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Dealing With a Sovereign Shrimp

June 07, 1987|NINO LO BELLO | An American author of five books, Lo Bello has been a foreign correspondent in Europe for 25 years. and

VADUZ, Liechtenstein — The sovereign shrimp . . . the little giant of Europe . . . the wee Titan . . . the postage-stamp state . . . the mouse that roars.

Call Liechtenstein whatever you will, but after all the witty quips and ding-dong designations, pick up your valise, put a red circle on your map where the little Big L is, and help yourself to a country the size of a jellybean.

Liechtenstein is a conversation piece. Where else in the world can you visit a nation that has been officially at war for more than a century with a country that no longer exists? More about that later.

A Colorful Setting

Wedged high in a niche between the Swiss and Austrian Alps, Liechtenstein would make an ideal stage-setting for an operetta. With its 60 square miles and 15,000 inhabitants, this micro-land has no crime, no jail, no radio or TV station, no army, no draft, no airport, no daily newspaper, no golf course, no customs officials, no divorce, no billboards, no communists and practically no taxes.

That last item may explain why 8,000 foreign corporations have set up headquarters in Vaduz (the only capital in Europe that doesn't have a railroad station).

Contrary to what many visitors believe, Liechtenstein does not live from its sale of postage stamps. Only 10% of the country's income derives from that source; the rest of its earnings come from a network of industry.

Nearly 4,000 people are employed in factories producing pocket-size calculating machines, optical instruments, central heating boilers, sausage skins, sewing needles, cotton textiles, furniture, toys, leather goods, paints, varnishes, screws and dental items. The false-tooth factory, second-largest in the world, grinds out 7 million teeth a month.

An independent state for more than 250 years, Liechtenstein is ruled by an octogenarian hereditary prince whose name runs too long. He is Prince Franz Josef II Maria Aloys Alfred Karl Johannes Heinrich Michael Georg Ignatius Benediktus Gerhardus Majella von Liechtenstein. His wife, the Princess Georgina, calls herself Gina.

Priceless Art

Prince Franz Josef has a priceless art collection of 1,400 masterpieces worth in the vicinity of $150 million, many housed in his medieval castle (124 rooms), which sits on the edge of a cliff overlooking the main street of the capital. But 75 of the prince's best paintings are on view in the white-walled public gallery near the post office and stamp museum. The exhibit includes 16 canvases by Rubens, 15 by Van Dyck, three Rembrandts and works by Brueghel, Raphael, Titian and Tiepolo.

Another Liechtenstein tourist attraction (mostly unexplored) is Naafkopf Peak. It is the only place in Europe where there is a piece of ground that you can sit on and be in three countries at the same time. Liechtenstein, Austria and Switzerland meet at this point, and a huge wooden cross has been erected on the spot.

To get to Naafkopf Peak, which is actually more of a plateau than a peak, all you need is a pair of sturdy shoes in the spring or summer.

Except for two short stretches on the cliff-hugging path where you have to watch your footing, the walk to Naafkopf is quite negotiable and not dangerous at all. Give yourself a full day to go and come back, if you are staying at a hotel in the capital. If you're there in the winter, when it snows, it's best to hire a professional guide.

For your Naafkopf adventure, leave Vaduz in the morning and make your way through the town of Steg, less than 10 minutes away by auto or bus. Quaint beyond description, and mostly unvisited by tourists, Steg is the starting point for various walking trails leading to the peaks of three mountains known as the Three Sisters.

A Welcome to Hikers

Welcoming hands seem to be extended to hikers exploring a kind of never-never land; during ski periods, however, the lodgings along the way are always booked solid.

From Steg you head uphill to the town of Malbun (the end of the 760F Bus Line, if you've taken public transportation from Vaduz). A ski lift then takes you to an altitude of 6,500 feet, stopping at a wonderful sun terrace where you can enjoy a cup of coffee and a pastry before departing on foot toward the Naafkopf.

It's a fairly easy uphill hike of about 90 minutes to your first stop on this mountain ridge path, the Bettlerjoch Pfalzer Hut at 7,900 feet. There you can pause for a rest and refreshment.

With another bit of hiking you will reach Naafkopf Peak at 8,400 feet. In winter this makes a good starting point for a ski run downhill all the way to Malbun.

Three at Once

Once you reach the Naafkopf and the three countries that converge on top, there is another bonus if the weather is clear. You can see the silvery waters of Lake Constance and Germany in the distance, which means that atop the Naafkopf a visitor can see four countries at one time--Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Liechtenstein. No other parcel of land in the world offers such an opportunity.

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