A tiny dot on the map of the world, a pea-sized insignificant spot on the map of Europe, Andorra is an independent country with a population of less than 80 thousand. Although short of historical buildings, art museums and cultural venues, it is nonetheless a major tourist destination attracting over 10 million visitors annually.
Sitting right in the heart of the Pyrenees midway between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, the country is huddled and embraced by grand mountains, most of which are straight-cut semi-desert ridges or high-gradient tree-infested slopes. The topmost mountain peaks are blanketed in thick snow for most of the year, while the sloping promontories get less snow and are ideal for winter skiing.
This dramatic scenery, this natural marvel of snow-capped mountains and green wilderness about which I became aware through guide books and postcards was the prime factor that pushed me to make Andorra my longed-for destination this year.
Visitors can only reach Andorra by road. The country has neither an airport nor a railway station and unless you walk across the mountains – a feat of exertion beyond the ability of many, the only way to enter the country is through one of two border crossings. One route leads from France to Pas de La Casa, a large ski resort on the eastern Andorra border. This route snakes through picturesque mountainous terrain and lovely peaks, snow-capped even during the early summer season. The other route climbs up a distance of 16 miles from La Seu d’Urgell in Spain to Andorra’s capital. Easier and shorter to drive through, this road is short of wonderful scenery although it likewise cuts across the mountains. It must be said that south of Andorra’s capital and further south along the borderline, the Pyrenees are not as grand and dominating as their sisters along the French-Andorran crossing.
Having no wheels of my own and determined to concentrate on the scenery rather than on the road, I decided to travel by train from Perpignan to Andorra. Obviously no mean feat since the distance is considerably long and the route cuts across high mountains and runs along straight ridges and deep vales.
The information desk in Perpignan’s train station is a haven of tips and advice. You can choose your pick from 15 colourful brochures, each listing the timetable details and the waypoint stations along a particular route. Brochure Number 6 is an essential hand tool for those who dare sacrifice comfort for adventure. The route kicks off from Perpignan and travels west over mountain passes, traverses deep down dale tracks and right through several rock-hewn tunnels before it reaches the end station named Latour de Carol.
The first part of the route is a thirty-mile stretch of countryside track road that penetrates deep into the Tet valley and passes through the graceful town of Prades. At this point, the train takes a sharp turn south and terminates at a small wayside station in Villefranche Vernet-les-Bains. The trip from Perpignan to Villefranche Vernet-les-Bains is a one-hour encounter with a paradise of verdant landscape scenery. Fruit orchards, cultivated land and valleys half-drowned in running water can be viewed at leisure from the train windows. On approaching the end station, the landscape suddenly changes into terraced hillside groves and subsequently into steep mountainous terrain.
All this comes at an unbelievable discounted price, so cheap that I thought I did not understand the information, having possibly forgotten the French I learned at school. But… yes, the quoted price was right. In view of promoting this trip and making it more popular, the regional Languedoc-Roussillon train company is selling tickets from the ticket machines in Perpignan for just one Euro. This portion of the route is covered by normal train that makes use of the French standard-gauge tracks.
Those who want to cover the complete journey to Latour de Carol in view of reaching Andorra by mid-afternoon should take the 7:29am train from Perpignan. Reaching Villefranche Vernet-les-Bains at 8:22am, you will have about 30 minutes of waiting time before catching the narrow-gauge ‘train jaune’ to Latour de Carol.
The actual fun, the excitement, the pleasure of sighting through new ground, the anticipation of discovering pristine terrain is just on the verge of starting. In the meantime, walk out of the station and check out the sheer grandeur of the surrounding mountains, some showing off their steep leafy topography, others displaying outcrops of rugged rock formations devoid of vegetation. But all are almost within touch, definitely all are within easy walking distance.
On seeing fellow travellers queuing up, I left behind this natural layout of mountain scenery and joined the line-up on the platform. The yellow train was there ready for boarding. I approached closer to take snaps of this century-old mechanical contrivance, a bright yellow machine that looked as if it were a well-preserved movable museum piece. Do not expect to find the usual electronic boards showing off the departure time and the name of the end station. Neither should you expect to find a ticket-check turnstile. On the other hand, station names and departure times are handwritten on big boards that hang from the platform ceiling while tickets are hand checked by train inspectors dressed up for the occasion. Once the obstructing chain was removed and the tickets checked, the waiting family of explorers and holidaymakers embarked for the trip. Some ran for the open-top carriage; others, including myself found our way to an ordinary carriage fearing that the cold temperature of the mountains would be too much to bear.
Starting up was a six-times attempt that lasted two minutes. "Engine failure probably" declared with astonishment a fellow traveller who seemed to be an expert of mechanical stuff. Everybody else was rendered speechless. But oh… the last attempt proved to be an achievement of automatic mechanical restoration since the engine suddenly came to life, puffed heavily and fired up. Was this a gimmick, a made-up practical joke thrown in as a teaser? I do not know. All I can say is that the train arrived on time at the end station although the remedied failing start-up showed up two more times during the three-hour trip.
The impressive views of the green-and-white mountains from the train’s roll-up windows are unforgettable. The ascent along the rock face of a high-gradient mountain slope followed by an immediate descent deep down within the abyss of a lush valley is heart-beating. Penetrating a series of dark tunnels is a fairy-tale adventure into the mysterious; crossing a vibrating stone bridge supported on slender pillars is a risky feat of engineering. Fellow travellers including myself lived through these and other memorable experiences during the adventurous trip on the yellow train.
The train concluded its journey at noon, entering with pride at Latour de Carol station. Looking up for information in the ‘Lonely Planet Spain Edition 6’ guidebook, I thought that it was easy to track down the Andorra-bound bus. No luck; so I enquired at the information desk about buses to Andorra. The officer in charge declared with an air of impatience that buses to Andorra are no longer in operation. The irritating tone of his voice was a clear indication that the same declaration was already replicated dozens of times during the day.
What should I do? I was stranded in a one-room train station in the middle of a small one-road village overshadowed by high mountains from all sides. Confused and not knowing what to do next, I came across two fellow travellers who were knowledgeable enough to give me valuable advice in view of getting to Andorra in the shortest time possible.
Frequent Toulouse-bound trains stop at Latour de Carol and continue their journey northwards, stopping at another insignificant train station in the village of Hospitalet. This minuscule picturesque hamlet in the heart of the French Pyrenees has its own information office, a really good source of information and assistance. The officer in charge indicated on a village map the direction to a car rental garage from where I took a taxi to Pas de La Casa. The half-hour drive amidst snow-capped mountains and breathtaking scenery gave me no option but to forget all the hassle I experienced at Latour de Carol train station. Of special mention for its sheer grandeur and beauty is the Port d’Envalira, the highest mountain pass in the Pyrenees.
Pas de La casa is a huge ski resort situated at an altitude of two thousand metres. Due to its superb location, it enjoys an excellent annual snowfall, making it ideal for skiing, snowboarding and ice driving. The area is infested with nightclubs and bars, making it difficult to resist the temptation of enjoying nightlife to the full.
Regular buses, codenamed L5 travel regularly from Pas de La Casa to Andorra La Vella reaching the capital in about one hour.