A Little Piece of the Holy Roman Empire
The Last Monarchy in the Heart of the Alps
Our days in Italy were over, so we headed out from Turin toward Milan and on into Switzerland. Our final destination for the day was a little town called Balzers in a little country called Liechtenstein.
When we crossed into Switzerland from Italy, we got nailed with a €45 toll to drive on their roads. We even got a little sticker to put in our window as proof. The downside is we were just passing through Switzerland and would be spending under three hours on its roads. It was about the same as we paid for tolls on some of the tollways in Spain, but it still seemed a little steep.
We did stop at the Swiss town of Lugano for lunch, though. They say Switzerland is expensive—and they're right. We stopped off at an unassuming burger place where they had burgers that worked out to about $25 USD each.
We also thought that once we got to Europe, our money-changing woes would be over. Oh, how silly we were. Switzerland uses the Swiss Franc instead of the Euro, and the Swiss Franc is valued slightly higher than both the U.S. Dollar and the Euro. Surprise!
We had to cross the alps to get to Liechtenstein, and after we left Lugano, the roads climbed pretty quickly up into the mountains. As we got higher, it rained quite a bit. At one point it was raining so hard that visibility was zero and we couldn't even hear ourselves talk because the rain was hitting the roof of the car so hard. Fortunately there are a number of well-constructed tunnels carved out of the mountainside along this route that gave a little shelter from the storm. Eventually we made it through the rains and though the mountains and into Liechtenstein.
Liechtenstein, officially known as Fürstentum Liechtenstein (FN), is the smallest country we've been in (well, after Vatican City). It's only 60 or so square miles—which is the size of Easter Island—and has only 35,000 people. It's also the last vestige of the Holy Roman Empire, a once-sprawling conglomeration of nations and territories that had covered much Europe. The whole history of the Holy Roman Empire is complicated, confusing, and really long. It started when Charlemagne was crowned in 800 and was dissolved after Francis II lost to Napoleon at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1806. And when that happened, all the other feudal entities that Liechtenstein owed allegiance to evaporated, and today it alone remains. Although the rulers of Liechtenstein didn't set foot into the country's borders until 1818 and didn't really settle there until 1842.
About ten minutes after we entered Liechtenstein, we arrived at our hotel in Balzers, a tiny town just over the border from Switzerland. After we checked in to our hotel, we thought we'd do a little exploring. Right away we found there's not a heck of a lot to do in Balzers, so we headed over to see the most notable feature of the town—Castle Gutenburg.
The castle had been a fortress at one point, but for the past few centuries it was used a private residence. At one point it was owned by the Habsburgs (like almost everything else in Europe) and another point it was owned by the Liechtenstein royal family. These days it's a public museum, but we were there as the sun was going down so it wasn't open. There were a few plaques placed around that seemed to tell old stories about the castle, but they were in German with no translation, so they remain a mystery to us. We did get a nice view of Balzers, though.
On our way back to the hotel, we walked by the Church of St. Nicholas, which is next door to Castle Gutenburg. It reminded us a little of the Church of the Angels back in Los Angeles.
Although Liechtenstein is one of the smallest countries in the world, it is also one of the wealthiest. Because it's still ruled by a prince, it is not a member of the EU (the EU is a democracies-only club). It is, however, part of the Schengen Area, and, like its neighbor Switzerland, speaks predominately German and uses the Swiss Franc. So it's not a cheap country to visit. We were staying in Balzers because our hotel was half the price of what it would have been in Vaduz, a 10-minute drive to the north.
After we got back to the hotel, we had an expensive mediocre meal and turned in for the night.
The next morning we awoke, had our free breakfast (the best kind) and drove that ten minutes to Vaduz. The first thing you notice about Vaduz is Vaduz Castle, the palace and home of the Prince of Liechtenstein, which sits high above the town.
We parked the car in a public lot (it was a Saturday, so free parking!) and took a look around. One of the big draws in Liechtenstein seems to be its stamps. People who love stamps love to have these stamps, and there's a whole museum dedicated to history of Liechtenstein's postal service right on the main square of Vaduz. We're not much into stamps (we're more about patches and tea towels), so we didn't go inside.
We did, however, stop in at the tourist office a few doors down and shell out €12 for four passport stamps.
There's also a lot of public art on the streets of Vaduz, which was pretty cool. It was a bit odd seeing all sorts of abstract art on display alongside classical architecture.
Our favorite piece of art was Daniel Eggli's "Businesspeople," which was tucked away in a corner just off the main town square.
Like Balzers, there isn't a heck of a lot to do in Vaduz. After we did our circuit of the town square, we noticed a lot of tour buses pulling up near where we were parked. Why so many tour buses were pulling up, we had no idea. Maybe it was part of a tour of European castles or something. In any case, it was time for us to get get back on the road—we had to get to Freising, Germany—but first, we had to get some lunch. After looking at some menus, there was only one restaurant that was reasonably priced ...
How many people can say they spent $50 at McDonald's in Liechtenstein? As of right now, I know four.