This Cross-Country Hike Took 5 Days. That’s Going the Long Way.
I stood on the edge of the border town in the shadow of a 12th-century castle high on a hill. I was sandwiched between the craggy peaks of 7,600-foot mountains in front of me, and 7,200-foot peaks behind me. The only sounds I heard were birds chirping. The rural village road I was standing on had nary a car.
What a great day to start a cross-country trek.
Telling friends beforehand, I couldn’t help suppress a sheepish smile. What country are you hiking across? they asked.
O. K., Europe’s fourth-smallest country — behind Vatican City, Monaco and San Marino — is only 17 miles long and nine miles wide. It is one cattle farm bigger than Staten Island. You can drive its length in 25 minutes. A middle-aged person with a long-expired gym membership could walk across it in two days.
However, I wasn’t just walking across a country. I was walking across history.
This year marks Liechtenstein’s 300-year anniversary, and it is using its tricentennial to reintroduce itself to the world. As part of its yearlong festivities, the principality created a 46.6-mile trail traversing the country, crisscrossing through all 11 of its towns — count ‘em, 11 — partly on village roads but mostly on twisting and mountainous trails.
It’s called the Liechtenstein Trail and I was the country’s first guinea pig.
By the end of this month, trekkers will be able to download an app that shepherds them along the route and also describes 133 points of interest. When trekkers point their cellphones at one of these 133 spots, augmented reality will help them visualize how it appeared in history or why it is notable.
“Many people have only vague clichés about our small country,” Alois, Hereditary Prince of Liechtenstein, wrote in an email. “I hope that the anniversary will help the world get to know Liechtenstein better.”
Every summer, Prince Alois, 50, the eldest son of Prince Hans-Adam II, and the rest of the royal family give a party for the local townspeople at Vaduz Castle, the family’s official residence. Another party began Jan. 23, the date in 1719 when the communities of Vaduz and Schellenberg were purchased by Hans-Adam I and combined into the principality of Liechtenstein.
This is heady stuff for the population of 38,000. Wedged between Switzerland and Austria like a linchpin, Liechtenstein has no airport or military. It has two train stations, one hospital, one TV station and one radio station.
“Historically, this is the most important event in my life,” said Leander Schädler, 61, a Liechtensteiner historian and hiking guide, referring to the tricentennial.
Previously, Liechtenstein was best known for colorful postage stamps and for being a tax haven, until the country abolished its banking secrecy laws in 2009.
Less known are its 250 miles of hiking trails. I divided my trek into five days. I’m an experienced hiker, and I’ve backpacked trails from the Himalayas to the Andes. But I’ve never experienced hikes with such variety as Liechtenstein: mountains, forests, towns, farms, rivers — sometimes all in the same day.
Despite the trail having 1.24 miles (about 2,000 meters) in elevation gain, it’s intended for hikers at all levels of ability and experience. Trekkers who get tired can stop at the next town they come to and catch a public bus back to their hotel, as my girlfriend, Marina Pascucci, did on both of the two days she joined me. Nothing in Liechtenstein is far away from anything else.
Our base was the Hotel Turna in Malbun, Liechtenstein’s lone ski resort. It’s located in Liechtenstein’s southeast corner, only a 20-minute bus ride uphill from the capital of Vaduz. It’s well worth the trip for the mountain setting alone. The hotel features an outdoor hot tub, a sauna, steam room and indoor pool. The restaurant has a beautiful outdoor dining area with views of the ski lift and surrounding mountains. So did our room’s balcony. In October, the off season, the room was a relatively inexpensive 150 euros (or about $170) a night.
The Liechtenstein Trail officially opens May 26 when the app is scheduled to be ready. I, however, marched off feeling a bit naked using trail maps and my cellphone’s iffy GPS. On sunny October days in the high 60s, here’s what I found:
Day 1 — Balzers-Triesen-Triesenberg: 8.7 miles, 1,970 feet elevation gain, 5 hours, 15 minutes.
Marina and I took a bus from the hotel to Balzers and met Mr. Schädler on the banks of the Rhine. The first point of interest is the 12th-century Gutenberg castle, which Balzers bought from Austria in 1824 and eventually turned into a museum.
Balzers has bright white fences, vine-covered houses, a plethora of maple trees and a small creek. We walked on quiet streets then followed the Rhine until Triesen, Vaduz’s “suburb” to the south.
We headed east and steeply uphill. The trail to Triesenberg reaches an elevation of 2,952 feet and then passes beautiful green meadows; the dairy cows wear clanging bells. We turned onto a dirt service road that is conveniently blocked for all but foot traffic and mountain bikers.
We passed a small farm where alpacas and llamas grazed near an odd self-service souvenir shack selling everything from cheese to alpaca wool. You leave money in an open cash register overflowing with cash. Yes, Liechtensteiners are a law-abiding lot.
Between cuts in the trees one can see spectacular views of the Swiss Alps, including Sardona, imposing in its 10,000-foot splendor. Below are the tile roofs of Balzers and Thiesen peppering the landscape. Park benches are strategically placed at each vista overlooking this lightly trodden land.
All day we saw only five people, all joggers. We took a bus back to our hotel.
Day 2 — Triesenberg-Vaduz-Schaan: 9.3 miles, 1,970 feet elevation gain, 7 hours.
Triesenberg, the town at the highest elevation in Liechtenstein, rests on a mountain with brightly painted houses sporting vegetable gardens, private vineyards and flower boxes with purple, white and pink flowers.
Martin Knopfel, 44, a Liechtenstein native and hiker who designed the 46.6-mile anniversary course for Marketing Liechtenstein, a government agency, joined us on Day 2. The trail on this leg was mostly downhill but was no less beautiful. The main road snaking up from the valley has lookouts where I could see Triesen, church steeples, the Rhine and the Swiss Alps beyond.
The path descends steeply in the forest and past little farmhouses until we came across the day’s first point of interest: a rock. It looks ordinary, five meters long and four and a half meters wide (about 16 by 15 feet). However, it is 400 million years old, left over from a prehistoric glacier.
Farther along in the forest, the leaves had turned to yellow, orange, green and red. It isn’t Vermont, but add the view below of Vaduz and the Swiss town of Buchs and it would be hard to find a better view of fall colors in Europe.
We descended into a clearing, and there, looming before us, was Vaduz Castle. If a 12th-century castle can be unassuming, this one is. We passed the castle and dropped into downtown Vaduz, a small-town capital with a pedestrian mall lined with restaurants and shops that basically close down every night at 8.
I asked one of the locals what they do at night, and he said, “Go to Austria.”
However quiet it is at night, Vaduz also has the most points of interests of any town in the country. On the main road we walked by the Kunstmuseum, known for its modern and contemporary art, the Postal Museum, National Museum and yellow brick Parliament building.
We eventually climbed back into the forest and descended into Schaan, Liechtenstein’s largest city with 6,300 people. We stopped near the bus stop for a well-deserved beer. After two days of ascending nearly 4,000 feet, my legs felt the first signs of fatigue.
“I have journalists and they say, ‘Oh, I’m a hiker and all physical and we should go on all the tracks,’” Mr. Knopfel said. “Then they say, ‘Oh, I didn’t think Liechtenstein was so big.’
Day 3 — Schaan-Planken-Eschen: 10.6 miles, 820 feet elevation gain, 6 hours.
Mr. Schädler picked me up at the hotel and we drove to Schaan. He and I descended from the forest in Planken, a town of postcard-perfect houses that is, coincidentally, home to Hanni and Andreas Wenzel, the brother and sister skiers who won six of Liechtenstein’s 10 Winter Olympic medals from 1976 to 1984.
Day 3 also brought us face-to-face with one of the most important sites on the list of the 133 points of interest. In Planken, we came across the stone ruins of one of the four Roman villas, dating from 150 A.D., that had been constructed in what is now Liechtenstein. You could still see a large opening that had been the entrance to the villa and a smaller one that served a thermal bath complete with under-floor heating.
We continued onto mercifully flat ground into Eschen where Mr. Schädler left me at a bus stop. He said goodbye, and the navigation for the final two days would be up to my maps and my GPS.
I was on my own.
Day 4 — Eschen-Gamprin-Ruggell-Schellenberg: 11.2 miles, 1,640 feet elevation climb, 5.5 hours.
I hiked the steep, quiet residential streets of the otherwise industrial town of Eschen for an hour, not the best way to start the longest hike of the week. However, the sun was just coming up on a panorama of mountains, and that gave me an early second wind.
I dipped down into Gamprin, a tiny town on the Rhine, and followed the river into Ruggell.
From Ruggell, I walked across expansive farmland before ascending through a 100-foot canopy into a clearing. Here I saw Schellenberg’s claim to fame: the remains of another Roman villa, complete with a stone oven and views over Ruggell, the Rhine and the Swiss Alps.
One notable thing about the Liechtenstein Trail is that you don’t have to pack a lunch if you don’t want to. I mostly did, to cut costs, but with 11 towns along the path, you can drop your pack in any of them and sit down in a restaurant.
The classic Liechtensteiner eatery is Wirthschaft zum Lowen in Schellenberg. “Wirthschaft” means “restaurant” in Liechtenstein’s Alemannic dialect, which sounds like Swiss German but with the singsong sound of two “Fargo” actors speaking Norwegian. Lowen features the classic Liechtenstein dish, kasknopfle, a big pile of short noodles covered in two cheeses and shaved fried onions.
Day 5 — Schellenberg-Mauren: 6.8 miles, 820 feet elevation gain, 6 hours.
Rising early, I made my way to a point high above Schellenberg. At 9 a.m., as I climbed through farmland, a sea of clouds settled under the mountain peaks beyond. A velvet blanket formed the perfect backdrop for the small farmhouses in the fields.
I began double-timing it to the Austrian-Liechtenstein border and the trail’s end. However, my GPS failed me. I couldn’t match the GPS instructions with the maps I was carrying, and I had to ask directions in Mauren three times and backtrack twice. When I finally made it through a huge green field and across the week’s lone busy road, and then back into a forest, I couldn’t find the wooded trail I was looking for.
Fearing I’d miss my flight out of Zurich that night, I called Mr. Knopfel, who set me straight. However, I still took the wrong exit from the forest and when I reached the border, I was on the Austrian side.
So I ventured the 50 feet back into Liechtenstein, turned and snapped a photo of the border sign. I had reached the end of my cross-country expedition. Happy Birthday, Liechtenstein. You’ve aged quite gracefully!
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