The more one travels, the more one’s passport stamps become a point of pride. London? Frankfurt? Entry level. A full-page visa from Russia or Brazil? Fancy. Arabic or Kanji characters? Exotic.
One stamp I was particularly coveting: Liechtenstein.
It’s an almost comically small country that runs only 15 miles north to south and there’s no real reason to go there unless you’re looking for a high-end ski vacation and you’re too cool for Switzerland. But I’ve always had a soft spot for tiny little countries, so I had always longed to visit Liechtenstein and get that official passport stamp.
I finally found my excuse when I was touring with a band through Europe. We were driving from Milan to Stuttgart, and wouldn’t you know it: Liechtenstein is sort of on the way!
True travelers, however, don’t consider all stamps equal. You can’t say you’ve “been” to a country if you’ve just passed through the airport, for instance. If you want a stamp to count, you have to experience the country in some significant way, even if it’s something small like having a meal or taking a quick walk through a town square.
Even though we were on a tight schedule, I figured we could at least stop for a glance at Vaduz Castle, built as a fortress in the 12th century and used as the home of royalty later on. It’s not open for tours, unfortunately, but hey, we could at least hop out of the van and take some photos.
We even made our way to the top of the hill where we saw the castle up close and got a nice group shot. It wasn’t much, but it was proof that we had visited Liechtenstein without just driving straight through.
Next stop: the Liechtenstein Center, a mini-museum and tourist office where, for three euros, you can get a vanity passport stamp to prove to yourself that you were there.
But on the way…we saw something on the road…
Is that a huge Koopa from Super Mario Bros.?
“STOP THE VAN!”
Whatever was going on, we wanted in. We pulled over to discover a dozen or so women in Mario and Luigi costumes and a dozen or so men in Princess Peach costumes. Koopa was part of a parade float that also featured a huge Goomba and some other recognizable elements from Mario Bros. And European techno music was pulsing from hidden speakers.
Like a gang of apes on ecstasy, my band mates and I barreled towards the float, dancing furiously to the bumping beat. The Marios and Luigis and Peaches were confused at first, but our energy was infectious enough that a few danced with us. They didn’t understand why we were so amped up, we didn’t understand why they were acting like this was a perfectly normal Saturday afternoon.
They asked us where we were from, we told them we were from the states. They understandably asked what we were doing there, we said we were in a band driving through. Finally it was our turn to ask questions: WHY IS THERE A RANDOM SUPER MARIO TECHNO DRAG PARTY HAPPENING ON THE SIDE OF THE ROAD IN LIECHTENSTEIN???
“Carnival,” they explained.
We had heard that our tour might be coinciding with Carnival (the European equivalent of Mardi Gras), but we didn’t realize that different towns and different countries celebrated Carnival on different dates, and in different ways. We stumbled into Liechtenstein’s biggest party of the year by accident.
The Koopa float was part of a parade that would be snaking through the streets of Vaduz later in the day. We quickly noticed other floats nearby, all with a twisted pop culture theme, like Bigfoot Ninja Superman, for instance:
When I saw one float dedicated to The Simpsons, my inner fanboy took over and I insisted that my band mates take my photo next to it. As I posed, though, the float opened up behind me to reveal several Liechtensteiners covered in yellow face paint, cosplaying as Homer, Marge, and even Otto!
I leapt up to hi-five as many of them as I could, and then we continued into town where the streets were packed with other groups in coordinated costumes. Not all of them were pop-culture-based; there was the Furry Samurai Marching Band…
The Dapper Clowns…
The Festive-But-Formal Goths…
It was like walking through a Disney remake of The Warriors. We wanted nothing more than to hang out, dance to more techno, and watch all the groups rumble, but alas, our commitments in Stuttgart dictated that we get back on the road.
First, though, we popped into the Liechtenstein Center…
We had truly earned our new passport stamps.