The first thing I learned upon arriving in Liechtenstein, the tiny, Alpine principality sandwiched between Switzerland and Austria, was that I’d been pronouncing it all wrong. It’s not the hard, Germanic -ch of “Ach!”—though German is the official language. Nor is it the silky Swiss of “chalet” that I heard in Zurich airport. It’s much subtler: the gentle, aspirant rasp of “chutzpah.” Leechhh-ten-shtein.
The second thing I learned was that the sunscreen I’d so responsibly bought for my three-day trek on the Liechtenstein Trail, which meanders 47 miles from the Swiss border in the southwest to the Austrian border in the northeast, passing through all 11 of the country’s municipalities, would be of little use: It was going to rain. A lot. Every day. A group of exhausted hikers from Philadelphia whom I met in the capital, Vaduz, the day before I hit the trail, said the wet conditions had made their hike far more challenging than expected and warned me about the perilous, muddy descents.
But on the first day of the trek, descents were not my problem. The beginning seven miles of the trail, starting outside the town of Balzers, are fairly flat, and as I shouldered my day pack and set out into the light drizzle, I felt sure I was up for the challenge. Yes, I was 53 years old, and hadn’t hiked more than three or four miles at a time in decades. And yes, I could dimly see, through heavy fog, that night’s stopping place: the village of Triesenberg, some 1,500 feet up what looked like a vertical ridge. But I wasn’t going to let a little rain get in the way of an adventure I’d dreamed of for years. More importantly, my suitcase was already in Triesenberg. One way or another, I’d have to haul myself up the ridge.
My love of solo travel did not get off to an auspicious start. At 19, I was lucky enough to spend a summer studying in Paris. On the first night, a mix-up with lodgings landed me in a cheap hotel somewhere on the Left Bank and, though I’d been wildly excited about my first trip to Europe, I cried myself to sleep. It wasn’t homesickness or even loneliness per se, but a kind of existential aloneness, a sudden apprehension of how large the world is, and how tiny my place in it.
I spent much of my 20s seeking out places no one I knew had ever gone, draining my meager savings for solo trips to Belize, Mexico, India, Nepal, Bolivia. At 28, I sold everything I owned and moved to Cusco, Peru, where I lived for most of the next two years. I learned to expect, even enjoy, that initial shock of aloneness, that feeling of floating in space, untethered from everything and everyone I knew. I savored the slow struggle of orientation, the sense of accomplishment as I learned my way around unfamiliar places, until the day I’d wake up and realize I no longer felt lost. By the time I moved back to the United States, I felt sure there was no place in the world I couldn’t travel to on my own. But my 30s brought my first full-time teaching job, my 40s marriage, fatherhood, homeownership. The days of ditching it all to hop on the next flight seemed long gone.
So when I learned about the Liechtenstein Trail, which was inaugurated in 2019 to celebrate the country’s tricentennial, I quickly became obsessed. There seemed to me something make-believe about Liechtenstein, the sixth smallest country in the world, with an area of just over 60 square miles and a population of 39,000, comparable to that of the university where I teach—something Brigadoon-like. I saw myself hopping a Swiss bus to the border, hiking over snowy mountain passes, clinking schnapps glasses with tall, ruddy Liechtensteiners. The problem was that the self I saw in these visions was 20 years younger. Did I still have what it takes?
Balzers sits across the Rhine from the Swiss town of Sargans. Its most visible landmark is the 13th-century Gutenberg Castle, which juts 200 feet up from pastureland like a chalk-white pylon, visible in better weather from Vaduz, five miles to the north. From the trailhead, I walked briskly along the Swiss–Liechtenstein border, stopping every so often to check the route on LIstory, an app that was developed to accompany hikers of the Liechtenstein Trail and teach them about 147 “points of interest” along the way, amounting to something of a history lesson about central Europe from the Middle Ages to today. I reached Gutenberg Castle in less than an hour and stopped to rest within the walls of the bailey, steep mountains thrusting into low clouds all around me.
The castle, which for centuries belonged to the Habsburgs before falling into disrepair in the 18th century, can only be entered by prior appointment—no matter, I thought, as LIstory promises an augmented reality tour of the interior. What LIstory cannot promise, however, is a reliable cell signal, and the app only “unlocks” a point of interest when it detects a hiker’s proximity. For 10 frustrating minutes, I moved around the castle, standing on benches and waving my phone at the sky, in a vain attempt to connect. When a new spatter of rain moved in, I gave up, downed an energy bar, and went on my soggy way. (The newest version of LIstory allows hikers to manually unlock points of interest.)
The rest of the morning was more of a pleasant ramble than a hike, the chilly weather propelling me past a 9th-century grain mill and a woodland shrine to 200 accused witches executed in the 17th century. Outside of the town of Triesen, I stopped for lunch in the wildflower-strewn saddleland of the Matilaberg nature preserve, where at any moment I expected Julie Andrews to come twirling over the nearest hilltop. I’d made good time so far, but I could feel the steep ascent looming; Triesenberg itself was no longer visible, shrouded in heavy clouds. The farther I got from the river, the more remote my surroundings seemed. An old man with hiking poles tottered past in the other direction and greeted me in German, the first human interaction I’d had since hopping off the bus from Vaduz that morning. The app suggested I had roughly a two-hour climb ahead of me—but then again, the app didn’t seem to know where I was anymore.
The ascent began in earnest at the St. Mamertus Chapel, a small, austere church with frescoes dating to the 14th or 15th century. The real rain began about 10 minutes later.
Before long, the paved road and small vineyards gave way to gravel tracks winding through steep hillside pastures. The Rhine Valley, invitingly green under its ceiling of heavy clouds, was suddenly far below me. After stopping to put on my flimsy rain parka, I flung myself into the woods, pushing my legs and lungs to carry me up the narrowing, muddy path where jutting tree roots provided traction on the tight switchbacks.
Forty strenuous minutes later, I emerged from the forest to find myself face to face with a dozen inquisitive llamas, part of a herd kept by local farmers who offer treks and fondue parties. By now I was soaked and shivering, but the app—on which my little red dot once again gleamed jauntily—said I had just over a mile to go.
Shortly before 5 p.m., I squelched my way into Triesenberg, population 2,600. After a quick change into dry clothes, I found dinner on a covered terrace and watched the sun set over the sodden valley, then lay down in my narrow hotel bed, congratulated myself for completing the first day, and refreshed the weather forecast. More rain. The town outside was silent. As I drifted off, I reflected that there were only a handful of people in the world who had any idea where I was. I was alone in one of the most remote places I’d ever been. And I liked it that way.
It’s part of the beauty of the trail. You might see more cows than people.
“Liechtenstein isn’t a place for mass tourism and will probably never be. And it wouldn’t work on the trail, anyway,” said Nicole Thöny, a project manager at Liechtenstein Marketing, the mainly government-funded agency that developed the Liechtenstein Trail. In 2017, in anticipation of the tricentennial, her group began mapping out a route that would link segments of Liechtenstein’s 400 kilometers of hiking trails, to showcase the beauty and culture of the entire country. The original idea was for a marathon-length trail: 42 kilometers. But municipal officials and local historians had other ideas, Thöny told me. “They said, well, the trail has to lead next to this church, next to this mountain and hill. And so, in the end, it was 75 kilometers.”
The push to draw tourists to Liechtenstein proved prescient when the pandemic began. The trail had been open less than a year, but it soon became clear that for Liechtensteiners, as well as Swiss and Germans, it was one of the best remaining recreation options. For local hotels and restaurants, it kept at least a trickle of business coming in. By the summer of 2020, tourism had made a perceptible rebound. Three years later, according to Martin Knöpfler, who led the team that designed the trail, hotel occupancy is 30 percent higher than it was before the trail opened.
Because the trail is free and registration isn’t required, there’s no way to know how many people have hiked it. (Liechtenstein Marketing sells travel packages that include hotels, meals, and luggage transfers, but this represents only a fraction of people making the trek.) In Vaduz, the tourist center keeps a book that hikers can sign when they’ve finished the trail; my Philadelphia friends were numbers 259–262, a tiny number considering that the trail has been open for four years.
“It’s part of the beauty of the trail,” Thöny said of the modest head count. “You might see more cows than people.”
At 6 a.m., the church bells of Triesenberg went crazy. They didn’t ring 6 times, or 60—the volley of clamorous, manic peals lasted nearly 10 minutes. Disoriented and exhausted, I lurched to the window, looked out into a dim potato soup through which only the silhouette of a church’s bell tower was visible, and wondered if the world was coming to an end.
Later that morning, I groped my way out of town through curtains of fog and a silence broken only by wind chimes and goat bells. Triesenberg was settled in the 1300s by the migrant Walser people, whose presence can still be felt in that high, ghostly forest: life-sized woodcarvings that lurk among the trees, disused farming cabins clustered in lonesome meadows. The rain wasn’t falling so much as seeping; through the trees, I caught occasional glimpses of the valley as the fog stretched like cotton candy and tore apart. At midmorning, I stopped to explore the ruins of the Wildschloss or “Wild Castle,” a 12th-century fortress that juts over the valley, before continuing the 2,100-foot descent to Vaduz Castle and the capital.
Though construction of Vaduz Castle began in the 13th century, the House of Liechtenstein did not make it their home until the mid-20th, when the Nazi absorption of Austria drove them from their ancestral seat in Vienna. The castle perches halfway up the mountainside, visible but remote from Vaduz, and is closed to the public. Visitors can view it via another augmented reality tour on LIstory or wait until August 15, Liechtenstein National Day, when the current prince, Hans-Adam II, invites the public for a drink in his royal rose gardens.
Down below, much of the trail’s 3.3-mile loop through Vaduz is devoted to the prince and his family. There’s the art museum, a substantial portion of whose collection comes from the royal family’s holdings; St. Florin’s Cathedral, with a crypt in which several royals are buried; and the Princely Vineyard, encompassing 10 acres of pinot noir and chardonnay vines, a high-end restaurant, and a tasting room. I’d spent three days in Vaduz before setting off on the trail, so I’d already visited these sites; now, coming down from the castle, I felt a quirky sort of pride: I knew this city, I’d walked its streets and ridden its buses. I was hardly a tourist anymore—Ich bin ein Liechtensteiner! But I had eight miles still to cover that day, so I wound quickly through the prim streets, past ancient, weathered barns and green-shuttered stucco houses covered in ivy, and plunged back into the woods.
It was midafternoon when the sun finally peeked out. The trail had again tilted sharply upward, a thousand-foot climb to the village of Planken, and at some point the app had lost track of me completely. A missing signpost or two later, I’d gotten lost on a logging road for half an hour before backtracking. The brio that had propelled me for the first 22 miles was flagging—I was impatient to get to Nendeln, where I would spend the night, so I walked without stopping past the site of an attempted Nazi coup in 1939, a ridge where Swiss troops ambushed Habsburg forces in 1499, and a nunnery built by the Adorers of the Blood of Christ. From Planken, the app said it was less than two miles to Nendeln, close enough to induce fantasies of the beer waiting for me at my hotel.
It was in Planken that I experienced the most spectacular views of the entire trail. The sky was a wispy, milky blue, and the valley with its tidy fields ran lush and green to the river and the Swiss Alps on the other side. But days of rain had turned twisting, precipitous trails into muddy flumes, and washed away the flat rocks by which hikers could cross several cascading streams. In a few places where the slope dropped sharply to one side of the path, rope was stretched between trees to provide a handhold—but the ground was smeared out and more than once I found myself flailing wildly for the rope when my feet flew out beneath me. At 23 I would have found this thrilling. I would have laughed as I plunged shin-deep into a treacherous stream and taken pride in the layer of mud that streaked my clothes and face, the twigs caught in my hair, when I arrived in Nendeln 90 minutes later. At 53, I was just happy to have completed the descent without injury and grateful for the hot shower in my hotel room.
Then, too, there was the beer.
Two years ago, responding to the growing popularity of e-bikes, Knöpfler and his team began developing an alternate, bike-friendly route, which necessitated new signage along the trail and a rebuild of the LIstory app. The new route makes the trail more accessible to older or less-fit hikers and to those with less time for the trek. “But I think you have a deeper experience when you do it on foot,” Knöpfler confided to me.
With over 20 miles left to cover, I didn’t think I’d be able to finish in time, so on my last morning I rented an e-bike in the village of Eschen and zoomed back out into the countryside. The skies were still gloomy but the air was warming, and the ease with which I mounted the rolling hills of Güediga, where the medieval Counts of Vaduz had their gallows, was exhilarating. But I’d found a rhythm over those first two long days of walking, and as I pedaled through the villages of Bendern and Ruggell and out through the peat bogs and waving purple moor grass of the Ruggeller Riet, I missed the amble through the countryside, the ability to see things from far off and have time to really think about them before I passed. I had to remind myself to slow down, to make frequent stops, so as to fully experience what I was seeing.
Liechtensteiners refer to the northern part of the country as the Unterland, for its relative flatness. Long trail sections on the banks of the Rhine and, to the east, along the base of Schellenberg Hill, benefit from this easier terrain, and I powered down the e-bike to enjoy the mild breeze and the abundant flowers. But when the long climb toward the Upper Castle began, rising almost 900 feet in 2.5 miles, I cycled up to turbo mode, covering in 20 minutes what would have taken an arduous 90 minutes on foot.
The Upper Castle, built in the 13th century by the Lords of Schellenberg, is the indisputable highlight of this final segment, a jagged ruin spread across a craggy hilltop with views of the valley and of Austria to the north. It’s easily accessed by car, and when I finally arrived, a family was picnicking near the entrance, a handful of tourists wandering the castle’s inner wards taking selfies—more people than I’d seen in three days. I was tempted to feel grouchy, proprietary, having grown accustomed to the solitude. But the weather had suddenly turned beautiful, a sheet of pastry-puff clouds slanting over the valley, so I sat on an 800-year-old stone wall, munched my last energy bar, and turned off the app.
Liechtenstein is one of the least-visited countries in the world, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization. Fewer than 80,000 people a year make the trip, and now I was one of them. I’d covered virtually the whole country, from south to north, stopped at 147 points of interest (most of them, anyway), braved downpours and mudslides and glitchy apps to get to this medieval fortress in Europe’s secret heart. I was actually pleased that the trek hadn’t gone too smoothly—the mishaps forced me to fall back on my instincts, make some mistakes, do things how I had in my 20s, before GPS and smart phones. I’d proved something to myself, and though I was looking forward to getting home and seeing my family, part of me was eager to find the next trail.
But the day was getting late, the last fog glittering as it pulled slowly off the mountainside. I had one more descent to make, five miles left to cover, so when the wind picked up and the sun slid behind a cloud, I hopped on the e-bike and set out on a harrowing ride down to Mauren, then an easy sprint to Schaanwald, to the nearly deserted border post where the trail, and the country, end.