Standing at a crossroads of two trails in the high mountains, I noticed a crazy sound roiling up from the distance. What IS that? It sounds like a trash compactor full of xylophones. Hiking further up the mountain, I saw them off in the distance. WAY off in the distance. Cows! Oh my god, those are cowbells. How are cow bells that loud?
Whatever the reason, a herd of cows in Liechtenstein sounds like a case of windchimes being thrown down a mountain. The cacophony can be heard miles away. Are the bells on their tails or something? Holy cow.
Everywhere I hiked through the mountains that day, the clank-dunk-ding-chime of the cowbells echoing off the mountain walls was my constant companion.
A sign in German warned me: “Don’t get too close to the cows. THE COWS WILL FUCK YOU UP. You have been warned.”
Of course, as I came over the ridge, the cows were all over the trail. No easy way to get by them without getting close. Too close, when it comes to ravenous death cows. Dammit cows, you started this. I climbed up the slippery mountain slope to get by the cows without getting too close to them. I’ve never been particularly worried about being attacked by cows before, but I’ve never been specifically warned about it in German, either. German doesn’t seem like a language for idle threats, so I was keeping my distance, even if it meant nearly falling off the goddamned mountain with every step.
The cows seemed happy to see me, but that may have just been because they hadn’t had a chance to fuck anybody up in a while.
I’d come to Liechtenstein to climb in the alps, which led me to the village of Malbun, nestled up in the lush green mountains.
Checking into a big ski resort that was in sleepy summertime mode, I glanced at the weather forecast. It was supposed to rain in the afternoon, and I was weighing my odds of getting a hike through the mountains in before that happened. Let’s give it a shot.
Moments later I was leaving the lodge behind as I climbed the steep trail up into the mountains.
Liechtenstein is a very nice country. So much so that the trees were even thoughtfully handing out covid masks.
I passed through beautiful lush meadows as the trail gradually steepened.
And soon I was trekking up some seriously steep business.
Over the first ridge, the trail leveled out and the scenery opened up. Oh my. This is lovely.
Liechtenstein was one of my great surprises of this trip. I wanted to see it mostly just because it was there, and expected there would be maybe a cute church or something. But it ended up having some of the best and most beautiful hiking I’ve ever experienced. What a well-kept secret.
The trail skimmed along a narrow ledge as it wrapped around the mountains.
Eventually it approached two rocky peaks, which I climbed up and then delicately crossed as the trail just sort of turned into a rock slide.
Huh, it’s a fair ways down.
After a few hours I found myself walking along the ridge at the very top of Mount Schönberg.
God, what a great view up here. Clouds had increasingly rolled in while I was hiking, but I took a stab at holding them at bay by visualizing myself hiking back into the town perfectly dry at the end of my adventure.
The trail culminated in a cross on the peak which had something that looked like a mailbox nailed to it. Am… I supposed to send a postcard from here? Or a request for rescue?
This was where I knew things were going to get interesting. When doing some minimal research before I arrived, I had been looking for information on hiking in Liechtenstein. There was surprisingly little info out there, as this wasn’t exactly a touristic hotbed. Everything I could find recommended the hike that I was on, but nobody seemed sure where the trail actually went or how you got back to Malbun after you got to the top.
The only blog I could find by someone who had actually hiked this was not encouraging at all. The girl and her boyfriend had gotten hopelessly lost after this point and ended up getting separated and then falling down the mountain. They still recommended the hike.
Well, that’s a pretty low bar to clear, let’s see what I can do.
I hopped over a little fence, which is not how good decisions usually begin, and followed a trail that looked like it headed back to Malbun on the other side of the mountains, by way of the village of Steg. Sounds like a solid lead.
This went pretty smoothly and beautifully, with a minimum of me falling down the mountain.
At one point I approached another small peak, which had a little bench parked strategically on top. That looks nice! I bet the view from up there is amazing.
I scrambled up the rock. Ah, this’ll be a nice spot to take a load off and soak up the view! I flopped down onto the bench and the entire country of Liechtenstein heard me scream when I immediately discovered that the bench wasn’t bolted to anything, as it kicked backwards up on two feet, perilously balancing and threatening to roll down the entire mountain with me riding it like a surfboard. Thankfully my own balance was good enough to get it slammed back down without me needing to ride a park bench into Valhalla.
As I came around the mountain, I could see the village of Steg, or maybe it was Malbun, who the F knows, it was something, far below me. That’s a good sign, I think. I like these moments on a hike when you can see where you started from and realize how far you’ve climbed up into the heavens.
As the trail gradually descended, I caught sight of a reservoir I was pretty sure was in Malbun.
All in all the trails weren’t exactly clear, but they did offer occasional tree markings to help reassure you that you were, in fact, on a trail to somewhere. Where? Don’t be greedy.
Coming down out of the mountains, I passed somebody’s tree house, and then their ground house.
Finally rejoining the trail that paralleled the main road, I followed it back to the lodge of my ski resort. Whew! That was amazing. As I crossed the parking lot, the first few tentative drops of rain fell from the sky, which turned into a downpour the instant I walked through the front door.
I had timed my visit to be in Liechtenstein on National Day, their Fourth of July, when they celebrate the Prince’s birthday and how bitchin it is to be Liechtenstein. Prince Adam invites everybody to come to his castle for a beer, where he hangs out with the common folks and talks about relatable topics like being a Prince and how it sucks to only be the Prince of a little country no one has ever heard of.
And then His Serene Highness Prince Adam gives a big speech, like:
"Lick my balls, Liechtenstein! You don't like it, you can walk a mile to Austria! How's that grab ya?"
And then there are a buttload of fireworks. Sounded like a good time.
I had arrived in the national capital of Vaduz by bus from Switzerland, because Liechtenstein is so goddamned small it doesn’t have an airport or trains. This was relatively painless, as these things go. Dumped out on the street, I began my aimless wander around this adorable little city.
There was a funny little fake beach area off the main square, just a big sandbox. The way you say “Hello” in Liechtenstein is “Hoi!” from Swiss German, and the city greeted me thusly.
I’d busted this out a few times on my hike, with mixed results. I’m not sure the cows speak Swiss German.
The state museum of art, the Kunstmuseum, was closed due to covid but they served me food anyway, which was surprisingly good and inexplicably vegan-friendly. There are a series of neat stands off the promenade in front of the museum with art in them.
Pretty much everything historic in Vaduz is within about a ten foot radius, which was pretty fun. I decided to explore the St Florin Cathedral, because it was ten feet away.
The only tourists I ran into in Liechtenstein were the family I met in front of the church, who sure as hell sounded like they were from California. I’m not sure how that happened, though they were probably wondering the same thing about me. Maybe we’re all from Vancouver.
The Liechtenstein National Museum tells the story of Liechtenstein, or rather I assume it does, that shit was all in German so it could have all been about Teletubbies for all I know. I realize Liechtenstein doesn’t get a lot of tourists so maybe it’s not worth the effort for them, but damn guys, try putting your displays in one other language or give me a headset or something. Who knows, you might even get some tourists.
Liechtenstein is still very proud of the year Jesus visited and won their local talent show by riding a skateboard from on top of his amazing donkey, Max.
Okay, so this country sort of makes sense… wait. I don’t think I was supposed to see the Big Heads.
The Alte Rheinbrücke, the old covered bridge that connects Liechtenstein to Switzerland, is so special that a model was constructed for people unwilling to walk three blocks down the road to see the actual bridge.
I love that this exhibit attempted to explain to younger generations that this is what a phone used to look like, by putting it next to some flip phones from 1999 that younger generations won’t recognize as phones either.
Liechtenstein’s Prince Adam, who no one has figured out yet is also He-Man.
The best part of the museum required no translation, however, and that was the displays of Liechtenstein’s outrageous traditional fashion, where women of olde put crazy shit on their heads because they were bored.
Photos attempted to prove that no, seriously, people really wore this stuff, psssh, we swear.
Horror music swelled as I contemplated climbing the museum’s Staircase of Impending Doom.
Upstairs there were taxidermy displays of all of Liechtenstein’s living (or formerly-living in this case) creatures, which amounted to an impressive collection of mountain varmints.
One display featured a racoon being shadowed by a skeleton racoon, for no apparent reason.
Another hall featured art by an entirely unrelated Asian artist. My favorite of his pieces was this chicken.
This trip has made me a bit of a connoisseur of foreign museums, and has given me an unusual amount of time to think about what makes a museum successful or not. Mostly from visiting museums that completely fail to educate or inspire interest at all. It seems like it should be so simple, but that’s an expectation that comes from having primarily visited really good museums that actually tell a coherent story.
Downstairs, I returned the clothespin the museum lady had pinned to my shirt when I arrived to make sure they didn’t let more than 30 people or whatever into the museum. This was probably unnecessary since Liechtenstein only has 25 people, but I still thought it was kind of a cool idea. I’d had a good interaction with the lady on my way in and her English seemed solid, so I decided to try and get the inside scoop from her on what was going on with today’s National Day celebrations.
“So, is it possible to visit the castle?”
“No, no!” she admonished, shocked by my hubris. “The royal family lives there.”
“Yes, I know, but today, on the holiday.”
I had literally seen numerous photographs and read news reports of the public visiting the castle on National Day, and this is also explained in detail on Liechtenstein’s national website.
“Sure, but I mean the gardens-”
“So, will there be fireworks tonight?”
“No, no fireworks!”
Liechtenstein’s National Day celebration always caps off with a massive fireworks display that people come from other countries to witness.
“No fireworks? But don’t you usually-”
“No no nooooooo, no fireworks!” she answered, as if fireworks were not a thing that had ever been invented, and if they had, they certainly still wouldn’t occur in Liechtenstein under any circumstances you maniac.
“Are you certain? I’ve read a great deal about the fireworks displays on National Day.”
The Liechtensteinian family behind me who were waiting to give their clothespins back and leave looked at me like I was completely crazy.
“No, no fireworks. ...because of covid.”
Ah, okay, that makes sense. And is a completely different answer from the “Fireworks? In Liechtenstein? Fuck you!” type of answers I’d been getting repeatedly up until that moment.
I mean, there’s a rock band playing “All Along the Watchtower” to a crowd right outside the door at this very moment so I don’t know what the problem with fireworks would be, unless it’s been discovered while I was away that covid is primarily spread in the air via fireworks, which would be exciting.
I was pretty sure I had come across as some kind of asshole by this point, but was also marveling that the woman seemed to be so bad at communicating, which also seemed to be a feature of the museum we were standing in, so I guess they were a perfect match.
Outside there was a statue of a woman taking it easy after a tough day of explaining to assholes that there are no fireworks in Liechtenstein.
Okay then, no castle, no fireworks. No National Day, really. Damned covid. Oh well, I guess I’ll check out that amazing bridge they have so people can go say hoi to their friends in Switzerland.
I began walking across town toward the river, then found a neat little passageway that weaved between the houses along a little stream. This is cool as shit.
Eventually I found myself outside of the city, walking through open fields toward the river.
Then, the bridge! My god. It’s so bridgey.
In the middle of the Old Rhine Bridge you can stand in Switzerland and Liechtenstein at the same time.
As I was standing there taking a photo of my feet, a dude rode by on a bicycle and looked at me like “What in the HELL is that guy doing? Huh. Must be Swiss.” Swiss people are weird.
From the Swiss side of the bridge you can see the Vaduz castle up on the hill, where Prince Adam lights out on Battle Cat every night to fight all of Skeletor’s evil minions.
Well shit, that was fun. I began the walk back to Vaduz in the dark, passing all kinds of lit up weird stuff on my long hike up to my hotel up on the hill.
I was in my room eating Swiss chocolate when there was sudden commotion outside. What is THAT? I ran outside just in time to see random fireworks going off everywhere from every direction, the thunderous sounds echoing off the mountains around us in a very trippy way. The official Vaduz fireworks may have been called off, but ordinary people were making up for it by setting everything on fire and running away.
Well done, Liechtenstein. Happy your prince’s birthday.
That’s nice Sean. But why the hell is Liechtenstein a country?
Mostly because it’s so small. Coming in at #4 on our ranking of the ittiest places in Europe, Liechtenstein makes up just 62 square miles of beautiful mountainous scenery and not much else. 38,000 people call Liechtenstein home, and spend most of their time denying that there are fireworks. This has made it not particularly worth invading, and paired with the Liechtensteinian royalty being really good at political maneuvering (an ongoing theme with these microstates) that was enough for Liechtenstein to not be absorbed into Germany, Austria or Switzerland over the centuries.
The House of Liechtenstein served as advisors to the Austrian Hapsburgs, who happened to rule the Holy Roman Empire, which had controlled this area for some time. This relationship gave Prince Hans-Adam I the opportunity to purchase the area that became Liechtenstein for his family in the early 1700s, and it was then declared a principality. The funniest thing about all of this is that the Liechtenstein family only bought the land because owning it allowed them to vote in the Austrian Parliament. None of them even bothered to travel there until the 1900s, and the current Prince Adam’s father was the first one to actually move there in 1938.
Anyway, things were peachy until Napoleon defeated the Holy Roman Empire in the 1800s, but the leader of Liechtenstein managed to cozy up to Napoleon by declaring that all of Napoleon’s ideas were awesome and this friendship prevented Liechtenstein from being absorbed as the region was restructured. The Liechtenstein family also remained close with the Hapsburgs in Austria, which kept anything from happening to the country when things were being parceled out at the Congress of Vienna after Napoleon was defeated. This bond with Austria also prevented Liechtenstein from ever being invaded by Prussia.
World War I never even made it to Liechtenstein because it’s a pain in the ass to get there. But in the treaty at the end of the war, Liechtenstein managed to get itself declared an independent country, even though they spelled Liechtenstein’s name wrong in the treaty. After the war, Liechtenstein pulled off either a strategic coup or terrific feat of dumb luck by switching its allegiance from Austria to neutral Switzerland. When the Nazis started invading everything in the area at the outset of WWII, they left Liechtenstein alone because Germany was dependent on Swiss cooperation to get around international trade sanctions, and killing the Swiss troops who were stationed in Liechtenstein would have thrown a monkey wrench in those works.
So basically the answer to this question for all of these little countries is: 1) Game of Thrones-style political strategy. 2) The Congress of Vienna. 3) Dumb luck.
Today, Liechtenstein has the highest GDP per capita in the world, by a lot. Some have accused Liechtenstein of being a shady tax shelter, an accusation backed up by the fact that there are more companies registered in Liechtenstein than it has citizens. But to those naysayers, Liechtenstein says “Lick my balls, if you don’t like it you can walk a mile to Austria.”
What else is going on there? Liechtenstein is the world’s leading manufacturer of false teeth, which sounds like something I would make up but is absolutely true. A few years ago you could rent the entire country on AirBnB for $70,000 a night, but they shut that offer down after Snoop Dogg tried to rent Liechtenstein. Women only got the right to vote nationally in 1984, and in local elections in 1986. It used to get the fewest tourists of any country in Europe, until somebody farted in San Marino and now Liechtenstein gets the second-fewest.
I left Vaduz on the bus, which took me to Feldkirch, Austria, where I boarded a train set for Italy. My intention was to return to Austria later in the trip to really see the country, but then Austria closed down hard due to covid and I couldn’t get back in, aside from transiting the Vienna airport a couple of times. So sadly, for the moment, my experience of Austria is limited to some rainy memories of beautiful Alps scenery from the train and the tantalizing prospect of Chinese Indian food.