28 March 2012

The day we became Swiss mail (Vaduz, Liechtenstein)

They say a prince lives here... a real-life prince.  And that he occasionally comes down from his fairy tale Gothic castle in the sky and graces the town either to shop or to down a few at one of the pubs.  And that oftentimes when he does, he'd privilege lucky visitors with a personal "wilkommen".  On that notion alone, the missus was sold.

As for me, I was at sixes and sevens with myself.  I mean, our time in Zürich wasn't limitless - we only had five days; and Oi Len had already earmarked two of those (before we left home, mind you) for shopping on the Bahnhofstrasse.

On the other hand, being the typical tourist I sometimes am, I was influenced by those evil, over-priced travel books; all of which highly recommend a day trip to this place.  Mine says "no trip to Europe would be complete without a side trip to this petite principality snugly nestled between Switzerland to the west and Austria to the east."  They say not only is her countryside picture postcard material, she also produces arguably some of the world's most wunderbar and collectible stamps.

Strangely though, I was also drawn by her national motto: Für Gott, Fürst und Vaterland ~ For God, Prince and Fatherland.  Reading between those immensely patriotic lines, I could tell immediately that hers was a proud people.  And where the people are proud of their motherland, chances are they'll ensure visitors are made very welcome.

To be honest, the whole issue wasn't as farcical as I'd described; because at the end of the day, there was always going to be only one outcome.  To not visit wasn't an option.  And so it was decided unanimously;  Liechtenstein, here we come!

Friday, 18th April 2008.  As is the case with all train journeys in Switzerland, our hour-long trip from Zürich Hauptbahnhof (Main Station) southwards to Sargans - the Swiss transit point for Liechtenstein's capital, Vaduz (pronounced "Fah-doots") - was a truly scenic one and took us past lazy, leafy suburbs on the western shore of Lake Zürich.  I recall being absolutely mesmerised by the sheer tranquility of this place.  "I could live here", I told Oi Len.  Forever.

Apologies for the poor video quality.  It's a gazillion times more beautiful in real life; I swear.

On arrival in Sargans, we very quickly found the bus stop for our connection to Vaduz... but where's the bus?!!  Knowing the supreme efficiency of the Swiss transport system, one ought to have already arrived 7½ minutes prior; waiting to take us to Vaduz.

Then came a voice from behind us.  "Guten morgen.  Vaduz?"  The gentleman was wearing a smart, crisp suit and a peak cap; obviously a uniform of some sort.  I couldn't make out the embroidered words though.
 "Ja", I replied.
 "Das ist der Bus", the uniformed gentleman said; pointing to the bright yellow 25-seater marked "Liechtensteinische Post AG" parked just behind Sargans' tiny train station.
 "He speaks English", Oi Len remarked innocently and matter-of-factly.  Ha ha... dontcha just love her?
Anyway, it tickled us no end to learn that the bus was in fact operated by Liechtenstein's postal service and performed the dual function of delivering mail to/from Switzerland as well as providing the common commuter service between both countries.  We could only assume that the driver was also a postman.  I remember feeling tempted to ask him whether he regarded us as "passengers" or "mail"; but that wouldn't be a cool thing to do, now would it?.  Still, it felt kinda strange... and a good laugh we had.

Oi Len and I outside the Tourism Office in Vaduz

After a short 20-odd minute ride, we arrived in Vaduz and proceeded immediately to the Tourism Office across the street where, on the first floor, the postmuseum (Postage Stamp Museum) is located.  We spent about half an hour at this free admission museum which showcases Liechtenstein's postal history and, more famously, her national stamps since 1912.  Each in its own right was a work of art.  Philatelists could spend hours on end here; seriously.  TRULY brilliant stuff.  This particular pair is our favourite.  Beauties, aren't they?

This exquisite set is titled "Princely Treasures II: Liechtenstein Museum Vienna"

Stamps, however, weren't our primary reason for visiting.  You see, there are no border controls in Liechtenstein and most visitors (including yours truly) come to the Tourism Office solely for one reason - to have their passports endorsed with the hugely popular souvenir stamp (like an entry visa if you will) as proud evidence of their having visited the Fürstentum.  Not that it's hard to get one... SFr.3 (or about 2 quid) was all it took.  Well, you know how tourists are.  This one's my very own. 

With that massively important bit done, we proceeded to Städtle or "Little Town", Vaduz's large pedestrianised main street.  That's when we discovered that Vaduz resembled more of a village than a capital city.  It has extremely clean streets with a busy sidewalk café scene.  Despite the latter, however, we found the city to be quiet.  Serene even.  This was probably due to the relatively small number of motorised vehicles in the city (or at least we didn't see very many while we were there).  And the fact that only near-silent electric buses are used in Vaduz also played a part no doubt.

Städtle, downtown Vaduz

But what captured our attention most in Städtle were its pavements which were intermittently - and interestingly - painted over with a selection of Liechtenstein's stamps past and present.  Lovely, lovely stuff.

Pavements on the Städtle painted over with a selection of Liechtenstein's stamps

To be honest, we found this part of Vaduz to be like a humongous open air art museum.  I mean, there were art figures and sculptures everywhere which really enlivened the streets; each one beautifully done.  No wonder Liechtensteiners are proud of their country.  Even their fire hydrants are works of art!

The coolest fire hydrant in the world

Art figures and sculptures abound in Vaduz

Oi Len and her sister in Vaduz

After exploring the city centre, we decided to catch a short 20-minute bus ride to Bendern; the nearest of many quaint villages to the north of Vaduz.  The scenery en route was stunning to say the least; but still came in at a close second when compared to that of New Zealand, in my opinion.

One mistake I did make - we were to find out on arrival at Bendern - was that we really ought have rented a car.  This was because even though these villages are small, distances between each are quite vast and certainly not walkable.  Hence, we were only able to cover li'l Bendern.  We simply adored this wonderfully quaint and charming village.  The beauty of the place - with the Swiss Alps as backdrop - is beyond words; so I'll just let my next three pictures do the talking.

Hillside homes in Bendern

Kirchhügel (Church Hill), Bendern.  This parish church was built in 1280.

The charming little village of Bendern

We spent just shy of an hour in Bendern as we needed to head back to Vaduz to catch the third and last bus returning to Sargans on the Swiss side of the border.  There was however sufficient time to grab lunch downtown and after a brief walkabout, we decided on Restaurant Adler, a budget- to mid-priced restaurant specialising in Swiss fare.  Oi Len ordered bratwurst on sauerkraut while I opted for a large serving of hamburger steak with heaps of fries - greasy and salty; perfectly we way I like 'em.

Lunch in Vaduz

After lunch, we proceeded to catch our bus back to Sargans, Switzerland; and from the vantage point of the bus stop in Vaduz, I snapped the following picture which I had to share here.  Why?  Because beyond those mountains in the background lies Austria, and I remember saying to Oi Len, "My goodness, how on earth did the Family Von Trapp make it over those mountains into Switzerland?"  Because if you look closely, you'll realize just how huge the Swiss Alps really are.  No doubt it must've been an extremely hazardous and treacherous journey.

We left Liechtenstein with mixed feelings; happy because the effort we took to visit was worth the while, but also heavy-hearted because we would have liked to stay a wee bit longer to enjoy everything she had to offer.  Our decision to visit Liechtenstein - the world's 6th smallest country - turned out to be the correct one; but we never doubted it would be.  Despite being a small country, she has a huge personality.  Her natural beauty left us (as would any other visitor) awe-struck. 

Vaduz is arguably one of the most soulful places we've ever visited, but once here it really is worth venturing out and enjoying the many quaint villages, lush green forests and craggy cliffs of the rest of Liechtenstein.  Unfortunately, we didn't have time for that.  But as the capital of one of the last vestiges of the Holy Roman Empire, Vaduz merits a closer look; at least to walk its streets, visit some of its museums and enjoy some of the local fare on offer here.

And Liechtenstein, the jewel at the pulse of Europe, is like a book. Once you've started reading, you can't put it down.  She is both traditional as well as modern.  She's just the right size and open to the world.  She is athletic, sexy and sensual.  Do visit one day, my friends.  She's worth it.

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