The Ultra-Rich Mouse that Roared
Tales of the Tyrolean Alps
One of the causes of the massive bureaucracy that stifled and deadened the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg Empire—we suspect—had to be the endless welter of claims, families, and mini-dynasties that composed its feudal world. A few conquests came by force of arms, but most came by marriage. So when a family married into the clan, the Hapsburgs simply absorbed their claims and possessions willy-nilly. Thus, the symbol of the Hapsburg presence wasn't some valiant General on a warhorse, but the postman and tax collector fulfilling their monumental, excruciatingly detailed tasks.
One of the most faithful Hapsburg retainers was the Liechtenstein family. In return for centuries of service, they accumulated vast landholdings in Bohemia, a pair of Austrian palaces, and eventually the entire mini-country that would bear their name. But their ardor as Liechtensteiner patriots never extended to actually visiting, much less living in their own country. In fact, they failed to take much notice at all, until the World Wars and the Communists wiped out their Eastern holdings.
Today, Liechtenstein is one of the richest countries in the world, but you don't see it when you visit the capital, Vaduz. This is because the Liechtensteiners, along with the Swiss and Luxembourgese, made their money the hard way, by sequestering the black money of mobsters, pirates, and ugly regimes the world over. In the 20th century, the American government might have ruined that game, but by then, the fortunes were already made. And such fortunes tend to hide in the tourist-free shadows.
Originally, we came to Liechtenstein as American children collecting their gaudy, fascinating stamps (at one time, a major source of income). When we actually arrived here in person, we found a sleepy mountainside along the upper Rhine River, with a handful of guest houses, a restaurant or two, and The French Connection playing at the local cinema (in English, thank goodness). Today, the country has pumped all kinds of money into the tourist sector, but this is still a country that goes to bed at a sensible hour and cooks at home on holidays.
With the Schengen Agreement on intra-European travel, you can cross Liechtenstein from Austria to Switzerland or Germany without even noticing. But if you do, it's your loss. If you want to see what true worldly wealth and satisfaction look like, take a few days to wander through the gorgeous mountains and valleys here. You won't be sorry.