Four weeks ago, the full extent of my knowledge base on this small mountainous country was that it was a small mountainous country. I knew nothing about the tiny nation and had no idea what to expect when I learned that we would spend a single day there as part of a whirlwind road trip through Southern Germany. I was pleasantly surprised and Liechtenstein (not to be confused with the famous pop-artist Lichtenstein…Spellcheck seems to be having a confusion-induced aneurism right now) turned out to be one of the single most memorable places we visited in a trip full of world-class sights, monuments and experiences.
But first, some context! Liechtenstein is a German-speaking, double-landlocked country of 161 square kilometers sandwiched between the Austrian and Swiss Alps. It is the richest country in the world per capita by some measures and has the lowest levels of unemployment in the world, possibly due to its status as a shady “uncooperative tax haven”. It is ruled by a family of monarchs who still live in a twelfth century castle. A factory in Schaan, Liechtenstein’s largest city with a whopping population of 5,806, is the world’s largest producer of false teeth. Finally, the country’s national anthem is set to the familiar tune of God Save the Queen. Now you know at least ten more things about Liechtenstein than I did prior to my visit.
We arrived in Malbun, Liechtenstein’s ski resort, after a long day of visiting Neuschwanstein Castle and driving for three hours through Austria and Switzerland. It was already growing dark and our party of four adults and two toddlers were exhausted by the action-packed day. As we unpacked the rented van, the first thing that struck me other than the thin mountain air was an incessant tinkling noise that seemed to come from all directions. We quickly realized that it was the sound of hundreds of cowbells echoing through the mountains. For some reason that I still don’t understand, this noise filled me with boundless energy and, after checking into the hotel and putting my pregnant wife comfortably to bed, I set out on my own solo mini-adventure.
Whenever I see a hill, I want to climb it. Danielle occasionally calls this personality trait the bane of her existence…so naturally, upon exiting the hotel into the crisp night air, there was only one direction to go: up. I strolled as far into the mountains as the crumbling asphalt road allowed and plunked myself into the gravel at the end of the pavement. The sky was clear and the stars were bright. The air was cold enough that I could see a hint of steam when I exhaled and a faint wind rustled seas of wildflowers illuminated only by the soft light of the stars.
The cowbells provided an omnipresent background with the musical clinking and clanging of insomniac cattle.
Like I said, I still don’t quite understand why the cowbells made me so happy…but they did. I sat there in the gravel for a long time. I’m not entirely sure how much time I spent there but I’d guess it was around an hour of cross-legged contemplation of the landscape.
Sometimes there are moments in my life where I am overwhelmed with a feeling of gratitude for life and my senses. Have you ever closed your eyes and stopped to think about just how amazing it feels to take a deep breath? Marvelled at wind blowing through your hair or waves lapping against your skin? Taken your shoes off just to feel the grass or sand drift between your toes? Occasionally, I have these moments where I am filled with an ecstatic joy simply because I exist. I feel an overwhelming thankfulness for the privilege of being alive and gain an appreciation for being able to see, hear and smell some of the beauty that is on offer in our world.
That hour spent on a hilltop road in Liechtenstein was one of those moments for me.
Around midnight, I slowly picked my way down the road trying to sort through my thoughts and arrived at my hotel still unable to sleep…
The next morning, Dani and I took a beautiful walk up the same road, puttered to the top of the mountain via chair lift and visited the capital city and castle of Vaduz. We explored Liechtenstein as much as we could in a single day but by far the most unforgettable part of the whole country was my cowbell-serenaded midnight walk in the mountains. It’s one of those travel moments that I know I’ll never forget.