In 1992, I did a summer exchange in Thurgau, in northern Switzerland. One weekend as we drove south to a family member’s birthday party, my host father pointed out Liechtenstein from the highway. For 21 years, I’ve regretted being too shy to ask if we could take a detour so I could collect a new country. On Saturday, I crossed that river.
The teensy principality of Liechenstein takes up an area less than the size of the District of Columbia, between Switzerland and Austria. I imagine it would be somewhat larger than D.C. if you smushed it flat, because it’s got a lot of mountains. Most of the people are in the flat bits along the Rhine, which forms the western border of the country.
Now that I’ve been there, I can report that Liechtenstein looks a lot like Switzerland. It’s got mountains and yellow “Wanderweg” signs showing the foot paths. The people speak German and use Swiss Francs. My lunch was a plate of delectable goulash (made, the menu assured me, from Swiss or Liechtensteinisch meat) and spätzle, a true gift of the Alpine peoples to our world’s cuisine.
But here’s one way to know you’re not in Switzerland: buy a stamp. This country of 37,000 has been issuing its own since 1912. Buying stamps is one of the major tourist events in Liechtenstein. As is the postal museum.
The museum is about the size of a postage stamp. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself.) It’s so tiny, it closes for an hour at lunchtime. The permanent exhibit has, as you’d imagine, a lot of stamps, mounted on vertical drawers that you can pull out to survey all of Liechtenstein’s 101-year postal history, from the stamps of the 1910s that just had the head of the prince, to later ones with beautiful portraits of local wildlife.
I particularly enjoyed this envelope that was sent to Brazil by airship. I learned recently in an exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum that airships once seemed like a good way to travel, and they paid their costs in part by carrying mail. The Hindenburg, which was featured in that exhibit, was the largest flying post office ever.
This letter traveled on a somewhat less dramatic airship, the Graf Zeppelin. It flew regular flights between Germany and Brazil in the 1930s. It stopped running after the Hindenburg exploded and everyone freaked out about using hydrogen to lift airships. And rightly so, if you ask me.
Also, I learned the background of a symbol I’d known for years but never thought about. The post offices in Switzerland and thereabouts are associated with a curly little horn, like this.
See, for example, the logo of Austria’s postal service. Well, now I know: Postal carriers used those horns to let people in remote, rural, mountainous communities know that now would be a good time to bring out the letters.
That rural mountain bus service evolved into the incredible rural bus network that Switzerland and Liechtenstein have now. It’s as punctual as the stereotypes would lead one to expect in this part of the world and it integrates with the train system. In fact, I used it to get to Liechtenstein myself. I bought a ticket from Zurich to Vaduz, the capital of Liechtenstein. I got off the train at Buchs, in Switzerland. After a few minutes, a very bright green Liechtenstein Postbus pulled up, and a few minutes after that I was standing in the main plaza of Vaduz. (In two hours of travel, I should note, no one checked my ticket.)
Also totally charming, by the way, was a collection of postcards from the early years of the postal service (and some from earlier–before 1912, I believe Liechtenstein’s post was handled by Austria). I love the pig, which is wishing you luck. In French.
One note: If you do visit, it may be somewhat less informative if you don’t speak (or, more importantly, read) German. I asked if there was anything written in English, but the woman working that day said the English materials were being printed. At least, I think that’s what she said.