George Mallory, upon being asked why he wished to climb Mount Everest is recorded as having replied: “Because its there”. Apply this logic to travel and perhaps it goes at least part of the way towards explaining the allure of exploring places that have no place or purpose in the modern world; the religious enclaves, the forgotten principalities, the relics of non existent empires and feudal times. Why go to San Marino? Why bend your itinerary and timetable to spend a few hours in Andorra? Because they are there. Add to this the fact that people will often put themselves through unnecessary trouble to appear more interesting to other people.
Take my friend Matt for an example. When prompted about my upcoming Euro trip, he would invariably raise a finger, and with a sparkle in his eye and devious smile inquire: “Ahh but are you going to San Marino? Are you going to Liechtenstein?” He would say it with the confidence of a wise and hardened traveler, but he had obviously never been to either, and probably never would.
Perhaps for this reason my friend Chris and I journeyed westward on an overnight train through Austria, through Liechtenstein to Switzerland, at which point we debarked at 6am and caught the first eastbound bus back into Liechtenstein. Yes, that’s right, Liechtenstein. Reader, don’t we seem considerably more interesting already? Vaguely? Perhaps by some small increment? Of course we do. You probably haven’t been there, you probably never will be there, and you definitely shouldn’t bother. But to reiterate, I have been to Liechtenstein, this being a testament to my interestingness.
I cant speak for others, but I approach places like Andorra, San Marino, and Liechtenstein with a sense of boyish wonder welling up inside me, the sort I rarely feel anymore now that I’ve reached that age where things like Santa Clause, family vacations and county fairs no longer take hold of my imagination. I don’t know why, but when in Europe I couldn’t wait to see them, despite all the accounts I’ve read of them essentially being simply small and boring sections of Spain, Italy and Switzerland. I wanted to be the first to see them, to photograph them, and to do something inside their borders.
Perhaps I am attracted to their minuscule size, their remoteness, and their unassuming silence on the world stage. In my mind they had taken on some mythical status; lost principalities hidden among mountains and cloud, unseen and unknown to the 21st Century. It has been said countless times that had Liechtenstein simply been swallowed up by the Swiss, nobody would ever go out of their way to visit that particular corner of Switzerland, especially when places like Bern, Geneva or the Lauterbrunnen Valley were possibilities. We had to go.
Chris and I settled on Liechtenstein. Having failed to find the time for San Marino and Andorra, we decided that we absolutely had to make it to Liechtenstein, lest our well earned “travel cred” suffer considerably. All indications pointed to the fact that the place was decidedly un-traveled by both the back-backer and fanny-packer communities, and our minds ran wild in anticipation. Again the image of my friend tormented me “Ahh but have you been to Liechtenstein?”. There was no debate, there was no choice. We had to go, and we scrambled to hash out a plan that would get us to Buchs, Switzerland where our shady intel told us that one could catch a bus to Vaduz, the capital city of this fabled alpine Shangri-La. We were going where nobody we had ever known had gone before, a country so remote that it had no train station, currency, army, or postal service of its own. Yes, that’s right, we were going to Liechtenstein.
Hashing out our plans in the Innsbruck train station, I felt a sense of impending discovery far greater than I had experienced with any other country. Even remote Ukraine, culture shock aside, had been written about before, its history linked inevitably with that of Poland, Russia, et al. Liechtenstein as far as I knew had no history to speak of. Apparently it had been part of the Holy Roman Empire, one of countless small realms, yet as the rest were gobbled up or consolidated by other Empires, and entered the 20th Century, Liechtenstein remained a remote principality, its only contemporary fame resting on its reputation as a tax haven. I found the idea of such a place intoxicating.
We arrived in Vaduz early one morning, and reader, it really wasn’t all that good. Walking silently through empty streets, we found that the capital city offered little in the way of photo opportunities. Reviewing my pictures days later, I found one of Chris sitting on a bench staring into a wall. That’s just the sort of place Vaduz is. We spent all of 2 hours in Liechtenstein, of which 30 minutes were idled away in a grocery store identical in name and layout to those in Switzerland, buying food with Swiss Francs. The remaining time was spent figuring out how to leave.
I suspect that the select few tourists who penetrate through to countries such as Liechtenstein or San Marino know deep down that their time and money is better spent on visiting an additional Umbrian hill town or an extra day hiking in the Alps. Yet they press on for the sole purpose of saying to others that they have been there. Like them, I had to go.
Not long after returning home, and on the threshold of leaving for a years work in South Korea, I ran into my friend Matt who, upon hearing I was going to be living a year in Asia, raised a finger and with a sparkle in his eye, said: “Ahh, but are you going to Port Moresby? It’s the capital of Papua New Guinea. You should go!”
Port Moresby awaits.