04 January 2010

'Princely moments'

The guidebooks are generally quite disparaging about Liechtenstein and level especially harsh judgement on the principality's capital 'city', Vaduz. The writers at Lonely Planet lament 'poor Vaduz' and the Rough Guide to Switzerland says 'you have to feel sorry for Vaduz'. Maybe I visited with low expectations. Maybe I'm more impressed by novelty passport stamps. Maybe I have an affinity for cityscapes dominated by small-scale, drab bank buildings. Whatever the reason, I found Vaduz a whole barrel of fun.

We visited on New Year's Eve, which, as with much of Europe, is called 'Silvester' in Switzerland and Liechtenstein. There are no trains directly to Liechtenstein from Switzerland (possibly because the two countries weren't on neighbourly terms until the twentieth century) and so the first part of our Liechtensteiner adventure was to work out how to catch a local bus from the small regional Swiss railway station of Buchs into Liechtenstein. Luckily, a lime-green bus marked 'Vaduz' soon appeared and we were off driving through the alleyways of rural Liechtenstein (if a country of that size can be said to have an urban-rural divide). The scenery as we made our way towards the capital was strange: think of driving between Tempe and Sydenham, with that mix of residential and industrial buildings, then imagine that scene flanked by pastureland with the Alps rising quickly in the background.

Vaduz is, really, too small I think to be called a city. The town centre has only two streets (one of which is closed to traffic and used as a pedestrian mall) and on arrival we headed for the tourist office to get our passports stamped. En route we counted no less than a dozen little banks, each brimming with secret gold deposits of the wealthy Germans over the border. Banking is only one of Liechtenstein's major industries; the other is denture manufacturing, and I can confirm that all the septa- and octogenarians I saw wandering through the town had marvelous dentures.

At the tourist office the kind lady who stamped out passports regretfully informed us that because it was Silvester, all the museums were closed. This was a little disappointing as the postage stamp museum and the prince's personal art collection housed in the local art museum are, apparently, both very good. But there was plenty out in the open to occupy our time. The souvenir shop just down from the tourism office was a mine of tacky treasures with tasteless tourists to match. It was at this shop that I realised the Liechtenstein Tourism Bureau's slogan is princely moments - the line is imprinted all over the postcards and other official souvenirs, including a lovely set of Tupperware containers featuring decal photographs of the princely family. Incidental, the family enjoys their princely moments while living in the Schloss Vaduz, an old castle perched high up on the hill that towers above Vaduz.

Liechtenstein casts itself as a 'democratic monarchy' and while the monarch resides up above the city, the parliament (pictured and which, to be honest, does not seem to have much authority in the little nation) is housed in a modern complex below, between a bank or two and the local cathedral. The complex itself from afar looks like it's made out of paddlepop sticks because of all the thin light tan bricks used in its construction and pretty much is emblematic of the novelty that is the Principality of Liechtenstein.

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