Walking across the border from Sargans in Switzerland, I arrive in Vaduz, looking for a place to stay. As I stroll absent-mindedly, wondering whether rooms are hard to come by on a Friday night in Liechtenstein, I bump into a scooter. Its owner asks if I want a hotel and, if so, do I want to spend lots of money? At the Hotel Residence, perhaps? Must have tourist written all over me. Or perhaps Vaduz is so small, he knows everyone else.
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. Special talents of the 32,000 inhabitants: making money.
I’m here on a slight whim, not remembering much from my last quick visit, more than 20 years ago. We were a band of teens on the way to Venice then, stopping in Liechtenstein just to get the coveted passport stamps.
When scooter man hears I don’t want to spend lots of money, he shows me to Hotel Engel. Means Angel that. Must be a good sign. My room is nice, and has a little balcony overlooking Städtle, the main street of this diminutive European capital.
An evening amble along Städtle takes me past interesting art, all part of Bad RagARTz, a temporary art exhibition in Vaduz and in the Swiss town next door, Bad Ragaz, where sculptures, like cows, are let out into the fresh air for the summer.
Inside a small plaza, Café Nexus beckons with laughter, music and welcoming, cosy torches. Liechtensteiners are dressed for a night on the town; the men in handsome suits and the women in trousers, pretty sandals and discreet jewellery. It’s obvious – though not in a brash way – that this is a wealthy town. They seem social, lively people. A table meant for two, is easily shared by nine Vaduzers who don’t mind sitting close. Something pleasantly Mediterranean about the atmosphere here.
Next to me is a stylish outdoor bar with sleek black leather sofas. One man has his feet up, jacket off, tie loosened and a beer in front of him. Mobile phone in one hand, he handles a laptop and what looks like a contract with the other. Two women sit with their feet up, heads close, beers in hand, discussing a spreadsheet – business, but no stress.
Above, Schloß Vaduz looms. The ancient castle looks like it might tumble down on Hotel Residence any minute. I’m glad I wasn’t persuaded to part with a lot of money; I’d have more than one reason to lose sleep.
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.
Tomorrow I venture out of town, up in the mountains. There’s more to this tiny country than money. Much more.
I’ve heaps more info and inspiration on this tiny Alpine principality on EuropeUpClose, including the practicals here, if you’d like to visit. For a longer narrative, have a look at this article on Boots’n'All.