I’ve always had a fascination of going to places which are unique in their own right, as I’m sure a lot of you have too. One such place was Liechtenstein. Liechtenstein is a tiny country landlocked between Austria and Switzerland smack dab in the middle of Europe.
My fascination with it was that even though I had exhaustively scoured the map for places to go in Europe and that I was right across the border from it in 2008 in Switzerland, I’d never really heard about this tiny country until 6-8 months ago. A place like this was bound to hold some good secrets and places to visit. Google maps’ legend showed that the whole country was a mere 25-30 km across! So, I’ve been to the Vatican, officially being the smallest country and all, but the Vatican doesn’t have a “country” feel to it. Liechtenstein however, did. It’s land area is practically the same as my hometown back in India, but this gives you the whole “tiny country” vibe.
My opportunity came almost immediately! I was to do an internship in Bavaria, Germany this year and Liechtenstein was a simple bus and train ride away! I tried couch-surfing for the first time, and let me tell you it is difficult to get accepted if one doesn’t have prior references from other surfers and you’re just starting out. Fortunately, after many many rejections, an awesome Portuguese guy named Hugo Batista, accepted me as a surfer. He stayed in Feldkirch in Austria, which is about 10 minutes away from the border of Liechtenstein.
So I landed up there, and had a few hours to kill before meeting up with Hugo, so I simply walked around the city. It is a LOVELY place to see, especially the old town. There is an old museum perched on a hill right in the middle where I went to take some dusk shots of the city. Hugo picked me up and we went back to his place, and met up with his flat-mate Verena. They were so hospitable, I can’t tell you how much fun I had. We cooked, we talked, they took me out to a party, met a German-Indian friend of theirs, everything! It was a lit night !
For some reason I’d held this fascination to cross the whole country (Liechtenstein) on a bicycle, as soon as I’d heard about it. It would be one of those personal achievement things. I was assuming that I’d go to Vaduz (the capital city) and rent one there, but it being February, the height of the off-season, I wasn’t so sure I’d get one. Hugo saved the day, by offering his own! I caught a bus heading to Vaduz by around 11:00 and in half an hour I was there. Easy.
But here was the problem. There’s a reason it’s off-season at this time of the year. The weather was absolutely terrible! Low clouds, intermittent rain, close to sub-zero temperatures. I was almost put off by the whole scene and was wondering if this was the right time to see it. I am so glad I went ahead with the plan though, you’ll see why.
I reached Vaduz and headed straight to the tourist office to get some information about what would be the best route to follow on a bike. At the end of the conversation I decided to go from Vaduz, to Triesenberg, to Triesen, to Balzers and back to Vaduz. If I was okay at that point I would continue all the way up to the border with Austria and that was the plan. Turns out, I had seriously underestimated the slopes of Liechtenstein. The road looked reasonably straight to Triesenberg on the map, so I assumed it wouldn’t be that bad, but boy was I wrong. I ended up pushing the bicycle uphill rather than riding it!
I was about 2 km into the 6 km to Triesenberg, when I saw a hiking trail peel off into the woods from the main road. There was a sign there that said that even that led to Triesenberg. And it was closed. But for some reason I had this itch to go check it out. So I flipped for it and, HEADS, I took the trail. Now here it was impossible to cycle up, so I was pushing the whole time. It even started to rain and I was freezing! And as I went higher up the mountain, visibility was reducing with every step. It was less that 5m near the top. The one redeeming factor however was that everywhere I looked, it was breathtakingly beautiful, in an eerie lonely way. I found a mountain stream on the way up and, me being an idiot and having brought no water along, I shoved my face into it.
Two and a half hours later, I arrived at a small village called Fromahus. It was deathly quiet and there was not a single person around. Suddenly there was this strong breeze pushing down into the valley. I parked my bike and found a corner to tuck myself into my jacket, to wait it out. When I looked up, it was one of the most amazing things I’d ever seen. The clouds had been pushed down into the Rhine Valley below and cleared up at the level I was at. I was above the clouds! It was stunning! I just sat there gaping till I remembered I had a camera.
I was in agony because of the climb uphill and I was practically begging for it to end. When it did, I plopped my self on the sidewalk and nearly cried with happiness. A cat came out of nowhere to play for a little bit while I rested. I named her Ms. Orangey.
So, here’s the best part! After all that effort I was now on top of the mountain. It was a sharp descent on the main road down to Triesen, filled with twists, hairpin bends and unreasonable heights to fall through at the edges of the road. I did the only natural thing. Ride down a 35-40 degree slope at breakneck speeds, with the frozen air eating into my face and the rain making it impossible to keep my eyes open fully 😀 It was one of the bigger rushes I’ve felt in life, I’ll admit. A speed camera caught me and it turns out I was doing 60 km/h at one point! Damn that was fun. But it ended all too quickly, sadly. I was back down in the valley before I knew it.
My aim now was to hit the southern tip of Liechtenstein, at its border with Switzerland. This was around 10km away. I followed the river till I reached Balzers and turned to the road leading out-of-town. I was exhausted and even tempted to catch a bus back to Vaduz, but I stuck it out and made it! I literally just sat there for half an hour doing nothing and breathing hard. Have you ever been in the condition where you’re frozen solid and sweating at the same time? It’s a very weird state to be in.
The tough part now was the way back. I had to bike another 13 km all the way back to Vaduz. My wrists were killing me from holding the handlebars, my extremities were frozen enough to start hurting, I was soaked through my jeans because of the rain and now my jacket was starting to let in water. Fortunately for me, it was now a straight road back.
I passed so many signs talking about a McDonald’s nearby and that was all that was keeping me going, to be honest. I hadn’t had breakfast or lunch and I was STARVING. And wouldn’t you know it, it turns out that the road I’d taken left it behind almost a whole kilometer back. I had to choose between heading back to Vaduz (1.5 km) and going backwards by 1 km for McD and then back again to Vaduz which would have made it a 2.5 km trip.
It was one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever made, but I decided to head back. My plan to bike all the way up to the border was not even under consideration anymore. I was lucky enough to make it to the bus station just in time for the next bus back to Feldkirch. I know it wasn’t border to border, but that’s how I biked across a whole country.(-ish)