It’s official: Europe’s least visited country is unloved little Liechtenstein. Last year, a mere 60,000 tourists travelled to this absurd Alpine principality. For discerning Spectator readers, this is great news. Liechtenstein is charming, its absurdities are enchanting, and it boasts one of the most stylish (and least crowded) modern art museums in Europe. Nothing spoils a sightseeing trip so much as lots of other sightseers. Spend a weekend in Liechtenstein – only two hours by train from Zurich – and you and your significant other should have the entire country (virtually) to yourselves.
Liechtenstein is utterly ridiculous, but that’s a big part of its appeal. One of the smallest countries in Europe, it’s only 24km from end to end and barely 12km across. Squeezed into half a valley, between Austria and Switzerland, its monarchy is Austrian and its currency is Swiss. It only granted women the vote in 1984, the last European country to do so. Its national football stadium, the Rheinpark Stadion, holds just 6,127 spectators – less than Torquay United. Its national anthem shares the same tune as ‘God Save The Queen’. A tax haven with more registered companies than people, its entire population is about the same as Milton Keynes. A railway runs through it, but it has no train station. It’s the world’s biggest manufacturer of false teeth.
Its capital, Vaduz, has a mere 5000 inhabitants. Yet this sleepy town is home to Liechtenstein’s splendid Kunstmuseum, a striking avant-garde building with a superb array of contemporary art. The permanent collection includes the Andre Thomkins Estate and a wealth of work by postwar American artists such as Richard Serra and Donald Judd. The current exhibition, Between Sex and Geometry, is the first major retrospective of the work of US postminimalist Gary Kuehn. The chic café doubles as a first-class sushi bar.
If you fancy some fresh air, you can catch a bus up to Malbun, Liechtenstein’s unassuming ski-resort. It’s a cheerful, unpretentious place, with wonderful views over the mountains, into Austria. Liechtenstein has no army, but when Hitler marched into Austria, Liechtenstein’s Prince Franz Joseph II went to see the fuhrer in Berlin and somehow secured his country’s neutrality. At the end of the Second World War, when 500 White Russians sought sanctuary here, he heroically refused to hand them over to Stalin. The last time Liechtenstein saw military action was in 1866, during the Austro-Prussian War, when they sent 80 troops to guard the Tyrolean border. They returned home with 81 men, having suffered no casualties and gained a new recruit en route.
Franz Joseph’s son, His Serene Highness Prince Hans Adam II, is Liechtenstein’s current ruler. He’s Europe’s richest monarch, worth about $5 billion. He has one of the world’s finest art collections, with the largest private haul of Rubens, and the only Leonardo da Vinci in private hands. Some of this priceless booty is now on public show, but you won’t find any of it here in Liechtenstein. Absurdly – and therefore fittingly – you’ll have to travel to Vienna to see it. Maybe when his amazing artworks return to Liechtenstein, this quiet backwater will attract a few more visitors. Until then, enjoy the elbow room. Truly, this is the land that time (and the EU) forgot.
William Cook also writes for the Independent and Conde Nast Traveller. His latest book is One Leg Too Few – The Adventures of Peter Cook & Dudley Moore.