Vaduz (Sep 30 – Oct 3)

Vaduz, the capital of Leichtenstein, was city number 25. To be fair Leichtenstein is even smaller than Luxembourg, so although it’s not a very large capital city Vaduz, at a population of around 5000, is about 1/6 that of the whole principality which at 36,000 is smaller than my home town of Scarborough. We caught the train to Sargans, which is still in Switzerland, and then took the bus to Vaduz (which helpfully took both Swiss francs and euros, the driver having a clever setup which allowed him to give change in either!)

Our first experience of the place was somewhat muted, as the weather was very misty. We checked in at our hotel, called the Meierhof and quickly dumped our bags. We headed out pretty immediately and caught the bus almost directly opposite the hotel to a village called Triesenberg. The journey was up a winding road with several hairpin bends, through dense mis, rising dramatically up the side of the mountain. When we arrived the fog swirled around us making the place very atmospheric. We were impressed with the very clear signposting, which outlined many walking options which started from Triesenberg. We took a well marked walking trail to Vaduz, listed at about 1 and a half hours. We would have had a nice view, but today it was somewhat grey although very atmospheric and rather spooky. The trail headed fairly quickly out from the village and then we found ourselves on a nice wide path through a pine forest. It was a nice walk, and we met no-one along the trail the whole way. Every so often we could catch a glimpse of the valley floor below us, between swirls of fog, but mostly we enjoyed the forest itself which was just heading into autumn. Our trail ended near the royal family’s castle, which sits on the hillside rather imposingly overlooking Vaduz, from where we headed down into Vaduz itself.

Greg’s first option for dinner turned out to be closed, so we found a small Chinese takeaway with a few tables which turned out to be great. The staff were very friendly, and after a bit of menu translation we ordered what turned out to be rather tasty and probably the best value meal we’d had for a while. We got up early the next day and rather confusingly took our bags to another hotel in Vaduz. We then left with just our rucksacks (including some spare clothes) and headed into the city centre. We visited the Postal Museum and enjoyed the obvious pride with with Liechtenstein views it’s postal service and national stamps. From there we headed to the Vaduz Country museum which covered archeology, culture, and technological development. This turned out to be a fascinating place, where we could easily have spent more time than we had. It really helped us to get more of a feeling for how much the country had changed in last 50 years – almost literally going from one of the poorest countries in Europe to one of the richest. This transition had been accompanied by a huge change in culture too, the pace of which has been a challenge to those living through it. We were also impressed by some of Leichtenstein’s unexpected telecommunications achievements, such as having the first fully automated telephone exchange in Europe as well as being the first country in Europe to go fully digital.

We got the lunchtime bus to Malbun, where I learnt we were to spend the night. I’d spotted Malbun on a map previously – it was high up in the mountains at a heady height of 1600m. Amazingly there was a regular bus service to it; in fact the same bus we took previously to Triesenberg kept going higher. I was a little disappointed in terms of the weather – it was again a uniform grey with substantial fog. What I hadn’t expected was the difference a tunnel can make – a little after Triesenberg the bus went through a tunnel, and on the other side was a village called Steg – bathed in sunlight beneath a beautiful blue sky! If I hadn’t seen the transformation for myself I wouldn’t have believe it; what a different between valleys. Greg mentioned at this point that he’d nearly booked an experience in Steg, but he hadn’t been able to make the logistics fit. A place there offers guided walks in the mountains with their dogs – each guest gets a husky! That sounded fun, and something we might enjoy should we return.

The approach to Malbun was glorious – sun was streaming down the valley, which was a perfect alpine landscape with the small village of Malbun nestled between high peaks. Our hotel was a very short distance from the bus stop, and was a delightful family run affair. We were given a friendly warm greeting, and shown to a nice room (of about 30) with a wonderful view up the valley. First stop for us was lunch, and Greg had picked out the perfect location – a restaurant high on a nearby peak at 2000m! To get their we had to take a chairlift; an experience I really enjoyed and one which Greg coped with very well (given his difficulty with heights). I took a few photos as we ascended, but not too many as I got frowned at every time I turned as it slightly rocked our seat. At the top was a charming little resaurant clearly prepared for all weathers – it had copious outside seating on it’s sun terrance, together with a supply of wollen blankets! Inside was toasty warm, and we noticed only one other couple had made the trip. We ordered some food which was made fresh to order, and I selected a small Leichtenstein beer from their wide selection (whilst admiring the wine fridge and the selection of schnapps and stack of shot glasses). The meal was quite traditional and really pretty good, and also had the distinction of being my highest ever meal (ignoring planes).

After lunch we debated how to return to Malbun. The mist had caught up with us, and where previously there had been a beautiful view there was now only white; quite spooky. So the walk down we’d previously considered wouldn’t be as interesting as planned. We considered the chairlift down, but decided on a 3rd option – the Malbi rider! These were three wheels karts, hired out for the descent. We persuaded the chairlift man to accept my train photo-card as an appropriate form of ID (it has the advantage of looking more official than it is!) and shortly had two helmets and two Malbi riders at our disposal. They turned out to be great fun; they promote them for families though I am not sure the ride down would have passed UK health and safety as some of the tights bends had steep drops on the other side of them. We found them great – they picked up considerable speed on the journey down, and were controlled purely though a steering wheel and left and right brakes (which were only moderately effective as the wheels skidded on the path surface). It certainly didn’t take long to get down this way, and driving round hairpin corners surrounded by mist proved an exhilarating experience.

Once safely at the bottom we returned to our hotel, an enjoyed a nice cup of tea (for Greg) and a coffee (for me) in the restaurant, watching the mist swirl by outside. We’d booked dinner for 7pm, and had a couple of hours to go so asked the staff to turn the sauna on, which they happily did. So we headed down to the basement to enjoy this, and were blown away; this small family run hotel had a ‘wellness center’ which would shame most 5 star UK hotels! There was a beautiful swimming pool, with a nicely designed natural-style mini waterfall in a corner. There was also a steam room, a sauna (with a window providing a view of the village), a pair of foot baths and a relaxation room. A jug of water with slices of lemon in it was left out, together with some cups. The styling was delightful, soft classical music was playing, and everything was spotlessly clean. All in all it was a delight, and as Greg summarised “well, colour me impressed!”. Our expectations had definitely been exceeded and we enjoyed almost two hours relaxing here in bliss, whilst Clair de Lune and other tunes added to the mood. We were on half-board, and so had a fairly set menu for dinner. The food was reputed to be rustic style but good, and we were looking forward to trying it. For first course we had pumpkin soup, which turned out to be one of the best soups I’d ever had, packed full of flavour. For main course I had steak, which was a house speciality and very tasty indeed. Greg had venison snitzel with wild mushrooms and cranberry sauce, which was delicious. I enjoyed a glass of the local wine (made by the prince you know, well by his staff at least) and we considered it a thoroughly enjoyable meal. Dessert was some slightly odd chestnut paste spaghetti, which apparently was a local speciality and though not to my taste did nothing to detract from what I’d already eaten. After dinner Greg explained that he’d found a hike option for the next day, but given the weather we would probably need a plan B.

The next day we awoke to sunshine steaming into the room. Despite the forecast it was a beautiful day with a deep blue sky with barely a cloud visible! The hike was on! :-).

Greg had researched a route of about 6 miles, which went from the village we were in up to a peak called Schönberg, and down to the village of Steg. It was rated 2 out of 5 for fitness, 2 out of 5 for difficulty and 4 out of 5 for popularity, would take about 4 hours, and sounded a great option. Greg doesn’t often hike, and I was really pleased that he’d found this was was prepared to give it a go with me. I’ll note now that what neither of us realised was this this would be a truely spectacular day (probably the most memorable of the trip), but substantially more challenging than either of us anticipated… The walk started simply enough, there was a steady ascent on a wooded hillside on a good path. It was clearly aimed at families as there were regular benches and storyboard telling a story in stages. This continued for about 30-45mins, before this section ended and we continued onto more of a forest trail. The views throughout were fantastic – Malbun was already high and as we climbed we were rewarded with fabulous views of the valley. It was also so warm that I removed my top for a while to better enjoy the cooling breeze. The forest trail continued to be very pleasant and we both remarked that it was as if we had the whole valley to itself, as we hadn’t seen anyone else at all so far. In fact we didn’t meet any other hikers the whole trip (we saw a family in the distance near the peak, but they were on a different path); not sure what popularities 3 and below would have been like, but I guess it was a weekday off-season.

We passed a small house, by it’s lonesome in a spectacular location, and also some path-side equipment where a new path surface was being laid. From there we climbed up towards Schönberg, and the path changed into a narrower hiking trail together with a signpost to reassure us that we were on the right route. After a further climb we turned a corner, and found ourselves looking down a beautiful new valley and also in full view of the peak we were aiming for. We stopped here for a snack and drink, to catch our breath and admire the view. From here we progressed more slowly, wending our way up the mountain side climbing steadily higher. As we ascended the path became narrower, and the slopes steeper, but we were frequently greeted with painted rocks to show that we were still on the proper trail (and if we ever came to a fork there was a helpful rock clearly showing the correct path to take). Our first pause for thought came when we encountered a fairly narrow rock path above a very steep drop; definitely not somewhere we wanted to tumble down! We took this very slowly and carefully, and I was very impressed at Greg’s stubbornness at continuing when he clearly wasn’t finding the going, especially the heights, comfortable. This pattern continued with further difficult stretches and ever higher slopes. We kept going, slowly and steadily, and soon climbed to a ridge a little before the main peak. From here we were rewarded with a magnificent view form the other side of the mountain meaning we had spectacular vistas on both sides. At one stage the path widened to provide several meters of grass, and we stopped to enjoyed our lunch and admire the views whilst being sufficiently away from the edge to feel comfortable. It really was quite an experience and felt truly magical having the whole landscape to ourselves. It had also continued to be a glorious day with beautiful deep blue skies and layers of cloud off in the distance at lower altitudes lit by the sun.

From here it was a short distance to the summit, where we were rewarded with a truly panoramic view of other mountain and bands of cloud. It was very beautiful indeed, but also very high at 2100m, so after a short pause we started back down as we were keen to get back to ground level. The path down was a different and shorter route and we hoped would be easier than the ascent. Unfortunately that didn’t prove to be the case as the first hour consisted pretty consistently of very narrow paths with large drops (sometimes a sheer granite face many stories high) to one side. First Greg, then I, focused on the path rather than the view, so I didn’t get many photos on the descent; only where I paused at a wide enough section to feel more comfortable enjoying the view. As we descended the drops got less sheer, and we started feeling more comfortable and relaxing again. The final ascent was on a zig-zag forest trail which would have been really nice except for copious loose gravel on the rather steep path which required concentration so as to not fall firmly on our behinds. Soon enough we were back at Steg having descended more than 700m from the summit and waited for the bus which was due shortly to take us back down to Vaduz. It was only at this point that I realised just how sunny it had been; Greg had got sunburnt and sported a rather red face! It had been a marvellous hike, but certainly not a 2/5 difficultly on my scale! Greg had done particularly well and was happy to be back down on more solid ground.

Dinner that night was to be a treat; and we both felt we’d earned it! The hotel we were in, The Schatzmann had a Michelin star for food, one of only two in Liechtenstein. And Greg had booked a 6 course gourmet tasting menu for us to sample. This proved to be a remarkable meal and certainly some of the best food we’d been lucky enough to enjoy. Highlights included some local fish which was poached perfectly and had the most delicious flavour and texture. We also really enjoyed some venison, which was very full flavoured and extremely tender, as well as a selection of 5 mini-desserts, with my favourite being a lavender flavoured crème-brûlée which was simply sublime. To be honest the whole meal became a bit of a blur later, but one filled with wonderful flavours, textures and with perfect presentation throughout. After the hike and the food we certainly slept well that night, our last night in Liechtenstein.

The next day it was onwards to… Innsbruck!

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