PHOTOGRAPHY BY FEDERICO CIAMEI
“Hoi” is the all-purpose informal greeting of Liechtenstein and a word you’ll likely hear dozens of times each day as you stroll across the country. Locals acknowledge you with a smile and a nod, but they know you’re a tourist—not from the way you dress or your accent, but simply because, in the sixth-smallest country on earth, everyone seems to know one another.
Liechtenstein has all the charms of small-town living on a national level. The entire country is smaller in area (less than 62 square miles) than Washington, D.C., and its population (around 38,000) is about the same as that of Tupelo, Mississippi. Every resident of the capital city, Vaduz, could stay in the MGM Grand in Las Vegas at the same time—and the royal family would still have an entire floor to itself. One of the nation’s most popular souvenirs is a passport stamp, which requires a visit to the tourist office and costs 3 Swiss francs ($3), as there is no border immigration or local currency. Liechtenstein also has no airport and no military. What it does have, as of this past May, is one of the most unique walking paths on earth.
Three hundred years ago, in early 1719, Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI unified two neighboring areas, the county of Vaduz and Lordship of Schellenberg, and declared them a principality to be ruled by Anton Florian von Liechtenstein. This year, the
micronation—which has one of the highest per capita incomes in the world and is the only country fully contained within the Alps—has been celebrating its tricentennial with festivals, museum renovations, and hotel openings, and the crown jewel of the anniversary has been the debut of the Liechtenstein Trail.
“Tourism is only a small part of our economy,” says the country’s regent, Hereditary Prince Alois, “but we are happy for guests to discover the beauty of our country.” In fact, thanks to the opening of the 47-mile Liechtenstein Trail, visitors can now discover the entire country. The path runs from the Swiss border in the south to the Austrian border in the north, passing through all 11 of the country’s cities and villages and past numerous attractions. The zigzagging route is actually three times the length of Liechtenstein itself and takes an estimated 21 hours to complete. A die-hard athlete could finish it in a single long slog, but for most people this means that in three to four days you can traverse a whole country while visiting every single one of its municipalities—something that’s virtually impossible anywhere else.
It’s this carrot—the sheer novelty of seeing all of a nation in just a few days—that has brought me here. I start my intranational trek at the Swiss frontier, marked only by roadside flags of the respective nations, and less than an hour later I’ve already walked through the quaint village of Balzers, past bakery windows full of tempting pastries, and up to a hilltop fortress built in the 12th century on a site that has been occupied for at least 6,000 years. The trail continues in this fashion from village to village, and even as it climbs the foothills of the Alps, I’m never more than about an hour from an enclave of shops, restaurants, and inns—not to mention bathrooms—so all I have to carry is a daypack with a few layers and a water bottle. You can do the entire trail while staying at a single hotel, fanning out in different directions each day, but I opt for a new service, courtesy of the visitors bureau, that moves my luggage from hotel to hotel along the route so I can sleep in three different villages, for variety. I’ll spend my nights at the Hotel Landhaus am Giessen in Vaduz; the Jufa Hotel, at Liechtenstein’s sole ski resort, Malbun; and the Hotel Restaurant Weinstube in Nendeln.
I spot plenty of German and Swiss hikers when I check into the Hotel Landhaus on my first night. Most seem unaware of the new trail and have come for a weekend of day hikes, as visitors from neighboring countries have done for years. I also meet Stefan Tscheppe (the director of Herawingert, the princely winery), who is here on a trip from his home base of Vienna. Over a glass of red wine at the bar, he tells me that Liechtenstein’s climate and wind patterns are somewhat similar to the Pacific Northwest’s and the Sonoma Coast’s and thus ideal for pinot noir. But, as a former California resident, he stresses that the hiking—and the cheese—is better here.
He’s definitely right about the cheese. On my second day on the trail I pick up some company, in the form of Marc Schädler and a couple of his llamas, for a fondue hike. Schädler runs a llama trekking outfit out of the mountain village of Triesenberg. The idea has proven popular with foreign tourists—even those who don’t realize they are foreign tourists. “I had a guest who had been staying here three nights, in Vaduz, and still thought he was in Switzerland,” Schädler tells me as we walk the peaceful animals on leashes along a wooded section of the trail. The llamas carry all the necessities for a delicious picnic lunch. Schädler’s father, a traditional dairy farmer, made the cheese that my host melts in a pot over our campfire. We crack open beers and soon begin stabbing chunks of bread on long forks into the fondue.
Food is a major differentiator for the Liechtenstein Trail. Forget about camping fare like gorp and jerky: I indulge in Alpine comfort foods such as sausage and raclette, washed down with glasses of pinot noir and grüner veltliner. There’s no need to pack snacks when fine-dining restaurants and wineries are just an hour’s walk away. At the end of my second day, I change into a sports coat and dine at Vaduz’s Michelin-starred Torkel, which has more than 500 entries on its wine list to pair with tomahawk steaks and sea bass.
There are plenty of other surprises that you won’t find on famed long-distance paths such as the Appalachian Trail or Scotland’s West Highland Way. In Vaduz, you can do a Segway tour; in Malbun, a guided walk with a golden eagle and a falconer. In Ruggell, I discover a spot where I can carefully place my feet to straddle the borders of three countries at once.
Despite going solo much of the way, I never get lost, because the new trail is thoroughly signposted in both directions. Guides are available, but they’re not necessary. Instead, I depend on the LIstory app, which the country created to enhance and simplify the experience. It’s one of the most technologically advanced tourism apps I’ve ever used, a virtual guide and navigation tool detailing 147 points of interest. For instance, I pass the Vaduz Castle, perched on the hillside above the city, on my second day. It’s the nation’s most photographed attraction, but there are no tours or public access. Using the app, however, I’m able to bring up a three-dimensional model of the castle, touch on various rooms, and open them for a virtual tour without ever entering. As Martin Knöpfel, who as project manager of the Liechtenstein Trail spent a year and a half working with a Swiss technology company to bring the app to life, tells me, “All the points of interest are about the history of Liechtenstein, and it goes all the way back to the Ice Age.”
Of course, you don’t need the app to enjoy a walk in Liechtenstein. Most of the time, I just take in the scenery and enjoy the opportunity to hike through high meadows full of Alpine wildflowers and then, minutes later, stroll along the main drags of charming towns. Since the Liechtenstein Trail was assembled from existing hiking trails, sidewalks, forest roads, and paved traffic-free recreation paths, it’s not a hardcore trek; rather, it’s a good walk that constantly mixes forest, mountain, and village settings. (“Urban” would be too strong a word for a country whose largest city has fewer than 6,000 occupants.) Also, because most of the country sits in the Rhine River valley, even my forays into the Alps never climb high enough to introduce concerns of altitude sickness or shortness of breath. Serious athletes, however, should know that there are about 250 more miles of interconnecting trails with far more aggressive terrain. “In America, hiking means different things to people,” says Rosaria Heeb, a self-proclaimed “Mountain Godmother” who is part of a small consortium of hiking guides that escorts visitors along these paths. “It can be steep mountain trails, fields, walking paths, and flat sections, and that’s the great thing about this trail—it offers something for everyone.”
Everyone including, I’m somewhat surprised to find, me. Before this trip, I’d never even considered visiting Liechtenstein, but hiking these hills has opened up a new place for me and shown me a tiny world that still contains multitudes worth exploring. Indeed, as Knöpfel puts it, “The country is small, but the trail is big.”
GUIDES AND ACTIVITIES
Mein-Lie Guide (mein-lieguide.li) is a bilingual private guide service for both hiking and cultural exploration, including Parliament tours. Bergotta Bergötti (Mountain Godparents) Liechtenstein is a hiking guide specialist (berggottaberggoetti.li). Llama trekking is customizable and can include hotel pickup (lama-alpaka.li).
The top two luxury properties are in Vaduz: Relais & Chateaux’s Park Hotel Sonnenhof, which features the Michelin-starred restaurant Marée (sonnenhof.li, from $410); and the Hotel-Gasthof Löwen, a seven-room respite where Goethe once stayed, with a restaurant that serves wines from its own vineyard (hotel-loewen.li, from $220). Elsewhere, midrange choices include the Hotel Restaurant Weinstube in Nendeln, known for its wine list (weinstube.li, from $178); and the Jufa Hotel, part of an Austrian chain, at the Malbun ski resort (jufa.eu, from $140).
FOR MORE INFORMATION
The country’s small scale also applies to its tourism board, which offers one-on-one assistance and can make bookings, coordinate luggage transfers, and help visitors put together a complete package (liechtenstein-marketing.li). The Liechtenstein Trail has its own site (liechtensteintrail.li) and the LIstory app can be found on Google Play and the Apple App Store.
The gateway to Liechtenstein is Zürich Airport, and from there it’s less than two hours by train to the Buchs or Sargans stations, both on the border with Switzerland. A Swiss Travel Pass also includes free use of Liech-tenstein’s extensive bus system.