Minicountry offers scenery, tranquility and culture galore

Sunday, May 4, 2003

VADUZ, Liechtenstein -- Liechtenstein is so small that the whole state can be hired for corporate events and the entire population is invited to drinks at the royal castle on the national holiday.

The capital doesn't have a railway station, let alone an airport, and a nationwide tour takes just two hours.

And yet the handkerchief-sized country -- 15 miles long and less than 8 miles wide -- offers stunning views, breathtaking mountain hikes and absolute tranquility alongside exclusive stores, top-notch cultural attractions and gourmet cuisine.

"The main problem is to make people aware that Liechtenstein exists and is worth a visit," says tourist director Roland Buechel, who has devised a campaign promising "princely moments" to entice outsiders.

Prince Hans-Adam II -- a charming but controversial monarch who won a referendum in March to change the constitution and give himself even greater powers -- has thrown his weight behind the campaign's play on the royal title.

Photos of the prince and his wife, Princess Marie, adorn every souvenir kiosk, but casual visitors are unlikely to meet him in person -- although he does occasionally cycle down the winding mountain road into Vaduz.

The 13th-century royal castle which towers above Vaduz is strictly off limits to tourists because the prince and his family -- he has four adult children and a constantly growing number of grandchildren -- live there and fiercely guard their privacy. The family's coat of arms flutters on a flagpole when it is in residence.

But even so, anybody who happens to be in Liechtenstein on Aug. 15 -- the national day -- is welcome to join the 33,000-strong population invited for drinks and snacks with the royal family in the imposing castle gardens and to admire the magnificent fireworks display in the evening.

Fine wines from the princely estate can be bought all year round at the Hofkellerei (royal wine cellars), as billionaire Hans-Adam has a keen nose -- not just for fruity pinot noir, but also for making money.

Aside from the royal castle, the most striking feature of Liechtenstein is the sheer number of banks and trust companies that lurk down even secluded lanes. Thanks to its reputation as a tax haven, Liechtenstein has seen an explosion in the number of financial institutions in recent years.

'Culture mile'

Ambitious building projects have transformed sleepy Vaduz. A new four-star hotel is being built in the center, right next to the Restaurant Real, whose reputation for fine cuisine extends far beyond national borders.

The capital, affectionately known as Staedtle (minitown), now also claims its own "culture mile" of galleries and museums.

Above the tourist office -- which obligingly puts the Liechtenstein stamp in passports for a nominal fee of $1.50 -- is a stamp museum in recognition of the fact that this used to be the country's major source of income. The national museum is currently being renovated and extended -- intriguingly into the cliff wall -- and there's a ski museum which is a favorite with winter sports fans.

The jewel in the crown is the Kunstmuseum (art museum), a sleek and airy creation which sends devotees of architecture and fine art alike into raptures. Opened in November 2000, it contains a striking mix of modern artists such as Andy Warhol and Old Masters from the prince's priceless collection.

"Nowhere else in the world will you find so much beauty and such priceless paintings in such a small room," says guide Helga Fischer, as she gestures toward the selection of Rubens -- the prince has 33 in his collection. Her own personal favorite, she adds lovingly, is Matthias Rauchmuller's amazingly intricate ivory carving of the "Raub der Sabinerinnen" (Rape of the Sabine Women).

"Every time I look at it I discover something new," sighs Fischer.

Away from the bustle (blink and you'll miss it) of Vaduz lie other attractions.

The mountain resort of Malbun offers carefree family skiing holidays in winter and lovely summer walks. The restaurant Galina -- famous for its cakes -- offers daily displays with birds of prey in summer. There are a variety of hotels -- the Alpine Hotel Malbun being the oldest -- and many vacation apartments.

A small "peace chapel" near the village center stands as grateful testimony to the fact that Liechtenstein managed to stay neutral in World War II and was spared the ravages of Hitler's armies.

Farther down the winding road from Malbun is the lovely old village of Steg. Its wooden chalets used to be the summer homes of local peasants tending their livestock. Given that farming has dwindled into insignificance -- it counts for just 2 percent of the national wealth -- most of the chalets now serve as holiday homes.

Clinging to the side of the mountain, the village of Triesenberg offers panoramic views of the country.

"The incline is so steep here that locals say that Triesenberg hens lay square eggs to stop them from rolling down the hill," tourist guide Trudi Briggi says with a grin.

Back down in the Rhine Valley lie a scattering of well-kept villages such as Mauren and Bendern which are off the beaten track but worth meandering through.

Although prices in many hotels and restaurants tend to cater to business travelers on expense accounts rather than tourists on limited budgets, local authorities have put together a wide range of reasonably priced packages.

It was no easy task because Liechtenstein is bound to Switzerland in a customs union and hence has its neighbor's high prices based on the strong Swiss franc.

Buechel readily concedes that Liechtenstein is feeling the squeeze because of travel jitters over the war in Iraq and recession in neighboring Germany.

The tourist board would like to promote Liechtenstein as a weekend getaway destination, pointing out that the nearest international airport, Zurich, is 90 minutes away -- not much farther than traveling times in many big cities.

Buechel said he particularly wants to persuade tour operators that Liechtenstein should be more than just a rest stop for the thousands of American and Asian tourists on quick tours of Europe.

In an unconventional attempt to bring in extra visitors, the tourist board has produced Rent-a-State, offering corporations the opportunity to use the infrastructure of the entire state as an alternative to the more routine convention center.

The program is run by a Swiss company, X-net AG, which specializes in incentive travel and devised Rent-a-Village schemes in Austria and Switzerland. It is not without its critics in Liechtenstein and the company is tightlipped about the price of the package and how many takers it has.

"The idea is to combine the conference with cultural attractions, fine gastronomy and tobogganing or skiing in winter and hiking in summer," Buechel says.

"In two or three days there really is the possibility to cover the whole country. Our smallness allows us to do it."


IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: The nearest international airport to Liechtenstein is in Zurich, Switzerland, 90 minutes away by public transport and one hour by car. Vaduz, the capital, has no railway station, but there are regular buses connected with train services from Sargans in Switzerland or from Feldkirch in Austria. Unlimited bus travel for 24 hours throughout Liechtenstein costs just $3.60. There are taxis.

LODGING: The Hotel Sonnenhof, which boasts lovely gardens, is widely used for business conventions. The Loewen, which counts only six rooms, is nicer for those seeking something original. All these hotels are at the top end of the market.

Hotel Engel, which is cheaper and offers some commanding views of the Alps, is a bit frayed at the edges. Just on the edge of Vaduz is the Landhaus Prasch, which is modestly priced and good, as is the Hotel Schatzmann. There are a number of other hotels dotted throughout the country, especially in Malbun.

DINING: The Real in the middle of Vaduz is known far beyond national borders and is a must on the culinary agenda of all visiting businessmen and politicians, with prices to match its reputation. The Sonnenhof -- owned by the same family as the Real -- also offers gourmet cuisine.

Serving equally good food, but not so well known, are the Schatzman in Triesen and the Waldhof in Schaanwald. The Post in Balzers and the Adler in Vaduz also have a good reputation. There are a couple of mediocre pizzerias on the main street of Vaduz.

THINGS TO DO: The mountain resort of Malbun offers family skiing in winter and great hiking in summer. The restaurant Galina in Malbun offers daily displays with birds of prey in summer and is well known for its cakes. There are lovely walks in most parts of Liechtenstein -- traffic is light and there is no pollution. The prince's castle in Vaduz is closed to visitors, although there is one in Balzers which offers summer concerts and plays. There is a good theater in Schaan. In Vaduz, a visit to the Kunstmuseum is a must, and philatelists should head for the stamp museum. A packed series of concerts are planned for the summer months -- although in winter Vaduz doesn't offer much in the way of nightlife.

Liechtenstein borders Austria and Switzerland with their vast array of tourist attractions. Heidiland -- a part of Switzerland where the scenery inspired the author's setting of the Alpine heroine -- is right next door.

INFORMATION: Centralized information on Liechtenstein can be found at www.tourismus.li or www.liechtenstein.li. Call 423-239-63-00.

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