YOU NEED a good map and sharp eyesight to locate Liechtenstein. So tiny is this splinter of central Europe, wedged between the Vorarlberg mountains of Austria and the Rhine, that it could be just a slip of the cartographer's hand.
Liechtenstein - like Monaco, San Marino and Gibraltar - is one of Europe's blink-and-you-miss-it countries: 30,000 people live in a mountainous crumple of territory measuring 15 miles by four. Vaduz, the capital, is hard to reach by the usual means; a tourist office handout warns: 'Don't come by plane. You can't come by train either. Come on foot, by bicycle or by hitching a lift.' I caught the bus from what - if there were a real frontier between Liechtenstein and Switzerland - would be the border town of Sargans.
The dividing line is the Rhine, close to its source and already in spirited flow. Presumably this broad river provides sufficient watery separation to bestow Liechtenstein with offshore financial status. On the far side of the bridge is a tiny sign announcing that you are entering another country. You quickly realise that this must be one of the prettiest places to stash surplus cash. Heavy green firs cling to steep hillsides, which themselves unfurl to soft-focus meadows peppered with houses in primary colours.
The setting is serene - as is the ruler of Liechtenstein. His Serene Highness Hans-Adam II exercises considerably more power than the average constitutional monarch. Recently, citizens took to the streets of Vaduz in a quiet sort of demonstration to protest at a system out of touch with Western democracy.
Liechtenstein achieved nationhood in 1719, in a piece of central European political intrigue that brought to power the present ruling dynasty, a Czech family. The locals in those days had good reason to claim the regime was out of touch, since until halfway through the last century none of the monarchs had bothered to visit the principality. The present prince's father was the first ruler to live permanently in Liechtenstein. Hans-Adam II is said to be worth pounds 2bn, and few of his subjects appear to be short of cash either.
To judge by the conspicuous wealth in the capital, article one of Liechtenstein's constitution must require a national sense of self-satisfaction. Some of the national income has been spent on civic decoration, such as Henry Moore's Figure in a Shelter, which is casually dropped on a patch of grass beside the main street. Make the most of such treats, since Liechtenstein is short of great set-piece sights: you can sample all the available cultural treasures in a morning. The list of places worth seeing reads like a Private Eye spoof:
'Those Liechtenstein attractions in full:
1. The castle
2. The postal museum
3. The art gallery
4. Er . . . that's it.'
The uphill hike to the castle in Vaduz is dotted with an astonishing array of political furniture. From a distance you assume the noticeboards along the woodland walk must be maps or descriptions of flora or fauna. Look more closely, though; these expensive bronze plaques are pure propaganda, a mixture of economic statistics, politics and Old Testament invective. You learn that false teeth are among Liechtenstein's leading exports, and receive a stilted explanation of the nation's rather archaic system of government.
Hans-Adam II and his wife, Princess Marie, live in the castle, but as royal residences go it is strictly second division. The impression is of a circular Victorian engine shed bolted on to a rambling barn. The curious visitor is confronted with increasingly insistent signs carrying decreasingly polite euphemisms for 'Go away and stop bothering us'.
You do not need a couple of billion pounds, however, to be able to enjoy the view from the hilltop beside the castle. The dramatic continuum of forest, river, rock and sky is as broad in its colour spectrum as in its repertoire of terrain. One or two infelicities impede the panorama; that awkwardly angular building scarring the scenery beneath you is the postal museum.
'Great Stamps of Liechtenstein' would more accurately reflect the museum's contents. You can examine thousands of examples of Liechtenstein's profitable sideline: stamps aimed at collectors rather than people who might actually want to stick one on a postcard. You cannot buy a stamp here, but the attendant will imprint your passport with a Liechtenstein entry stamp for one franc (about 50p). Plenty of people pay up happily to tick off another European nation. They visit Liechtenstein not for the invigorating landscapes but simply because it is there.
Some financiers, too, appreciate the country because it is there. While Europe's currencies descend into chaos, Liechtenstein's finances tick along happily outside the ERM. This is a discreet bolt-hole beyond the reach of the curious. If you have a few million that you would prefer not to discuss, consign them to a trust based in Liechtenstein.
Some of the royal family's fortune has been spent on a magnificent collection of art, particularly strong on 17th-
century Flemish painters. Traditionally, a selection of these pictures has been displayed at the National Art Museum, enabling commoners to enjoy some of Rubens's finest works. But for the past few months only one floor of the gallery has been open. The prince's reticence is another source of conflict; beware of demonstrations demanding the return of the Old Masters.
Watch out, too, for Prussians. An untidy peace treaty has reputedly left Liechtenstein at war with Prussia. Any invaders from northern Europe will have to cope with the territorial ambitions of the numerous restaurants in Vaduz, their tables colonising much of the main street.
Visitors on holiday rather than business should dodge the higher-priced items on the menus. I insisted on the most authentic-looking local dish, called Vaduzer Grunspargel. Speaking minimal German, I expected this to be an overdose of the traditional fare in the region - meat, veg and more meat. Instead I received 10 pieces of asparagus, each spear costing more than pounds 1. In one weekend my credit card took a hammering from which it has yet to recover.
Financially, Liechtenstein is no place for amateurs. But if it did not exist, stamp collectors or accountants would have to invent it. The artful tax-dodgers have chosen a beautiful place to send their money on holiday.
The closest airport is Zurich, 60 miles away. I paid pounds 119 return from London to Zurich on British Airways (0345 222111).
From there the train to Sargans costs pounds 7 and takes 65 minutes. It connects with a bus ( pounds 1.40, 25 minutes) to the capital, Vaduz.
There are no customs or immigration formalities between Switzerland and Liechtenstein.
The single youth hostel (232 5022) is at Schaan, a couple of miles north of Vaduz. A bed for the night costs pounds 12.
In Vaduz, the lowest rates are at the Falknis Hotel (232 6377), pounds 20 single/ pounds 37 double.
The local National Tourist Office is at Stadtle 37, Vaduz, Liechtenstein (telephone 232 1443; fax 232 0806).
In the UK, the Swiss National Tourist Office (Swiss Centre, Leicester Square, London W1V 8EE; 071-734 1921) has some information on Liechtenstein.
The dialling code for Liechtenstein from the UK is 010 31 75.
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