Think of a somewhat lopsided "Y." The Gran Riu Valira d‘Orient (Great River of the East) courses down a steep, narrow valley to form the right-hand leg. From the left, down another mountain valley, comes the Riu Valira Nord. Where they come together to form "The Great River Valira" is the country’s metropolitan center and home of most of its people.
Most of the (extremely modest) government buildings and public facilities are in Andorra la Vella, the Capitol. Escaldes, to the east, has most of the in-city hotels and the toniest shops. Engordany, sprawled amongst the hills and along the cliffs north of downtown, is the primary residential section.
First-time visitors will encounter a strange blend of medieval custom and modern practicality. The governing council still meets in a small, 500-year-old stone building that served as a dormitory and stable for members who lived too far up in the mountains to ride home at night. Many maps don’t even show the capitol building; the practical-minded and space-starved Andorrans built a parking lot atop it. However, just steps from the Old City and its narrow lanes and stone bridges, one finds a main street lined with the shops of Gucci, Prada and the rest of the high-bracket elites.
Planning a walking tour takes some faith and guesswork: streets that appear to intersect on the map may actually be separated by 50 or 100 feet of stairway, or not connected at all. When in doubt, follow the rivers downstream. The eastern river, in particular, has some lovely, tranquil walkways along its banks, insulating one from the river of tourists a block away on the main drag.
The buses from France enter Escaldes down a steep, winding hill; you can begin your walking tour at the first bus stop inside the built-up area. It’s about 25 minutes downhill from there to the city center, but don’t just follow the main street. If your legs are able, climb the stone stairway behind the little waterfall near the bus stop. This is the beginning of a hiking trail that continues several miles to Encamp (A haven for the backpacker crowd). The first long flight of steps will take you to a high ridge with a panoramic view of the city.
The building with the large McDonald’s sign is on the edge of a must-visit little riverfront park, where some of my favorite Andorra photos were taken. The ancient stone bridge pictured below is on Placa Santa Anna, an easy entry for exploring an old residential neighborhood. Near here, back on the main street, is la Eglelsa Saint Pere Martir --- the Roman Catholic Church. Many tourists joined the locals for Mass here on the evening I visited. It’s a relatively plain church but the sanctuary is just that ---a place to restore tranquility to the soul. I’m non-religious, but I enjoyed a few minutes there nonetheless.
The modernistic glass-spired structure that dominates the skyline near the confluence of rivers is the Caldea, "a monument to the paradise of water," symbolizing the Principality’s renowned spa waters.
Walking to the Caldea will take you to where the north and east branches of the river come together. Turning left will take you along a large boulevard leading back to the main shopping street. There are plenty of benches along here and, where Avinduga Consell d’Europ and Avinduga Meritxell come together, Andorra’s main tourist information center.
This is a good place to pause, stock up on maps and guidebooks, and rest on one of the benches while planning your further explorations. To visit the government buildings and other historic sites, you’ll need to be walking uphill from now on.