What do you know about Liechtenstein?
When I was younger I was always fascinated by the obscure. Which language did I want to learn? Polish, of course. Which musical instrument did I want to learn? The cello, naturally. Which country did I want to visit? Liechtenstein, obviously. The more I think about it, the more I wonder if I wasn’t so much fascinated by the obscure as I was drawn towards Central and Eastern Europe.
But no, it was definitely an obscure thing – when I took my first trip abroad in 2004 it was to Iran, and when I decided to move abroad for work (and eventually settle), it was Lahore via Chennai.
I was reminded of my (long lost) wish to visit Liechtenstein recently when I actually went to the minuscule country. After posting a couple of pictures on Facebook, my dutiful mother commented accordingly;
It’s easy to laugh about a country which measures just 25 kilometres long. But as my studies will attest, Liechtenstein is very seriously an independent country – there’s just a lot that people don’t know about it.
For example, its capital Vaduz is actually a decent-sized city considering Liechtenstein’s microstate status. While numbering only 5,500, its population is spread across a couple of suburbs (unlike blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Vatican City), and the city’s main street actually feels like a main street (unlike Andorra-la-Vella’s deserted duty-free weirdness).
There’s even a McDonalds in Vaduz (a business extension of McDonalds’ Switzerland operations), and the whole capital city is watched over by the princes castle on the hill. Yes, Liechtenstein is ruled by a prince, and although there’s an elected government, Prince Hans-Adam II wields ultimate power. Every year on 15th August, the prince celebrates Lichtenstein’s national holiday by inviting the whole country to his castle for a party with free beer and fireworks. And a fair proportion of the 37,000-strong population turn up, apparently.
Liechtenstein is not part of the EU. That’s right – sandwiched in between Switzerland and Austria, hemmed in by the Alps, Liechtenstein takes part in a whole bunch of trade and visa agreements, but is independent of the European Union. But it’s not all independence and heads held high – Liechtenstein doesn’t have its own currency, instead using the Swiss Franc. Liechtenstein is also one of a handful of countries without an airport, meaning any air travel is done via Zurich in Switzerland, about 80 kilometres away. I didn’t actually stay in Liechtenstein – instead opting for the bizarrely staffless B Smart Hotel at Sevelen in Switzerland – about a thirty minute walk away.
Like any microstate, Lichtenstein has its fair share of weirdness too. It offers passport stamps – not because anyone needs them, but for the novelty factor. It’s a tax haven (or, as the Liechtenstein government likes to call it, a “safe haven”), with scores of companies using the places as a base for their operations. It’s one of two countries in the world which are “double-landlocked”, meaning that it is situated between two or more other landlocked countries. The other one is Uzbekistan. And its biggest export? Dentures. Of course.