A Trip to Liechtenstein (and its neighbors)

It was time for a trip. The man and woman looked at a map, anxious for spring and new vistas to emerge.

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The idea of spending a weekend outdoors amidst green mountains and high altitudes with snowy faces appealed. They weren’t surprised to see the Alps as the most obvious option but they were surprised by how imposing the blurred lines stretched across a continent were. The decision of how and where to approach this mountain range through a couple of modest hikes almost bordered on overwhelming.

Then, a little jewel of a microstate, 62 square miles of property to its name set amidst much larger boundaries, waved up at them from the lines on the map. It was Liechtenstein, a name that when Googled brings up top questions such as, “Is Liechtenstein a country?” and, “Is Liechtenstein worth visiting?”

The man and woman didn’t have these questions for they already knew the answers were yes. What they wondered about was a little more abstract.

They came from a large nation themselves, a nation that sprawled across a continent and divided itself up into many ‘sub-nations’, if you will, little state governments that flexed strong State identities and even stronger, more isolated communities within them, and the man and woman were also familiar with the idea of island nations in the Pacific from their time spent living surrounded by the huge, blue ocean, and these small island countries made sense to them. But now that they lived in Europe the idea of a tiny country, a twice landlocked tiny country in fact, intrigued them, and they wondered at how it maintained its independence without being absorbed into the much larger land mass.

So, at the end of April in the year of 2018, the travelers packed a couple of small backpacks and hopped on a plane to Memmingen, Germany. There, with their great big one-year-old baby, they rented a car from a very nice rental car attendant, so nice in fact, perhaps he should be called a car rental enthusiast, and started driving.

The idea of a tiny country allured in that unknown sort of way, and they only wished to get to know it a little. They wanted to understand the ins and outs of living there, see the roads between and around, know the feeling of community(ies)… Well, as much as any pair of tourists can over a few mornings. And the Alps too, an ominous, familiar sounding mountain range, they wanted to know it too. So they drove through Germany, crossed the Austrian border, and then, there was Liechtenstein, 15 miles at its longest, carving out quite a digestible portion of mountains and valleys…a very approachable gateway.

Here, then, is what was surmised from their four day journey about Liechtenstein:

The first thing they learned was that the price to know the country for an overnight or two was steep. Whether it was Swiss Francs or Euros, the privilege of a meal and quaint decor of a hotel will set one back, tiny stature not withstanding.

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Very nice decor at Hotel Wienstube in Nendeln, Liechtenstein

But, oh well, that’s why it was only for a weekend. And they were used to island prices.

The second thing they learned was the meaning of the word philatelist, not because it was ever spoken to them, but because through their research they learned that Liechtenstein is popular for stamp collectors and that philatelist is the prescribed word for a collector of such things.

The man and woman found it poetic that this country of smaller proportions is held dear to the hearts of philatelists the world over. The country’s beautiful faces and its sprawling real estate, sprawling upwards and into the oxygen starved clouds, was over and over again fitted in small pieces of currency, which one then affixes to a postcard and sends off to other pockets of the world with their equally small and equally rich and isolated communities.

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And so they made sure to visit the small, free stamp museum in Vaduz, which was okay in it of itself, but whose experience left a bad taste in their mouths as it was unclear whether they or a random child were being barked at to not touch anything, even though all in question were merely touching the pull-out exhibits.

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Postage Stamp Museum with the red signs

This brings them to the third thing that was learned. Upon entry to Liechtenstein and through interaction in the restaurants and stores, the price of living in such a small place was best understood through the currency of second and third languages, English chief among them, and although often spoken beautifully and without hesitation, probably still only a second choice to the other foreign currency, German, which was wielded seamlessly with the further flung German tourists. As the man and woman bartered for understanding through the misunderstood table manner here and the odd baby shriek there, they could appreciate Alemannic, the first tongue, kept and cultivated through the Liechtensteiners’ interactions with their countrymen and their closer Swiss and Austrian visitors.

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A questionable table manner here and there

As was mentioned earlier, Liechtenstein is twice landlocked, first by Austria and Switzerland, and they by their immediate neighbors, and that this unfurling cocoon of foreign borders meant that coming and going from Liechtenstein was only ever heralded by road signs. So the fourth thing the pair of travelers learned was the convenience of a tiny country having no border control, which in retrospect would seem a nuisance as one continually must drive through Austria or Switzerland to get to a particular destination in one’s own country, much like the overlapping of looped threads to secure a button.

So, instead of at a border crossing, of which there were many over the space of four days, the man and woman purchased their passport stamps at the tourist center in Vaduz, the country’s capital. At 3 euros, this felt like just the right balance between being too exorbitant of a fee and almost reasonable, the negotiation of the two qualities giving the ink value, so of course they bought one for each passport. Tiny country for a teeny tiny 13 month old’s passport, they reasoned.

The fifth thing that the pair encountered stems from their curiosity about the fourth: It seemed almost impossible if not altogether too easy to not end up in another country during one’s pursuit of a trail-head or other destination (as the Swiss Army did when they accidentally invaded Liechtenstein on an exercise back in 2007). This made the weekend trip easily the procurer of three or four countries, tick tick tick off an invisible bucket list.

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So, sheepishly, the man and woman can now recount how they have visited Austria, even if it was only for two different meals on two different days into Feldkirch, and how they experienced Bavaria overnight in a renovated castle and saw for themselves the lush forests where all fairy tales might have once sprung.

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But, even if these trips to other countries than Liechtenstein were short or in passing, were they not true destinations in their own way? Did the pair of travelers not participate and communicate in the cultural and capital exchange of words and currency and food while they were there in Germany and in Austria? Did they not also walk the streets, see nature and navigate impossible parking lots, and invade the lives of the people who called these places home while observing the others who were also just passing through? Was a heartbeat not just felt but also given way to movement, causing them to find themselves caught up in the circulatory flow?

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The answers to these rhetorical questions are, of course, yes. And takeaways from these countries are added now to how they will be remembered in future stories, such as: An evening in Lautrach providing the delight of a liquid sunset melting over a forested town, and the recognition of being immersed in the likely place from which so many fairy stories had been collected and disseminated through words and then new words still and copied to books and translated to film to be enjoyed under the covers and in the reading nooks of childhood homes.

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Or, having the immediate and deep personal connection to city planned flowerbeds in Feldkirch, recognizing in the pattern of bright, wild clumping the same qualities in the mother of the woman’s skilled quilting, a specimen of which was now sitting folded up patiently in a drawer, ready to be pulled out for cozy use when the time and weather permitted.

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The man and woman’s takeaways from Liechtenstein brings them to the sixth thing then, that they learned, and that was that in this tiny country there was more than enough outdoors to go around.

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The desire to get outside and explore, to see a mountain face, had just been too overpowering from the start. Although the menu was of small proportions, Liechtenstein offered enough well developed trails and ample slopes to get lost among a hundred times over. So they chose only a few short hikes over their holiday and took screen shots of every twist in the road before taking off, overgrown baby in tow of course.

They were immediately immersed in and overwhelmed by (in a good way) nature.

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What gorgeous freedom, the man and woman decided, in the simple process of walking on a well hewn path through shaded deciduous mountains, around lichen covered octopus trunks, and into open clearings that smart the eyes in their green reflectivity of the sun.

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From the first step, they felt how strong the sun was through the thin air, the mountains pushing them closer to its surface. Even through cloud and shade, they felt their cheeks reddening and beheld the first freckles on their baby’s hairline, appearing like lone planets on the edge of a round galaxy.

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The hikes showed that the country is not small when taking into account other dimensions, such as the ones where battles and homes and families were won, stretching centuries behind and to the side of them.

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The hikes also revealed the endlessness of the minuscule, where the unfolding geometrics of a fern or a snail shell show a multitude of patient, busy seconds.

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The couple learned that Liechtenstein offers the type of hiking that when the hikers return home, their dog will take long, intense sniffs of their shoes whenever she passes, smelling the contours of every rock and the crackle of every twig under the hikers’ soles.

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These trails were scattered with trail option A and trail option B, and overlapped with hike option C and D… all threatening that one could get hopelessly lost in both nature and language (signage being all in German) so that they’d never find their car or be reunited with their luggage or shampoo bars again. … However…

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The corollary to what they learned from this sixth thing, let’s call it Six A (6a), was that when fatigue is about to give way to frustration and a feeling of being utterly lost is descending, a bend in the road is then rounded and there they’d find that they had always been within short reach (by scale of a hill or small mountain let’s say) of an established village.

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Resting on and between these hill’s knobbly knees were constant, breathing pockets of humanity complete with roads and locked houses and places for food, all beyond a screen of mountain foliage as the couple and their sleeping baby toiled through or enjoyed their seemingly remote nature walks. The lesson then? A tiny country offers plenty of outdoors, yes, but the immersion in the woods and the delight at old ruins are often just a two minute walk, nay, sometimes, a two second walk, to someone’s cozily landscaped back yard. Or someone’s cows. Joyfully ringing bells be damned.

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Very picturesque, but not the best at giving directions.

Another corollary to that thing previously mentioned, perhaps Six B (6b)? was that the way to know a backyard from un-colonized real estate were the flowers: wild, colorful, alpine blossoms, yes, but also, truly wild dandelions. The travelers marveled at the site of bright yellow spot after bright yellow spot, wondering how these dandelions had been transformed from yard weed to obligatory ornament for creating the most peaceful mountain meadows. The beauty and the peacefulness of the joyfully growing dandelions took them back to the days of early grade school, when they were not a weed but the perfect flower to pick and present to your mother in a cup of water on the counter.

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This could easily have been enough to know or learn about any one place over a weekend, but since the woman prefers odd numbers over even, it was inevitable that a seventh thing would be realized. And so the seventh thing that the pair learned, or merely encountered, was a reminder of how fickle and yet constant are our frames of reference.

As tourists passing through, everything was new and old in the same moment, and they watched as time multiplied and expanded into different episodes of itself, a world fading here, a new one unfolding there, a reminder of how relative these references are.

The narrow roads, whether hike trails cut zigzagging through the loam or the paved swtichbacks for automobiles, are practical ways to navigate steep slopes,

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but then the locals still drive faster than the tourists and the turns are taken at higher speeds than seem right, and suddenly you’re in a weird game of chicken, trying to get down the mountain as fast as possible against the local’s prodding grill.

Cliff-side villages seem quaint and constant to the first time visitor,

20180428_102959but the stillness is suddenly erupted with the rapid growl of a car’s too-fast approach. Just typical traffic to the cliff-side town dweller. Nothing worth a startle or a frown.

Rippling green grasses among lilacs take on an ethereal quality through the glass,

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but the beauty of the novel and finite in this moment is probably much more common place to the old woman sitting a few feet from the road, eyes turned on her jacket as she fingered a fraying hem. The travelers, by contrast, who in this moment were slowing to take the 45 degree turn as they exited Triesenberg, were smacked in the face by the breathtaking splendor of the valley opening up before them. And there was the woman, no newcomer to this scene, possibly having seen an infinite number of grasses and flowers and slopes in just this same spot. Comfortably she sat on her bench, head turned downward while the wide alpine valley stretched out in front of her, a dog begging to be pet, unaware of the driver’s anxiety when navigating such a steep turn three paces to her right. unaware of their awe at the passing landscape before them.

Their worlds, only a few seconds met, navigated at a parallel. And the pair wondered, most of all, what she was thinking and what she had seen.

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Later that evening, the Sunday streets quiet in Neldeln, the woman in the pair had found a spot with a bench and a fountain that seemed to particularly capture the attention of the baby, who had otherwise been vexed to be sitting at their restaurant table several paces away. She set him on the silver bench and he seemed especially delighted by the bars, which became musical as he banged them. After a moment, the woman looked up and was startled by the appearance of an old man standing on the other side of the street, watching quietly. But he smiled at her recognition. His nose was partially missing and he was supporting himself with a cane. It seemed like he’d walked this street over a very long period of evenings and years, if not decades. The woman smiled back and he gave a little wave, then continued on his slow, methodical nighttime stroll.

Two more worlds, almost navigated at a parallel, but with a teeny bit more of a relationship formed.

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The two interactions, or not quite interactions, with the old woman and the old man, showed off a sort of understanding of what time and frames of reference could be like here. Living in a small country it was very likely you might recognize, if not by name, by face, most of the other inhabitants, and you’d know all these mountains with their satin sheets of grass and flowers as commonplace. But this experience is juxtaposed by the constant, albeit familiar, flow of tourists, thousands of new faces and names and accents each month, suddenly appearing within their borders for a hike and some muddled table manners.

After their four days, the man and woman realized they may know Liechtenstein slightly better than those passing through for a quick passport stamp and a check off the list, but they knew it far less than those that were born here, and that the former was nothing to brag about. It would take at least a lifetime to know this country, as with any other, perhaps several lifetimes back to its founding in 1719… or perhaps more lifetimes still, going back to a time with fewer watermarks on a map, back to what it must have been like as people began to eke their livings out of the forests and mountain slopes and fermented milk into something solid and edible for the first time.

So, yes, a ‘tiny’ country this is, isolated but not isolating. Tiny, in square miles, maybe, but far reaching nonetheless. Worth visiting? Let’s consider first the question of how big and worth visiting are our own communities, really? How far reaching are our own networks and relationships and ideas of nation and space?

Or, is it better to look at ourselves individually? Are we simply a culmination of smaller spheres upon other small spheres, little community stacked upon other little community, until these experiences reach out multi-dimensionally to create the kaleidoscope of our beings?

Yes, Liechtenstein is worth visiting. And I hope we visitors enrich the space for the locals by being there too.

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Just one bright spot inside my kaleidoscope.

The Details:

Mode To and from Overnights Accommodation
Air Round trip Sevilla to Memmingen Lautrach, Germany & Nendeln, Liechtenstein Schloss Lautrach (1), Hotel Weinstube (2)
Transportation Useful phrases on this trip

English                                        =

 
Rental car Hello  guten Tag
on foot Good morning  guten Morgen
Thanks  danke
You’re welcome/please  bitte

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