A Travellerspoint blog

July 2010

A small slice of perfection

Going to Andorra to visit a friend first met on my RTW trip

sunny 27 °C

The minibus from Toulouse to Andorra might not be the most comfortable in the world, and certainly isn't good value for money, but I'll ignore these flaws if it can deliver me from the heat and humidity of Toulouse. Which it does, as the driver flings his vehicle through the many bends of the winding road that gradually increases our altitude. A cute cat in a carrying cage draws my attention, but the poor thing becomes most unhappy at our progress, and eventually decides to chunder noisily.


We enter Andorra near sunset, with no border formalities whatsoever. We pass through several small towns, each sharing similar characteristics - neat, tidy, and packed with shops, hotels, and restaurants, all signs of the tourist industry that constitutes the majority of the GDP. The buildings are predominantly constructed of stone with wooden doors and windowframes, topped by pointed roofs. Flowers decorate the streets, in window-boxes and in baskets hanging from street lamps. Mountains loom as a backdrop, thick with forests. I'm intrigued by how it will look in the daylight.


The country covers an area of less than 500 square kilometres, so it's not long before we're in Andorra la Vella, the capital "city" and home to more than a quarter of the nation's ~85,000 population. The air is refreshingly crisp and cool. A taxi completes our journey to La Massana, the town (village?) in which my friend AD lives. He has a pleasantly compact flat that is a paragon of minimalism - I feel a pang of envy when I compare it with the borderline (self-inflicted) chaos of my own residence.


We immediately set out in search of dinner. The shops we walk by are clearly aimed at the tourist trade. Duty-free perfume and jewellery stores are common, as well as those selling outdoor equipment - currently mountain-biking and hiking gear for the summer season, to be replaced by skiing and snowboarding kit when the snow starts to fall.


I'm astounded by the respect for the environment that is apparent here - the first electric vehicle recharging point I've ever seen in my life, pretty much no litter, as well as numerous machines for dog-walkers to obtain and then dispose of plastic bags for their pets' doings. Later, when the town's rubbishmen come through, we see that the street-level bins are atop much larger subterranean receptacles, which can be elevated to a convenient height for emptying.


We eat in a buzzing pizza place that is only spoiled by the loud, smoking group of US/UK pensioners sitting nearby. AD explains to me that true Andorrans represent less than 25% of the population. They are outnumbered by Spaniards, with Portuguese and French being the next largest foreign contingents. These foreigners are the mainstay of the tourist industry, which couldn't survive if it relied on Andorran workers (both in terms of numbers and interest in doing such jobs). The country is also popular amongst retirees, due to the invigorating mountain climate, the general lack of crime, the picture-perfect views, and no income tax. This high standard of living has given Andorrans the second highest life expectancy in the world, but - like with any tax haven - it's perhaps best not to dwell on where the finances for this state of affairs come from.


The following morning is the beginning, AD tells me, of a typical Andorran summer day - warm and sunny with blue skies and no humidity. Even in the winter, the sun is rarely absent for long, and its intensity at this altitude means my Anglo-Saxon skin needs to be covered with either clothing or sun screen. The first thing I see when we leave the flat is a truck from which a guy is watering the hanging baskets that adorn all the lampposts.


The landscape is deep shades of green, hillsides covered in forests and grassland. The highest mountains - which at less than 3,000m appear amiably benign - still bear a few traces of snow on their rocky flanks, but their inanimate white and grey are dominated by the lushness of the living plants and trees. In the daylight, the buildings look even smarter than they did on our arrival in the semi-gloom of evening, and it's hard to find any part of the scenery that isn't pleasing on the eye. With all this sunshine, even the skin of the local people glows a seductive brown.


We catch a minibus into Andorra la Vella, and wander around to deal with various admin tasks. There are plenty of tourists, and shops to satisfy every requirement. Though the country has a glut of landscapes from which to produce attractive postcards, the ones I see generally have gratuitous pictures of kittens or puppies around the border, just to ratchet up the cuteness factor.


AD has met a wide variety of people working here, including Argentinians, Bolivians, Peruvians, and Cubans. Though the national language is Catalan, most people can speak Spanish and a fair number also French, explaining the attraction of the country to Latin Americans. We immediately set the tone for my stay by idly lounging in a cafe. AD is extremely interested in theoretical physics, and I find myself talking about quantum mechanics and general relativity for the first time since my undergraduate days.


One excellent side-effect of a Latin American community is the presence of empanadas, of which I've had withdrawal symptoms for a year and a half. Conveniently, there's a shop close to AD's flat, run by an Argentinian woman and her Portuguese husband. Though their standard pollo empanada doesn't grab me with its dryness and surfeit of peppers, their other flavours more than make up for it. I swear I'd live on these things if they weren't so unhealthy.


Late afternoon is siesta time, which we follow on several occasions by taking a leisurely stroll further up the valley to the town of Ordino. On the way we pass fields of tobacco, one of Andorra's most famous exports. Ordino is truly gorgeous, with great views along the valley and a selection of cafes in its cobbled streets. Our first visit is slightly spoiled by some Afro-Brazilian band playing through a sound system at earsplitting volume, a really jarring noise in the mountain quiet, but subsequently we encounter nothing but calm and serenity. One evening we chat with an American couple who are on a 1.5 year RTW trip with their two teenage daughters. Recalling some of the tribulations of my own RTW, I don't envy them doing any travelling with kids - but keep my mouth shut on that score.


The Andorran public bus system doesn't extend to the entire country, so we decide to hire a car to take in some of the more inaccessible places. Unfortunately this is at rather too short notice for the season, and the only sensibly priced offer we can find will see us picking up the car at lunchtime one day and returning it the next just before I'm due to catch my bus back to Toulouse. We book this but then receive further bad news - when I reconfirm my return bus journey, I'm told that it has actually been cancelled because part of the route will be closed for the Tour de France. With my flight out of Toulouse unmovable, I'm forced to amend my ticket to take an earlier bus. None of the repercussions of this are good - we'll need to fit our car sightseeing into just half a day, I'll have to be up at 4AM in order to catch the early bus, and I'll then have to spend an entire day in Toulouse before my ~11PM flight leaves. Bummer.


The car that we are issued with is an eyesore. There's nothing too objectionable about its bright red colour, but it's emblazoned with advertising for the rental company. AD has never seen such a car in all his time in Andorra, and people stare at this thing because it's so unsubtle. Plus its 1000cc engine wasn't designed for mountains.


Still, it gets us from A to B. Our first stop is at a ski resort beyond the town of Arinsal. Everything is closed at this time of year, but there are a couple of benches from which we can admire the views while munching on croissants and chocolate-filled napolitanes. A distant waterfall cascades soundlessly down the hillside. Arinsal itself sits like a toy town in the valley below. It's peaceful and perfect.


Next we head to Arcalis, the most remote resort in the country but with a lodge that is not just open but surprisingly busy. A large deck at the front provides an enormous temptation to relax in the sun. A DJ is playing chill-out music which complements the views we have, of the mountains and the long stretches of grass that in winter become ski runs. Not wishing to risk falling asleep here, we take an undemanding trail up the hillside behind the lodge. As we crest the ridge, we see several lakes before us. The scrubby landscape is littered with pink-flowered bushes, and we sit down on the grass to contemplate the scene. A few hardened patches of snow confirm that we're at about 2000m.


From Arcalis, we return to Ordino then take a road over the mountains to Canillo, where AD lived when he first came to Andorra. We stop at a store that has a vast range of hams, cheeses, wines, and umpteen other delicacies. It also provides free samples for many of them, so we chomp and slurp our way around the aisles.

Next up is Pas de la Casa, the last town before the border with France. It's known for its microclimate and we witness a superb demonstration of this as we move from a bright sunny day one moment into thick mist/cloud the next. We can barely see 10m along the road, let alone anything of the town itself, so decide to turn back.

Passing through Andorra la Vella on the way back to La Massana, the ludicrous appearance of our car is presumably one reason why the police decide to pull us over to be breathalysed - not knowing that AD is probably one of the few people in the country that doesn't drink. At the precise moment that the policeman is handing across the breathalyser, one of AD's students walks by and recognises him. In such a sparsely populated country, it's not far-fetched to say that everyone knows everyone else, and with AD's background being non-typical of the average Andorra resident (the beard doesn't help either), he stands out even more. No doubt tongues will be wagging well before term time starts.

Sadly my stay comes to an end much too soon. Getting up at 4AM to catch the bus back to Toulouse is a struggle, but my final memory of Andorra is the cloud-filled valley that we see as we approach the border, the rising sun illuminating an eerie swirling vision that's not quite real. It's a strange country, a mix of perfection and sterility, and I want to return. I mentally put a reminder in my calendar for the winter.

Dull but possibly useful info
i. The minibus between Toulouse and Andorra is run by Novatel. In Toulouse, it picks up from the Gare Routiere (next to the train station) as well as the airport. In Andorra, it stops in Andorra la Vella (but I don't know the address). I think you can also pay extra to be picked up at some specific place. One-way is €31, return €56 - not cheap for a <4 hour journey.
ii. The cost of a public bus in Andorra depends on the type of vehicle and the distance travelled. For example, it's either €1.20 or €1.40 between La Massana and Andorra la Vella, depending on if you take a smaller or larger bus respectively. Press the Stop button or shout "Parada" when you want to get off.
iii. Renting a car from Ifrent for a day costs about €45 for a small diesel car with unlimited mileage. It may be cheaper to rent in Spain.
iv. A cafe with character in La Massana is Mon Bohemi.
v. I recommend the caprese and ham/cheese empanadas at Massa Massa in La Massana (€15 for a dozen).
vi. A nice cafe in Ordino is Vertical Limit Cafe but the waitresses run the gamut of friendliness.
vii. Postcard stamps cost €0.75 to Europe, €0.88 to South Africa.

Posted by mohn 22:46 Archived in Andorra Comments (0)

Hot in the city

A couple of days in Toulouse bracketing a visit to Andorra

sunny 33 °C

This is to be my first journey outside of the UK since I finished my RTW trip in December and, even though it will only constitute a week in Western Europe, I'm feeling that tingling that accompanies any impending departure. I haven't taken a budget airline flight for approximately a decade, and there's a mounting sense of disbelief as I navigate my way through the online booking system, realising how the airline is making it next to impossible for a passenger to pay only the tantalisingly low price in the adverts. Hold baggage, selecting a seat, and checking in at the airport will all add to the cost. I'm starting to feel proud of myself for avoiding all these additional extras, but then I reach the payment stage and find that every possible payment option will incur an administration fee. Still, I shouldn't complain at a return fare that comes in at under £100.


My intended destination is Andorra, that small mountain principality nestled in the Pyrenees between France and Spain. I will be visiting a friend, AD, who I first met in Ushuaia in the very south of Argentina in 2008. He is Israeli but spent half of his childhood in Argentina. His background is in physics, in particular nanomanufacturing. Those facts do not explain why he is now teaching science in a secondary school in Andorra. Our friendship formed due to both having been part of, and then rejecting, the rat race. In our different ways, we're now both searching for a more satisfying alternative.


There is no airport in Andorra so I have to choose between Toulouse and Barcelona as my jumping-off point. I opt for Toulouse, having never been there. AD has also only briefly visited the city so we agree to meet up there and spend a couple of days before heading for Andorra for the bulk of my time.


I leave York on a mild afternoon, boarding a trans-Pennine train service that trundles its way to Manchester Airport with a selection of suitcase-wielding passengers. The rituals of the security check, buying food at inflated prices, and sitting around waiting are all carried out, reminders that the overland style of travel I favoured during my RTW trip is preferable in most ways.


A scant two hours on the plane sees us descending to Toulouse and the pilot gives the unwanted tidings that the outside temperature is 31C. This is at 10PM. Exiting the aircraft informs me that it's extremely muggy too. Not being a fan of either heat or humidity, this isn't a good first impression.


I catch a bus into the city centre, driven by a young woman in a most un-bus-driver-like short skirt. I know little about the geography of Toulouse, other than the name of the stop where I need to get off and the directions from there to the hostel, so I ask the driver to let me know when we reach the stop. She assures me this will be no problem. Fifteen minutes later, as I start seeing signs for the train station, I suspect we've gone too far and get off. As I disembark, I catch the driver's eye in the rear view mirror, but it would appear she forgot my request seconds after I made it.


I only need to retrace a few hundred metres back along the route, but it's sweaty work. Finding the hostel is straightforward, though the dorm lights are off - not because everyone is sleeping, but in order to reduce the heat. The lack of both aircon and a fan, and the reluctance of the sultry air to sweep a breeze through the open windows, means the atmosphere is sauna-like. Four chatty young girls confirm that an Israeli guy is also here but has wandered off somewhere. Seconds later, AD appears, sporting an even thicker beard than the one he had when I last saw him in Edinburgh just a couple of months ago. It's great to see him, and we immediately leave in search of a bar to catch up on recent events.


AD has only just started learning French, and mine is poor despite many years at school, but it's still annoying when the waiter swats our attempts aside and insists on pursuing the conversation in English. With a large, cold beer gradually working its way through my system, the heat of the night seems to abate slightly. Though AD is from the Middle-East, his time in Andorra has made him a fan of mountain climates - sunny, warm days, cool nights, and low humidity are his preferences, so the Toulouse weather is as unpopular with him as it is with me. We decide to only stay for one full day.


As we sit outside the bar, I remember that the World Cup final must have finished in the last hour or so. It doesn't take long to determine who won, as the streets fill with beeping cars trailing Spanish flags behind them. Vuvuzelas are blown, "Viva Espana" shouted, and red football shirt-clad Spaniards raise their arms in triumph. This will continue through the night.


Noise isn't the only thing that keeps me awake. The thick air of the dorm combines with my excitement at being in a new place to ensure I have little sleep. There are also plenty of mosquitos and it would appear that the great love of my blood exhibited by the Asian, African, and South American mosquitos I met on my previous travels is matched by that of their French brethren. BBC Weather had forewarned me about the temperature and humidity here but the mosquito menace is unexpected and unwanted.


The following day is fresher though still hot, and AD and I venture out for some sightseeing. Toulouse is the home of Airbus Industries, but it's the older elements of the city that prove most appealing. The wooden shutters and ornate iron balcony railings reek of southern Europe, the many cafes one of the things I love about France. We take every opportunity to have a break, stopping for coffee and chit-chat in shaded plazas. The parks in the city are stocked with trees, flowers, and fountains that give some relief from the weather. The heat couples with the nation's chic fashion sense to ensure an interesting parade of Frenchwomen.


My last experience of France was Paris last December, which was my first ever visit to the capital and left me totally in love with the place. Toulouse seems to have significantly more social problems. There are many homeless, drunks, and beggars. The area near the station is awash with hookers, even during the daytime. We see several crazies, one of whom approaches a nearby cafe table and begins singing loudly just inches away from the face of a customer. A drunk guy slumped in a shop doorway is cuffed by the police then taken away in their car. Even the wall-mounted condom machines, found on streets rather than in bars, seem more sleazy than practical.


AD and I are both fans of eat-as-much-as-you-like buffets, and the helpful girl at Tourist Information points us in the direction of one, in a restaurant called Flunch. I would strongly advise that you don't go there. It's a half-hearted effort at best - you only have one helping of meat, and the unlimited vegetable dishes are predominantly carbs. On our visit, fellow diners included a chap with an affected sneezing style which he aired at regular intervals, a fat woman stuffing herself with chips while her child roamed the tables screaming and hitting other customers with a balloon, and a homeless man who grabbed leftover plates before the wait staff came to take it away. One group of diners accosted the homeless guy - I assumed they were asking him to leave, but in fact they were pointing him towards a microwave oven that he could use to reheat the half-eaten food. This was comfortably the most disappointing eating experience I've had anywhere in France.


We head to the Place St-Pierre for the evening. Though it's out of term time, the area is alive with student-age kids. A couple of them at a neighbouring table decide to bawl out "Danny Boy", though I'm unclear if that's because they heard us talking in English or just felt a sudden urge to sing it. It's a lively atmosphere that dimly recalls my own student days of twenty years (twenty years!!) ago.


We spend the next few days in Andorra (blogged separately) but circumstances dictate that I have to spend another full day in Toulouse while waiting for my flight back home. It's a Sunday, meaning little is open and I nurse several Diet Cokes for an age in one of the expensive, buzzing cafes looking onto the Place du Capitole. I conduct some pottering based around the loose premise of finding a couple of empanada shops - sadly, they're both closed and there is no indication on their doors as to what days and hours they are open.


Summer does not seem to me an appealing time to visit Toulouse, and I wonder if its charms are more readily accessible in a cooler season. There's a good chance I'll be back again the next time I'm in transit to Andorra, so should have the opportunity to test that hypothesis out. This time, though, I board a bus to the airport, and look forward to the colder air of North Yorkshire.


Dull but possibly useful info
i. I live in York, so the best combinations of cheapness/convenience to Toulouse are BMI Baby from Manchester, or Jet2 from Leeds-Bradford. BMI Baby flies on Wednesday (6:55AM), Friday and Sunday (both 7PM), returning on Wednesday (10:35AM), Friday and Sunday (10:40PM). Jet2 flies only on Saturday (10:40AM), returning on Saturday (7:55PM). For the days I wanted to fly, BMI Baby was much cheaper.
ii. There are many trains each day between York and Manchester Airport. The last train to York departs at 12:48AM, so even if you have to catch the late BMI Baby flight back from Toulouse, you'll still have enough time to get the last train home.
iii. The train station at Manchester Airport is only about 15 minutes' walk from the furthest terminal.
iv. There are regular buses from Toulouse Airport into the centre of town, costing €5. Just follow the signs in the airport.
v. In Toulouse, I stayed at a hostel called La Petite Auberge de Compostelle, paying €18 for a bunk in a 6-bed mixed dorm. I wasn't very impressed, mainly because there was no aircon or fan to help alleviate the heat/humidity, and leaving the windows open left us prey to mosquitos. In addition, you have to pay an extra €4 for sheets if you don't bring your own sleeping bag/sleep sheet - in almost every hostel I've stayed in anywhere in the world, you're requested to NOT use your own sleeping stuff because of the risk of bringing in bed bugs or other nasties, so I'm not sure why the reverse is true here. The dorm also contains a kitchenette, meaning everyone else has to smell any food that you might be cooking, plus if you arrive late at night then consideration for other guests means that you can't use the facilities. There's also no common area, so the only people you're likely to meet are those in your dorm. On the plus side, the hostel's in a good location and it was the only one listed on Hostelworld.
vi. If you're a fellow empanada-lover, try Empanadas Argentinas at 3 Rue des Gestes, or Casa Empanada at 45 Rue des Tourneurs. Both are south of, and close to, the Place du Capitole. Then let me know what they're like.
vii. For information about getting to Andorra, see my Andorra blog.

Posted by mohn 20:08 Archived in France Comments (0)

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