pitiful pour of about 3 ounces, was 6.80. A stocking cap I mistakenly bought for my girlfriend (both were made in Italy) was 80 Swiss francs — and on sale. Herbert said he bought a washing machine in Austria for 500 euro. Why? In Liechtenstein, the same machine cost 1,500 euro. Businesses are shutting down because no one can afford them.
However, the scenery is free. So are the people. They are free to please you by showing off a unique corner of the world few people can pronounce let alone know. As I sat in the kitchen of Herbert and his wife, drinking local beer and laughing on my last night, I realized one thing isn’t small in Liechtenstein.