What a country!
Some places seem to attract people who give rise to serendipity. I hoped that Liechtenstein would be one of those. At the campsite just outside Vaduz, there is a wide mix of nationalities and storytellers all: a Scottish family, a South African of Liechtensteiner parentage and the wild-haired, handle-bar moustachioed character standing in front of me now, peering through bottle thick lenses while I sit over my morning coffee outside the camper van. The sun is rising over the mountains on the other side of the valley and he cuts a striking figure silhouetted against this backdrop. Somewhere on the wrong side of sixty, the man has a suitcase on wheels, more suited to plane travel than hiking. He and the lady he describes as his “girlfriend” travel light. Just the flight-bag and small backpacks. I ask where he is from but he just shrugs.
“I am a citizen of the world; I have lived so many places. Now I live in London. I was born in Belarus. I served in the Russian Army for a while. Do you know the only country in Europe to still have the death penalty? Belarus!”
He has tales to tell of the Red Army, describing how soldiers were made to run, with bare torso, but heavy backpacks, in temperatures down to minus twenty. Many contracted pneumonia. In Moscow, he complains, there are no Russians. Everyone has an accent; Tartars, Georgians, Armenians and scores of others, from deepest Asia to the shores of the Baltic. He learns that we have come from Slovakia, smiles wryly and confides, “When Hitler invaded Poland from the north, they came from the south. And then when the Russians came they welcomed them!”
His girlfriend arrives back from her shower and they tramp off towards the mountains, heading for Italy.
Liechtenstein is a member of a federation of small countries. They even have their own Olympics. You must have a population of fewer than one million to be a member. We had driven through Vaduz on the way to the campsite, but I had just thought that it was another of those quaint little towns with a castle on a hill. The mountains are on a grand scale, but the rest of the “little and large” country, like the capital city, compensate by way of a clean, Lilliputian charm. Like the Tyrol, the chalet style houses seem overly large, but the border post was tiny. We spent a great day just driving up a mountain to where the road finished.
Liechtenstein has the claim to fame of being a world leader: the number one exporter of… dentures! Judging by the apparent affluence, people do probably live long and healthy lives. The rarely exported wines here are, apparently, excellent. At eighteen euro’s for the cheapest, people probably can’t afford to shorten their lives by over-indulging anyway. That, along with the clear alpine air no doubt conspires to give people every chance of enjoying their excellent dentures, in turn creating a booming industry for the younger generation. It is a beautiful landscape and was indeed the begetter of encounters. What a country!