What brought me to Andorra? Since my childhood days of pouring over maps of faraway countries I’d been fascinated by the European microstates. Classically there had been six of them: Vatican, San Marino, Monaco, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg and Andorra. I would never imagine that I would be in a position to visit all six, but here I was with only Andorra left. I’d never gotten there before due to the fact that it seemed somehow difficult to reach. The impression you got from researching the issue on the web was that there were very little transport, if any. There seemed to exist a (rare) bus from Toulouse; from Spain the only departure point was Barcelona but the bus times were equally rare and inconvenient. I can assure that this impression is all wrong; it’s very easy to get from Barcelona to Andorra, and buses run by different companies are frequent and quick. The only issue is how to get the information and it seems that the easiest is to look for a bus on the spot. I did so in Sants railway terminal – the main railway station of Barcelona. Arriving at a random moment during the day, I found a bus departing in about 20 minutes and soon we were already navigating the zig zagged slopes of the Pyrenees.
The bus drive to Andorra takes about three hours. Andorra is not part of Schengen, therefore theoretically a one-entry Schengen visa expires on the Andorran border. In practice there was no border control as we entered Andorra, however an American on my bus did ask for the bus to stop and went looking for a borderguard to get a stamp in his passport. (There was a border control on the way back to Spain.)
And so here I am in Andorra! The place has a pretty fantastic look to it. The capital is called Andorra-la-Vella (i.e. Old Andorra). It is situated in a long narrow valley between two hills. The town climbs both hills and indeed the Old Town is located on a slope. The topography of the place is rather convoluted, it is normal to take a lift to get from one street to another.
Here is the main square of the Old Town and the old parliament building, which is called Casa de la Vall. It was a rich merchant’s house before being bought by the administration of the principality and converted into the seat of power – indeed of all branches of power, from legislative to judiciary. Nowadays it is primarily a museum, as modern buildings have been built at the end of 20th century to house the principality’s administration. Ceremonial sessions of the parliament still take place here from time to time.
A group of tourists is attacking the parliament square on this photo. You can visit Casa de la Vall, but only with a pre-registration and accompanied by a guide. I went to register and the only excursion available in English was at six in the evening. When I arrived at the scheduled time, I was surprised to find out that I’m the only visitor. A breathtakingly beautiful Andorran girl gave me an exclusive tour.
I won’t retell Wikipedia, but suffice it to say that Andorra is quite a unique country. As a result of a long conflict, in 13th century the count of Foix from the North and the bishop of Urgell from the South agreed to share sovereignty over this small piece of land and became co-princes of Andorra. Since then Foix has become a part of France and Urgell is nowadays in Spain, but Andorra has remained independent – with its co-princes nowadays the President of France (strictly speaking, it’s the Republic who is the co-prince, as my guide highlighted several times) as well as the Spanish bishop of Urgell. The official language though is Catalan. So there does exist a Catalan-speaking country in the world – though it’s not Catalunya. With some surprise I discovered that most people here speak good French and by far prefer it to English.
The same main square, looking in the other direction – towards the valley.
If you approach the railings where a pair is sharing a kiss on the previous photo, this is what you would observe looking down.
The previous view is looking West to East. This is looking East to West from the other end of the valley, the settlement of Escaldes-Erdogany. From this point you can embark on a trek in the mountains – more about it below.
The second main square of Andorra-la-Vella – Plaça del Poble, the People’s Square. Free wifi and all.
The Old Town, Barri Antic. There isn’t much left in fact, a large street dissects it into two and most buildings there are modern.
But from time to time you do come across some medieval looking buildings. An old church. I saw an exhibition on old churches of Andorra in a local art museum. Most of them look this way – very archaic, indeed pre-Gothic. And date from a corresponding century – often 10th or 11th.
An observation wheel and the view of Andorra from Escaldes-Erdogany. I was too bored to photograph it, but in fact most of Andorra is covered with shopping centres. As it’s not part of the European Union, theoretically the common market doesn’t apply here and the goods are supposed to be much cheaper. I did notice an obviously lower prices for alcohol but otherwise it didn’t seem like the prices were much different here from the countries around. Admittedly I did do some shopping for convenience reasons – it took me perhaps 3 hours to buy things that would require 3 days in a large European capital.
Of course Andorra is cheaper compared to large cities. In this café in a shopping centre I sampled a selection of cheeses and hams for just a couple of euros. Of course as is wont in Spain this machine was used to cut the ham:
Andorra surprised me by its wonderful propensity to place contemporary art in most unexpected places. You walk down the street and all of a sudden in a random courtyard this:
Or a niche in a random street. I think it’s a terrific idea, if done in good taste of course (yes, I’m looking at you, Skopje!)
There isn’t a terrible list of tourist attractions and to be honest most visitors come for shopping. And yet there exists a UNESCO world heritage listed object. This is the highland valley of Madriu-Perafita-Claror, which is a natural refuge to rare species of plants and animals due to its remoteness. You cannot reach it with any transport except with your own two feet, but the latter means is pretty practical – and I read from a few blogs on the web that people really enjoyed the hike. I visited a tourist information office in Andorra-la-Vella and was given several maps as well as explanations how to reach the valley.
The maps and the explanations were worth absolutely nothing!!! The maps do not correspond at all to the actual terrain on the ground. Moreover there are several marked paths (called camí in Catalan) but in practice only one is reasonable. The paths I tried first were either completely impassable due to large fallen trees on top of a cliff where the path should pass, or included walking for prolonged periods on asphalted mountain roads with cars unexpectedly appearing out of nowhere and whizzing by – not exactly your idea of a peaceful mountain hike! By trial and error I did identify the path to take, but I lost about 1-1,5 hours for this. If ever you are in Andorra and wish to visit the UNESCO valley, use only this path – Camí de la Canaleta. It’s the one which diverts from the main street a bit earlier than all the others and it includes only crossing one road on the way up.
One example of many useless road marks. They would only appear useful to somebody who already knows the terrain.
I fumed a bit about Andorra’s inability to provide proper directions for its only worthy tourist object. But as I climbed higher and higher up, all my exasperation gave way to that special serenity that you only experience on a mountain hike. This is a look back on Andorra-la-Vella, which is slowly dissappearing among the hills as I get deeper into the Madriu-Perafita-Claror valley.
It occurred to me that perhaps all this confusion was intentional, to prevent too many random tourists from reaching this hidden corner of paradise. Truth be told, as you get into the valley itself the path becomes clear.
There are in fact a few small settlements in the valley, consisting literally of a couple of houses. This is Entremesaigües. I didn’t come across a single soul up there. You need perhaps 6 to 8 hours to cross all the valley. As I had to be back in Andorra-la-Vella before the dark, I only ventured approximately midway to the valley. I then had to turn back with considerable regret.