The Quirks of Liechtenstein
The tiny principality offers eclectic entertainment — from beach volleyball to wildlife, museums and art galleries.
written and photographed by Richard Hoath
Beach volleyball is an up-and-coming sport. It is an Olympic sport. Prince Harry is perhaps its most famous devotee, having shown an unusual fervor for beach volleyball in the 2012 London Olympics. Whether this was because of the athletic rigor of the sport itself rather than the very scanty bikini attire required of the female participants remains unclear. But it is athletic and action-packed and associated with all that is tropical and exotic and, well, beach. From the Copacabana of Rio’s 2016 Olympic venue to the sun-drenched sands of Bondi Beach in Australia, beach volleyball is a rising sport. And I am watching a match, Switzerland vs Luxembourg, from the comforting surrounds of a bier stand. But this is not Bondi nor the Copacabana. This is a tennis court swathed in imported sand in Vaduz, the capital of Liechtenstein in Central Europe’s High Alps.
Liechtenstein is a tiny principality squeezed between Switzerland and Austria. It was founded in 1719 when the then Austrian prince, Johann Adam von Liechtenstein, purchased, yes bought, two counties from down-at-heel German nobility and achieved full independence in 1866. Today Liechtenstein punches well above its weight, certainly in diplomatic and economic terms. It joined the UN long before its neighbor Switzerland (with which it shares a currency) and is a member of the European Economic Area (EEA) and is a financial base, some might argue iffy haven, and banking center. Popular comparisons to the 1959 movie The Mouse that Roared and to the Ruritania of Anthony Hope’s novel The Prisoner of Zenda are easy but a tad cheap and more than a tad inaccurate.
Arrival in Liechtenstein is generally by bus. At only 25km long and 6km wide at its extremes there is hardly room for a proper airport, though the moneyed in winter may presumably access by helicopter. Mere mortals arrive by train or most easily by bus, a short ride to Vaduz from Sargans in eastern Switzerland. The bus terminates in Vaduz, the capital, and disembarking from the bus one is immediately confronted by the customs office and by the Post Office.
You don’t actually need a passport stamp to enter or leave Liechtenstein — that is all done via the Swiss or Austrian border authorities — but most people want one and are prepared to buy one. It’s a quirk and Liechtenstein is rather good at quirks. At virtually any other nation on Earth, people hope and pray that they do not have to go through border procedures. In Liechtenstein people happily queue to get that precious quirky stamp. I have mine. And while the rest of the world blogs, in Liechtenstein visitors avidly write snail-mail postcards because you can get that quirky Lichtenstein stamp and frank of the real thing. You cannot stamp and frank a blog. Not yet.
Vaduz is a little bland and the center is a little like a picture postcard shopping mall. But there are some art galleries worth a visit, not least the contemporary Kunstmuseum Lichtenstein, and a very good museum, the Liechtensteinisches Landesmuseum, which covers the country’s history from prehistoric times through to the modern day. Unsurprisingly it has displays devoted to Liechtenstein’s diplomatic and postal history, but also to false teeth. Famously, Liechtenstein is the world’s leading exporter of false teeth.
A little off the beaten track there are narrow streets and every other garden is a Lilliputian vineyard. Liechtenstein has a thriving wine industry. I sampled — and when interest in beach volleyball waned and the heavens slightly opened it was something of a tonic.
Outside of Vaduz, Liechtenstein is little travelled but the hiking is good. I trekked the forests east of the capital climbing from broad-leaf to pine. Overlooking Vaduz from its forest eyrie is the castle of the current Head of State Prince Hans Adam II and the de facto ruler Crown Prince Alois.
The schloss affords magnificent views over the Rhine Valley to the Swiss Alps and affords another insight into the country’s quirkiness. The resident of the schloss appears on the country’s flag as a crown but that has not always been the case. Until 1936 the flag had been a simple oblong, the top half blue and the bottom half red. Then at the Berlin Olympics it was realized, as the flags of all nations fluttered, that this was identical to the flag of Haiti. Liechtenstein added that crown to the top left-hand corner; Haiti, rather more exotically a palm tree and a pile of weapons, probably unfortunate given its recent history, in the middle.
The trekking was good and bracing and fresh. Lowland deciduous lead to upland pine and from Roe Deer to Red Squirrel. The Landesmuseum had promised more, Ibex and Alpine Marmot, Capercaillie and Hazel Grouse. I saw none, but great and clean-cut circular holes in the trunks of dead and dying trees may have been hewn by Europe’s largest woodpecker, the Black Woodpecker. That too evaded me.
A descent through freshly rain-cleansed forest trails found me back amongst the curiously cuboid architecture of central Vaduz. Liechtenstein may be more the financial center that roared rather than the mouse, but it is eclectic and interesting. From Zurich it is a journey into a piece of alpine quirkiness. But beach volleyball is not the norm. For that stick to Rio.