The chances of there being someone reading this post with the customary warm ‘I’m from there!’ glow in their gut are about as small as…well, insert your own apposite comparison here. With an estimated population of approximately 37000 people, the whole country has less people within its borders than in my South Wales hometown of Bridgend (which happens to have circa 49500 people living in it, on the off chance you were wondering).
Liechtenstein can’t lay claim to being the only microstate in Europe, let alone the world, and nor can it even say it’s the smallest – San Marino, Monaco and Vatican City are all smaller. So what sort of stuff has it got going for it then? Is it just another place for passport stamp enthusiasts to round out their collection on their way through the Alpine slopes of neighbouring Switzerland and Austria?
Well, if so, then it’s not as straightforward as that. For a start, there’s no airport or railway lines – yes you can see slick, ultra-modern trains chugging across the scenery from the vantage points of Liechtenstein’s tiny capital Vaduz, but they are very much in Switzerland’s turf. You have to make a concerted effort via bus or your own wheels to make the trip here.
What of the passport stamps? Well, those you collect from the tourist information centre on the high street of Vaduz. Yes, cough up five Swiss Francs – Liechtenstein doesn’t have its own currency, by the way – and you will be the proud owner of a Liechtenstein passport stamp. Rampant – but irresistible – commercialism at its finest!
But trust me, there is more to Liechtenstein than it being a money-spinning extension of Switzerland. Within its postage-stamp-sized borders you get an abundance of natural beauty in the form of stunningly picturesque mountain vistas. The castle presides over Vaduz like something out of a surreal fairytale. There are quaint snapshots of Alpine village life too: wander away from the main tourist zones and it’s possible to get a glimpse of a relaxed, traditional way of life that is…well, Liechtensteinian (hey look, I just made up a word).
What else defines Liechtenstein? Its unusual quirks and oddities, which it has down to something of a tee. Here’s some trivia to show you what I mean:
- Liechtenstein is, apparently, the world’s largest exporter of false teeth.
- It’s the only country that takes its name from the family who purchased it. Yes, Austrian Prince Johann Adam Von Liechtenstein purchased this swathe of land back in the eighteenth century, and was so pleased with himself he named it after…himself.
- Incumbent ruler Prince Hans-Adam II invites every Liechtensteiner to his home (the castle) for a mini knees-up every August 15th to commemorate Assumption Day. I still don’t know whether the rest of us are invited…
With a benign monarch at the helm – the one piece of legislation in the constitution that he cannot veto is a referendum to become a Republic – Liechtenstein is a gentle-natured throwback to the era of mainland Europe’s feuding vassals, albeit without the actual bloodshed. Does this, then, make it an oddity, a relic of the past – a place to be stuffed in to a cabinet of curiosities, visited once and never seen again? Possibly, but rewards are on offer to those who linger for a while.
To bring up the Swiss connection again, Liechtenstein’s neighbour to the West is famed for its perpetual neutrality on the global stage. Liechtenstein, far from being an isolated dot in the middle of major European states jostling for global influence, embraced UN and European membership back in the 1990s. Welcoming visitors as it does with open arms, it really does feel like a national village on a truly global scale.