Liechtenstein: Mountains, Trains and Polkas

Liechtenstein's flag

“What country has only 35,000 inhabitants?” my husband wondered as he scrolled through an information sheet on Liechtenstein.  “How can that be?”

Take 62 square miles, the vast majority of it a near-vertical,uninhabitable, mountainous mass, plunk it between similarly sheer peaks in Austria and Switzerland, and you have Liechtenstein, the sixth smallest country in the world.  And its population really is about 35,000 people.  (Anyone care to guess the smallest country?  Answer forthcoming at end of this posting.)

In one of my family’s several road trips through western Europe, we’d driven through the southern tip of Liechtenstein, but that and a picnic lunch were about as much time as I’d spent there.  My husband had never been anywhere near the country.  So as much out of curiosity as anything we decided to stop overnight in Liechtenstein.  And promptly wished we’d booked for at least two nights.  Little Liechtenstein wields a walloping big impression.

To say that Liechtenstein has steep terrain is definitely an understatement.  Their mountains are not among the tallest peaks in Europe, but their striking beauty comes from their sharp vertical rise above the Rhein valley.

With much of the country’s topography slanting at angles above 60°, I could easily understand why the majority of Liechtenstein’s residents chose to live in the towns scattered on lesser inclines or along the Rhein River.  Seldom have I seen such beautiful if impenetrable mountains, with verdant meadows nestled between huge stands of pines, crystalline air — and roadway switchbacks so tight that I’d have called them intertwined noodles rather than hairpin turns.  Our first foray up the road to our hotel had me clutching both the door and the ceiling handles as Michael swung into the turns.  Very seldom to I holler, “Slow down!!” as Michael’s driving; this was one.

We stayed at the Hotel Oberländ inTriesenberg, about halfway up the mountains between the capital, Vaduz, on the Rhein, and Malbun, about the last town you can drive to in mid-country before you run out of roadway.  The hotel (once we found it) turned out to be one of the best little finds we’ve come across during our summer in Europe.  Family-owned and operated, the Hotel Oberländ offered a sparkling clean room, the best shower we’ve found thus far, and, of course, spectacular views.  I’ll just let the pictures speak for themselves.

Triesenberg Rathaus & Church Tower

Church in Triesenberg

House in Triesenberg

Sunset over Swiss mountains across from Triesenberg

Between an exhausting trip from Salzberg, where rail-work necessitated an interim bus ride in between trains to Zurich, and then fighting our way out of Zurich’s rush hour traffic to the autobahn, we arrived at Triesenberg ready to do nothing but sip wine and watch the sun slip behind the mountain views.  The dinner menu, heavy on schnitzel, sausage, sauerkraut and pasta, was adequate, and a locally-minted Pinot Noir helped round out our meal.  After a restful night on a wonderfully comfortable bed, with crisp mountain air wafting through the balcony doors, we were ready to tackle just about anything Liechtenstein had to offer.

The ski lift ride to the top of Sareiserjoch Peak in Malbun proved just the ticket.  Standing at a mere 2,000 meters above sea level on Sareiserjoch Peak, gazing up at nearby mountains that soared to narrow spines and needles reaching 3,000 meters, I couldn’t even spot a mountain goat on any of those mountains.

From the little restaurant at the top of the mountain we sipped the most expensive cups of coffee ever (about $6 apiece), and wished we had time to hike back down the mountain to the car.  As it was, we had to check out of the hotel by 11, so back down the chair lift we went.

View of Malbun from Sareiserjoch ski lift

We descended on the ski lift, agreeing that next time — and there will be a next time — we will plan on hiking down the mountain to Malbun below, an approximately 45 minute walk.

From the Hotel Oberländ we drove down to Vaduz, which perches above the Rhein River.  We strolled around the town while we waited to take the little (fake) “train” tour of the capital city.  Let me just say that while the 21 CHF (roughly $40 USD) spent on this 35 minute “tour” may have not been the wisest expenditure, it did provide for a fair amount of entertainment.  For starters, the “interlude music” between canned narrations was the (in)famous “Liechtenstein Polka” blasting at ear-pummeling volume.  We were in the same “train” car as some Italians and their shnoodle (one of those tiny, white, furry-floppy things that thinks it’s a dog), so we got the whole nickel tour in both Italian and English.  That is, until halfway through and the driver, distracted by an attractive passenger, forgot to punch the “Italian” button, so we listened to the second half in English and German.  Bless them, the four Italians never complained once – except when the driver slammed on the brakes and the furry doggy-thing slammed into the back of our seat.  (If it suffered any brain damage, I couldn’t tell.)  I did get a giggle out of some of the Italian cuss words.

We did learn a few items of interest on the tour, besides new Italian words.  Vaduz’s most significant landmark is the Vaduz Castle, home to the reigning Prince of Liechtenstein and his family.  According to the programmed spiel (see, I know German!), this is one of the oldest royal families in Europe, and the castle one of the longest lived-in-by-royalty on the continent as well.  Unfortunately, because it is the prince’s family home, we could only do photo ops from afar, much less have a tour.  But we still managed to get some fairly decent pictures of the castle.

Vaduz Castle

We also gleaned from the canned “tour” that tiny Liechtenstein has a “democratic monarchy”, which is another term for “constitutional monarchy”, and has a 25-member Parliament.  No lie.  They have their very own parliamentary building:

That’s Michael in the foreground to give you a bit of perspective.  It’s really not that small.

State House and Cathedral

We further learned that Liechtensteing’s currency is the Swiss franc and much of its services are tied to Switzerland; that it has the second highest gross domestic product per person in the world; and has the world’s lowest external debt.

(Just kidding about the in-depth information source; I learned the last two items from Wikipedia…)

Along with the blasting polka and bilingual narration, we were entertained by watching the driver flirt with the very attractive German passenger at a 12-minute stop that ate up one-third of the 35-minute tour.  But we were in such good moods from our overall pleasurable experiences in Liechtenstein, it didn’t really matter.  So in conclusion:  do try to get to Liechtenstein and stay for a few days at the Hotel Oberländ.  Plan on hiking in the summer or skiing, both downhill and crosscountry, in the winter, and having a lovely enjoying some of the most spectacular mountain views in Europe.

But skip the City Tour Train Ride.  And you may want to wait until the U.S. dollar is a tad stronger against the Swiss franc.  (But I wouldn’t bet a CHF on that!)

Travel Notes

While getting to Liechtenstein can take some planning, it is well worth the effort, and we highly recommend staying at the Hotel Oberland in Triesenberg, rather than in lower-lying Vaduz.  The hotel recently changed ownership and management six months ago.  Dorothee Bloch and her husband run a tight ship:  the rooms are spotless, the beds incredibly comfortable, and the showers the best we’ve had in Europe over the last three months of travel.  The views from our room’s little balcomy were stunning, showing the entire Rhein River valley.

The Blochs were extremely friendly and helpful, offering little niceties such as inquiring if we preferred a shower or tub bath, asking repeatedly if we had all we needed, if we needed maps, directions, etc.

The views from the restaurant balcony are lovely.  Triesenberg is about halfway up the mountain  between Vaduz, Liechtenstein’s capital city along the Rhein  River, and the hiking/ski resort town of Malbun at the top of the mountain.

Rhein Valley View from Hotel Oldenband

While it is possible to take a bus to Triesenberg, we rented a car and drove from Zurich. I believe the nearest train stations are in Feldkirch, Austria or Sargans, Switzerland and buses seemed to run regularly from towns to the capital of Liechtestein, Vaduz, as well as to Triesenberg and Malbun.

We wished we’d planned a longer stay in Liechtenstein and when we return, we’ll definitely stay at the Hotel  Oberland.

The answer to the question as to the smallest country in the world:  Vatican City, which is an independent country of 0.2 square miles, entirely surrounded by the capital city of another country:  Rome, Italy.

An Artist of Unique Vision

Too often artists of tremendous talent and beauty are not recognized in their lifetimes.  I’d like to help change that for at least one artist. 

In this blog I’d like to introduce my faithful readers and friends to a Dutch artist of unique vision and broad talent, and who just happens to be someone who has become a close friend.  Corinne van Bergen sculpts in glass, wire, bronze, elastic and combinations thereof.  She also is darn good with paint and pencil, but it’s her sculpting that caught my attention and admiration.

The work pictured above, Solo Swimmer, part of a series of glass sculptures she has completed, and in my opinion, is the best thus far.  The methods by which Corinne sculpted the swimmer makes him appear as if he were flying through the water.  In fact, upon first seeing Solo Swimmer, I blurted, “That looks like Superman’s Flight!” — referring not to the superhero but to a memorable drift scuba dive that resembled the thrill of uninhibited flight through the water.  

How Corinne crafts the glass sculptures is a painstaking, remarkably unique process.  She conceives and sketeches out the image she wants to portray, then draws each bodily segment on a sheet of plastic, which, ultimately, guides her as she carves each pane of glass.  As each etched glass piece is pressed to the next, they collectively begin to form the body Corinne’s envisioned.  Or at least this is my simplistic understanding of what she does. 

Think of a CT head scan where each “slice” of the brain reveals an intricate pattern of whorls, squiggles, and noodly shapes (sorry, I got fired as Artistic Editor on the school newspaper!).  When all the CT slices are put together, they would form a picture of the head, brain casing and inner brains, etc, included.  (Sorry again, non-marine science wasn’t my strong suit either!)  The point is:  each “slice” or piece of glass is intricately carved to be part of the whole sculpture, and performed in a medium which is fairly common — glass — but when completed, presents a piece of art which is as unique in concept and execution as it is in beauty.

Corinne’s other work as an “expressive artist” is similarly intriguing.  Her use of commonplace items such as metal-coated string, wire, or even elastic bands, produces small sculptures which are indeed as expressive as many anatomical drawings. Many of the wire figures she has used in story-telling tableaus or “sculpture plays” (my definitions) in exhibitions, while others are expressive as solo pieces.  As of this summer she has started an interesting series of cast bronze scuptures of little “B’Angels” which in Dutch loosely translates to “mischevous” or “naughty” angels that nevertheless posses a smidgen of vulnerability.  The first shows a young angel full of piss and vinegar perched on a spool.  Peek behind her and you see her clutching the thread to the spool for dear life. 

You can see photos of Corinne’s sculptures on her website:  http://www.corinnevanbergen.nl. The website is bilingual; just look for the combination U.S./U.K. flag in the upper left and the page will translate into English.  I’m sure all of you will be as fascinated by Corinne’s work as Michael and I were.

To construct her wire figures, Corinne begins twisting and turning the wire in her fingers, and eventually what emerges is a figure:  man or woman, dog, ear, or — my favorite — a little whale:

I am particularly fond of this piece as Corinne made this especially for me as a combination 60th birthday and farewell present.  We had become close friends during our sojourn in the Netherlands and this was such a touching and individualistically “Corinne” way of expressing  to me great friendship and caring.  Indeed, Michael and I had become good friends with both Corinne and her husband, Martin, spending many an evening over wine, Dutch kaas (cheese), and dinner, including our last night in Holland.

In a previous blog I enthused about three other Dutch artists whose work I admire greatly:  Vermeer, Van Gogh, and Escher.  Their styles and indeed epochs varied widely, but they had one thing in common, besides being Dutch:  they were all deceased.  It’s a shame so many artists only achieve fame once they’ve passed on to the Great Artists’ Haven in the Sky.  Let’s try to get Corinne van Bergen some deserved attention and praise now rather than later.  Her singular talent and work deserve it.

Corinne & Yanna, her cat