Several years ago Switzerland invaded Liechtenstein. Well, sort of.
An infantry of 170 Swiss soldiers out on a training exercise got a bit lost and crossed the border with Liechtenstein and marched about one and half kilometres into the country before they realised their mistake. Armed with assault rifles, the soldiers were perhaps lucky that they weren’t caught by Liechtenstein authorities or a serious diplomatic incident may have arisen.
A story like this, in many ways, captures the essence of this small European country. It’s so small you would hardly know it’s there… yet it’s so underpopulated that you can march an army through it and nobody would notice.
This is how I feel as I walk across the border from Austria into the north of Liechtenstein. I’ve decided that this country, only 24 kilometres from north to south, is something that I could easily walk. I’ve given myself two days, so as not to make it too much of a strain. You never know, there might even be something worth seeing along the way.
Liechtenstein is the sixth smallest country in the world. It’s also one of only two countries that is doubly-landlocked… which means it is landlocked by countries which are also landlocked (the other one is Uzbekistan, for the record). It’s tucked away here between Switzerland and Austria, forgotten by the rest of the world. Oh, except for those who are looking to escape paying taxes.
That’s the reputation this country has – a tax dodge. Most people know little of it. I discover, as I walk across it, there is little else to know.
The whole country has a population of 35,000. That’s a lot less than most sports stadiums can hold. If Liechtenstein was playing Ukraine in the football, the country’s entire population could fit into just one half of the stadium in Kiev. And with so little people, comes very little else. Liechtenstein doesn’t have it’s own culture, its own language, its own currency, or its own army. I guess that’s why the Swiss weren’t too worried when they marched in that time.
But Liechtenstein does have beauty. It is the only country to lie entirely in the Alps and as I cut through small roads between clumps of houses, everything has that rural alpine feel to it. I’m walking south so to the east, on my left, is a large collection of mountains. They rise up from the valley, filled with green trees and with a smattering of white snow on the top. There is very little development on these mountains and they create a natural border for this tiny nation.
Immediately to my right for most of the walk is a river. The Rhine River, in fact. It forms the border with Switzerland and most of the urban settlement of Liechtenstein follows the path of the water. Several bridges link the two countries, including small quaint wooden pedestrian bridges which have a line marked halfway along where the border should be.
I don’t see many people. It’s a quiet country – with very little reason for people to travel far or pass through. It sits in a certain isolation from everything around it, a secret valley between the land of giants. And so as I walk, there are few chances to share a greeting or ask for directions. Not that I am lost – it’s a straight line south pretty much – but it might have been a nice way to start talking to some locals. I’m still a bit unclear what makes a Liechtensteiner a Liechtensteiner.
As it turns out, I manage to pass two days in a fairly quiet contemplation. I see the occasional castle-like structure up on a hill, I pass some pretty churches, I spot some beautiful displays outside a roadside florist, and I get confused when I suddenly find myself in the middle of a modern art display in the biggest town Vaduz. I feel like in just two days I get a sense of what Liechtenstein looks like and what it feels like. However, in a similar way to those Swiss soldiers, I’m lost to tell you how Liechtenstein fits in to everything.