Standing on the quiet roadway, I can see Switzerland. So I take a few steps and I'm there. Then I step back across the international border into Liechtenstein, the tiny European state in which I'm staying for three nights.
Never have I found it so easy to move from one country to another, but this relaxed, unassuming nature is one of Liechtenstein's charms. A mere 160 square kilometres in area, the principality is slotted between Switzerland and Austria, bracketed by the River Rhine on one side and lofty mountains on the other.
When Liechtenstein's 300th anniversary approached, locals' thoughts turned to creating something suitable for the occasion. As they already had a castle, an impressive pile perched above the capital Vaduz, they settled on something more modest and democratic – a walking trail that would take in the entire country, from one end to the other.
And here I am at the start of the Liechtenstein Trail, officially launched in May to mark the principality's founding in 1719. This crossing point on the southern border is denoted by an impressive marker next to the road, bearing shields of each nation. However I'm heading off at a right angle with my guide, Leander, along a road that follows the border then turns toward the town of Balzers. The Liechtenstein Trail is 75 kilometres long, but breaks down into 12 stages each of five to 10 kilometres as it winds roughly northward. My aim today is to sample the first two stages from lowland Balzers to hilly Triesenberg, even if I don't walk the whole way.
There's not much signage on the trail, merely distinctive red and blue pointers that keep hikers headed in the right direction. The guts of the experience is provided by the official LIstory app which was launched in conjunction with the route. It's an excellent tool, using my phone's location settings to disperse information about sights we pass, along with handy details about the steepness of each stage, accessibility, and nearby public transport options if you want to bail out.
At the St Katrinabrunna border crossing, where we start, the app informs me of the history of relations with Switzerland. This includes a 1930s controversy over the Ellhorn mountain, which the Swiss wanted to buy to fortify against possible German invasion.
The highlight of this first stage, however, is the impressive Gutenberg Castle which sits prominently on a hill above Balzers. Nowadays it's a restored fairy-tale landmark, but I learn from the app that in 1622 it was bombarded for two days during the Thirty Years War. The castle's setting seems a fitting introduction to Liechtenstein – a medieval fortress and stone church with a view of green fields and massive snow-capped mountains – and sums the place up, especially when you factor in the small vineyards that can be seen upon slopes throughout the principality.
After Balzers the trail heads up from the valley into steeper territory. Leander explains that an ancient Roman road made its way through here to avoid Rhine floods. I browse an interesting section on the app about 17th-century witch hunts, then we reach Triesen. This village is dotted with beautiful old timber buildings, including one which served as Liechtenstein's first Protestant church. Nearby is an 1870 textile factory, which played a role in one of the earliest efforts to industrialise the country.
Above Triesen are quiet residential neighbourhoods, and the path threads between old houses with pitched tiled roofs and private vineyards. We reach the compact Chapel of St Mamertus, a beautiful building with a mysterious past – the app says it's probably been here since the ninth or 10th century. Damaged in a Swiss civil war in the 15th century and rebuilt, it was later renovated in the 20th.
History aside, it has a marvellous location, an ideal spot for a break along the trail. Covered by lawn, the chapel's grounds provide a great view over the village, the Rhine beyond it, and the mountains all around. There's the aroma of fresh-cut grass in the air, and a postcard perfection about the scene.
From here the trail really hits its stride, leaving the roads and climbing through leafy green forest. As it ascends towards the village of Triesenberg, it passes farms including one with alpacas and llamas in its fields. Attached to the farm is a farm door outlet that sells hats and gloves made from llama wool, as well as basic groceries.
The app is full of information about Alpine farming at this point, along with tales of hunting and poaching. There's also a section about tourism, which explains how Triesenberg became a drawcard for visitors from the 19th century onwards. Several guesthouses were built to cater for the trade, and of those only the Gasthaus Edelweiss remains. I'm particularly interested in that guesthouse, because it's where the second stage ends and it's here we stop for lunch. Facing a small square with a fountain, which is flanked by a town hall, church and shops, the Edelweiss is clearly at the town's heart. Still a family-run affair, its restaurant is a jolly place on this Friday afternoon, full of chatty locals enjoying a schnitzel and a beer.
After lunch, Leander (who lives nearby) takes me by car to Prufatscheng, a village on the third stage of the trail and, at 1107 metres, its highest point. Founded by the mountain-dwelling Walser people, it's a cluster of traditional timber farmhouses overlooking a meadow dotted with bright yellow dandelions, with a view of Swiss mountains beyond.
There's more to Liechtenstein than such panoramic views, but you have to admit they are stunning, and the Liechtenstein Trail is a fine way to reach them.
Tim Richards was hosted by Liechtenstein Marketing.
Landhaus am Giessen offers affordable accommodation in Vaduz, with comfortable rooms and breakfast from CHF110 a night. See giessen.li
The Liechtenstein Trail stretches 75 kilometres from Balzers in the south to Schaanwald in the north. The LIstory app can be used while walking the trail. See tourismus.li