Today I was truly a stranger in a strange land…
I visited, for the purpose of finding work, the Principality of Liechtenstein, only two hours’ distance by train from my own wee village by the Lake of Constance.
Liechtenstein is a landlocked German-speaking constitutional microstate monarchy sandwiched between the Rhine River and the Alps, between Switzerland and Austria.
It has an area of only 160 square kilometres (62 square miles) and a population of only 37,000.
Liechtenstein has the 3rd highest gross domestic product per person in the world and one of the lowest unemployment rates in the world.
It is mainly mountains, farmers’ fields and finance.
It produces its own stamps but uses the Swiss franc.
The capital, Vaduz, is so small (population: 5,300) that even Liechtensteiners call the capital a village.
Vaduz is one of the very few capital cities in the world without an airport or a railway station, so to get there one either drives a car, rides a bicycle, walks or takes a post bus there.
A traveller going from Switzerland or Austria to the Principality does not have to show a passport or identity papers at the borders and there are few signs that even indicate that there are borders.
Liechtenstein is the world’s largest producer of sausage skins and false teeth and the only country in the world with more registered companies than people.
For, like their Swiss neighbours, one thing that Liechtensteiners excel at is making a profit.
First, they make a great deal of money from tourism as there is a kind of romance about visiting tiny countries that draw curious folks to their doors.
Liechtenstein, the world’s 6th smallest country, like other micronations, such as Andorra or San Marino, is a figment of one’s imagination.
It is hard to believe that such a small country can actually exist, but because of its size one instinctively feels that such a tiny state is worth preserving.
After all, small is beautiful, or at least not being big it is not that horribly ugly.
Liechtenstein makes money (10% of its national income) from postage stamps that are world famous for their vast variety of designs – pictorial, biographical, industrial, historical, scenic, comical – all beautifully engraved and coloured.
60% of Liechtenstein’s income is derived from the desire of individuals and institutions abroad to set up companies in a tax haven which asks no questions and keeps its mouth shut, though this is changing.
Liechtenstein banks hold assets of more than 80 billion francs.
Liechtenstein still has very low business taxes (2nd lowest in Europe) as well as easy Rules of Incorporation.
It also generates revenue from foundations – which are financial entities created to hide the true owner of non-resident foreigners’ financial holdings for those attempting to avoid or evade taxes in their home countries – but recently Liechtenstein has displayed stronger determination to prosecute international money-launderers and is working hard to promote its image as a legitimate financial centre.
By 2009, after a series of tax investigations in numerous countries whose governments (primarily Germany, Britain and the US)suspected that some of their citizens were evading their tax obligations by using banks and foundations in Liechtenstein, the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation (OECD) finally removed Liechtenstein from its blacklist of “uncooperative” countries.
In 2009, the British government department, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, agreed with Liechtenstein to start exchanging information.
There is only one hospital in Liechtenstein.
There is only one prison in Liechtenstein, a prison so small that prisoners’ meals are sent over from a nearby restaurant.
Vaduz is nether terribly fascinating nor picturesque in and of itself, but its setting is arresting.
The town nestles at the very foot of 6,700-foot Mt. Alpspitz.
On an overhanging outcrop directly above the town is the fortress royal Vaduz Castle and although it is usually closed to the public, it is well worth your while to climb up to its gates just for the view.
For a rare peek inside the castle grounds, arrive on 15 August, Liechtenstein’s National Day, when there are fantastic fireworks and His Serene Highness Prince Hans Adam II invites all 37,000 Liechtensteiners over to his place for a glass of locally produced wine or beer.
The Castle has walls 12 feet thick and contains the Prince’s personal art collection, which once included the only Leonardo da Vinci, the portrait “Ginerva de’ Benci”, in private hands.
The Prince of Liechtenstein is the world’s 6th wealthiest monarch with an estimated wealth of 5 billion US dollars.
Happily, the country’s population enjoys one of the world’s highest standards of living.
Though Liechtenstein is officially a constitutional monarchy, the Prince reigns supreme by popular demand.
In 2003, the people voted in a referendum to hand the Prince more significant new powers to appoint judges, veto parliamentary decisions and dismiss the government, effectively creating Western Europe’s only absolute monarchy.
Liechtenstein is the only country in the world to have been named after the person who bought it, Hans Adam II’s ancestor Johann Adam Andreas of the Von Liechtenstein family of Vienna purchased the Lordship of Schellenberg (northern Liechtenstein) and the County of Vaduz in 1712.
Liechtenstein is the last remaining fragment of the Holy Roman Empire and is so obscure that the royal family didn’t even bother to come and see it for 150 years.
The Principality is a quiet humble place, mostly populated by Catholics, who take an impressive 22 days’ public holiday a year.
The national anthem “Oben am jungen Rhein” (upon the young Rhine) is sung in German to the tune of “God save the Queen” and the national motto, which is also the motto of the country’s two political parties, is “faith in God, Prince and Fatherland”.
Vaduz’s centre is modern and sterile and looks as if it were built in the Eastern Soviet Bloc in a hurry, a collection of duty-free luxury goods stores and cube-shaped concrete buildings.
But just a few minutes’ walk to the northeast of town, one finds a charming quarter of traditional houses and rose gardens surrounded by quiet vineyards and Alpine glory.
The Internet assured me that Vaduz, being the capital of a financially prosperous principality, had, beside Liechtenstein’s two universities, the Liechtenstein Institute and the International Academy of Philosophy, two private schools for the learning and teaching of English as a foreign language.
One of the schools only offers translations, while the other has ceased to exist!
Maybe though this is for the best…
Liechtenstein for the foreigner seems only fit for the tourist or the nature lover.
To acquire citizenship, a referendum must be held in the Liechtenstein village where the applicant lives.
If that referendum approves his application, then the Prime Minister (currently Adrian Hasler) and his cabinet must then vote on it.
This almost never happens.
Hundreds of families have lived in Liechtenstein for generations and are still treated as foreigners.
Happily there are the sacred principles of Liechtenstein hospitality:
When money knocks on your door, invite it in with a smile and look after it just as if it were your own.
I did find most of the Liechtensteiners I met, at least in the tourist or gastronomic trades, to be genuinely welcoming and warm, at least compared to Swiss standards.
Yes, there are lower taxes here and some duty free opportunities, but prices remain outrageously expensive for those on a budget who don’t drive a Mercedes Benz.
The country is so friendly that in Liechtenstein’s last military engagement (1866) when 80 men were sent to fight Italians, with no one killed, they came back with 81 men because they had made a friend on the way!
This is a land made to explore but not linger, to spend time and money in but not to derive great excitement from.
Liechtenstein is a dream, a fairy tale of mountain views and Alpine air, of castles and cows, of fields and flowers, of museums and trails.
It is tasty vanilla on a continent of many flavors.
Liechtenstein is a centuries-old backwater with no sense of antiquity.
It is a mouse surrounded by lions remaining secure in its mousehole den.
But if your heart is searching for whimsy in a place of wonderous beauty…
Hop on the post bus, Gus.
Smile for a while.