Enjoying lunch on the patio of the Residence Hotel in Vaduz, Liechtenstein, I remember with a smile what the desk clerk said when I asked him the location of the Prince of Liechtenstein's castle.
“If the Prince decided to jump out of his window,” he told me, “he would land in our café.”
And, peering up, I could easily see above the hotel the classic medieval castle, Schloss Vaduz, clinging to the cliff face and commanding excellent views of the Prince's principality.
Prince Hans-Adam the Eleventh still lives with his family in the castle, so tourists can climb up to it and view the site and gardens but cannot go inside. The Princely family is beloved by Liechtensteiners, and the Royals shop, stroll and ski in the public areas without anyone disturbing their privacy.
But this is a courtly country, which though small, prides itself on good manners and a welcoming demeanour. In fact, they are so welcoming that there are more registered companies here than there are citizens, due mostly to the low taxes but certainly aided by the friendliness of the populace.
It is a country that is also known internationally for its banks, notoriously secretive and long supposed to be the repository of the elusive bank accounts of the rich, the famous and the infamous.
There is much more to Liechtenstein than money and commerce, however. With its Alpine mountains, protected green valleys and rich culture, the little country has become a sought after destination for knowledgeable travellers. Liechtenstein is a pearl set between two alpine powers, Austria and Switzerland. Its entire western border is formed by the Rhine. Doubly landlocked, (that is, it is surrounded by counties which are themselves landlocked) it occupies a mere 62 square miles, has no airport and maintains no army. Yet this little principality ““ the fourth smallest independent nation in Europe after Vatican City, Monaco and San Marino ““ has a presence that far exceeds its size. Small can be big.
Liechtenstein has the highest gross domestic product per person in the world. There is 100 per cent literacy and virtually no poverty. The Prince of Liechtenstein is the world's sixth wealthiest leader with an estimated wealth of USD $5 billion. Liechtensteiners enjoy one of the world's highest standards of living.
Journey up the twisting roads to the ski area of Steg and Malbun and you discover that this is also a country with a passionate devotion to sports, particularly the winter ones. Liechtenstein has won 11 Olympic medals in alpine skiing.
The village of Malbun has pretty wooden chalets with flower filled window boxes and dazzling views of the mountains and the valleys below. Ski season here begins in early December and runs through until the end of April. With 14 miles of groomed runs, there are slopes to suit all skiing levels, from beginner to advanced. And the person skiing next to you could belong to the Royal Family.
Three modern chairlifts, one with heated seats and windbreaks, and a double t-bar lift take skiers up to the 2,000 metres (6,560 feet) elevation.
This is an area devoted to family sport, so there are ski schools and child-friendly activities. The Hotel Gorfion, right at the foot of the ski slopes, has a comfortable patio that looks right onto the children's ski school hill, so parents can enjoy a cup of coffee or a glass of wine while watching their kids ski. There is a children's centre in the hotel with board games, video games, floppy eared bunnies and a donkey named Roland. The buffet table even has a table at kid-height that allows children to choose their own dishes, and there's home made baby food as well.
In the lower village of Steg, there is a popular cross-country ski course with a one-mile (1.7-kilometre) stretch that is lit with floodlights, allowing for night time skiing. Skating on a natural rink, sledding, winter hiking, snowboarding and even an evening hike with torches are also options. After outdoor exercise in the cold, small chalet restaurants like the Gasthaus Sucka offer fondues, local cheeses and hot chocolate to revive you.
In summer, the mountain trails are beautiful to climb, well-maintained, offering spectacular views and occasionally in use by one of the handsome brown cows that graze in the slopes for the summer. Nordic hiking with walking sticks is popular and there are rustic hiking huts, like the Pfalerhutte and Gafadurahutte, at the top of the trails that offer overnight accommodation at very low cost: 10 to 12 Euros per person, and robust breakfasts and lunches.
One of the first lessons that my guide Michelle, a home grown Liechtensteiner, taught me was the correct pronunciation of Liechtenstein (it requires practice) and Vaduz (pronounced “˜fadootz' with the “˜v' and the “˜z' aspirated). Then we tried saying “˜kí¤skní¶pfle' so that we could order the little cheese dumplings topped with fried onions and served with applesauce, a ubiquitous local dish.
Michelle guided me through a typical local menu of alpine specialities which would certainly contain kasknopfle, as well as ribel, a semolina dish served with cream and fruit for breakfast, schlosspinsen, schnitzels and Kaiserschmarrn, the last two being traditional Austrian dishes, but then Austria is just an arm's reach away.
Food is generous and often totally local in its ingredients. Sitting on a blue plate on the buffet table in the Hotel Gorfion was an immense square of yellow butter, probably produced by the cow who shared my walking trail. It was so good that I think I could taste alpine flowers in it.
Liechtenstein has its own beer, Liechtenstein Brauhaus, and grows grapes on the high mountain flats for wine. The Prince's Hofkellerie offers wine tastings of his reds and whites. Wines that are cheerful and drinkable, but on the thin side. I brought home a bottle of the Vaduzer Pinot Noir Bocher 2007 but more for its curiosity value. How often do you get to serve your friends a wine from Liechtenstein?
Culture is alive in this small country. Liechtenstein's great cultural treasure is the art collection of its Prince, which dates back to the early 1600s. It is the second-largest private art collection in the world, surpassed in size only by that of Britain's royal family. It is also one of the finest art collections ““ public or private ““ in the world. Its many masterpieces cover a wide range of periods and schools of art, including sculptures, tapestries, silver, and porcelain, as well as paintings by Breughel the Elder, Botticelli, Rembrandt, Rubens, and other masters of Renaissance art. The Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein in the centre of Vaduz shows many of these famous works in revolving exhibitions as well as the works of international artists. This museum is the pride of the country, a massive square building with a faí§ade of dyed polished concrete, black basalt and river gravel, designed by the Swiss architects Morger, Degelo and Kerez to mirror its surroundings.
There is also a tradition of public art, with a reclining Botera nude on one street and a trio of sculptured figures in the main square.
There's a postal museum. Liechtenstein is world-famous for its beautiful postage stamps that have become collector's items, many based on paintings found in the art collection of Liechtenstein's Prince. The Ski Museum reflects the country's love of, and expertise in, skiing.
And while Liechtenstein may be small, its people are cosmopolitan. One afternoon as I finished dessert at the outdoor café of the Residence Hotel, the waiter leaned in and asked if I may perhaps have smuggled in a few Timbits. He had spent two years in Ontario and developed a fondness for them.
Hotels in Vaduz range from the contemporary Residence Hotel to the traditional comfort of the Gasthof Lowen and the Relais & Chateau luxury of the Park Hotel Sonnenhof. As well there are the small family run hotels like the Hotel Gorfion, bed and breakfasts and rental chalets in the mountains.
And before you leave, make sure you call in at the tourist centre to have your passport stamped. It is evidence that you have visited one of the best little places in Europe.
IF YOU GO
The easiest way to get to the capital city of Vaduz is to fly to Zurich and take a train to Buchs. From there regular buses run to the capital. If you rent a car at the Zurich airport, the drive from Zurich to Liechtenstein is 115 kilometres.
Liechtenstein's currency is the Swiss Franc, but the euro is also accepted in most places.
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