An April 2001 trip
to Andorra by Armed With Passport
Quote: As a young boy interested in geography, I was always fascinated by little countries. I wondered if the people of tiny Andorra were also miniature people as well, like the Lilliputians in Gulliver's Travels. These schoolboy questions were all answered when I visited tiny Andorra on the way to Spain.
Although we were only passing through, it seems that skiing is the best thing to do; the Pyrenees, even in late March, were still covered with plenty of snow, at least in the ski town of El Pas de la Casa near the French border. Hiking after the snow melts seems to be a highlight in warmer months.
I enjoyed just being in a country that is a vestige from a feudal time long forgotten, although walking through streets exploding with designer label shops and shoddy electronic stores wasn't exactly gentle stroll through a quaint town of castle keeps and half-timbered houses that I had anticipated.
Be sure to layer your clothes while in all parts of Andorra; it is high up in the Pyrenees (Andorra la Vella is the highest capital in Europe) and while it was sunny and warm while we were there, I could tell it had potential to get quite cold.
Leaving Andorra is quite similar to entering, except that when you hit the border (in our case, Spain) you are pulled over and searched, mostly for excessive amounts of cigarettes. This may cause long lines at the border.
Andorra la Vella, the city where we visited, was a traffic nightmare with only one road going through the city valley. Parking wasn't too bad; I used a self-service garage off of the main drag. Once you park, it is fairly easy to get around the capital; it is, not surprisingly, quite small.
We also looked for some decent carry-on luggage for my wife as her current suitcase was falling apart, but we found the selection and the language barrier a hindance to getting what we wanted.
I suppose there were deals on cigarettes (we don't smoke), cigars, and alcohol in Andorra, but it seemed silly to buy things now when we could pick them up at an airport duty-free anyway.
We were pleased to get Andorra postcards, some chocolate, and a good Spain/Portugal roadmap in a general store nearby.
There were interesting old stores (not selling duty free schtick) in the Barri Antic near the Casa de Vall, but we were too hungry at this point to shop.
Member Rating 2 out of 5 on April 18, 2002
Smart thinking would have told us to take the A-61 East in the direction of Narbonne and then head south toward Barcelona by way of the French A-9 and Spanish A-7. Although this was geometrically sound and efficient, it seemed quite boring. Frankly, I was tired of straight French autopistes and I wanted some adventure.
I had mentioned in passing to my wife before even getting on the airplane to go to France that I had always really, really wanted to go to Andorra. My wife's seemingly appropriate response to this was to ask, "Why?" I really didn't know why; I guess the main reason was because "it is there". There is just something intriguing about a little country sandwiched between the mighty European countries of France and Spain.
Now I had the opportunity to pass through Andorra on the way to Barcelona. On the trusty Michelin map that I picked up in Chamonix a couple of days ago, I saw that going to Andorra would be just a "minor" detour. Instead of heading due east, we would head south west a bit. I noticed that the roads were colored yellow, instead of the usual red. I knew this meant that they were secondary roads, but I figured that as long as they weren't composed of dirt that it wouldn't take too long.
Boy, was I wrong.
Things started out okay. I took a pretty country road (D-118) to the little town of Limoux. Great, so far. I had slow, but continued success on the same road to the next little town, Quillan. It was at Quillan that a terrible mistake was committed. We took the winding, mountainous road, the D-613.
This road was full of hairpin switchbacks, steep climbs, and blind turns. The road ruthlessly meandered and wandered with no end in sight as if it were some long drinking story told by an inebriated sailor. Occasionally, I would get stuck behind a truck and have to begin the harrowing ordeal of trying to pass it without being struck from traffic coming the other way. Even more discouraging was the fact that there seemed to be no civilization to be found anywhere. Sometimes we would see a sign that said, "Due to snowfall road may be closed" or similar (in French). It was pretty discouraging to imagine having to turn around and go back to where I started earlier in the morning.
Civilization came into view as we made a roller-coaster descent down the side of a mountain with beautiful vistas into the very charming town of Ax-les-Thermes. It seemed like a great place to stop and it obviously had thermal baths, but we were on a mission to go to Andorra, so I kept moving on.
From Ax-les-Thermes, we picked up N-20, which would have been a faster road if it weren't for the ridiculous traffic. Tons of trucks emitting black exhaust and slow vans full of skiers filled the roadway, making it nearly impossible to pass. We continued this way for quite some time, even as we turned the car onto the N-22 to make our ascent into Andorra.
On this road the terrain became almost vertical again. I was fortunate, however, that the road was constructed so that slower traffic could pull to the right on the very steep parts; I revved the engine of our Volkswagen as we struggled to pass on the left. We finally made it to the border at El Pas de la Casa, where you could see the ski run and lift right next to the customs and passport control. My nerves were completely frazzled, but I was exhilarated to have made it to my destination: Welcome to Andorra!
When I arrived in Andorra, I was relieved to see that the people were not in fact miniature as I had imagined that they may be when I was about nine years old. What I did not see was a great deal of resources available to tell me about the history of Andorra.
I had purchased a little book called "All Andorra" which gave some rudimentary explanations of Andorran history in poorly translated English. I walked to Andorra's equivalent of Parliament, the Casa de la Vall (House of the Valley), which is located at the end of a street that emanates from the Placa de Benlloch. It has been the seat of Andorran government since 1702. This body of government is called the Consell General. The Consell General is made up of four repesentatives from each of the seven municipalities of Andorra, for a total of 28. (Hard to believe that a small country needs seven municipalities, isn't it?) The building itself looks a bit like a stony castle with arches and turrets.
The country of Andorra actually came about when a bloody power struggle between the Bishops of Urgell (in Spain) and the Counts of Foix (in France) ended with the signing a treaty in 1278. The treaty stipulated that Andorra was to be ruled by two co-princes, the Bishop of Urgell and the Count of Foix. Leadership of the country was given to the people by the co-princes in the form of the "Consell General" in 1580, which I mentioned above. To this day, the Bishops of Urgell retain their rights as co-princes, but the right to the title of co-prince of Andorra on the French side has passed, through a succession of marriages, from the Counts of Foix, to the Crown of Navarre, and then to the Crown of France. The French co-prince rights were rudely severed (literally) by the French Revolution in the late 18th Century. The "Consell General", who wished things to be as they were before the Revolution, petitioned Napoleon in 1806 to be the co-prince. He accepted. Today, the French co-prince is the French president.
We passed through the guard gate at Andorra at a rolling ten miles per hour. I guess there was nothing suspicious about our Volkswagen.
We climbed even higher altitude along the side of the beautiful mountain slope. It was a sunny day, so most of the skiers were skiing only in sweaters and many were without ski gloves. As it was only the early afternoon, we could still see some late risers making their way to the slopes. Either the transportation facilities are terrible to the slopes at El Pas de Casa or these people were crazy because they were hauling their ski and poles on their backs with one hand with their ski boots in the other hand, all while trudging up a steep hill. I would have never made it to the slope at that rate and if I did I would have been too tired to ski anyway.
We continued down into a valley, following the signs to Les Escaldes and Andorra la Vella. We came upon Les Escaldes first, going down the main Avenue, called Avinguda de Charlemagne. It was, of course, full of duty free shops and had all the charm of a strip mall except for the stunningly gorgeous mountains on both sides of it. Les Escaldes is famous for its sulfur baths and luxurious spas, but we unfortunately had to keep moving.
Les Escaldes blends right into Andorra la Vella and you are lead by signs into the main shopping street, the Avinguda de Meritxell. It has similar bland duty free shops with pedestrian shoppers clogging the sidewalks and streets to find bargains. There is also an upsetting amount of American fast food chains throughout the street (not that I'm against fast food chains; I just don't want to see things that I see at home, especially when I'm in small principalities in the Pyrenees).
After some exasperating circling I finally found a suitable garage and parked the rental car. We walked around town looking for a palletable place to eat. We obviously went in the wrong place. The food was so terrible and the service so slow that I have tried to put the whole instance out of my memory. I can't remember what I ordered or what the restaurant was called. Toni and I usually have a knack of making great food and restaurant choices no matter where we are and this was a rare instance when we screwed up.
Otherwise we just walked around town, seeing the few sights, the Placa del Pobles, the Casa de la Vell, the Barri Antic, and the Avinguda de Meritxell, where we looked at digital cameras and luggage before just buying postcards, an Andorra book, and some chocolate. We also changed some francs into pesetas at a local bank where I had to sign about fifty forms in Catalan. We returned to the car to leave.
After some tricky moments trying to figure out how to use the automatic parking payment machine and accepting the help of a kind stranger, we left the garage to find the streets of Andorra la Vella completely jammed. It took us about a half of an hour to get out of the urban area and then about another ten minutes to get to the customs line at the Spanish border. Under EU law, you are only allowed (declaration free, that is) a certain amount of goods bought from outside. Apparently there is a big problem with the smuggling of cigarettes, so we had to wait quite a while. When it was our turn, I pulled into a space and the man asked if I had cigarettes and opened my trunk. I said no and he let us go.
We headed out of Andorra on the Spanish road N-145 South heading toward La Seu d'Urgell. From here we would enjoy the Spanish side of the Pyrenees on our way to Barcelona.
All in all, Andorra was a bit disappointing, but it was something I had to do. It would be a great destination for skiing, especially if you were staying in a spa-type hotel near the ski lodge.
Armed With Passport
Miromar Lakes, Florida