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From the Rhône to the Rhine: Liechtenstein

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With our arrival in Liechtenstein we had now visited all the miniature countries of Europe. Until this trip I had never troubled to question how these tiny nations had managed to escape being absorbed into their larger and more powerful neighbors in the same manner as so many other kingdoms and principalities. Now that we had traversed most of the territory of Western Europe I was becoming more curious about the history and character of the disparate countries that created that familiar patchwork on the map. I had already learned enormous amounts about Switzerland, Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands on this journey but Liechtenstein was a place that I knew next to nothing about. We only had one day to learn but it only takes twenty minutes to drive from one end of Liechtenstein to the other longitudinally. Interestingly there's no way to drive across the country from west to east. The entire eastern side of the Liechtenstein is mountainous and generally uninhabited except for a ski resort called Malbun. The vast majority of the country's thirty eight thousand inhabitants live in a chain of towns along the western edge connected by Liechtenstein's only highway.

Our first challenge was finding breakfast on a Sunday morning. We drove into the center of Vaduz, the capital city, and found it eerily quiet and empty. Parallel to the main road there was a pedestrian street but there was no sign of life at the few cafes we encountered. Just as things were looking hopeless we found a bakery delicatessen that was open and seemed to be the go-to place in the capital for an early breakfast.

There was nothing in Vaduz that offered any clues as to why Liechtenstein was able to maintain its independence through centuries of turmoil in central Europe. My best understanding is that while many independent states of the former German Confederation were swallowed up by the Kingdom of Prussia in the mid eighteenth century, Liechtenstein was geographically separated from that aggressive entity by Prussia's enemy Austria. Austria never had a particular reason to covet Liechtenstein's territory and the country's only other neighbor, Switzerland, was historically separated from them by the boundary of the Rhine. Subsequent to the world wars which nearly bankrupted the country Liechtenstein entered into a financial and diplomatic union with Switzerland. I was surprised to discover that the national currency is the Swiss franc rather than the Euro. Liechtenstein is also one of the wealthiest countries in the world per capita, thanks to a policy of allowing foreign individuals and corporations to take advantage of low tax rates by domiciling there. The country has been accused of facilitating money laundering as well. There was no question that Vaduz was a wealthy city, although it was a sterile wealth with modern concrete buildings and little to show for its eight hundred year history. The twenty year old art museum with a minimalist design boasts a large Botero sculpture along its side.

The only structure in sight that didn't appear modern was the castle sitting atop a cliff looking over the town. Vaduz Castle has been the residence of the royal family of Liechtenstein since the twelfth century and as such is closed to the public except on the country's national day. We decided to drive up the steep road to the cliff anyway but the small parking lot above the castle was full. Instead we pulled over at the entrance to a side road for some quick pictures of the narrow valley below us. The main town of Vaduz was blocked by the hillside but we could see the thin blue ribbon of the Rhine and beyond it a formidable range of the Appenzell Alps in Switzerland.

Liechtenstein is quite scenic but has very few historic sights. We followed the two lane road through the hills above Vaduz for a while until we had the opportunity to take a winding route back down to the valley. In just another ten minutes we had reached the small town of Balzers near the southern border with Switzerland. It was quite easy to spot Burg Gutenberg, the only other intact castle in Liechtenstein, atop a tall hill that was terraced with vineyards. Unlike Vaduz Castle, Gutenberg is a public building owned by the principality although it didn't seem that the interior was generally open for visitation. We parked at the base of the hill and took the steep walk up to the castle. Close to the top we encountered an open area with an amazing view of the storybook town and the surrounding mountains. There was an odd metal sculpture in the shape of a square with rounded edges that was large enough for our whole family to stand inside.

The castle was quite beautiful with a pleasant green bailey that afforded far-reaching views over the valley. Although the site dates back to the twelfth century, the existing structure is largely the result of an early twentieth century reconstruction. As we expected the building itself was closed and there was no sign of any staff. We were still able to access the inner courtyard which was beautifully landscaped.

The view of the greenery from the castle as so tempting that we came down the opposite side of the hill through the vineyards. From the bottom we had one of the best views of the castle and there was also a small playground with a long slide that the kids loved. As we arrived back at the car another family had just parked. The father asked me in slightly accented English if it was worthwhile walking all the way up to the castle if it wasn't open. I told him it was definitely worth the walk and told him about the playground as well since he had two young kids. I was curious about his accent and asked him where he was from and he told me Sweden. Naturally I guessed Stockholm and he told me they were from a city on the other side the country called Gothenburg, obviously expecting I wouldn't have heard of it. Of course we knew the city well and I was able to surprise him by quickly rattling off a few of the highlights of our visit there.

We could have fit in an early lunch at this point and I found a promising lead for a restaurant. Strangely enough the road was completely blocked by construction a short distance away from the restaurant and the only other way to drive would have required driving completely around the town. Instead I parked the car and walked the remaining distance. The restaurant was open but the prices were so eye-wateringly high for the typical food we had been eating all through Germany that I couldn't justify eating there. My walk did take me past some amazingly landscaped homes and a field which had a great perspective on Burg Gutenberg. There was an old town church with a stone belltower in the foreground and tall, jagged mountains in the background on either side of the castle. It is one of my favorite photographs from Liechtenstein.

Before we left Liechtenstein I had the opportunity to make up for the ropes course they had missed in Amsterdam because of my poor planning. The Seilpark im Forst was about halfway between Balzers and Vaduz, just off the main road. I had quite a bit of difficulty finding the place as it was set back a good distance from the road without any signs indicating its location. Eventually we located the right spot and fortunately it was open with space available for the kids. They had separate courses for small children and adults but Mei Ling and I didn't have much interest in doing the activity ourselves. The kids' course was actually quie challenging and required them to be kitted with helmets and harnesses. The obstacles were quite tricky as well and I was proud of how well the kids were able to negotiate even the toughest segments. I made a mental note to do some research on these kind of activities if we took a trip within the United States at the end of the summer.

Cleo was just tall enough to qualify for the bigger course so we went over with the staff member to take a look. This was a much more serious endeavor with platforms set high in the trees and very scary looking pathways between them. Cleo wanted to try it but between our time limitations and my anxieties about her safety I prevailed on her to wait until we could find a course back in the States.

Having passed up the restaurant in Balzers we were in dire need of lunch after the ropes course. We headed back to the pedestrian street in Vaduz which appeared to have the only restaurant in Liechtenstein that was open at three in the afternoon on a Sunday. We were the only customers at the pan-Asian restaurant and the kids got a lot of attention from the staff.

Outside we noticed that much of the street had been covered with a blue carpet, possibly to simulate a river. In one area there were air mattresses under the carpet forming mini trampolines and in another a giant foosball table had been built. There were no players attached to the bars but there were straps that could accommodate an adult. It seemed like someone was intending to stage a human foosball game at some point but we had no idea when that would take place. We found a ball and played a rather frightening game of soccer where we would have to remember to duck under the bars when we got close to them. A local kid joined us so that the teams would be even.

I picked a route out of Liechtenstein that would take us through a couple of other small towns in the northern part of the country. I knew about Nendeln as the location of the famed Schädler ceramics workshop but there was no point stopping by there on a Saturday. Instead we decided to drive up into the hills around the town just to see how far we could get. The steep, narrow roads quickly swept us upward into an odd landscape where houses were sparsely distributed over a cluster of intersecting ridges. In lieu of navigation we chose the direction that would take us higher at each intersection. Eventually the roads began to terminate in driveways and we would have to retrace our path. We hoped we might find a spot with a view where we could pull over but there was nowhere that we wouldn't be at risk of blocking the road for some irritated local. Eventually we grew tired of the game and allowed our GPS to bring us back to the main road from where is took us barely a minute to cross the Rhine and return to Switzerland.

Posted by zzlangerhans 10:58 Archived in Liechtenstein Tagged road_trip family vaduz family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog balzers eschenbach

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