Hourly buses depart from Andorra La Vella for Spain from the bus stop on Placa de Guillemo. Not the easiest spot to find unless you ask for directions, it is located a stone’s throw east of Hotel Pyrenees. The bus plies southwest through Andorra La Vella’s main thoroughfare before it reaches the suburb of Santa Coloma. From here, it continues through mountainous terrain to Santa Julia de Loria, a small hamlet on the banks of Riu Gran Valira. Following the downstream course of the river, the bus penetrates a succession of underpass tunnels before it reaches the border and makes its way out of Andorra into Spain.
The remaining 8 miles of the trip is a veritable portrait of exceptional scenery. Dramatic peaks, rugged rock promontories and streams half-drowned in running water alternate with shimmering lakes, cultivated land and fruit orchards. The bus ran through a handful of quiet picturesque hamlets tucked away in a rural setting within remote deep valleys before it reached its final destination and the first town of any significance after leaving Andorra La Vella.
This pleasant place, small with regards to geographical size and population but great on location is none other than La Seu d’Urgell, a valley town wrapped in hillside groves and obscured from sight by surrounding foothills. With a small bus station but an excellent bus service, it is Spain’s sole gateway to Andorra and provides the shortest road access from anywhere to Andorra La Vella.
La Seu d’Urgell is a two-level city. The upper level sitting on the edge of a sloping hillside grove is a combination of residential and historic quarters where 12 thousand inhabitants live in a quasi-rural setting, almost cut off from the rest of the world. Bisected from north to south by Avinguda de Pau Claris and its continuation Carrer de Sant Ot, it is an area characterized by commercial activity and business outlets. It must be said that three of the best hotels in the city exercise their activity along Avinguda de Pau Claris or Carrer de Sant Ot where they have extended their restaurants and cafeterias with additional elbow-room on the sidewalks, setting up huge parasols and spreading out extra dining tables.
West of Avinguda de Pau Claris, nothing is of interest to visitors, the area being a hotchpotch of three or four-storey apartment blocks. But walk east towards the Old Town quarter and you will come across a labyrinth of narrow medieval streets, a jumble of arched passageways and atmospheric alleyways, all filled in to capacity with small specialized shops and quaint attractions that are a delight to explore.
I happened to reach the city on a Saturday when the Old Town streets, squares and corners become the venue of a huge open-air colourful market. The side-by-side market stalls occupied all imaginable places, filling in most of the medieval quarter, spreading out as far as Placa dels Oms. With such a small local population, how can a voluminous market flourish and thrive so well, particularly when one knows that it is held twice a week with the same passion and eagerness?
I asked this question to quite a few shoppers who seemed to be keener to strike a bargain or to choose good-quality products than to give me the information I requested. But at last, I met two English-speaking ladies who were packing heaps of fruit they bought from one particular street vendor.
"Market days in La Seu are social events more than anything else. Local people meet here, buy their vital requirements, exchange views about the political situation and spend a couple of hours in each other’s company".
"But…what happens to the crops that remain unsold?" I interrupted.
"Nothing remains. Prices of greens and fruit are discounted as time goes on. The quality may come down as well but you’ll take home more, much more for less".
"Considering the hordes that swarm the market streets in thousands, it seems that all residents of La Seu are here" I predicted.
"Not all but almost. You have to keep in mind that La Seu is set amidst the mountains and several people from nearby remote hamlets and mountain villages pour in on market days. Unless they grow their own produce, they have nowhere else to buy. In addition, a good number of French tourists who use La Seu as a stepping-stone to the mountains join the locals in this shopping spree".
The outside market held every Wednesday and Saturday in La Seu is not restricted solely to fruit and vegetables. Most side streets in the neighbourhood of the Cathedral are sidelined with more stalls that deal in poor-quality shoes, made-in-china clothes and gaudy plastic trinkets of questionable quality but all at knockdown prices.
When the market closes down and the leftovers are removed, the Old Town becomes an enchanting and mysterious place, a maze of dream-like sleepy narrow walkways perfect for exploration. Without a city map, I made my way from one alleyway to another, not knowing what to find behind the corner, not aware of what the next step uncovers. The bare debased architecture of the buildings, some deserted for lack of amenities, others still lived in but likewise in a state of neglect, reveals a century of downright poverty, years of meagre habitation.
Standing with pride, as if to challenge the austere architectural style of the residential Old Town houses, the mighty Cathedral of Santa Maria on the southern edge of Placa dels Oms is a huge impressive edifice that incorporates a variety of architectural remodellings. The original Romanesque style dominates the exterior structure with small windows and deep recessed openings resting on double colonnaded supports. The architectural beauty of the arcaded upper level turns the Cathedral into a monumental stone heritage of uniqueness and stature.
The gargantuan interior is sparsely decorated, dark and gloomy, the small windows being simply not enough to illuminate this colossal and lofty space. The redeeming factor is the adjoining church museum that houses within its cloistered walls exclusive hand-painted murals, a number of gilded wooden statues, ornately carved altarpieces and a great deal of ecclesiastical ornamental work in gold and silver. The focus of attraction is the Chapel of Sant Miguel, one of the longest-standing buildings in La Seu.
A secluded look-out point near the Cathedral looks out over the mountains but the view is mostly obscured by huge trees that encircle the protective fence.
At least once, possibly more than once, most residents of La Seu have probably tucked into traditional local fare at Cal Pacho, an old hole-in-the-wall with a wonderful location on the extreme edge of the Old Town. The superb view from the front parapet over the city’s lower-level parkland is the restaurant’s additional asset. Ask for directions if you can’t locate the spot; everybody in La Seu knows.
Within earshot of Cal Pacho, a free public elevator (opening hours: 7:00 to 23:00) whisks you down to the city’s most popular chill-out zone. Known as the Parc del Segre, it is an extensive forested area that drains its surplus catchment water into a rock-faced valley. The running water drops through a series of floor levels, making the valley ideal for white-water rafting. A long Versailles-style canal guttered out along one side of the park allows for rowing, canoeing and kayaking.
If you are not in the mood for water sports, you can walk along the canal’s marvellous borderline, a broad gravelled passageway that allows for stunning views of the surrounding mountains. From here, the panoramic view of the Old Town buildings enhanced by the impressive architecture of the Cathedral hanging over the park is definitely worthy of mention.
The colourful semi-open-air restaurant right in front of the water canal is the place to come to quench your thirst or to rent any type of watercraft. Those who want to enjoy perfect peacefulness and full tranquillity in an atmosphere of seclusion should head for one of the canvas-draped tent-like gazebos that sideline the watercourse. Ideal for a picnic, each sheltering spot is equipped with a wooden table and seating for four.