“There’s only one place I’d really like to go on this trip,” Pete declared. And just like that, we were led to Liechtenstein by a mouse and a lion.
You never know what will influence you to visit an out of the way place. When Pete said he wanted to go to Liechtenstein, I couldn’t have dreamed up the reason if I tried. “We read The Mouse That Roared in junior high,” he reminisced, “and ever since, I’ve wanted to go.” Since I was the one making most of the arrangements for our European trip, I could hardly dismiss one solitary request as unreasonable, even if it was kind of weird. So we were going and that was that.
The only thing I knew from The Mouse That Roared was the movie starring Peter Sellers, whom I consider a genius. The little Cold War comedy didn’t really stack up by comparison with the rest of Sellers’ body of work, but it was amusing in its way. I remembered that Sellers played just about every part in the film and then promptly set my memories aside to begin researching accommodations in Liechtenstein. We could figure out how to get there later.
It didn’t take long to decide on a hotel. The Hotel Gastof Löwen jumped out of the search results. The Hotel Löwen (literally “lions”) is the oldest hotel and restaurant in the capital city of Vaduz in the Principality of Liechtenstein. Its front door is inches from Herrengasse, the major street in Vaduz. Herrengasse follows an ancient Roman road which crossed the Eastern Alps by way of the Splügen Pass and then continued along the Rhine. Just north of Vaduz, near the crossroads in Schaan, there are the remains of a Roman fort used to defend the region against Germanic tribes from the north. Cool, I thought, let’s book it.
Vaduz was designated a medieval county in 1342. Dating from the 1380’s, the Löwen building’s main area was used for pressing grapes from adjacent vineyards, and serving wine to travelers from its extensive cellars. The Hotel was well-known as a major way station on the mercantile road between Vienna and Milan.
Concurrently, the Liechtenstein family was amassing power. They took their name from Castle Liechtenstein in Lower Austria, which they owned in the 12th and 13th centuries. They were estate barons with additional holdings in Moravia and Styria (a region which extends from what is now southern Austria into Slovenia). Initially, these massive estates were under fief to superior monarchs in the Habsburg line, to whom the Liechtensteins served as advisors.
In the 1600’s, the Hotel Löwen underwent further adornments. Renovations in the 20th century uncovered a dining room fresco and intricately painted ceilings from this period. Ornate carvings in wooden paneling in another room depict the story of the Nibelungen.
In 1719, Emperor Charles VI combined Vaduz and Schellenberg counties into a principality, conferring princely status to the family in the Holy Roman Empire. The two county identities remain present within Liechtenstein’s modern electorate today, which is divided as Oberland (south) and Unterland (north).
In the early 1800’s the Hotel Löwen building received a mansard roof and several additions in the French style. In 1806, Liechtenstein had achieved sovereignty by alliance with Napoleon’s Confederation of the Rhine upon the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire, and then retained complete independence in 1815.
Various alliances throughout the first half of the 19th century reflected the political volatility in the region, and led to Liechtenstein’s declaration of neutrality in 1868. This status was respected through WWI and WWII, although not without adverse political and economic consequences.
The Mouse That Roared is a lighthearted lampoon of Cold War era sensibilities. Irish author Leonard (Leo for lion? coincidence, right?) Wibberley depicts an impoverished wine-producing European duchy with a big plan: it will attack and invade the United States on pretext. It will deliberately lose, which will invoke Marshall Plan-like compensation from the U.S. for economic hardship when the war games are said and done. Instead, hilariously, the little country wins.
Although Wibberley left his muse deliberately undisclosed, it’s hard not to associate little Liechtenstein with his fictitious fiefdom. Even his preferred title for the book, The Wrath of Grapes, provokes further parallels, as well as a nod to his own favorite author. Although he was favorably compared in his day with Jonathan Swift and Ernest Hemingway, Wibberley believed Steinbeck the better writer:
After WWII, Liechtenstein was economically ravaged as well. It aggressively modernized and re-monetized its economy with attractive corporate tax rates and havens. Mirroring Swiss banking examples and specializing in lenient financial services, Liechtenstein attracted heavy foreign investment. The result has been a complete transformation from a primarily agricultural economy to one of industry and service.
In today’s Liechtenstein, wages are high (with teachers at the top of the salary chart) and unemployment is low. This well-being comes at a price, however, with cost of living comparable to neighboring Switzerland. Liechtenstein is an expensive little country. Even so, it’s rarely difficult for us to justify a one-night splurge.
I was reminded by a line from a description of Wibberley’s plotline of stepping into the Hotel Gasthof Löwen: a medieval remnant in a modern world. You must use the oversized iron key you’re given to open the heavy front door, and pull it securely closed against the Herrengasse traffic outside. The hotel’s walls are thick; you take a step or two in the interim between today and yesterday, emerging into a reception area which stays rooted in centuries long past. The doorways and window openings are recessed to insulate you from one space to another. Your cocoon is softened by these layers.
The hotel’s own philosophy is a literal, charming translation – “in our hectic times we should now and then treat the muse and tranquility to stop the pendulum once for a short time to get back to find our center to regenerate body and mind.” So far removed from this ideal things can seem! Are we now that different from Wibberley’s U.S. Secretary of State in the story, who wonders, “How am I gonna tell the President that we’ve been invaded by a bunch of 15th century Europeans?”
Wibberley, who died in 1982, lived long enough to see his cheeky tale of a mighty little mouse nation taking down a monolithic superpower wax and wane. The Mouse That Roared has gone out of print and come back in again over the past sixty years, a newly and poignantly relevant story of power and the different forms it can take.
We could all use a little more timelessness, whether it’s in the quiet of an overnight stay in a 14th century room on an old Roman road, or written in the entertaining pages of a perfect little political satire. Led by a mouse and a lion indeed.
Tips and Information: Hotel Gasthof Löwen is a vintage 14th century hotel with 8 guest rooms, event space, fine dining and pub. Host Adele Gantembein will see to every comfort. Herrengasse 35 FL-9490 Vaduz Phone +423238 11 44 Deluxe Double Rooms with castle view CHF349, Standard Double Room CHF299. Single rooms available, all with satellite TV, wireless internet, minibar. Room prices include breakfast, taxes and 3.6%VAT. Pets welcome.
Restaurants and shopping in Vaduz are within a few minutes’ walk of the hotel.
Getting There: Disembark trains from Switzerland and Austria in Sargans and catch the bright green Liechtenstein bus. Change in Schaan for Vaduz, which travels Herrengasse. It will stop within 20 feet of the hotel’s front door. See more details in our post Getting to Liechtenstein is Easy.