A museum trail through Liechtenstein reveals wealth of treasures
Nestling in the Upper Rhine valley of the Swiss Alps, between Austria and Switzerland, Liechtenstein is the world's sixth smallest country. With an area of just 160 sqkm, and 35,000 residents, the landlocked Alpine nation is dwarfed by its doughtier European neighbours.
But don't be fooled by its petite size. The charming country holds a myriad enchantments in its bowels. Think spectacularly placed, Disney-esque Gothic castles set along lush, snow-capped mountains, meadows of pretty wild flowers; skiing and snowboarding in winter, hiking/mountain climbing amid pine-scented air in summer, delicious cuisine, friendly locals and a prince who jogs around town wishing you hoi! Oh, and did we mention the fauna - deer, chamois, ibex, eagles, mountain hares, and the distinguishable marmot.
However, for lovers of history, art and culture, Liechtenstein holds a special allure. Art galleries, public art and museums pepper the country like confetti. Capital city Vaduz, which sits on the valley floor, hosts only 5,000 people, but is an open-air museum with art lurking around every corner. No sooner do I land here - by train from Zurich (Liechtenstein has no airport), I'm smitten by its pretty cobblestoned, pedestrianised streets lined with striking art, spiffy hotels, slick office buildings and aesthetic boutiques.
At least a dozen local museums showcase both contemporary and modern art. I start with the flagship National Museum, a treasure trove of exhibits related to archaeology, history, art, culture as well as the natural history of Liechtenstein drawing upon 3,000 exhibits across 40 galleries.
The best part? I have as my guide the affable Museum Director Professor Dr Rainer Vollkommer who is driven by his passion to put Liechtenstein on the global cultural map. As I explore the tastefully done, multi-tiered museum, with a well-stocked souvenir shop at the ground floor, I'm impressed by its offerings - paintings (some of which cover entire walls), towering sculptures, animal trophies and rare antiques reflecting the staggering wealth and craftsmanship of the nation born in 1797.
I also get a sneak peek into the lifestyle of the Liechtenstein royalty, the gifts they received from other heads of state and the opulent bric-a-brac that embellished their palatial homes over centuries. But most importantly, the museum is a lesson in the unique history of how such a pint-sized country was able to maintain its autonomy through the Middle Ages and two World Wars through excellent bilateral relations with its neighbours. Like Switzerland, Liechtenstein maintains an official foreign policy of neutrality and does not even keep a standing army.
"The National Museum's building dates back to 1438 when it used to house the princely tavern, custom house and the seat of the government," explains Dr Vollkommer, who organises exhibitions in synergy with leading world museums like the Moscow Museum of Modern Art, Museum of Modern Art, New York and many others.
Renovation in 1998-2008 saw the National Museum expand with the addition of a segment displaying works of top global artists. In this section, I view Personalities, an exhibition by legendary Georgian-Russian artist Zurab Konstantinovich Tsereteli.
It includes monumental sculptures, paintings and drawings by the 84-year-old artist who is the President of the Russian Academy of Arts, Goodwill Ambassador of UNESCO, and has been bestowed the Chevalier of the National Order of the Legion of Honor (France). The works - bold and vibrant - effectively capture the neo-classical artist's folksy and fabulous style.
If the National Museum is the showstopper among Vaduz's museums, the Treasure Chamber (opened in 2015) can only be described as a crown jewel. Under the heading The Principality, the World and Outer Space, it brings under one roof exhibits belonging to the Princes of Liechtenstein and other private collectors.
"With over 800 years of tradition, the Princely Family of Liechtenstein is not only one of the oldest ruling families in the world but also the owner of one of the world's oldest and continually expanding collections dating back over 400 years," explains Dr Vollkommer, as I gawk at paintings by the Old Masters, an array of arms, bejewelled weapons, hunting knives and gifts presented by kings and emperors, such as Frederick the Great and Emperor Joseph II, to the Princes of Liechtenstein.
The most exquisite are the chamber's collection of Easter eggs - the most diverse of their kind in the world - and, in particular, a selection of Russian Easter eggs from tsarist times. I rub my eyes in disbelief at the intricate enamel craftsmanship of the famous Apple Blossom Egg by Karl Fabergé, golden Easter eggs created by other famous goldsmiths, such as Pavel Akimovitch Ovtchinnikov and Alexander Edvard Tillander, gold and silver Easter eggs and a number of "Tsar and Tsarina Eggs".
The chamber also houses lunar rocks from the Apollo 11 and Apollo 17 missions as well as Liechtensteinnational flags, which were carried on the first and last manned flights to the moon. These were given to the principality as a token of gratitude for the help provided to NASA by the Liechtenstein-based company Balzers AG, which, at the time, specialised in vacuum technology and supplied protective coatings for the space rockets.
It is only befitting that in a country referred to as a "Postage Stamp Country", a Postage Stamp Museum holds pride of place. The only one of its kind, it is a must visit for ardent philatelists keen to delve into history and culture.
Established in 1936 by Liechtenstein Consul H. W. Sieger, an avid stamp collector who donated his own philatelic collection to create it, the museum stocks antique stamps, original designs, engraving plates and print proofs along with exchange stamps of the Universal Postal Union countries. A historical postal equipment and artifacts as well as life size figures of postmen in blue uniforms add more charm to the museum.
After the museum, I troop down to the Philcon Stamp Shop, located two blocks from the Postal Museum. It sells historic collector stamps and current issues as well as stamps on royalty princes and princesses. My favourites are those with Late Princess Diana's pretty visage on them.
Dr Vollkommer explains that there are dozens more interesting museums around the country to explore, including the quirky Traditional Farmhouse Museum in Schellenberg, housed in a farmhouse building dating back to 1518; the unusual Kufer Martis Huus, which narrates the story of the majestic Rhine that runs through this state as well as the Walser Museum in bucolic Triesenberg, perched above the valley, designed around local customs and traditions.
With a wide-ranging art-focused spectrum, Vaduz has also hosted exhibitions on diverse topics, including one on the 300-year anniversary of purchase of the Earldom Vaduz by the Principality of Liechtenstein, for which the city flew in rare artifacts from 20 of the most important German-speaking museums. Past exhibitions include Matheliebe (Love of Math) as well as Gladiators and Colosseums, which focused on unique originals from Naples, Rome and Bologna as well as from the Roman Colosseum. "Marilyn, the Strong Monroe" displayed 400 unique artifacts from the iconic Hollywood star's legacy.
"Liechtenstein has an incredible amount of creatives," sums up Dr Vollkommer. "Around 3,000 people take part in the country's cultural life. In all sectors, there are groups, organisations, associations for individual museums, theatres, music, writers and artists. We're always trying to do something new and exciting!"
Indeed, small Liechtenstein's big achievements in preserving its past and honouring its rich cultural legacy, are an inspiring lesson for all.