Keen to explore the miniature monarchy next door, our Switzerland-based contributor Catherine McLean slipped over the border to Liechtenstein this summer to see what makes the tiny principality tick.
Passing over a bridge, the Rhine river flowing below, it’s hard to tell that we have left Switzerland and are entering the tiny principality of Liechtenstein.
There are no border guards waiting to examine passports. The houses look the same, as does the mountainous landscape. People go shopping at the Coop supermarket chain, just like in Switzerland. Liechtenstein even uses the same currency: the Swiss franc.
But there are a few subtle differences as well. The licence plates are stylishly black, while the flags flying from houses and public buildings feature blue and red bands with a crown: no Swiss cross in sight. Liechtenstein has its own country code - 423 - for telephone calls. And they’ve had their own postage stamps for exactly 100 years.
Those hailing from Liechtenstein admit they have a lot of similarities with their Swiss neighbours. But they are nevertheless a breed of their own.
The small matter of size
Switzerland seems like a giant compared to postcard-sized Liechtenstein. Take the Swiss population, which just reached 8 million this summer. Liechtenstein, in contrast, has just 36,000 residents.
With a landmass of just 160 square kilometres, Liechtenstein is the sixth smallest country in the world, while Switzerland spans some 41,277 square kilometres.
It’s no wonder then that people from Liechtenstein feel like part of a secret club when they leave its borders. Martina Hoch, the spokeswoman for Liechtenstein tourism, remembers once being in Rome and hearing someone speak with a Liechtenstein dialect behind her. She ended up going for a coffee with two of her fellow Liechtensteiners.
“You have the feeling everyone knows everyone,” Hoch says. “It’s like a big family.”
Living the Liechtenstein life
It seems like you can’t go from one canton to the next in Switzerland without hearing a change in the German dialect. Liechtenstein also has different dialects in each of its 11 communities, according to Hoch. Those who live in the “Oberland” speak in a similar way to people living in the Swiss canton of Graubünden, she says. People in the “Unterland” have more of an Austrian dialect.
Life in Liechtenstein, as in Switzerland, is not cheap. A souvenir umbrella in Vaduz costs a hefty 20 francs ($22), and an apple cake at a small restaurant above Vaduz costs 6 francs. A large flat in the small town of Schaan costs some 2,000 francs to rent, according to a real estate website.
Liechtenstein has its own culinary specialities, some of which are also found in Switzerland. Forget about cheese fondue, however. They like their Riebel, a maize that is typically cooked with butter and milk and served with applesauce. Käsknöpfle - dumplings served with cheese and onions - are another favourite.
Also, since 2007, Liechtenstein has had its very own beer: Liechtensteiner Brauhaus.
A trip to Liechtenstein’s capital of Vaduz tells you all you need to know about politics in this small country. The royal family’s imposing castle sits on a hill high above town: one can’t help imagine them gazing down to make sure their subjects are toeing the line.
Make no mistake: Crown Prince Alois is the boss here. Some rather brave citizens launched a referendum earlier this year to reduce the powers of the Crown Prince by taking away his ability to veto national referendums. (He could still keep his right to veto decisions made by the parliament).
They were defeated soundly with 76 per cent of voters supporting the Crown Prince’s veto rights following threats that he could pack up and leave the country.
At the time, one spokesman for the pro-democracy movement told the BBC that the Liechtenstein royal family are the “most powerful monarchs in Europe.”
Perhaps the Liechtensteiners just want to keep partying with the royals. Every August 15th, the country’s national day, everyone in Liechtenstein is invited for a drink on the castle grounds. Fireworks follow at night.
Over in Switzerland there is no royal family or grand palace to be found. The Swiss are happy to decide things for themselves, devoting countless hours each year to voting in referendums (both local and national) on everything from renovations on an old-age home to limiting the number of so-called second, or vacation, homes built in a community.
Banking on tourism
Switzerland and Liechtenstein both have well-established banking industries built on the concept of banking secrecy. They have come under pressure in recent years as governments around the world crack down on perceived tax havens.
Switzerland’s biggest banks include publicly traded companies like UBS AG and Credit Suisse, along with discreet private banks like Pictet & Cie. and Bank Sarasin & Co. Liechtenstein’s biggest bank is LGT Group, owned by none other than the “Princely Family of Liechtenstein” itself.
Tourism is of course a big business for Switzerland. The country offers tourists a wide-variety of must-see sights, including famous luxury Alp resorts like St. Moritz and Saas-Fee, along with picturesque towns like Zurich, Geneva, Bern and Lucerne.
Liechtenstein is also keen to attract tourists, marketing itself as a mountain destination for summer and winter trips. It seems, however, that many foreigners come just to see Vaduz.
The small town definitely punches above its weight: the main street is small and lined with mostly modern buildings. It’s the castle – no visitors are permitted – and the excitement of mailing a postcard with a Liechtenstein stamp that seem to attract the visitors.
On a recent summer day, Vaduz was full of tourists from all over the world. They browsed in the gift shops that offered a wide variety of typically Swiss souvenirs, like chocolate and memorabilia featuring the Swiss flag. The only obvious souvenir from Liechtenstein was a shelf full of stamps featuring animals, athletes, art and castles.
I’m not sure many of the tourists even noticed: Switzerland, Liechtenstein: what’s the difference?