There's no sign on the bridge over the Rhine from Switzerland that says "Welcome to Liechtenstein" – or if there is, we didn't see it. This is an understated country in every way: tiny and beautiful, practical but fiercely independent.
The entire mountainous principality, about a quarter the size of Toronto, is surrounded by Austria to the east and Switzerland to the everywhere else. It shouldn't really exist, in the same way that San Marino, Monaco and Vatican City, which are the only European countries smaller in size, shouldn't exist. Except it does. It has a government and a parliament, and a prince and princess who live in a castle overlooking the capital.
We drove past the castle because we were following signs to our hotel and got lost on the narrow and steeply winding road. A little farther up the mountain, the way was closed for repairs and we asked for directions from some local hikers; in Liechtenstein, everyone seems to speak English and everyone knows where everything is.
As it turned out, our hotel was well-known in Liechtenstein's capital, Vaduz. The Park Hotel Sonnenhof is a charming, 29-room family-run four-star hotel that just happens to be home to a Michelin-starred restaurant, where the owner's son is the chef. "Oh, you ate at the Restaurant Marée?" we were asked the next day by several curious locals. "Such a good choice."
They knew of the Sonnenhof because they'd all eaten there – Liechtenstein is one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Not silly wealth, as with Monaco, but comfortable affluence, assured by a near-zero unemployment rate and a prosperous banking economy tied directly to the Swiss franc. The standard of living is high, and although our lovely hotel was expensive (its smallest, cheapest room starts at 195 Swiss francs, which is about $250, and a two-course dinner at the Marée is around $100 a person, before wine), the country is no more costly to visit than Switzerland or Austria.
Most of Liechtenstein's 37,000 people live in the Rhine valley, to the east of the river, which has high mountains to each side. When we visited this month, there was snow on the highest of the peaks and it was easy to see why alpine skiing is such a major winter draw, but in the summertime, the entire country seems picture-postcard pretty, with trim forests and manicured pastures. The cows really do have bells around their necks. If Switzerland has a reputation for compact neat-as-a-pin-ness, it surely learned how from its tiny neighbour.
This was a driving vacation, organized by Toronto travel company Butterfield and Robinson. BMW has long offered the option of collecting your new car at its head office in Munich, driving it in Europe and then having it delivered to your local dealership in Canada. The price is similar to buying it in Canada, and if you want a European vacation, you'll have a nice car available to you at little cost. Butterfield and Robinson now offers European tours to BMW customers, combining this vacation opportunity with an off-the-rack or bespoke itinerary.
It doesn't take long to drive the 25-kilometre length of the country through the valley. There's no motorway, no airport and no harbour, so everyone comes in from outside – usually Zurich, about two hours away, or Munich, which took us less than four hours on the high-speed Autobahn.
It takes considerably longer to drive the 12-kilometre width of the country, because the few roads running east wiggle their way up into the mountains on steep asphalt that can deteriorate with a wrong turn into an unpaved driveway. The ski and hiking resort of Malbun lies at the end, 1,600 metres above sea level and more than a kilometre above the Rhine, but we were running out of time for our visit and had to turn back at Triesenberg. At least we could enjoy a panoramic view from there of the valley below.
There was a marker for Liechtenstein at the Swiss border to the south and we parked the car right on the international line for some photos. Another castle, now a museum, was perched on its own hill just across the meadows. It was near here in 2007 that the Swiss army accidentally invaded during a winter night exercise: 170 soldiers got lost and wandered across the border before realizing their mistake and retreating. Apparently, nobody in Liechtenstein noticed, which is just as well because it has no army of its own.
That was probably one of the most exciting things to happen in the region in years. Liechtenstein is proud of its peace and tranquillity. There's no rush here and everything is well-ordered, clean and safe. We got back into the car and drove to the opposite end of the country, with stops at the renowned museum and art gallery in Vaduz. At the Austrian border, there was a border post and a half-kilometre lineup of vehicles waiting to enter Liechtenstein but no delay at all to leave.
Maybe that's how they keep it so safe: Trust the neutral Swiss and their currency (wouldn't you?), but keep a polite watch on those Austrians. In this new world of globalization, Liechtenstein's found a formula for itself that works.
From A to BMW
Toronto travel company Butterfield and Robinson has recently begun offering both off-the-rack and bespoke European tours to BMW customers: Its three organized tours all start in Munich and include a five-day drive through Prague to Vienna, a six-day drive to Paris and a five-day drive through the Alps back to Munich. Prices start at $2,495 (U.S.), but vary according to the standard of hotel requested. This year, every tour was customized in some way to fit the individual travellers.
For more information visit butterfield.com.
The writer travelled as a guest of Butterfield and Robinson. It did not review or approve this article.