Small people of the world, breathe easy. This isn’t about you, although one of the characters in the story seems to treat some of his own people in a small way. Despite the leading photo, it’s not about making models, or tiny things like viruses or atoms, or anything of that nature. It’s about Liechtenstein.
What the heck is a Liechtenstein, you might ask. No, it’s not a style of German beer mug. We’re talking small, remember? Liechtenstein is a country. A very small country – 62 square miles. By contrast, the smallest American state, Rhode Island, has 1,045 square miles. At 37,000 its population is nothing to write home about either (although in a sense I’m writing home about it now…)
We passed through this international midget one cloudy day when our itinerary routed us through four countries: starting in Lucerne, Switzerland, a pit stop in Vaduz, Liechtenstein, over to Castle Neuschwanstein in Germany for a quick tour, and finishing in Innsbruck, Austria. I’m not sure I’ve even been in that many states in one day, much less countries.
Although it’s a puny little country, there was excitement to look forward to. This (naturally small) furor was centered around a small building, looking all the world like an information kiosk. But we weren’t after information, we were after – a passport stamp!
One side effect of the European Union is that you can cross member country borders without so much as a passport inspector, much less the opportunity to add stamps to your passport. These stamps add a certain je ne sais quoi to our status as international travelers. Or at least makes our passport books look like they’re not carried by some newbie travelers that might get lost crossing the street. That nondescript kiosk contained a couple talented multi taskers – they could both give information and offer passport stamps, for a small fee of course.
By some measures, Liechtenstein has the highest gross domestic product per person in the world, and one of the lowest unemployment rates in the world at 1.5%. Perhaps its unemployment rate is so low as it has over 73,000 companies registered there; that’s about two companies for each person. No wonder those kiosk guys were such good multi taskers.
The real reason for all those companies is the banking and tax situation. Think “Swiss Bank Account”, and make it even more attractive for stashing cash. Add to that low corporate tax rates and you have quite the haven for paper companies. If the place wasn’t so landlocked you could call it an offshore tax shelter.
Liechtenstein is a constitutional monarchy, headed by the Prince of Liechtenstein. Prince Hans-Adam II surely gets a cut of all that cash, he’s the wealthiest world leader in Europe and the 6th wealthiest monarch in the world. This has enabled him to acquire a respectable art collection. Our guide told us that the prince wanted a museum to house some of that art, so he got private donors to build him one (despite his billions). He did contribute some paintings, and ultimately the museum and the paintings were given to the principality.
One side note about the museum: according to Wikipedia the building is architected black box style, with river pebbles embedded in the building’s exterior to provide a subtle coloration, forming a link to the landscape of the Rhine Valley. Perhaps these are some of those same lucky pebbles I referred to in Rhineos.
This was all the backdrop for our pit stop in Vaduz. It was a quiet little town, walking the main promenade didn’t take more than 10-15 minutes. It’s a pretty high-class place. Even the urinals at our pit stop where sculpted out of granite. That, plus getting our passport stamp from a don’t blink or you’ll miss it country, gave us that elusive je ne sais quoi feeling as we headed off for our rendezvous with King Ludwig’s castle.