Liechtenstein – little but quite lovely

Having knocked off a swift post on Davos a couple of months back, I thought I should do something similar on the next place I stopped, Liechtenstein (its capital, Vaduz, is almost an anagram of Davos, but not quite). It’s taken a while, but anyway, here it is. I’ve been there a few times in the past when updating the Switzerland chapter of the Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget, and always enjoyed it. I used to stay, courtesy of the Swiss youth hostels association, in Schaan, a few kilometres north of Vaduz and rather livelier and less stuffy, I’m told. There is some striking modern architecture in both towns. Vaduz really is tiny and there are only a couple of good hotels and no really cheap ones. The other alternative, apart from Schaan, is the Malbun ski resort (at 1600m), which can be reached all year round by Liechtenstein’s excellent bus system (30 minutes by the hourly bus 21). Most of the principality lies on the flood plain of the Rhine (which forms the border with Switzerland), but on the eastern (Austrian) side there are some seriously impressive mountains and good hiking opportunities.

The only real development since my last visit, in terms of the tourist experience, is the opening in 2015 of the Hilti Art Foundation, essentially an extension of the main art gallery in Vaduz, the Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein (they’re linked by a short tunnel). There’s a similar focus on twentieth-century art, largely Germanic (Hodler, Kirchner, Kandinsky, Beckmann and Klee) as well as Léger, Giacometti and Picasso. Kirchner, of course, was the main attraction in Davos. Hilti is Liechtenstein’s only internationally known company, selling its power tools and fasteners worldwide. There’s also an excellent sushi bar at the art museum!

I also visited the Prince’s Kunstkammer or Treasure Chamber (also on Vaduz’s one pedestrian street, Städtle) for the first time. Opened in 2015, it has a pretty rigorous security set-up – you enter one by one through a security gate using tokens sold at the nearby tourist office (CHF8 each; free for under-16s). There’s a replica of the crown, which was made in 1626 and stolen in 1781, lots of Fabergé (etc) eggs, guns and prints – nothing too thrilling. The family’s main collection is in Vienna where they lived until 1938, when they established themselves here and gained credit for shepherding the principality through the Second World War without provoking a German invasion. The princely castle, set dramatically above Vaduz, is not open to visitors, but I do recommend the National Museum, beautifully presented in two historic buildings and a modern extension. The Lichtensteiner Brewery is also not bad, with a fairly decent Weissbier among other beers.

Squeezed between Austria and Switzerland, Liechtenstein has a Customs Union with Switzerland, uses the Swiss Franc as its currency and seems a bit Swiss in terms of its infrastructure and general efficiency; however the railway which runs across the country is operated by the Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB). This was totally closed for trackwork for the whole of June 2017, and it now takes just five minutes to cover the nine kilometres across the principality. It’s a shame that the hereditary prince or his transport minions didn’t take the opportunity to lengthen the platforms at Schaan and request the ÖBB to stop the Zürich-Wien RailJet trains there – at the moment the only service is a local shuttle between Sargans and Feldkirch which runs nine times a day each way, Mondays to Fridays only. You don’t need to use this – get off at Sargans (Switzerland) or Feldkirch (Austria) and catch bus no.11 which links the two via Vaduz and Schaan.

A short stay in Svaneti

I’m now in Svaneti, the best known of Georgia’s mountain regions, both because of the stunning views of Europe’s highest peaks (Elbruz – although that’s wholly in Russia – Ushba, Shkhara and Tetnuldi, all over 4,700m in altitude) and because of its rugged and authentic mountain culture. When I first came here in 1998 it literally was bandit country and you couldn’t go out of town without a guide and not at all at night – now it’s quite the opposite and tourists are flocking here, although there are a few complaints about over-charging… New guesthouses are sprouting up everywhere and from the sound of it it’s pretty hard to find a bed in August without a reservation. There’s a new ski resort too (the second one here) so it’s getting pretty busy in winter too.

Evening light on Tetnuldi, seen from Mestia

One thing that made a huge difference was the rebuilding of the road in from Zugdidi to Mestia in 2011 – the journey time was halved, from six hours to three, and it became much more comfortable and less stressful. Now the concrete surface is decaying, and only being repaired where absolutely necessary, possibly due to its being yet another of former President Saakashvili’s signature projects that the the present government prefers to forget about.

The phrase ‘daylight robbery’ may still be applied to the marshrutkas from Zugdidi to Mestia, which still charge 20 lari. This was fair enough when it took six hours, but it really should have been cut when the new road was completed – the fact that it costs only 5 lari more to go to Kutaisi and 35 lari to go all the way to Tbilisi makes this pretty obvious.

I’ve also just been in Racha, another lovely wild mountain district to the east of Svaneti – there’s no risk of a tourism boom here until the road along the Rioni river from Kutaisi is rebuilt (although there is a decent road from the Tbilisi direction). Marshrutkas charge 7 lari from Kutaisi to Oni, which currently takes 3 hours, the same as Zugdidi to Mestia (and 9 lari to Oni, half an hour further).

All in all, there’s a serious risk of overcrowding in Svaneti, with tourist numbers destroying the thing they’re seeking. Once you’ve seen the back alleys of Mestia and Ushguli, with their medieval defensive towers looming above, the best thing is to go hiking, and that is still a great way to get away from the crowds and enjoy the scenery. The Trans Caucasian Trail is an inspiring volunteer project to create a through-hiking route along the lines of the Appalachian Trail, for backpackers willing to carry a tent and supplies for several days (although in some places it’s possible to hike from village guesthouse to village guesthouse). This summer (2017) their trail crews were working to the west of Mestia, where there are far fewer hikers than to the east – there’s already a popular four-day route from Mestia to Ushguli, which can be done village-to-village without camping. There’ll be more on this in the new edition of my Bradt guide to Georgia, of course.

One clear benefit of this kind of project is that some villages which had been virtually abandoned, with just a few people coming up to graze cattle in summer, have been revived, with inhabitants returning because of the opportunities brought by tourism.

Svaneti has free electricity, a Soviet bribe to allow construction of the huge Enguri hydro-electric dam (the power is also shared with the secessionist region of Abkhazia, but that’s another story) – and the inevitable result is that the switching and transmission gear is more or less unmaintained and power-cuts are frequent (if not too long). More dams are coming to Svaneti, despite protests at the lack of environmental scrutiny, so the electricity will probably continue to be free, but I’d be happier to see them investing in solar power, as in Tusheti. Internet access is also very unreliable, and the water supply tends to be fairly low pressure. All of this, of course, must be linked to the huge increase in the number of visitors. All in all, it’s great to see people flocking to these stunning mountains, but the tourism boom needs to be managed a bit better.

How to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. [It’s rather gratifying – this picture was picked up by another blog and got talked about a lot, so that the mayor of Mestia had to say he’d at least get the blue roof painted over. It turns out the house was built by a Svan living in the USA who soon died, alas.]
More sympathetic guesthouse construction in Mestia