Liechtenstein: a photoessay from one of the world’s tiniest and prettiest capital cities

Lonely Planet calls it a pipsqueak of a country. I don’t think Liechtenstein is the sort of country that would take offence. It it super tiny, it is super rich, and it is picturesque beyond belief, nestled (some would say hidden) right in the middle of Switzerland and Austria.

In fact, this country is so small that is it is easy to miss it on a map or even on a road trip through that part of Europe – you can drive from one end to the other in an hour and so, and not realise that you have drive through another country. The scenery still remains utterly Swiss – clean, green and alpine – with a few medieval castles perched whimsically on top of mountains and edge of cliffs.

Liechtenstein was – and has never been – on my radar, even when I was right next to it, in Switzerland. It just happened that I had a free evening in the old town of Chur and Vaduz came up as a place to visit. And why not? Not just a new city – but a whole new country in a single evening! So, after a couple of bus changes and a journey through postcard pretty landscape, we were in Vaduz, the landlocked capital of Liechtenstein.

True to its reputation for tininess, there is one main road – we walked up and down that high street lined with cute boutiques, kitschy souvenir shops and al fresco cafes several times and finally fetched up in front of the tourism office.

There is one thing – no, two things really – to be said for this city: the utter cheekiness and quirkiness on display all around (see the pictures below), and the fact for such an itty-bitty town, there were half a dozen museums catering to all kinds of interests.

Unfortunately, the museums were shut as was the main castle (or on the verge of closing) by the time we reached. And anyway, I was not in the mood for culture – more like gelato on that hot summer afternoon, and so after some creamy stracciatella ice cream and a fridge magnet for a souvenir, we made our way back to Chur.

A note about the magnet: I fell in love with this country a bit more after seeing the self-effacing humour on the magnet – who wouldn’t? I have to admit that I didn’t know how to spell or pronounce the country’s name till I actually visited it (and I am still not sure I can do it without sneakily checking it online).

And locals are probably aware that this is true for almost every single visitor, and have decided to take it in their stride, and even make a tourist souvenir out of it, tongue firmly in cheek.

A new and thoroughly delightful country discovered. What can be a better way to spend a spare evening in Europe?

Read more about Liechtenstein on their official tourism site

In love with Lucerne

It is still bright and sunny when I head out for an early dinner at seven in the evening. My handy phone map shows the restaurant is just around the corner from where I am staying in Lucerne. So I stroll out of the doors of my charming ‘Romantik’ hotel – as many of the country’s old, boutique properties are known – with just enough time to get there. Big mistake.

The sight of Kapellbrücke (Chapel Bridge) bathed in the warm glow of the Lucerne evening is spellbinding, stopping me in my tracks. It is certainly not the first time I am seeing this picturesque covered wooden bridge – Europe’s oldest, built in 1365 – across the River Reuss. With the octagonal Wasserturm (Water Tower) seeming to prop it up towards one end, the Kapellbrücke is indeed one of Lucerne’s landmarks, quietly connecting the new and old parts of town.

But as I said, this time is special: the mellow spring sunshine makes the wild flowers everywhere seem cheerier, the swans gliding by on the river more content, the clang of church bells from somewhere far away full of hope, and above all, the tourists (like me) fall in love with Lucerne just a bit more.

There can be no doubt that in a country filled with blockbuster vistas and experiences, Lucerne is a quiet charmer.

With all those photo stops, I arrive a few minutes late for dinner, but despite being sticklers for punctuality themselves, the Swiss are a friendly and forgiving lot. Sitting by the water at the Des Balances restaurant, housed in a 13th century building in the AltStadt (Old Town), I watch dusk fall slowly upon Lucerne, sweeping its ancient buildings in a stunning palette of oranges and purples.

Even as the town hovers between day and night, it continues to buzz with an incredible energy that is impossible to resist. The liveliest places at this time of the day are the plazas in the Altstadt, each of them throbbing with al fresco cafés and bars located between the older buildings with their brightly painted façades, and the numerous water fountains that once acted as social hubs for the local women.

Not surprisingly, Lucerne (also Luzern) is still referred to as the ‘city of light,’ a rough translation of its old name of Luciaria (dating back to the mid 9th century). Thanks to its location in central Switzerland, right on Lake Lucerne and River Reuss, and its proximity to tourist attractions like Mount Pilatus and Mount Titlis, Lucerne remains a perennial favourite among visitors.

The next morning, I set out for an excursion to the “dragon mountain” of Pilatus, so known for its many local legends of fire-breathing dragons that once roamed these craggy peaks. Being in proud possession of a first-class Swiss Travel Pass, I decide to go for the complete experience, which begins with a cruise from Lucerne to the tiny village of Alpnachstad.

For an hour, we float pass postcard pretty villages and low hills covered in mist, finally pulling up at the place where the jaunt on the world’s steepest cogwheel train begins. The journey here on this train ride up to Mount Pilatus is truly as much fun as the destination, as the gentle, green slopes fall behind, and rugged cliffs with dark tunnels take their place.

The top of Mount Pilatus – on the northernmost branch of the Alps – is shrouded in a thick layer of cloud when I reach, the sun playing hide and seek for the next couple of hours. In those rare moments when it does manage to make a bid for freedom, I can barely make out the fuzzy outlines of a couple of neighbouring mountains (over 70 alpine peaks are visible on a clear day), and down the valley on one side, with Lake Lucerne glimmering at a distance.

The sound of an alphorn suddenly breaks into the peaceful silence. This music is as primeval and profound as the mountains themselves, and the old man playing it is as much of a tourist attraction as the viewpoints on top.

The return to Lucerne is by a different route and mode; first the aerial cableway to Fräkmüntegg and then the panorama gondola down to the village of Kriens, from where I take the bus for the last leg of the journey back into town. In the winter months, when the cogwheel railway is not functional, this is the only access to Pilatus.

Back in the Lucerne twilight, I pick up a gelato and settle down for a spot of people-watching by the lake. A sudden flash of light in the horizon catches my eye; is it a bolt of lightning, or are the dragons up and about for the evening? In Lucerne, it is impossible to tell.

TRAVEL

Fly SWISS from Mumbai into Zurich, from where Lucerne is an hour away by train. Buy the Swiss Travel Pass that allows unlimited access on trains and buses, as well as free entry to museums.

STAY

The Wilden Mann is a charming and friendly midtown hotel, located in a 500 year old building.

Fifty shades of white

Provence, of course, I knew well – I had driven around the villages in the footsteps of Peter Mayle, whose sardonic, yet affectionate look at life in those parts had left me wanting to worship at his feet. And the hillslopes of Tuscany, with their quaint villages, had come to be my secret “when I retire” place, thanks to Frances Mayes’ book ‘Under the Tuscan Sun,’ which is about finding home where the heart is.

So, why had no one told me about Spain’s pretty Pueblos Blancos, the White Villages dotted through the pretty Andalusian landscape? These villages get their collective name from the limewash paint used on the outer walls of homes to keep them cool in the scorching summers. I discovered this charming region in the south of Spain very recently on a road trip with the husband.

Ronda was the first major stop in this circuit, and after battling with the touristy hordes who insisted on photobombing my every image at Cordoba and Granada earlier, it was a welcome relief to see Ronda almost devoid of visitors.

This village is home to the Plaza de Toros, Spain’s second oldest bullring that has been immortalized in several of Hemingway’s books. And that is where we headed first, on the off-chance of watching an actual bullfight that evening. The season, however, did not start till after Easter, and so we had to settle for a tour of the bullring and the museum with its collection of fascinating objects that added a dash of romance to this otherwise gory sport.

Ronda’s other big attraction is the Puente Nuevo (New Bridge) high over the floor of the canyon, connecting La Cuidad, the heritage part of town with El Mercadillo, the modern market quarter. We got a sense of this town’s history only when we learned that the “new bridge”- offering stunning views of the countryside for miles on end – was built in 1788. But more than anything else, the village itself was a stunning sight, clinging proudly and precariously to a clifftop, the shiny whites of its buildings a perfect foil to the deep browns of the land.

It was only the next morning, when we headed out of Ronda towards Seville, with the vague plan to “stop at a white village or two on the way,” that we realized how much time and attention this part of Spain deserved. The friendly tourism officer at Grazalema was shocked when we told him our plans; only two hours in his gorgeous village? he shook his head in despair before proceeding to mark out the most significant attractions on the map.

He then went a step further, plotting the rest of our day for us. Clearly, every single village was worth a detailed exploration but how were we ever going to manage that? Grazalema itself was a charmer, every corner throwing up a new vista of the lush limestone hills of the Parque Natural de Sierra de Grazalema that surrounds this village. Add to that an ornate cathedral here, a bustling square there, each and demanding attention like a particularly eager child

Spring was in the air, with clumps of wild flowers along the roads and homes sporting earthen pots of cheerful flowers on their tiny balconies. Every narrow alleyway held the promise of new and exciting finds – such labyrinths are characteristic of this region – a throwback to the time when it was under Moorish rule, giving it the name Al-Andalus.

After this, Arcos de la Frontera and Medina Sidonia – both boasting a checkered mix of Roman, Moorish and Christian origins – went by in a bleached blur. We stopped for lunch at the former, where preparations for Easter were on in full swing at the beautiful Basilica of Santa Maria de la Ascension, rising tall amidst squat white buildings. Unfortunately, we reached Medina Sidonia when the village was enjoying siesta time and not a leaf stirred on its streets.

Another unexpected delight – we had read about it only a couple of days ago in our trusty guidebook – was Setenil de las Bodegas just before Ronda. Setenil turned out to be a unique detour, with its modern structure seeming to be hewn into the craggy rocks, or sprout from its ancient cave dwellings, depending on where you see it from.

Every whitewashed café and shop along the narrow lane I walked on, had an overhanging cave for a roof, keeping it cool even on that muggy afternoon. The ‘bodega’ in the name suggests that these caves were probably once used to store the local wines in moderate temperatures.

I could not think of a more fitting end to this drive than a pitcher of the regional Tinto (red wine). We settled down at an uncrowded bar to watch the sun go down on this ancient village, wondering what living there would be like.

Friday photo: Lucerne

In a country that is dotted with blockbuster landscapes and picturesque cities, I found myself falling in love with Lucerne very easily and rapidly. Its location at the banks of Lake Lucerne and River Reuss, surrounded by the majestic mountains; the Kapellbrucke covered wooden bridge across the river; and then the medieval buildings with their prettily painted facades…

Today’s postcard is one such building from Lucerne’s Aldstadt (Old Town), a restaurant painted with cheery images of Fritschi, believed to be the founding father of the annual carnival that takes place just before Lent.

Photoessay on Livraria Lello, Portugal’s most beautiful bookshop

It was a dull and rainy day in Porto when I walked into Livraria Lello. And my world was instantly filled with glorious sunshine. Even before I landed in Portugal, this bookshop featured on my must do list, especially thanks to its association with JK Rowling.

In her brief time in Porto as an impoverished writer in the 1990s, Rowling is believed to have frequented this store – and there are even wild theories that it was the inspiration behind the Harry Porter books. Whether that is true or not, it is not tough to believe that the interiors of Livraria Lello made her conceptualise Hogwarts the way she did.

Portugal itself seems to be a land of books, with a cute bookshop on practically every street, and even a whole city of literature. But the crowning glory is easily Livraria Lello, opened in 1906.

As soon as I entered, it was the grand architecture that first caught my attention, especially the stunning Art Nouveau spiral staircase at the heart of the store, that seems to have been created for photography. Then there is the stained glass ceiling and the rich wood panelling that makes it seem more like an ancient church than a contemporary bookstore.

In fact, the whole shop is a selfie-taker’s delight, every single corner offering some kind of unique and attractive frame.

The store has an eclectic collection of both English and Portuguese books, a wide range from popular fiction (including, of course, the Harry Porter series) to books on fine wines and quirky street art.

On that rainy afternoon, I also chanced upon Alice and the Mad Hatter chatting with each other in one corner of the upper floor, inviting kids and adults alike to their tea party.

This bookstore has become such a popular tourist attraction that it now charges 5.50 euros just for entry (redeemable against purchase of books). Despite that, there was a long queue outside the door when I reached; having bought the tickets online earlier, I could march right up to the entrance and make a quick entry.

Perhaps I will be fortunate enough to visit it once again in future, at a time when it is less crowded and it is actually possible to see more books than people!

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