Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Things Liechtensteinische People Like

Corvettes. In a country filled with classic automobiles, Corvettes stood out as a favorite. Especially since we were there in the last days of summer (a.k.a. convertible weather), the wheeled trophies were out and about. Porsche speedsters, Jaguars, Ferraris, Thunderbirds all made appearances on the road- but the Corvette was king. In close second - Land Rovers.

Summerstages. The number of concerts and parties had a lot to do with the fact that each town in Liechtenstein has a meeting hall and a small square. Even still, stages were erected all over for even more entertainment venue options. Every place we went, a crew was either putting up a stage or taking one down.

Blue Protective Netting. When we saw fields of blue rolling down hills in the distance, we thought that maybe they were lavender or a type of flower. It was a brilliant sight against the vibrant green backdrops and robin's egg sky. Then, Merlin realized that it was actually netting used to protect vineyards from birds. Plastic or not, it's a beautiful addition to the scenery.

Little Shingles. A number of houses were sided with these tiny, scalloped, wooden shingles. They reminded me of fish scales or the hair on Lionel Richie's clay head in the music video for "Hello" - but mainly fish scales.

Calling Things "Princely." Mövenpick ice cream was advertised as "Princely Chocolates," the tourist brochure was called "Princely Moments," and so on and so forth. I like to think that the prince didn't actually mandate this. They also really like using crowns and crown imagery, hence the photo of this piece of Liechtenstein chocolate.
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The Liechtensteinische Berggasthaus Experience

We fell in love with a certain kind of mountain inn while walking in the Appenzell region of Switzerland. The "berggasthaus" is a kind of hiker's refuge. Typically found alongside hiking trails in remote corners of the mountains, they offer food, drink and places to sleep - in an unpredictable range of quality.

Above the mountains town of Steg, Berggasthaus Sücka (indicated with an arrow), was the first place we stayed on our recent two-night trek through Liechtenstein's high country. It was closer to a small hotel than a hut, and was only a fifteen minute walk uphill from the parking lot.
The food at these mountain guesthouses is usually pretty heavy. Meant to satisfy tired hikers, the menus often read like a long collection of greasy starches. Spaghetti, spätzle, rice dishes and

rösti are accompanied by schnitzels and wursts, soups and omelets. Having recently made rösti, we told ourselves that it wasn't necessary to order any - somehow it was ordered anyway. This is one of Sücka's four versions, with mushrooms, onion and a fried egg. A long day's hike north, above the town of Planken, Gafadurahütte is a much more intimate and scaled-down lodging place. Run by the Liechtenstein Alpine Club, it has no private rooms and almost no amenities. It's very pleasant, though, and we were more than happy to come upon it on a misty evening, bone tired and ready to sit down.

Gafadurahütte sleeps about twelve-sixteen people, though individual places aren't well defined; perhaps more trekkers could squeeze in if it was found necessary. There's just the one room, two long bunks along one wall and two slightly smaller ones by the other. On the night we slept there, we happened to be the only guests. The comforter covers and pillowcases were freshly laundered and the "mattress" was comfortable. Not that it would have mattered much. I would have been asleep by eight had I been sprawled out on the floor.

It got cold at night, and all of the dinner guests eventually left the picnic tables on the patio and squeezed into the little dining room. A fire had been lit in a big, tiled woodstove in the corner, and the room eventually became sauna-like. The close quarters and the beer gave the space an increasingly convivial atmosphere, and conversations began jumping from table to table. We dined on pumpkin soup, followed by a huge salad (for Rebecca) and a stewed mess of lamb's belly and sauerkraut (for me).
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Oldie Night and Two Fests

When the electronic board that usually reads "Welcome to Vaduz" changed its message to say "Oldie Night, August 20, 20:00" we knew we had that evening's plans settled. The small square outside city hall, where the farmer's market took place a week later, was transformed into a beer garden/discotheque/summer party. We had dinner at an outdoor cafe table across from the tent beforehand and watched as dolled up women and men with firm handshakes met up to begin the festivities together. The crowd was mostly post-collegiate and up, with a few youngsters brought along by parents.

We'd both assumed live music would be involved, but I figured "oldie" meant big band or Elvis or early Beach Boys the latest. Merlin had the less American-centric idea of polka and folk music. It wound up being 70s, 80s and early 90s material ranging from Abba to Sade, performed by a series of cover bands. We stayed through two sets and while the first group was great, the second was on fire. People danced and clapped and the energy was contagious. You really can't go wrong with a free concert that includes a 10 instrument band, more than one disco ball, a wurst grill and beer in big, plastic cups.

In Liechtenstein, there's been no shortage of concerts and fests. Each town is posted with fliers for the upcoming happenings, which makes it easy for transients like us to feel in-the-know. Some event names are more straightforward than others. 'Chiliheads 2011' intrigued us until we found out it was a chili eating contest with a cover charge. 'Weinfest Trieson' was more our speed. It was originally to take place outside the church in Trieson, but the rain moved it into the town's meeting hall (something we learned, once again, from an electronic board on the roadside).

What made this fest particularly exciting was that we'd camped in Trieson for over a week and now had a chance to feel a part of the community. Right through the doorway were the numbered wine bottles and people standing around tall, round tables tasting them. Some people didn't bother with purchasing tastes and simply went to the other bar for a beer or glass of whatever wine was open. This boy hung out at the third bar, the one for desserts, chatting up three teenaged girls in charge. Our plum tart was delicious, as were our three tastes of white wine from Trieson (and a fourth taste of red, thrown in for free by the man who produced it).

Communal tables and live music can pretty much be expected at Liechtensteinische fetes. Two men played some ditties on their accordion and lap guitar while a larger, folk costumed group set up onstage. When their set was done, the couple of musicians went outside for a smoke, each with an opened bottle of wine in their hands. Payment for the gig? It was a warm familiar - familial, even - atmosphere in which one could easily have spent the entire afternoon, but which made us somewhat crestfallen about our inability to make casual conversation.

Sommernachtsfest in Eschen was advertised by a pretty white and green flyer which boasted live music, food and drink. We don't know much German, but we at least got that far. It also had a ticket fee, which convinced us that it must be awesome. We purchased tickets from a nice lady behind a grocery store bakery counter and made a reservation at an inn so that we'd be nearby at the end of the night (though a free taxi was included in the cover, we think). Three police officers stood outside the meeting hall, mint-filled welcome drinks sat on a table by coat check and people in fancy clothes made us feel under-dressed. "What is Sommernachtsfest exactly?" we asked someone our age who was working the event. "It's just like a town party. There is a band and food and a bar inside for shots."

It felt like walking into an auditorium for prom at a school you didn't attend. Better yet, a school at which you're a foreign exchange student. One woman twirled the long red straw in her Hugo (said welcome drink) waiting for a date that never came. Groups of similarly attired adults sat together while more dressed down couples sat alone. We hovered near the bar with its happy, smiling bartendress and little bowls of pretzels. It was like a classier Oldie Night, with white tablecloths and votive candles on the communal tables, waiters taking your order for beer and wurst and a playlist that was more KD Lang than Kool and the Gang. Again, we wished we could chit chat with someone, but were content enough with being flies on the wall for one more night. We didn't dance or mingle - or do shots - at any of the fests, but left each later than expected and downright giddy. Liechtensteiners know how to throw a party.
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The Oberland

This blog has mostly concentrated, so far, on the part of Liechtenstein where most people live and where it's easy to get around. There's a whole different side to the country, though. This is, after all, the only country that lies entirely within the Alps. Towering above the western Rhine valley, where the farms and major towns are, is the Liechtenstein highland, or "Oberland" - a microprovince of rugged slopes and thousands of cowbells, where men wear feathers in their caps and the streams begin with snowmelt.

Up here, it's a little easier to get a handle on the size and shape of the nation. At just over sixty square miles, Liechtenstein is certainly tiny. Most of this area isn't flat, though, and away from the lowlands the country feels much bigger.
From the edge of the mountains, looking to the west, the major towns of Schaan (the collection of buildings in the nearest foreground of the picture above), Vaduz (the capital), Triesen and Balzers lie in a narrow strip of flat land along the river. The Rhine is heavily banked here, and proceeds through the valley in gentle, man-made angles. Across the water, Switzerland's own peaks shoot up and Swiss towns and factories crowd along the flatland.

Looking to the east, the unbroken mass of Austrian Alps stretches for hundreds of miles. Liechtenstein seems to "face" away from this no-mans land, being mostly arranged downhill of a ridge of mountains that runs roughly parallel to the river. It is only from the higher peaks that you can peer over the Austrian border, into emptier and more remote space.

The bulk of Liechtenstein's mountainous land seems - at first glance - suitable for nothing more than rock climbing or paragliding. But a vast network of trails slithers through the gaps and passes, allowing hikers to reach far into the upper valleys. Here, an amazingly untouched culture of dairy farmers herd their Brown Swiss on meadows that reach as high as 7,500 feet above sea level. These are summer pastures, unusable in the winter, and they are filled (though not in the picture above) with wildflowers. One joy - watching the herdsmen walk at elevation with quick, efficient steps that propel them up and down the hills with surprising velocity.

There are a few towns in the Oberland: Triesenberg is the largest, and stretches over much of the visible slope above the valley; Planken is small and sunny; Malbun is a ski town. Steg, a preserved village laid out in a traditional square, lies just around a valley bend from the low country. The houses all have their own patch of meadow for hay or grazing, and the land around them is protected from development - there is a fear that the frantic construction by the river will eventually engulf much of the upper parts of Liechtenstein as the population expands.

In Malbun, nestled in the remotest occupied sliver of grass, skiing is the big draw. In summer, things quiet down, but one lift still runs, servicing a high gasthaus and restaurant. We heard American voices on that patio and didn't linger for long.
The views are spectacular, though, and the sound of cowbells echoes in the high bowl. It's said that Prince Charles learned to ski at this resort while visiting the royal Liechtenstein family. The slopes must be beautiful in the dead of winter, with all the avalanche fencing and snowmaking equipment covered up - it must feel like the end of the earth, snuggled into the snowy mountains of a tiny country.
Having mentioned cowbells so many times, it seems appropriate to give you an idea of what they sound like. From the window of the hiker's refuge, Gafadurahütte, at 4,700 feet, we couldn't make out much of the misty mountains or valley, but the sound of grazing animals was clear and beautiful.
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Saturday, August 27, 2011


Well, the heat wave has ended. We awoke to a downpour and 50 degree temperature, plus extreme winds that were not kind to our poor, rattled tent. The once-a-month farmer's market (bauernmarkt) in Vaduz was scheduled for today and we were a little worried that it may be canceled. Luckily, not only was it in full swing when we arrived, the rain only upped the sense of community.

People huddled together and sloshed around in galoshes as a quartet played cheery, classical music in the corner. A breakfast buffet was set up along the back wall of the windowed tent. Through it, a anachronistic backdrop of snow-capped mountains made us feel momentarily delusional. Of course, it makes sense that rain down here means snow up there. It only made us happier to cling to the bauernmarkt's warmth and ignore the world outside for a moment.

We felt like part of the community, recognizing a face here and there. There's the woman from the Hofkellerei, standing behind the Hofkellerei table - there's that incredibly tall man from the Demmel Kaffee. He roasted coffee beans on a fire, handed us a few to munch on and complimented us on our newly gained tans. We bought some coffee and a piece of banana loaf from his table, knowing that the coffee roastery/cafe was one of the companies represented at the market that was definitely Liechtensteinische (and not Swiss).

Our second purchase was Swiss, but we weren't too hard on ourselves about it. This no-nonsense kid took time out from his croissant and comic book to sell us some semi-hard goat cheese. Cheese and sausage were the most plentiful goods for sale, but produce, oils and vinegars, wine, baked goods and a wooden brush vendor rounded out the offerings.

Of course, there was a man grilling sausages. This is a veal bratwurst and was pronounced "the best sausage of the trip" by Merlin. It was served in a Malbuner bag, which is a processed ham company based out of Liechtenstein, named after a town in Liechtenstein, but which uses meat from Switzerland (in case you were wondering).

Some people sat with a bottle of wine, others with full breakfast buffet plates; some grazed the free samples, other purchased bowls of asian soup which filled the air with a sweet soy and sesame oil scent. It was a lively, dry gathering under the bauernmarkt tent and we were glad to be part of it.
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Friday, August 26, 2011

Castle Hunting: Burg Gutenberg

Of the two castles still standing in Liechtenstein, Burg Gutenberg is the slightly more accessible. While Schloss Vaduz is home to the ruling prince and is closed to the public, Gutenberg can be visited and sometimes even hosts concerts and festivals. Not that it’s ever open. The courtyard door was ajar when we arrived, but the buildings were all padlocked and shuttered. Gutenberg, despite being quite well preserved, doesn’t seem to be a focal point for the country’s tourism offices.

Located near the southern tip of Liechtenstein, rising on a little hill in the flat Rhine valley, the castle enjoys a strategic location at the meeting point between the high cliffs to the east and the river to the west. The point is more significant now, though, than it was in the past – Liechtenstein was something of a political afterthought for a good deal of its history, and the Rhine here isn’t very difficult to cross, meaning that this little area wouldn’t have been defended as a borderland.

The burg’s history suggests that it has been an important site for much longer than the principality has existed, though. The 70 meter high promontory has been in use since the Neolithic period, with some bronze-age finds in the area suggesting continuous occupancy. One segment of dry foundation dates from approximately 800 BC, and other sections were part of a defensible, roman-era church. The castle’s real beginnings, in a form that resemble it’s current shape, date from the late 12th century, and subsequent enlargements were made after the Swabian war of 1499.

The highest walls are at the rear of the structure, as part of the primary keep and residence. They were built up to protect the more gently sloping side of the hill. Lower down, Gutenberg’s walls are lower because they’re in a more defensible position atop the sheer rock. The early approach to the structure was made along an exposed track beneath the walls, where attacking forces would be required to travel a long distance within firing range from above before making contact with the battlements themselves.
Inside, the keep is almost equally well protected, meaning that it would take a second effort to break into the main building, even if the outer walls were broached. This courtyard was all that was accessible to us, and was decorated strangely by this vaguely Trojan statue.

A firing tower and blunt exterior wall at the rear of the defenses left little exposed. Most of the roofs, timber structures and other flammable parts of the burg were further in along the ridge, protected from fire and missiles. The compact size of the fortress meant that it could be held by only a few soldiers.

The castle is semi-surrounded by the small town of Balzers, which is the cultural and commercial anchor of southern Liechtenstein. On the day we were clomping through the village center in our hiking boots, a little farmer’s market was going on. For stamina: some coffee and a very moist, tasty apple muffin. At a picnic table in the shade, we were surrounded by a chatty group of women with full grocery bags.

Gutenberg is a fun castle to walk around because the view keeps changing. From some angles, the castle seems like a complex mess of walls and towers. Looked at from another perspective, it appears to be little more than an enlarged keep. The vineyards below it were fragrant with grapes, and our walk was kept tolerable by a stiff breeze - it was well over ninety degrees.
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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Gypsy Kitchens: Rösti In The Mountains

There’s nothing like cooking out on a warm August evening, when the light lingers just long enough to finish eating and the air cools to a neutral, delicious temperature. On one recent summer night, we made a feast that was probably twice as big as it should have been. The meal centered around a dish that we’ve been meaning to make, but have dreaded consuming. It’s called “rösti,” and it’s an essentially Liechtensteinische food.

Really, rösti is an alpine food, and it goes by as many names as there are mountain valleys, it seems. Some places call the stuff "deruny", others spell it "röschti" - in America, we might refer to it as “cheesy hashbrowns,” or something like that. Basically, rösti is fried potato with seasonings, often glued together with melted cheese. We decided to make the recipe more interesting and colorful with some other ingredients. At a public park in Triesen, Liechtenstein, we fried it over an open fire as part of a big cookout. To arrange around our potatoes on the plate, we grilled up some mushrooms, a trout, and a selection of wursts. Rebecca seasoned her fish simply with salt, pepper and a few chives and slices of lemon inside it’s chest. I just put the wurst over the coals and let it sit.

The park is nearby our campsite and is usually occupied at dinnertime by a few families and their grilling sausages. There’s a short zipline, a few swings, a little splashpool and an assortment of picnic tables and grills. A pile of firewood is provided by the town, and the fireplaces are open to any and everyone. We had a good time watching the kids play around us, and feeling as though we were part of a community.To make the rösti, we started with packaged rösti potatoes. They are conveniently stocked in every grocery store in Switzerland and Liechtenstien, and are little more than boiled and grated potatoes. We would have done the extra work in a kitchen, but decided against it given that we were cooking in the field. Some packaged rösti is pre-seasoned and oiled, but your home-cooked potatoes wont be. To one pound of boiled and grated potatoes, add about three tablespoons of olive oil, some salt, a teaspoon of sugar (or honey, our choice) and a bit of fresh pepper. It would be great to throw in some dill, parsley or paprika.The mixture could be complete here, but it can also be better. We added some carrots – a combined half pound of regular orange ones, a yellow variety and a purple type. Also, one red jalapeno pepper, two cloves of garlic and one julienned, medium-sized apple. The apple was inspired by another alpine region dish called “Älplermagronen”, which is basically pasta, potato and cheese. It’s often served with apple sauce, which we thought might go well with our dish. Not wanting to take the time to stew apples, we just added the fruit into our mix.

I should add that this isn't so much a recipe as it is a suggestion. The idea: don't stop at potatoes when frying up root vegetables. Turnip, fennel root or beets could also make a rösti-like dish better by providing some different flavor note. Our version turned out sweeter than traditional recipes. Beets would be sweeter still; fennel could transform it with a little bitterness.
It’s pretty easy once everything is grated – just sauté an onion in a large pan, then add the grated mess of roots and fruit. Cook it until the carrots (or other raw vegetables) are done, stirring occasionally. It helps to add a bit more oil to the pan in the beginning. Stir enough to allow everything to cook, but not too much that the potatoes can’t brown. After about twenty minutes, or when everything seems well cooked through, mash and smush everything into a large cake. Sprinkle a large handful of chives over the whole thing, then grate a hard, pungent cheese over the top. We used Appenzeller, which is a local specialty (though Swiss, not Liechtensteinische), but Gruyere works well and sharp cheddar would do in a pinch. Let your rösti cook for a few minutes more, until the cheese has melted down into the cracks.

Rösti is a dish that’s best appreciated at altitude after a long hike – we first had it in a Berggasthaus in Switzerland. Though Liechtenstein isn’t a particularly high country, it is steep, and this meal followed a long day of strenuous walking. The size (if not the density) of the meal probably has more to do with the allure of grilling, though. It's hard not to want to cook dozens of things when there's real fire involved.

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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

'Bads' Never Felt So Good

On a sweltering, mid-August day (hotter than normal, according to everyone we asked), we visited Freibad Muhleholz, the outdoor swimming pool in Vaduz. It’s an impressive public swimming space, with an Olympic sized pool, a diving pool, a tall, twisting water slide and a third pool with some sort of strange, large, rubber ball at its center. Primped teenage girls served themselves up on cement tanning platforms and their male counterparts stopped by between dives. Most of the jumpers were younger and less skilled. Some didn’t wind up jumping at all. There's a grassy lawn and beach volleyball court, but even the most intent sun-worshippers sought shade the day we were there. We're in the middle of a heat wave.

Liechtenstein is the only double-landlocked country in Europe and only one of two double-landlocked countries in the world. This means that it doesn’t border any oceans and none of the countries that border it touch any ocean either. So, basically, there’s no such thing as hitting the coast. Understandably, Liechtenstein is swimming in swimming pools or “bads.” “Freibads” are outdoor ones and “hallenbads” are indoor ones. This freibad is at our campsite and is almost consistently occupied. It’s hard to resist when your shelter (i.e. tent) sits in the sun all day. Plus, you can’t beat these views.

In the town of Schellenberg, we moved indoors – both to a bed and a ‘hallenbad.’ You can hear splashing from almost every backyard in the small, residential village. Aboveground pools, some inflatable, some more permanent, can be spotted behind most fences. Not that I’m a Peeping Tom or anything. The best part about the Hotel Krone’s indoor pool was its openness. An entire wall was windowed, which made the room brighter and prettier. Swimming noodles, water weights and boogie boards were piled up on one end, next to an exercise bicycle.

The other indoor pool we’ve utilized is in Eschen and is a lot different than we expected. The speedo-wearing lap swimmers and excited kids were predictable, but the wooden ceilings, paper lanterns and windowed walls made it feel a lot less enclosed, unnatural and gymnasium-like. The atmosphere (and less oppressive chlorine levels) made us feel a lot less guilty for being inside on a summer day. Everyone likes a good swim and double-land-locked Liechtenstein knows that sometimes you’ve just gotta do what you’ve gotta do.
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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Very Small Farmland

When we take pictures and write things for this blog, we tend to crop out the strips of banks and car dealerships that take up so much room in Europe. In Liechtenstein, that process of snipping and excluding can be somewhat difficult and tedious. It's not impossible though - this was a land, until very recently, of farmers. In some ways, it can still seem that way.

Liechtenstein is a country that seems to exist at the crux of past and present - suspended, almost, between fast paced development and a desire to remain pastoral. There is a chance that the entire country could become a sea of cement towers, built up in an economic flurry of Swiss francs and low regulation. It's already partway there - there are about twice as many businesses registered in Liechtenstein as there are residents. It's a surprise, then, to find traffic stopped - rows of Porsches and Audis in either direction - while herds of Brown Swiss are brought in for milking.

There are farms here, and a whole community of people who have held onto a lifestyle that seems at odds with the funds and letterbox companies that have recently proliferated. Especially where the Rhine has carved out Liechtenstein's valley, and there is a little flat land, the farms appear to thrive. They have more and better equipment than farmers elsewhere, and their barnyards are abustle with laborers and people. Higher up in the Alps, the fields are steeper and less productive, but the farmers there still manage to seem prosperous.
I was amazed when I learned that only ten percent of Liechtenstien's area was used primarily for agriculture. Walking through the valley and the upper meadows, it seems that the entire country is practically covered with corn and grazing cows. In the highest folds of the mountains, the hundreds of plunking cowbells sound like rain in a tin bucket. Alpine dairies have actually experienced a resurgence in recent years, profiting from a newfound appreciation for small-scale production and traditionally made foodstuffs.

Part of the reason that the country isn’t more agricultural is that the bulk of Liechtenstein is unsuitable for anything other than rock-climbing. Also, much of the farmland has been converted into parking lots and for use beneath the walls of commercial buildings. One could be forgiven, actually, for thinking that the screen of highrises along the main road is the entirety of the principality. Driving through Liechtenstien on the primary thoroughfare can feel like traversing a bad stretch of suburban New Jersey. Behind this tax-haven screen, though, another world lies somewhat undisturbed.

It isn't all the way it used to be, though. The country just isn't big enough to support some of the larger farms, and hay and silage need to be imported from neighboring Switzerland and Austria. The feed comes in by the truckload, boosting milk and beef production. It brings involuntary thoughts of commodities trading to mind, and suspicions about how much of this prosperity is actual and how much of it is subsidized in order for the principality to appear more rustic than it actually is.

Really, there's a kind of farm nostalgia here that is maybe more visible than it should be. The principality overplays its past to hide some of the soullessness of its present. One weekend morning, a long procession of dress-shirt-wearing men (and women) rode through Vaduz on their gleaming antique tractors. Neither the drivers nor the machines looked as though they had been close to a farm in a long time, and the whole thing wasn't much different than the usual catwalk of classic and exotic cars that streams through town.

But it is nice to be here, in a place where roadside farm stands (however scantily stocked) stand nearby Raiffeisen and Citigroup. It's great to be able to walk for a long ways through old pastures and to see men cutting hay with scythes. It feels almost more enchanting, given the contrast. And how couldn’t you forgive a country for trying its hardest to maintain a cultural heritage – especially when the nation is so small and could so easily be overwhelmed.
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