A Travellerspoint blog

Andorra

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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