Liechtenstein: Mountains, Trains and Polkas

Liechtenstein's flag

“What country has only 35,000 inhabitants?” my husband wondered as he scrolled through an information sheet on Liechtenstein.  “How can that be?”

Take 62 square miles, the vast majority of it a near-vertical,uninhabitable, mountainous mass, plunk it between similarly sheer peaks in Austria and Switzerland, and you have Liechtenstein, the sixth smallest country in the world.  And its population really is about 35,000 people.  (Anyone care to guess the smallest country?  Answer forthcoming at end of this posting.)

In one of my family’s several road trips through western Europe, we’d driven through the southern tip of Liechtenstein, but that and a picnic lunch were about as much time as I’d spent there.  My husband had never been anywhere near the country.  So as much out of curiosity as anything we decided to stop overnight in Liechtenstein.  And promptly wished we’d booked for at least two nights.  Little Liechtenstein wields a walloping big impression.

To say that Liechtenstein has steep terrain is definitely an understatement.  Their mountains are not among the tallest peaks in Europe, but their striking beauty comes from their sharp vertical rise above the Rhein valley.

With much of the country’s topography slanting at angles above 60°, I could easily understand why the majority of Liechtenstein’s residents chose to live in the towns scattered on lesser inclines or along the Rhein River.  Seldom have I seen such beautiful if impenetrable mountains, with verdant meadows nestled between huge stands of pines, crystalline air — and roadway switchbacks so tight that I’d have called them intertwined noodles rather than hairpin turns.  Our first foray up the road to our hotel had me clutching both the door and the ceiling handles as Michael swung into the turns.  Very seldom to I holler, “Slow down!!” as Michael’s driving; this was one.

We stayed at the Hotel Oberländ inTriesenberg, about halfway up the mountains between the capital, Vaduz, on the Rhein, and Malbun, about the last town you can drive to in mid-country before you run out of roadway.  The hotel (once we found it) turned out to be one of the best little finds we’ve come across during our summer in Europe.  Family-owned and operated, the Hotel Oberländ offered a sparkling clean room, the best shower we’ve found thus far, and, of course, spectacular views.  I’ll just let the pictures speak for themselves.

Triesenberg Rathaus & Church Tower

Church in Triesenberg

House in Triesenberg

Sunset over Swiss mountains across from Triesenberg

Between an exhausting trip from Salzberg, where rail-work necessitated an interim bus ride in between trains to Zurich, and then fighting our way out of Zurich’s rush hour traffic to the autobahn, we arrived at Triesenberg ready to do nothing but sip wine and watch the sun slip behind the mountain views.  The dinner menu, heavy on schnitzel, sausage, sauerkraut and pasta, was adequate, and a locally-minted Pinot Noir helped round out our meal.  After a restful night on a wonderfully comfortable bed, with crisp mountain air wafting through the balcony doors, we were ready to tackle just about anything Liechtenstein had to offer.

The ski lift ride to the top of Sareiserjoch Peak in Malbun proved just the ticket.  Standing at a mere 2,000 meters above sea level on Sareiserjoch Peak, gazing up at nearby mountains that soared to narrow spines and needles reaching 3,000 meters, I couldn’t even spot a mountain goat on any of those mountains.

From the little restaurant at the top of the mountain we sipped the most expensive cups of coffee ever (about $6 apiece), and wished we had time to hike back down the mountain to the car.  As it was, we had to check out of the hotel by 11, so back down the chair lift we went.

View of Malbun from Sareiserjoch ski lift

We descended on the ski lift, agreeing that next time — and there will be a next time — we will plan on hiking down the mountain to Malbun below, an approximately 45 minute walk.

From the Hotel Oberländ we drove down to Vaduz, which perches above the Rhein River.  We strolled around the town while we waited to take the little (fake) “train” tour of the capital city.  Let me just say that while the 21 CHF (roughly $40 USD) spent on this 35 minute “tour” may have not been the wisest expenditure, it did provide for a fair amount of entertainment.  For starters, the “interlude music” between canned narrations was the (in)famous “Liechtenstein Polka” blasting at ear-pummeling volume.  We were in the same “train” car as some Italians and their shnoodle (one of those tiny, white, furry-floppy things that thinks it’s a dog), so we got the whole nickel tour in both Italian and English.  That is, until halfway through and the driver, distracted by an attractive passenger, forgot to punch the “Italian” button, so we listened to the second half in English and German.  Bless them, the four Italians never complained once – except when the driver slammed on the brakes and the furry doggy-thing slammed into the back of our seat.  (If it suffered any brain damage, I couldn’t tell.)  I did get a giggle out of some of the Italian cuss words.

We did learn a few items of interest on the tour, besides new Italian words.  Vaduz’s most significant landmark is the Vaduz Castle, home to the reigning Prince of Liechtenstein and his family.  According to the programmed spiel (see, I know German!), this is one of the oldest royal families in Europe, and the castle one of the longest lived-in-by-royalty on the continent as well.  Unfortunately, because it is the prince’s family home, we could only do photo ops from afar, much less have a tour.  But we still managed to get some fairly decent pictures of the castle.

Vaduz Castle

We also gleaned from the canned “tour” that tiny Liechtenstein has a “democratic monarchy”, which is another term for “constitutional monarchy”, and has a 25-member Parliament.  No lie.  They have their very own parliamentary building:

That’s Michael in the foreground to give you a bit of perspective.  It’s really not that small.

State House and Cathedral

We further learned that Liechtensteing’s currency is the Swiss franc and much of its services are tied to Switzerland; that it has the second highest gross domestic product per person in the world; and has the world’s lowest external debt.

(Just kidding about the in-depth information source; I learned the last two items from Wikipedia…)

Along with the blasting polka and bilingual narration, we were entertained by watching the driver flirt with the very attractive German passenger at a 12-minute stop that ate up one-third of the 35-minute tour.  But we were in such good moods from our overall pleasurable experiences in Liechtenstein, it didn’t really matter.  So in conclusion:  do try to get to Liechtenstein and stay for a few days at the Hotel Oberländ.  Plan on hiking in the summer or skiing, both downhill and crosscountry, in the winter, and having a lovely enjoying some of the most spectacular mountain views in Europe.

But skip the City Tour Train Ride.  And you may want to wait until the U.S. dollar is a tad stronger against the Swiss franc.  (But I wouldn’t bet a CHF on that!)

Travel Notes

While getting to Liechtenstein can take some planning, it is well worth the effort, and we highly recommend staying at the Hotel Oberland in Triesenberg, rather than in lower-lying Vaduz.  The hotel recently changed ownership and management six months ago.  Dorothee Bloch and her husband run a tight ship:  the rooms are spotless, the beds incredibly comfortable, and the showers the best we’ve had in Europe over the last three months of travel.  The views from our room’s little balcomy were stunning, showing the entire Rhein River valley.

The Blochs were extremely friendly and helpful, offering little niceties such as inquiring if we preferred a shower or tub bath, asking repeatedly if we had all we needed, if we needed maps, directions, etc.

The views from the restaurant balcony are lovely.  Triesenberg is about halfway up the mountain  between Vaduz, Liechtenstein’s capital city along the Rhein  River, and the hiking/ski resort town of Malbun at the top of the mountain.

Rhein Valley View from Hotel Oldenband

While it is possible to take a bus to Triesenberg, we rented a car and drove from Zurich. I believe the nearest train stations are in Feldkirch, Austria or Sargans, Switzerland and buses seemed to run regularly from towns to the capital of Liechtestein, Vaduz, as well as to Triesenberg and Malbun.

We wished we’d planned a longer stay in Liechtenstein and when we return, we’ll definitely stay at the Hotel  Oberland.

The answer to the question as to the smallest country in the world:  Vatican City, which is an independent country of 0.2 square miles, entirely surrounded by the capital city of another country:  Rome, Italy.

Advertisements

An Artist of Unique Vision

Too often artists of tremendous talent and beauty are not recognized in their lifetimes.  I’d like to help change that for at least one artist. 

In this blog I’d like to introduce my faithful readers and friends to a Dutch artist of unique vision and broad talent, and who just happens to be someone who has become a close friend.  Corinne van Bergen sculpts in glass, wire, bronze, elastic and combinations thereof.  She also is darn good with paint and pencil, but it’s her sculpting that caught my attention and admiration.

The work pictured above, Solo Swimmer, part of a series of glass sculptures she has completed, and in my opinion, is the best thus far.  The methods by which Corinne sculpted the swimmer makes him appear as if he were flying through the water.  In fact, upon first seeing Solo Swimmer, I blurted, “That looks like Superman’s Flight!” — referring not to the superhero but to a memorable drift scuba dive that resembled the thrill of uninhibited flight through the water.  

How Corinne crafts the glass sculptures is a painstaking, remarkably unique process.  She conceives and sketeches out the image she wants to portray, then draws each bodily segment on a sheet of plastic, which, ultimately, guides her as she carves each pane of glass.  As each etched glass piece is pressed to the next, they collectively begin to form the body Corinne’s envisioned.  Or at least this is my simplistic understanding of what she does. 

Think of a CT head scan where each “slice” of the brain reveals an intricate pattern of whorls, squiggles, and noodly shapes (sorry, I got fired as Artistic Editor on the school newspaper!).  When all the CT slices are put together, they would form a picture of the head, brain casing and inner brains, etc, included.  (Sorry again, non-marine science wasn’t my strong suit either!)  The point is:  each “slice” or piece of glass is intricately carved to be part of the whole sculpture, and performed in a medium which is fairly common — glass — but when completed, presents a piece of art which is as unique in concept and execution as it is in beauty.

Corinne’s other work as an “expressive artist” is similarly intriguing.  Her use of commonplace items such as metal-coated string, wire, or even elastic bands, produces small sculptures which are indeed as expressive as many anatomical drawings. Many of the wire figures she has used in story-telling tableaus or “sculpture plays” (my definitions) in exhibitions, while others are expressive as solo pieces.  As of this summer she has started an interesting series of cast bronze scuptures of little “B’Angels” which in Dutch loosely translates to “mischevous” or “naughty” angels that nevertheless posses a smidgen of vulnerability.  The first shows a young angel full of piss and vinegar perched on a spool.  Peek behind her and you see her clutching the thread to the spool for dear life. 

You can see photos of Corinne’s sculptures on her website:  http://www.corinnevanbergen.nl. The website is bilingual; just look for the combination U.S./U.K. flag in the upper left and the page will translate into English.  I’m sure all of you will be as fascinated by Corinne’s work as Michael and I were.

To construct her wire figures, Corinne begins twisting and turning the wire in her fingers, and eventually what emerges is a figure:  man or woman, dog, ear, or — my favorite — a little whale:

I am particularly fond of this piece as Corinne made this especially for me as a combination 60th birthday and farewell present.  We had become close friends during our sojourn in the Netherlands and this was such a touching and individualistically “Corinne” way of expressing  to me great friendship and caring.  Indeed, Michael and I had become good friends with both Corinne and her husband, Martin, spending many an evening over wine, Dutch kaas (cheese), and dinner, including our last night in Holland.

In a previous blog I enthused about three other Dutch artists whose work I admire greatly:  Vermeer, Van Gogh, and Escher.  Their styles and indeed epochs varied widely, but they had one thing in common, besides being Dutch:  they were all deceased.  It’s a shame so many artists only achieve fame once they’ve passed on to the Great Artists’ Haven in the Sky.  Let’s try to get Corinne van Bergen some deserved attention and praise now rather than later.  Her singular talent and work deserve it.

Corinne & Yanna, her cat

Munich a Miss

It’s a sad conclusion to reach that the highlights of a world-famous city were a bejeweled skeleton  and a glockenspiel, but that’s how we felt about Munich.  Alas, the city we encountered fell so far short of fond childhood remembrances I couldn’t wait to get back on the train.

Emerging from the U-Bahn in time to catch most of the noon performance of the glockenspiel in the Rathaus (town hall) tower on the town square, we snagged a café table as the crowd dispersed and planted ourselves in chairs directly in front of the clock tower.  Thankfully, before the 1 p.m. performance, the waitstaff put up the café umbrellas, which helped displace the incoming crowds from implanting themselves in our laps.  Meanwhile, a traditional Bavarian oomp-pah band, complete with lederhosen and dirndl skirts, entertained the crowds between performances.  We tucked into lunch, sipped good German beer, and enjoyed the 1 p.m. performance of the clock’s dancing figurines while the people packed into the town square baked like anchovies on a pizza.

Traditional Bavarian Band

Munich Rathaus (town hall)

Gothic gargoyles on the Rathaus tower

Fierce gargoyle on the Rathaus tower

Another look at the world-famous glockenspiel dancing figurines. The netting is to protect the statues from pigeon droppings.

Glockenspiel performances and an ooompah band.  Corny as it was, I had hoped they were the beginning of a wonderful day in Munich, which I’d been touting to Michael for the last several months as a “must-see” stop on our way to Budapest.  What we found was a city center packed with tourists pushing and shoving their way into every tourist attraction within sight as they flipped through their guide books, looking for the next place to go.  Tour groups abounded, traveling in rolling waves akin to fish bait balls. At least fish have a fifth sense that allows them to divert direction or part in the middle if they come upon an immovable object, such as another person.  These tourist groups just bowled on through the crowds.  More than once I felt like the last ten pin standing.

We sought refuge in St. Peter’s, Munich’s oldest church, off the main square to have a gander at the jeweled skeleton of the martyred St. Munditia, allegedly the patron saint of spinsters.

The bejeweled St. Munditia

Below a portion of the sumptuous interior of St. Peter’s Church. The church predates the foundation of Munich in 1158, but the current interior was redone in the baroque style in the 17th century.

The highlight of the bus tour was the Nymphenburg Palace and extensive gardens in western Munich where the tour bus stopped again for the requisite photo op and to allow tourists to hop-on or hop-off.  The elegant palace, commissioned in 1664 by a Bavarian prince, is centered in a loose horse shoe array of pavilions, stables, and an orangerie.
Baroque mansions built by lesser royalty extend the arms of the palace
complex, encircling a man-made lake complete with swans and lily pads.

Nymphenberg Palace

We now regret not taking the opportunity to disembark and take a tour of the palace or at least walk around the famous gardens, but at the time we had just plain had it with the tour, the crowds, the heat and Munich in general and wanted – literally – off the bus. Munich had lost its appeal somewhere between the jeweled skeleton and the palace, and nothing – not even a cold beer at a café – could induce us to stay another minute in the city center.

We departed the next morning for Budapest without returning to the city center for another attempt at sightseeing.  I felt tremendously unsettled by the stopover because I held Munich with such great fondness from my one and only earlier visit as a child, and the previous 24 hours had been a disappointment to say the least.  I guess when you’re eight, the life-sized glockenspiel figurines are all you need to engender a sense of
wonder about a city.

Conclusion:  Munich has a lot to offer, but you should visit Munich in the off-season if you want to avoid the crowds, and if you take a city bus tour, don’t go with the Gray Line hop-on, hop-off outfit.  You’re better off with a good guidebook, map, and a multi-day pass for Munich’s excellent public transportation.

Travel Notes

Because we planned to stay in Munich just one day and night with an early second day departure,  we chose a hotel close to the main train station rather than the “old city” center.  Hotels are also  much cheaper near the station than in the Alstadt, or old city.  For those who want to remain near the train station, I can recommend where we stayed, Best Western-Cristal, 1 ½ blocks from the station.  The neighborhood has zero ambience and amenities but seemed safe enough.  As it turned out, the only two true restaurants – not counting kebab take-out counters and dubious Asian “cuisine” all-you-can-eat buffets – were (surprisingly) in our hotel and the Courtyard Marriott across the street.  We chose the latter
restaurant for its outside garden and Mediterranean menu, not realizing it was part of the hotel, and had an absolutely delightful, well-prepared meal.  Of course, there is no shortage of good restaurants and cafés in the center of Munich as well.

Munich has an excellent public transportation system and it’s easy to use.  Remember that if you hold a Eurail Pass, that will serve as a “ticket”
on the S-Bahn trains (not to be confused with U-Bahn trains) as the Deutsche Bahn national train system owns the S-Bahn as well.  There are also single and multiple day passes one can purchase to use on all forms of public transport.

Artists in Netherlands

(Van Gogh’s painting of an almond tree in bloom.)

Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Escher.  All notable Dutch artists whose talent was recognized in their lifetime (to varying degrees) and whose influence and fame continue to this day.  How is it that a country as small as the Netherlands has managed to produce so many talented artists of such a wide range of productivity and styles?

That is a question I am not prepared to answer or even speculate upon intelligently.  I do know that my two favorite painters happened to be Dutch (Van Gogh and Vermeer), and after seeing the works of several others while in Holland, notably Escher and numerous others from the Haarlem and Utrecht “schools”, I am suitably impressed.

But first, a word of warning.  Since this is foremost a travel blog, and I am nowhere near being an art “critic”, I do not pretend to have any great insight or commentary on the work of any of the artists I mention in this posting.  In other words, the opinions expressed are my own, perhaps uninformed, but to paraphrase Popeye, “I yam what I yam and like what I like.”  I will strive to relate my own experiences and impressions of a few museums and collected works – nothing more.  For any of you more knowledgeable art connoisseurs who would like to comment on what follows, be my guest.  I’d love some input as well as insight.  But these are my impressions, no more.

Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

First off, let me point out that 99.9% of us have been mispronouncing this great artist’s last name. It is not “van go” (as in doe, female deer) but “fan  gkocchk” (or something close to that).  After all, he was Dutch and his name was – naturally – pronounced correctly in that language.  (For those of you new to this blog and/or Dutch, read my earlier posting, “Dutch is a Pirate Language.”)

So it was no surprise that when the “fan gkocchk”  museum was pointed out to us on our bus tour of Amsterdam several moons ago, it took a while to register that the guide was referring to the Van Gogh Museum.  (It was at that point that our English version of the tour conked out on us, hence the brief interlude of Dutch – and confusion – as to what we were craning our necks at out the window.)

Once this rather comical translation mishap was straightened out and we actually got to the Van Gogh Museum, we found the experience worth our while.  Moderately-sized for a museum dedicated to one artist, the VGM  has an excellent collection of Van Gogh’s work.  What was startling to remember is that this artist only painted for about ten years before ending his life at age thirty-seven, and to witness the changes in his work from his early attempts and style to the blazing colors and strokes of his final months was amazing. Even more stunning than Van Gogh’s range of styles was his productivity:  in all, he is estimated to have painted over 900 canvases and 1,100 drawings. Of this body of work, he sold only one painting during his short lifetime.

I was particularly intrigued with his paintings of almond blossoms and other spring-blooming trees that reflect the influence of Japanese art on his style for a short period of time.  Another revelation was that at one time Van Gogh had seriously contemplated following his father into the ministry.  Trying to juxtapose those earlier intentions with his last years in Paris and Arles was a tad disorienting but gave this complexartist an even greater depth than I had realized before.

No display of Van Gogh’s work is complete without some of the colorful,  even splashy canvases from his last 2-3 years.  Sadly, most of his best known canvases are housed in other collections, but there were a couple of sunflowers and wheat fields, and the famous purple irises round out this eclectic collection/display.

Definitely a “must-see” for any lover of Van Gogh’s work.

Vermeer’s Delft

At the other end of the productivity spectrum is Johann Vermeer (1632-1675) who was known in his lifetime as a talented but painstakingly
slow artist.  According to the Vermeer Center in the artist’s home town of  Delft, he produced (an estimated) 40 or so canvases, of which only 35 have survived to this day. Although Vermeer was locally appreciated and sought after during his day, he did not receive world-wide accolades until well into the 19th century and has remained popular ever since. He is now most famous for his painting, Girl With a Pearl Earring, thanks to the novel and movie of the same title.

What makes Vermeer such an incredible artist is his use and conveyance of light in his paintings. The light, usually coming from the left, is both suffuse yet also seems to spotlight the subject.  Many of his portraits, such as the Girl With a Pearl Earring seem incandescent with light.

If you like Vermeer I highly recommend a trip to the Vermeer Center in Delft.  This is not a museum that displays any of his original work.
Instead, there is a gallery of large, quality photographs of each of his
surviving paintings.  The value of seeing each reproduction sequentially is to trace his emerging style and use of light, as well as be able to get an appreciation of how much of his work reflected everyday life in medieval Delft.

I had had my reservations about paying to see just photographs, but in the end I felt I had learned and understood so much more about Vermeer and his work.  The center also has a brief video on his life and times,  exhibits that show contemporary artifacts of Delft, and a reproduction of his studio.  Most interesting was the series of exhibits that detailed his use of light in every aspect from its shading and coloring of human skin to how it both illuminates and reflects from still objects.

The town of Delft itself is delightful.  Ribboned with small canals and traversed by cobbled streets and bridges, Delft is a charming and pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

The main canal in Delft with the flea market on either side.

Delft Town Hall of the Market Square

Houses on a side canal

The House of Escher 

The Escher Museum in den Haag (“The Hague” to the non-Dutch) is housed in one of the former palaces of the Dutch Royal Family.  The high-ceilinged rooms, with their crystal chandeliers spectacularly shaped into carnival masks, guitars, skulls and more, are a beautiful showcase of Escher’s evolving art.

Like most people, I was familiar primarily with Escher’s tessellations.  I emerged from the museum with a greater knowledge of the man and the breadth and depth of his work.  It is impressive.

After viewing the museum, I highly recommend a brief respite at the Hotel des Indes a few yards to the right as you exit the museum.  High tea is served daily in the domed lobby of this elegant hotel, complete with silver service and a timer for proper steeping of the tea leaves.  (You can also  have just plain old “low” tea and/or “spirits” and bar snacks if you prefer.)

The Escher Museum in one of the former Dutch royal palaces.

Hotel des Indes