BENVINGUTS A ANDORRA!
Sandwiched between France and Spain, Andorra is a tiny nation hidden under the shadow of the mighty Pyrenees Mountains. Most of the land in this tiny microstate consists of steep-sided peaks which plunge into deep river valleys. The average elevation of Andorra is about 2,000m and in winter the whole country transforms into one of Europe’s most popular ski destinations. At this time of year, however, the streets of Andorra la Vella, the nation’s capital, are relatively quiet – it was just us and a few hundred eager duty free shoppers* this afternoon when we went for a walk around town.
*Andorra has no taxes. No income taxes, no goods and services taxes, no taxes at all. This means goods here are cheap, which draws literally millions of people here every year on shopping excursions. The whole of Andorra la Vella is like some surreal cross between an airport shopping mall and a cute alpine village.
From France we are travelling West, into Spain. Rather than just fly, we decided to travel cross-country from Toulouse to Barcelona to see some of the beautiful Pyrenees scenery. One of the more scenic routes you can take between France and Catalonia takes you through Andorra, which is renowned for its mountainous landscape. We love alpine vistas and so decided to sojourn here in Andorra la Vella for a couple of days on our way through. As there are no train lines through tiny nation that meant hopping on a bus early this morning. Little did we know when we bought our bus tickets that the simple journey from Toulouse to Andorra la Vella would turn into one of the prettiest and most entertaining cross-country journeys we’ve had in a while…
When we arrived at the bus station in Toulouse this morning it was just us waiting. “Awesome!”, we thought, “A private bus trip!”. Ha! Seems the universe had other plans…. Just as the bus pulled in, a big group of Chinese gentlemen turned up. They had no tickets and only one of the 15 of them spoke any English at all. It emerged that they had read somewhere that Andorra was a good place to go shopping and had decided spuriously that morning to catch the bus there to spend the weekend buying up big time. Not that we knew any of this to start with – the group’s nominated spokesman was trying to communicate this (in broken English) to the poor bus driver, who only spoke Spanish and Catalan (the national language of Andorra). As entertaining as the game of charades was for us, we were getting antsy waiting around for them to work it out so we stepped in an volunteered our translation services. So between the Chinese spokesman’s limited English, our limited Spanish*, and much hand gesturing and gesticulation, we eventually worked it out and the Chinese convoy got their 15 return tickets for Andorra sorted. Then came the bit where money had to be collected from everyone to pay the driver for their tickets… Man, these Chinese guys were arraying serious wads of cash! We’ve never seen so many €500 notes, and neither had the bus driver judging from his reaction! Eventually everyone had their ticket and we were off – the small 20 seater bus packed to the brim with excited Chinese guys in flashy tracksuits, and us.
*Shane has been learning Spanish for the last few weeks – I had French covered, he got Spanish, and we’re going to try and wing it in Portugal.
It turned out to be quite a noisy journey, the bus echoing with loud Chinese conversations and the occasional pigeon English conversations as we got asked random questions about Andorra, accommodation options in Andorra la Vella, the weather there, best places to go shopping in the city, and everything in between. Then, about half way through the 4 hour trip, a few of the Chinese guys decided they needed to pee, so we had to ask the bus driver to pull over somewhere for a rest stop. He found a café with a bathroom they could use – goodness knows what the other patrons of the café thought though when this bus load of excited, happy Chinese guys came marching through, all heading for the toilets! Soon after our pit stop we crossed out of France and into Andorra itself, where the scenery took everyone’s attention.
The mountains around here are just incredible – most of them are more than 2,500m high and the tallest, Coma Pedrosa, is about 3,000m high. The 85,000 people that call Andorra home live in 3 narrow river valleys that run through the mountains forming a “Y” shaped cleft through the Pyrenees, with the nation’s capital Andorra la Vella at the intersection of the 3 valleys.
There is virtually no flat land in Andorra and most of the buildings here seem to cling precariously to the sides of the mountains. Most if the country is still wild and untouched, with alpine forests covering 80% of the country. What isn’t forested is pastureland for grazing sheep and cattle in the summer, and/or for using as ski runs during the winter.
We’re staying in the nation’s capital Andorra la Vella, in one of the town’s MANY hotels*, and plan to use this as a base from which to explore some of the villages and valleys further out. For this afternoon though we satisfied ourselves with exploring around Andorra la Vella and learning what we could about this teeny tiny country.
*There are some 30,000 hotels rooms spread across Andorra, most of them catering to the 7 million tourists a year who come during the winter months to go skiing.
Some of the more interesting factoids we picked up during our explorations:
• Andorra la Vella is the highest capital city in Europe, standing at an elevation of 1,023m.
• The official language of Andorra is Catalan, although Spanish and French are also commonly spoken.
• Andorra’s is not a member of the European Union, but the Euro is the de facto currency.
• Andorrans are relatively wealthy and pay NO TAXES.
• Tourism, the mainstay of Andorra’s tiny, well-to-do economy, accounts for roughly 80% of GDP.
• An estimated 11 million tourists visit annually, attracted by Andorra’s duty free shops (so many shops!) and winter ski resorts.
• There are almost 200km of ski pistes spread throughout Andorra.
• Only 2% of the land in Andorra is arable and historically Andorra was a very poor, isolated, and undeveloped nation. It was only in the 1930s that Andorra began to become better connected with its other European neighbours and take some progressive leaps forward.
Our initial impressions of Andorra la Vella were mixed: the city is nestled in a gorge between impressive mountain peaks and is thus quite scenic and pretty; however, its main streets are just an endless series of duty free shops selling nothing but brand name luxury goods, watches, jewellery, perfume, alcohol, cigarettes, and electronics. The newer part of town seemed to be one part alpine village, two parts tacky town. Not really what we were expecting!
Luckily the city’s old town, the Barri Antic, seems to still have a soul and made for a more interesting jaunt. The Barri Antis dates back to the 11th century and is characterised by narrow streets, small public squares, and stone houses. Many of the houses there still have plaques above their lintels attesting to their heritage and historical use.
The most notable building in the Barri Antic is the Casa de la Vall, which has served as the state’s parliamentary house since 1702. Constructed in 1580 this modest stone building holds El Tribunal de Corts, the country’s one and only courtroom downstairs, and La Sala del Consell or Parliamentary Council, upstairs. Built of grey mountain granite like all of Andorra’s older buildings, it’s certainly one of the cosiest and more character-filled parliamentary houses we’ve every seen!
The Medieval church in the Barri Antic, Església de Sant Esteve, was equally diminutive and simple. Built in 1082 this tiny Romanesque church was extended in the 16th century and is today one of Andorra’s oldest standing chapels.
The main square within the old town, Plaça del Príncep, was tiny and made for a good place to pause for a rest.
The newer Plaça del Poble (i.e. People’s Square) is larger and affords splendid views of the valley and mountains. It’s also a great place from which to see some of the more interesting sculptures that are dotted around Andorra la Vella. There’s even a famous Salvador Dali sculpture called “The Nobility of Time” in one of the squares here! Seems this once poor nation has money to spare these days…
After wandering the streets on Andorra la Vella for a little longer we called it a day and found a quiet place to sit, relax, and people watch (mostly it was watching people walk around carrying LOTS of shopping bags). This is certainly a unique little place. We’re here for a few days, mostly to enjoy the scenery and go up into the hills around Andorra la Vella. It’s also a good, relaxed introduction into a more Spanish way of doing things – already we’re struggling with the later meal time (restaurants don’t even open until 8:00pm for dinner and lunch starts around 2:00pm!), and LOOOONG lunch breaks (shops here close from 1:00pm to 3:00pm). The language is a a bit of a challenge too: Catalan is like a highbred between French and Spanish with a few quirks of its very own. Mind you, the foods already got us hooked (mmmm… roast lamb and crema catalana*), and the people seem friendly, so it should be a fun few days here in Andorra! Join us tomorrow for some exotic Andorran scenery from high up in the Pyrenees…
*Crema catalana is a uniquely Catalan dessert, similar to creme brûlée. It’s rich and aromatic and decidedly to our liking.