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Liechtenstein: Tiny jewel of the Alps

  • The world’s sixth smallest country, turned 300 this year
  • A food trail through the capital Vaduz packs big flavours

Two-thirds of Liechtenstein is covered by the Alps
Two-thirds of Liechtenstein is covered by the Alps (Photo: Neeta Lal)

Wedged between Switzerland and Austria, Liechtenstein is so tiny that the country doesn’t have an airport. The 160 sq. km microstate is like a tiny bowl located amid the mountains, the milky white Rhine gurgling through its Vincent van Gogh-esque landscapes.

Adding to its Thumbelina-like size is its fairy-tale setting with medieval castles, plunging valleys, stunning art and architecture, delicious cuisine, friendly citizens and a prince who jogs around town saying “hoi" to people.

Interestingly, the pint-sized nation is one of the world’s richest countries. Ruled by a constitutional monarch, it is a favoured haunt of European aristocrats, who flock there to de-stress and wine and dine in an Alpine setting.

When I visit in June, the country, created in 1719, is in the midst of celebrations marking its 300 years. With festivities all around, and hotels, B&Bs and local restaurants offering attractive deals on food and wines to visitors, it is a great time to visit.

Food stalls beneath Vaduz Castle
Food stalls beneath Vaduz Castle (Photo: Neeta Lal)

Though compact, thanks to the sort of visitors it draws, the capital Vaduz is packed with attractive dining options, including Michelin-star eateries, wineries, rustic diners and bustling cafés. The city’s young and creative chefs headline local produce in their dishes, drawing upon European and Alpine influences, yet shining with a personality of their own.

Vaduz is easy to navigate on foot, with most attractions—like the National Museum, Vaduz Castle, the Postal Museum, the Treasure Chamber and an array of art galleries—and dining establishments located in close proximity. Starting right at the centre of Vaduz, I visit the Brasserie Burg, its colourful awning and al fresco seating radiating a fun vibe. The food matches the atmosphere, with stone-oven-baked pizzas, a smorgasbord of salads, sandwiches, burgers, pastas and gelatos, as well as Swiss and Italian delicacies.

It takes me 15 minutes to survey the eatery’s encyclopaedic menu and order. Twenty minutes later, an eminently Instagrammable quattro sagioni pizza and a saffron risotto arrive. The pizza, laden with a cargo of artichokes, tomatoes, basil, mushrooms, prosciutto and olives, melts in the mouth. The creamy risotto is redolent with the fragrance of saffron. I cap the meal with a pistachio gelato, so rich that just thinking about it makes my mouth water.

“Ours is an ingredient-driven cuisine," the chef tells me when I compliment him on the food. “We keep the flavours clean and simple, with fresh, local produce forming the bedrock for our dishes. Liechtenstein is the only country that is located entirely in the Alpine massif. This is where the western and eastern Alps meet to create a perfect terroir for cultivation of vegetables, fruits and wines."

Clean and simple flavours are also what underpin the food of chef Hubertus Real. The restaurateur’s eatery Restaurant Marée, with one Michelin star and three toques from Gault Millau, is located in the Park Hotel Sonnenhof, on a plateau overlooking the Alps.

Perched on a hill close by is the charming, 12th-century Vaduz Castle. It has been home to the royal family of Liechtenstein since 1712, I am informed.

The architecture of the Sonnenhof (owned by Real’s family) is a mix of traditional Alpine style with contemporary and avant-garde elements, pretty much like its food, which is inspired by nature.

Unsurprisingly, the food has found resonance with celebrities, evident from a wall of photographs inside the restaurant that portray the chef posing with Queen Silvia and King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, Queen Fabiola of Belgium, members of the royal family of Monaco, the Grand Duke of Luxembourg and his family, and heads of state from various countries, including Vladimir Putin of Russia.

I begin my five-course feast with a marinated char, cucumber-wasabi stew and jellied melon. The dish creates a canvas of brilliant flavours—sweet, sour, umami. Up next is a “symphony" of chanterelles, cream of roasted eggplant with half-dried tomato topped with basil. The pairing is a stroke of genius, I think, finishing up every last bit on my plate.

The dish that wins my heart is the fillet of black hake served with Italian veggies, lemon sauce and candied orange. The chef tells me the fish is a member of the cod family. “Hake has a mild flavour and delicate texture which makes it a popular seafood choice across Europe," he explains.

In the next dish, medallions of preserved summer venison are served with pickled cherries, celery purée, purple crisps and butter spaetzle. The wondrous play of texture and colour in the dish makes for a fitting finale to a fabulous meal.

Those who like to hike can make an excursion to Alp Sücka, an inn located on a vertiginous mountain in the municipality of Triesenberg. John Gilmore, a local restaurateur who has walked the 10km trail over a dozen times, tells me: “Visitors can experience rural Alpine life there, watching cattle drives, the milking of cows, feeding of pigs. The food on offer includes a delicious assortment of homemade cheeses, including suara käes (a naturally non-fat cheese), emmental, and traditional Swiss cheese made from the milk of Alpine cows." Don’t forget to wash it all down with Käse Knöpfle, the famous spiked apple cider, he advises.

Culinary traditions are highly respected in Liechtenstein, and, every year, Prince Hans-Adam II, the head of state, and his son Prince Alois invite everyone up to the castle. People nip up to the beautiful Vaduz Castle to mingle with the royal family and enjoy pints of beer with local snacks. During Christmas, an atmospheric market pops up in the main square in front of Town Hall. One of the largest in Europe, with over 100 booths, it has visitors strolling through the picturesque Old Town, shopping for handicrafts while enjoying regional delicacies and warm mulled wine.

Zurab Tsereteli’s exhibition at the National Museum in Vaduz
Zurab Tsereteli’s exhibition at the National Museum in Vaduz (Photo: Neeta Lal)

Nobody does ceremonial dinners like Vaduz either. On the last day of my trip, I visit Russian-Georgian artist Zurab Tsereteli’s exhibition—Personalities—at the National Museum. The show by the octogenarian artist, whose monumental works are installed all over the world, drew in crowds of international guests: diplomats, company heads and top artists. We admire the artworks while enjoying excellent cheeses made by local farmers and wines from regional vineyards.

The Hotel Gasthof Löwen sit-down dinner featuring local delicacies and home-grown wines
The Hotel Gasthof Löwen sit-down dinner featuring local delicacies and home-grown wines (Photo: Neeta Lal)

After the event, guests are bundled into cars and transported to Hotel Gasthof Löwen for a sit-down dinner. Built in 1380 and restored in the 1980s, this is Liechtenstein’s oldest hotel. Stunningly laid out tables with candles and flowers await us in a beautiful garden overlooking the hotel’s own vineyard. The multiple-course meal consists of Swiss and Austrian delicacies, paired with local wines. There’s escalope of veal with fresh chanterelles in a light herb cream sauce; samlet fish fillet pan-fried with herbs; black tiger prawns with mango-chilli chutney served with sesame rice; and homemade basil lemon sherbet with Prosecco.

As we dine and wine, Russian opera singers regale us with traditional songs. There’s singing, dancing, and many toasts. I breathe in the fresh Alpine air, chinwag with the locals and enjoy the flavours that dance on my palate long after my sojourn has come to an end.

Neeta Lal is a Delhi-based editor and journalist who writes on food, travel, arts, culture and people.

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