On a breezy November day, while I was in the Swiss city of Sankt Gallen, I realized that I would have a few free hours to spare tomorrow, which I hadn’t been counting on. Since Sankt Gallen didn’t have very many hotels, the hotel in which I lived was not even located in the city itself, but rather a good half an hour on the train away from it. The hotel was simple, with minimalistic rooms, located in a small village. The valley the village was located in was beautiful, surrounded by mountains and covered in fog. Seeing how it was Sunday, all tourist locations were closed. So what could I do with my free time, being in the middle of nowhere, yet right next to a train station?
Late in the evening, I was browsing Google Maps, and thinking about places to go. Should I really go to Zurich, where I once already spent a few days in a ridiculously expensive hostel? As I continued examining the map, I noticed that Lichtenstein was not too far from here. I didn’t have my car in Switzerland, so I started looking at transport routes, and concluded that two trains and a ride on the bus would take me to Lichtenstein’s capital, Vaduz in less than two hours, and cost me around 50 euro for the round trip. I inquired to the hotel administrator about train schedules to find out what was the latest possible time for me to take the train back to Sankt Gallen to still be back on time, and I was ready to start my journey on the next day!
The trains of Switzerland deserve a special mention for how precisely they follow schedule as well as the simple system of purchasing tickets – I wish that this sort of order and simplicity were more common around the world! My only complaint is that some of the train stations weren’t among the cleanest.
Since I had only a few hours to plan the trip before heading to sleep, I only noted a couple of places I wanted to stop at in Vaduz, and, most importantly, the address of the tourist center. As I rode the train, I saw tiny houses on the mountains, as well as the snowy peaks, occasionally disappearing into the clouds. The sight outside the window looked like a picture off a postcard – the perfectly flat surface of the Lake Constance. There are some patches of land where there is no snow at all – rather there are green meadows, although a closer look reveals snowflakes even among all of the green. I also notice lots men wearing military uniforms, since military service is mandatory in Switzerland. At first I was concerned that something bad must have happened, and troops were being mobilized, but I found out that it’s a completely normal occurrence, and all men here must attend a two week long military service every year.
For the last segment of the trip to Vaduz, I took the bus. I was slightly worried about it beforehand – how am I going to know where the stop is even located? I ended up just following the mass of people stepping out of the train, and nearly all of them went to the stop I was looking for. Driving over the Rhine River in the rather crowded bus, I arrived in Liechtenstein. There were several students in the bus, who I presume studied in Switzerland and were now heading home.
Visually, Liechtenstein doesn’t differ from Switzerland much. There are wine fields in the valleys, tons of tiny houses with plastic greenhouses next to them, and sheep nibbling on the grass. The bikes parked out on the streets are not secured in place by anything – no locks, no chains. Shops accept both francs and euro. I purchased my usual choice of souvenir – a fridge magnet, in a shop with a Russian-speaking cashier, then had some dinner and drank some tea, served in a glass instead of a mug.
Liechtenstein is one of the most prosperous countries in the world, with only 1.5% unemployment, and the highest GDP per capita in the world. It is surrounded by dry land from every side, with no access to the sea, making it a landlocked country, however it is also a so called double-landlocked country, meaning that all the countries surrounding it also have no direct access to the sea. As it turns out, Liechtenstein is one of the least tourist-visited countries in the world, with only 55 000 visitors per year (for a comparison, 1.5 million people per year visit Latvia)! Most of said tourists only wander into here for a couple of hours, and even then, mostly just to get a stamp in their passport at the tourist centre. Liechtenstein has no passport control at their borders, but for a fee of 3 francs, the tourist centre offers the opportunity to get a stamp of the Principality of Liechtenstein in your passport as a kind of novelty/souvenir. When I arrived at the tourist centre, I saw a big mass of people, all standing in line. In addition to that, each of them at the end of the line was being photographed with a little camera, just like at the US passport control! I thought: Wow! A novelty stamp for your passport, but they still take a picture of you! However, I discovered that these were actually two lines combined, one for receiving the stamp, and the other for applying for a ski pass, which is why they were taking the photos. Since Liechtenstein is surrounded by mountains, there are a lot of opportunities for skiing. Some would say there are also opportunities for hiding money here for political reasons. Since I just wanted to get the stamp, nobody took my picture, I was just asked which page of the passport would I like the stamp on, and I was free to go on with my day.
Right here, in the center of Vaduz, there is also a postal stamp museum, a cathedral, an art gallery (which, coincidentally, currently hosts the exact same exhibition that I already saw in Vienna’s Albertina museum a month ago), the town square and the Castle of Vaduz, the official residence of the Prince of Liechtenstein. The population of the country is only 37 000 people, out of which 5000 live in Vaduz.
The streets aren’t exactly full of people, but in the city centre, by the town hall, you can still feel that Christmas time is approaching – you can ride around on a train, there’s an ice skating rink, and after a short while, sounds from some children’s event fill the streets. The main street of the city is called Stadl, in which most of the landmarks and sights of interest to tourists are located. The only exception is the Castle of Vaduz, which is quite a climb away, upwards from the main city. As I was steadily heading there, I walked by a partially frozen waterfall. The road was quite slippery at some points, as the snow had not been shoveled yet. I got to a point where there was some roadwork being done, and I was at a loss of what to do next. Should I try to climb the fences and still attempt to get to the castle? My questions were answered by seeing a pair of locals walking a dog just casually climbing over all of the fences and continuing to walk. I followed their lead. I soon found out that the exact thing being fixed was actually railings, and climbing may not have been as safe as I had initially thought. Still, the road was quite wide, and after seeing several more people traverse it, I decided to continue on my way. After a good 20 minutes of climbing, I could see the city from a high point. I could see lots of cranes in the city, signifying that active construction work was being done. The views from here were truly impressive, as I could see the entirety of the valley, surrounded by the snowy mountains. Really, it almost seemed as if most people headed to the Castle not for the landmark itself, but rather the beautiful sights on the way there!
Since it was Sunday evening, the Castle turned out to be closed, and when I approached the fence to photograph it, the guard in the guard post was visibly distressed. Next to the castle there were a few houses, the same type of mountain sheds I had seen before, in the yards of which kids were building snowmen and getting into snowball fights. The climb down was much easier than the climb up, and back in the city I visited The Cathedral of St. Florin (which had beautiful stained glass), drank another tea-in-a-glass, and had supper – at which point it was starting to get dark outside. The Sun was rapidly disappearing behind the mountains, and since I did not know the schedule for buses heading to the train station, I decided that it was time to head back. Soon, I would be glad about having made that decision, since the bus arrived just a few minutes after me reaching the stop, and the next would have only been there in an hour, which would have made me miss my train back to Switzerland. Thankfully none of that ended up happening, and I successfully made it in time for the train, had a muffin and some more tea at the train station, and in just a few hours, I was back in the small village near St. Gallen.
Is Vaduz a destination I would make my end goal on a trip, if I had more than a few unexpected free hours to spare? Probably not(unless Lichtenstein would be one of the few countries missing on my visiting all countries checklist, which I currently don’t even have, but perhaps should). Still, if you do ever happen to find yourself in between Austria and Switzerland, do remember Lichtenstein, especially around Christmas time! Vaduz is a small, cozy and leisurely city, where you can easily spend a few hours exploring. It is around a three hour car drive away from Zurich, but is also easily reachable by public transport, although that takes more time.