Liechtenstein: an Endless Tale
Entering Liechtenstein, you’re getting into a true mix of Switzerland and Austria. The mountains are genuinely Swiss– with sharp and unreachable peaks, while the hamlets are Austrian style– with tidy wooden houses and terraces lush with flowers and vegetation. Everything else, however, is Liechtenstein-style: industry, banking, etc.
We arrived in Liechtenstein on a sunny day and landed directly on the central place of Vaduz. This is where the famous red-blue little train, similar to those we have at Slanchev Briag, starts its round laden with tourist crowds. It has almost grown into a symbol of the capital. We were pleasantly surprised that an explanatory recording in Bulgarian is available.
It tells us that Liechtenstein has a total area of 160 km2, it is only 25 km long and 10 km large, and is inserted like a wedge between Switzerland and Austria on the Rhine’s right shore. Liechtenstein’s population is 30,000, two-thirds of which are of German descent. This is why German is the official language here.
In distant 1719, Prince Adam Andreas von Liechtenstein bought the Vaduz county and the neighbouring estate of Schelenberg and reunited them into a small state that he named after himself, Liechtenstein.
Today it consists of eleven municipalities, each with its own coat of arms and benefiting from great administrative and financial independence. Overlooking the capital is the 12th-century castle of Hans-Adam II, the current Prince of Liechtenstein whose enthronement was in 1989. He’s listed among the ten wealthiest people in Europe.
Not only is Liechtenstein the fourth smallest state worldwide, it also boasts many other highest rankings, because here paradox is the rule! It is uncontestedly Europe’s most industrialized country on a per-capita basis. There is one fully automated PBX (telephone switch) per each three inhabitants. The Principality hosts several dozens of modern industrial enterprises. Within the last 25 years, production has grown… 500 times! Liechtenstein ranks second worldwide in terms of dental prostheses manufacturing, with an annual output of 50 million. Unique building equipments are also made here. Hilti, one of the leading manufacturers, is headquartered in Liechtenstein. Fifteen percent of state budget revenue is provided by postage stamp sales.
As early as 1923, Liechtenstein had established a customs union with Switzerland. Since then the Swiss franc was adopted as official currency of the Principality, although today you may pay your purchases in Euros as well. Currency is not the only thing Liechtenstein shares with Switzerland. Both countries are using the Swiss telephone and postal system. Liechtenstein has virtually no border control–once you enter Switzerland, you have access to Liechtenstein as well. This is why when you leave for Austria, you’d see the red flag with the white cross flowing, and the officers are from Swiss border control. A common economic space is established for both countries. Swiss embassies are representing Liechtenstein’s interests abroad.
In spite of Liechtenstein being a modern country, even today, there’s a somewhat special stance towards women here: the country was the last in Europe to grant voting rights to them. Another well-known “secret” is low taxation, which incites many of the largest corporations to export their capital into the small principality. For years, financial auditors from the U.S., Canada and Europe are trying to find out how huge amounts of money are sheltered from taxation by suddenly materializing in one of Liechtenstein’s thirteen banks. The local taxation rate is ten times lower than elsewhere. Any foreigner can easily register a company, which costs 30,000 francs. Once official registration is granted, no one cares to investigate what is the firm actually involved in or what resources it possesses. Therefore, there’s no wonder why the number of registered companies with foreign ownership is 42,000 and counting. Usually, companies are identifying themselves only with a small label plate. On some houses, I’ve noticed tens of such plates–the firms only have a P.O. box and the mandatory local bank account. The labels and the houses do not show off. In order to spot them, you have to walk around in downtown Vaduz.
Earlier, there was a swamp here, which was dried out in 1930 to free up building space for the town. With its 5,000 inhabitants, however, it looks more like a village rather than a town. Yet precisely because of its small scale, everything here is “puppet-size” and beautiful as in a fairy tale. Downtown consists of two streets, Stadtle and Aulestrasse, and everything is situated along their sidewalks– museums, banks, pastry shops, the post office, souvenir shops…
Tourists from all over the world, outnumbering 23 to 1 local inhabitants, are converging to Liechtenstein each year. What makes the country’s notoriety are its highly appreciated wines, dental prostheses, and unique post stamp series. A museum is dedicated to the latter. It exhibits over 300 stamp printing dies and many documents related to the prince’s post.
Outside the capital, there are eleven municipalities in close proximity to each other. Finding out where exactly one ends and another begins would have been impracticable for the visitor, were it not for the label plates. The houses are running in an uninterruptible string along the road, and since the distance between the last house of the first village and the first house of the next one is exactly the same as the space between two houses within the same village, a single nameplate bears the names of both villages.
The row of miniature houses with gnome and other fabulous character figures in their courtyards runs unbroken at the roadside, and only the map can tell you that, after crossing a few villages, you’ve reached without noticing the Austrian border.