I knew I’d enjoy Andorra before we ever got near the main city. We’d climbed into the mid-Pyrenees in an open-top railcar to reach the bus connection at La Tour de Carol, France; now, our bus has just crossed the French/Andorran border by ascending one of the most tortuous sequences of hairpin and reverse curves within memory. I’m in the shotgun seat, looking DOWN at clouds shrouding the ski lifts at Pas de la Casa. When we crest the pass at Port d’Envalira, 7,900 feet above sea level, the road ahead unwinds in loops and coils below us like the unravelling of a fancy Christmas bow. We can see where we’re going, a cluster of buiildings in a narrow cleft in the mountains just a few miles away, but it will take us more than a half-hour to get there.
We’re on RN 20, one of two main roads into Andorra. The other, lower and less precipitous, runs southeast through Spain and offers direct bus connections between Andorra la Vella and Barcelona. Buses serving France connect with trains between Toulouse and La Tour de Carol or the more northern town of L’Hospitalet. (Where a huge contingent of hikers and campers boarded our northbound train later that week.) The bus to La Tour also connects with trains to Barcelona, a scenic alternative to the direct bus from Andorra la Vella.
Here are some of the mountain communities along the La Tour-Andorra highway and my impressions of them:
La Tour de Carol. A very picturesque old village, about a mile and a quarter up a moderate hill from the rail station. Nearby, we passed the ruins of an early brick kiln or other basic industry. The road north of here follows the railroad through a very attractive, and walkable, river valley. This would be a fine place for a hiking enthusiast to spend a half-day or so. Train photographers could capture some nice images of the tracks along the river.
Pas de la Casa. A few miles short of the summit, this is where we pass French and Andorran Customs/Immigration facilities. The duty-free stores begin less than 100 yards beyond the reach of French tax collectors, proof that shopping is as important as skiing to the modern Andorran economy. Continuing uphill, we pass several long ski lifts radiating upward from a large base camp. This is said to be the largest and best ski facility in the Pyrenees. Pas de la Casa Village had a least one hotel that appeared to have the amenities a North American visitor would want.
Soldeau. A small, attractive collection of chalet-like lodges lining the highway for a few hundred yards. 6,046 feet above sea level and near what the map identifies as a "summer activities zone."
Canillo A moderate-sized community notable for old stone houses and religious buildings progressing in tiers up the mountainside. The official government tourist guide lists one five-star hotel (The Ski Plaza) and six four-star hotels here. We’re at a more moderate 1,525 meter (5,003 foot) altitude now, and in the heart of another "summer activities zone."
Encamp. Encamp is at the foot of a steep, 3-mile hill culminating in a sharp reverse curve; a nice photo opportunity had the sun been in the right place. Near here is a roadside park featuring a 50- to 80-foot stone monolith shaped like a giant fang and pocked with strange-looking indentations. A monument from a long-lost civilization? No, a very modern climbing wall. Encamp is home to the serious hikers, climbers and backpackers. Access for casual walkers was hampered by hilly, winding, shoulderless highways bereft of sidewalks. However, the surrounding hills and river basin were laced with trails: some of them paved and gentle enough for my 66-year-old legs, others unpaved, steep, and without handholds, and clearly meant for more experienced hikers. The guidebook showed only two four-star hotels and some two- and three-star ones here. It’s about 4 1/2 miles from Encamp to the business district in Escaldes.
Fog --- actually, low-hanging clouds --- can be a hazard at the higher altitudes on this highway. And, THE PASS MAY BE CLOSED during winter snowstorms.