Destination: Liechtenstein

To celebrate its 300th birthday as a principality, the enticingly compact state of Liechtenstein has unveiled a new 75km walking trail through the rippling mountain scenery of Europe’s least-visited country.

By Lizzie Enfield

A snow covered landscape with a castle and winding road

To celebrate its 300th birthday as a principality, the enticingly compact state of Liechtenstein has unveiled a new 75km walking trail through the rippling mountain scenery of Europe’s least-visited country.

From the elevated Alpine pastures of Profatscheng, some 20km into my first day’s walk, I can see almost all of Liechtenstein. Behind me rise the snowy peaks of the Austrian Alps, which form the principality’s eastern border, and in the valley below, the silvery stripe of the River Rhine delineates the border with Switzerland in the west. 

Cradled between these two natural boundaries is one of Europe’s smallest countries – all 160 sq km of it and a population of 38,000.

Tell anyone you’re heading off to walk in the Alps, and the chances are they’ll ask if you’re going to France or Switzerland, Germany or Austria – Italy even. Rarely will they ask if you are going to Liechtenstein, despite it being the only country that is situated entirely in the Alpine massif. It is Europe’s least-visited nation.

These are just two of the facts that I picked up while walking the recently inaugurated Liechtenstein Trail, a 75km route that winds its way back and forth from the banks of the Rhine to the mountains, through towns and villages and taking in 147 highlighted points of interest along the way.

The launch of the trail was the principality’s 300th birthday present to itself. In 1719, the areas of Schellenberg and Vaduz were united by the Liechtenstein dynasty and made a principality by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI, before becoming a sovereign state in 1806.  This tiny country was already a walker’s paradise, with over 400km of trails attracting hikers from Switzerland, Austria and nearby Germany. But for walkers from further afield, it remains relatively undiscovered. The Liechtenstein Trail, the country’s first long-distance route, aims to introduce new visitors to the area and to its long history.

Creating the trail

The trail’s creation was organic. First, a team of historians earmarked the sights of interest they thought should be included, then trail makers worked out the most scenic routes to connect them.

An accompanying free smartphone app (the LIstory app) provides walkers with maps, information about the sights and even an ‘augmented reality experience’ at some of the sites.

Vaduz Castle, for example, home to the principality’s current prince and his family, is not open to the public. But the LIstory app provides a virtual tour of some of the staterooms used to receive visiting delegations.

A wooden bridge with a roof over the top and sidesWhile the trail is well marked and easy to follow via the app, it’s worth downloading and printing off some maps before setting out – not least because the app uses more battery than my mobile phone can keep up with.

The trail not only introduces visitors to the country, but also highlights little known points of interest to its residents, as well. Every now and then it heads off in an unexpected direction and rewards you with an unexpected gem or nugget of information. Russian soldiers, who fought for Germany against the Red Army in the Second World War, fled to neutral Liechtenstein, where they were granted political asylum, for example. And the Great Rhine Flood of 1927 submerged a vast swathe of the land in mud, costing many lives and destroying homes.

The Liechtenstein trail can be walked in either direction (north to south or vice versa) and I opt to start in the south, from just outside the village of Balzers, on the border with Switzerland, where the trail is marked by a couple of flags and a boulder bearing the trail’s insignia – a blue and red ‘L’ topped by a crown.

During the night it had snowed, leaving a light dusting over everything. I walk for an hour or so, along a former Roman road in the shadow of the Swiss Alps, before spotting the turrets of Gutenberg Castle, rising up above Balzers. Perched on a hill that was once the site of a Neolithic hillfort, Gutenberg Castle, originally built in the Middle Ages, was restored in the 20th century. If you fancy a closer look, the bailey is open to visitors free of charge throughout the year.

After crossing the microstate’s fairly quiet main road, the route begins to climb into foothills of the Alps, passing through Triesen. This was, until the early 1980s, home to a thriving textile industry – a former cotton mill and factory is testament to it.

View from above of a valley and villages

A further steep climb takes walkers to the picturesque traditional Alpine village of Triesenberg – a part of Liechtenstein that has attracted tourists since the 1870s. They came for healthy mountain air and stayed in one of the four guesthouses in the region. Gasthaus Edelweiss is the only one remaining here today, so I stop for a   lunch of fresh white asparagus – Spargel – and cold meats.

Before climbing up further still, to the farmhouse and Alpine meadows of pretty Profatscheng, I am rewarded with the sight of five chamois – a type of wild mountain goat/antelope – grazing on the edge of the woodlands, while below the towns and villages are dotted along the valley like a model village.

Tiny capital city

From Profatscheng at 1,220 metres above sea level, the trail narrows and descends into a forest before emerging just above Vaduz Castle. The frequent blue and red trail markers, combined with the topography, make this an easy-to-follow route; as long as I had the Rhine on my left and the Alps to my right, I could be confident that I was headed in the right direction.

The tourist office suggests walking the trail in five stages of between 10 and 20km. And, if you want to find accommodation along the way, there are plenty of options. But, equally, given the size of the country, it’s just as easy to stay in one place and make use of the frequent, easy-to-use bus service to and from each stage’s starting and finishing points.

I walk the trail in three sections over three days of around 25km each, basing myself in Vaduz, where, at the end of my first day’s walk from Balzers, I took the opportunity to explore the smallest capital city I have ever visited. It’s not so much a one-horse as a two-street town – one for traffic and another for pedestrians, which links the capital’s main visitor attractions, such as the sleek new parliament building, the national museum, the Kunstmuseum – Liechtenstein’s museum of fine arts, cathedral and postal museum, displaying Liechtenstein’s intricately designed and highly sought-after stamps.

From Vaduz, the trail dips down to the banks of the river, taking in the last surviving covered wooden bridge on the Alpine Rhine, the Alte Rheinbrücke, before it heads east again into the mountains to the picture-postcard village of Planken, with its wooden Swiss chalet-style houses and pretty 18th-century chapel. Liechtenstein enjoys a temperate, Alpine climate, with warm, wet summers and mild winters. But its position between the Austrian and Swiss Alps means that its climate is sometimes affected by the sudden blustery and very warm wind, the Foehn. It had happily blasted away most of the snow that made my first day’s walking tricky.

From Planken, I head down another steep pine forest trail, emerging to head back across the valley, through the town of Eschen – famous for hosting Pope John Paul II on his tour in 1985 – to Ruggell and the end of the second day’s walk.

Here, I catch the bus back to Vaduz for a very late lunch at the Hofkellerei; the wine cellar and restaurant attached to the prince’s vineyard. It’s a great place to dig into a Wiener Schnitzel and raise a glass of pinot noir to the principality of Liechtenstein’s 300th birthday.

Mulberry trees

The third and final day’s walk heads through the Ruggeller Riet Nature Reserve – a beautiful expanse of biodiverse wetland. It was formed after the marshes were drained in the 1940s. 

I spot a couple of storks and herons before the path leads me back up to the ruins of one of Schellenberg’s two castles, then heads down to the town of Mauren.

Here, the distinctive red and blue waymarkers lead me off the beaten track to the outskirts of the town, and at first I’m not sure why. I can’t see any obvious point of interest, but the app points out a tiny cluster of mulberry trees and tells me this little town once dabbled, unsuccessfully, with sericulture (silkworm farming).

I carry on to Schaanwald on the border with Austria, where the trail ends. I could, of course, head on into Austria, with its own wealth of walking trails, but I have come to appreciate Liechtenstein’s diminutive size and feel I’ve really acquainted myself with not only its magnificent Alpine scenery but also with its hundreds of years of history.

A man walking along a snow covered path, high in hills

Map of trailWalk it!

Time/Distance

Time/distance The 75km Liechtenstein Trail can be walked in 10-25km stages, which are all easily accessible by bus (LIEmobil.li). The terrain varies between easy lowland stretches and more strenuous mountain trails, with plenty of points of interest along the way. The country is crisscrossed with other walking routes, the most notable being the Fürstensteig trail, a 12km, five-hour hike to 2,000 metres – a rite of passage for locals. 

Maps

The LIstory app includes maps and an interactive guidebook. Maps can also be obtained from the Vaduz tourist office.

Further info

tourismus.li/en/