Written by marif on 06 Jul, 2012
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…Read More
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. Close
Written by marif on 03 Jul, 2012
"A city washed in white, dressed in slate". This is how one Figueres resident with whom I shared a seat on the Sarfa bus during my trip described Cadaques. After having snaked into all imaginable spots in the city for a day, I could not…Read More
"A city washed in white, dressed in slate". This is how one Figueres resident with whom I shared a seat on the Sarfa bus during my trip described Cadaques. After having snaked into all imaginable spots in the city for a day, I could not but consent to the words of the fellow on the bus. However, to do full justice to the city, I have to add that Cadaques is likewise belted in green and hemmed in blue.A day trip to Cadaques is a retreat to a paradisiacal oasis of land and sea, a haven of wild greenery and foaming waters. This becomes more real if your visit happens to be out of season when the place has not yet been swarmed with overseas visitors and well-off Spaniards from Barcelona who descend on the city in July and August like bees on a hive.I happened to reach Cadaques in May when the activity in the city was just on the verge of starting. Having your own wheels to reach the city is tantamount to driving across a long stretch of country roads, most of which run along high-gradient slopes or straight-cut mountain ridges. The entire region between Figueres and Cadaques is a natural montage of pine-covered mountains, rolling hills blanketed with yellow-blooming bushes and deep vales half-drowned in running water. The scenery is fantastic; the trip is heart-beating all the way, tummy-turning at times.If you want to skip the adventure and concentrate on the verdant panorama, the option is to take a bus from Figueres to Cadaques. The bus station in Figueres south of the city centre has the timetable. On Sundays, a convenient bus leaves Figueres at 10:00am, passes through a few picturesque villages on the way and reaches the coastal town of Roses at 10:30am. From here to Cadaques, the stretch of mountainous terrain is a sublime wilderness of rugged rock formations and tree-infested slopes. The high altitude of the mountains gives way to charming winding roads as the bus brakes its descent to the city.A short stroll from the bus station to Platja Es Portal (Cadaques main beach) is a five-minute encounter with the city’s main shopping area. Chic and glinting with souvenirs for sale, most shops in the area are upmarket and do not trade in gaudy plastic trinkets or worthless bijouterie. Sandwiched between souvenir shops, restaurants near the bay dominate the scene with bizarre seafood dishes. One particular restaurant included in the menu a seafood delight: ‘Grilled sea-perch on a bed of sea-lettuce seasoned with sea-urchin paste.’ The owners of one other restaurant thought it appropriate to put a huge sign in French over the doorway: ‘Poisson de la mer Mediterranee.’On reaching the bay, I stood in awe looking at the crystal-clear water as it rolled over the pebbles on the beach, hissing its way back softly into the open. Multicoloured fishing boats anchored to the rocky outcrops further away swerved and tossed harmoniously as the foaming waves lapped gently at their sides. The greenish blue colour of the Mediterranean supplemented by the shimmering green of the leafy hillside groves that watched over the bay from opposite sides was the main reason why Cadaques turned from an unknown rundown fishing village to an artists’ hotspot and subsequently to an elegant summer resort.Leaving reluctantly for a moment this come-to-life Mediterranean seascape postcard, I turned my back away from nature to look at the village buildings. No jungle concrete structures, no high-risers in sight. Oh, what a relief! A borderline of two-storey mansions, elegantly washed in white, their apertures coated in pastel blue, seemed to run orderly along the whole stretch of the bay’s promenade. Several uphill alleyways along which additional white terraced buildings stood watching over the bay rose stepwise towards the green wilderness.I decided to leave the plaza and stroll along one edge of the promenade. Soon the beach pebbles gave way to rugged rocks, mostly composed of black layers of worn-out slate. I soon reached Platja Es Poal, a small secluded rocky cove where the blue sea suddenly turned emerald green and the water became so clear that I could observe with ease marine life at a depth of two metres below the surface. Shrimps, crabs and small fish ran for shelter as my reflection in the water interrupted their routine search for food.To complement the sublime rocky seashore and to add to the sheer roughness of the coastline’s topography, protective garden walls and hedges along the promenade are mostly composed of tiers of mountain slate, rough, black and irregularly hewn. I walked further on until I reached Platja Es Planc, a picturesque beach dressed in white worn-out sea stones but spotted here and there with black slate pebbles. Hotel Playa Sol, overlooking the beach is a knockout place ideal to quench your thirst after a walk of more than one hour. Walking back towards the city’s main beach plaza, I popped into quite a few alleyways and climbed up to suitable vantage points from where I could take snaps of the bay. The views from here over the bay are superb. The vivid blue colour of the Mediterranean stained with mirror images of dark rocky projections and colourful sailing boats is a lively palette of natural hues, their intensity affected solely by the day’s luminosity.On reaching Platja Es Portal, I kept on walking at leisure along the promenade on the opposite side of the bay. From the main esplanade, various picturesque steep alleyways ascend to the Old Town quarter. Narrow, quaint, obscure and veiled in mystery, these ghostly walkways are embedded with cobbled wedges of black slate. The hide-and-seek atmosphere is so profound that one gets a feeling of amazement and trepidation at every sharp turn, not aware of what lies trapped behind the corner. At long last, I reached the topmost spot of the Old Town. Crowned by an imposing Cathedral, this is indisputably the most glorious spot in the city, a great look-out point from where the view extends over the whole mountainous region. The Cathedral itself, dedicated to Santa Maria is a sixteenth-century architectural gem, a Catalan version of early Gothic and Romanesque styles. A labyrinth of winding alleyways runs north from the Cathedral to the Museu de Cadaques de Arte on Carrer de Narcis Monturiol. Although this small exposition of surrealist and cubist paintings is often overlooked by visitors, it is nonetheless a perfect introduction to twentieth-century Spanish art, revealing works by Dali, Miro, Niebla and Picasso.If you still have the nerve to walk a further one mile, take the pedestrianised road northeast to Port Lligat, a tiny picturesque hamlet built around a rocky promontory. The queer maze-like house of Salvador Dali which he himself changed from a collection of fishermen’s huts into a lovely habitable residence is the main reason why one should come here. The Dali residence is architecturally quaint and mirrors the artist’s strange character and disturbed imagination. It is nonetheless a great place to visit, particularly when one considers that nowhere else can one get closer to Dali’s life outside the studio.Salvador lived here with his sweetheart Gala for more than half a century. Here, he brought into existence most of his landscape paintings, getting his inspiration from the odd-shaped rugged rocks and the wild deserted seashore you can still see from the windows of his Port Lligat residence. He never wanted to leave and whenever he did, he returned with a more fertile imagination.Visitors who come here do not want to leave either. Why? It might be the lovely view of the Mediterranean seascape, or the ghostly dream-like atmosphere that inhabits the place or perhaps…Dali’s involvement with surrealism. Who knows? Close
Written by marif on 28 Jun, 2012
The main railway line from Barcelona to the French border passes through the small inland town of Figueres. Trains from here to Portbou, the last town in Catalonia before crossing the Spanish-French border, use the narrower Iberian-gauge track. Some trains from Figueres terminate at Portbou,…Read More
The main railway line from Barcelona to the French border passes through the small inland town of Figueres. Trains from here to Portbou, the last town in Catalonia before crossing the Spanish-French border, use the narrower Iberian-gauge track. Some trains from Figueres terminate at Portbou, others continue via the narrow-track tunnel to Cerbere in France.Adventurous travellers who stop in Portbou for a couple of hours usually head for the beach promenade, a graceful place ideal for a stroll in an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity. Portbou’s harbour has changed over the last decade from a small haven for fishing boats to a complex concrete construction that caters for pleasure boats and mid-size yachts. From the harbour, it is a short hop by boat to one of the several secluded seashore spots along Portbou’s coastline. A case in point is Platja del Clape, a small beach that offers an ideal combination of sand, sea and water-sports facilities.Visitors heading for the south of France often skip Portbou and choose Cerbere as their first destination in France or as a base from where to take a train to travel north. Stopping in Cerbere for a few hours is not a bad idea. The high-rise hotels and blocks of apartments right on the coastline are definitely out of place but the fantastic views of the hills in the background more than compensate for this. If you have the nerve to walk uphill, the view of the rugged Mediterranean coastline from the hilltop is a superb portrait-pretty panorama few other spots can match. An easy destination from Cerbere is Perpignan, a French city where most residents speak as much French as Catalan. Signposting to attractions is also bilingual while signs in English in the city centre are not uncommon, particularly in areas frequented by tourists.Perpignan is not on the coastline but one can easily reach from here a number of coastal towns, most of which are endowed with a combination of wide sandy beaches and secluded rocky shores. Worthy of mention is Canet-Plage, Perpignan’s nearest beach resort. A hike along the picturesque promenade of Canet-Plage gives one the opportunity to breathe in the salty Mediterranean air that is blown inland from the sea whenever the frequent violent Tramontane wind strikes the area. From the seashore promenade, look at the steep terraced vineyards that cover the fertile hillsides as these drop into the sea.Perpignan is an ideal base for those who want to get acquainted with the Cote Vermeille, a coastal stretch of land renowned for its tiny picturesque villages and fishing ports. Collioure is the place to come if you want to see tens of art galleries, all filled in to capacity with landscape paintings, most of which depict either traditional multicoloured fishing boats or local houses washed in soft pastel colours. Most of these are genuine works of art painted by local artists who take their easel to a vantage point where they can get in touch with nature. Some are however imitations or poor copies and cost next to nothing. So if you intend to buy, examine the paintings carefully before committing yourself.Collioure is synonymous with Henri Matisse since it was here that the famous French painter of Fauvism got his inspiration to throw in splashes of intensely bright colours onto a canvas in an effort to demonstrate the effect of time on nature. The ‘Chemin du Fauvisme’ is a guided walk around Collioure that takes one past twenty reproductions of artworks made by Matisse during the short time the artist lived here. Though not on the coastline, Perpignan is a city where one can relax for a couple of days in an atmosphere of sun and warm weather. Add to this, Perpignan’s Catalan culture and great Spanish food and you will discover why this city is anticipating a flourishing exposure and a prosperous future.Perpignan’s cultural attractions are concentrated south of the river Tet, a broad waterway that flows through the city before it discharges its water into the Gulf of Lyon. Perpignan’s town centre is bisected by another waterway, a narrow tributary that branches out of the Tet and flows southwest across the city. Both waterways are lined with wonderful passageways that are ideal for walking at leisure. Thrown here and there along the passageways are small manicured gardens, packed with rose bushes and hydrangeas, a veritable delight when in bloom.Perpignan is without doubt an important centre of Catalan culture, tradition and history. There is no need to go around the medieval winding streets of the old quarter to discover this. A short walk along Rue Louis Blanc and Place de La Loge is enough to put you in touch with the city’s most important Catalan architectural heritage. One fine building that exposes in detail the influence of Catalan culture on the city is the Hotel de Ville, a typical Languedoc-Roussillon building whose frontal elevation is dotted with a profusion of river pebbles put in place as a means of reinforcing the thick plaster. Its huge doorway leads to an imposing courtyard surrounded by an arcaded corridor where one finds a number of offices used primarily as a working place of administration for the region. From time to time, the courtyard and the corridor are used to host cultural events, open-air concerts or temporary exhibitions.From here, a short stroll towards the Basse (the Tet’s tributary) brings one on Place de Verdun. The fourteenth-century redbrick city gate that occupies a large section of the square is what remains from the bastions that formerly encircled the city. Known as ‘Le Castillet’, it houses a museum of Catalan folklore, packed with artefacts, historical documents and knickknacks related to Catalan culture. Its rooftop terrace provides great views over the medieval city centre.Place Gambetta is Perpignan’s most popular square. A venue for a good number of city festivals, church celebrations and specialized markets, it is the symbol of Catalan identity in France. On one side of this square stands Perpignan’s Cathedral. Dedicated to St Jean, it is a massive fourteenth-century single-nave place of worship whose Gothic architectural design is typical of churches in the south of France. Its redbrick frontal elevation is dotted with an orderly array of river stones, making it appear much older than it really is. The single bell tower topped by a wrought-iron cage is typical of churches in Provence. Get inside and you will be faced with quite a few magnificent works of art. Worthy of mention are the huge stained-glass windows that illuminate the choir and the elaborate carvings and fine altarpiece that adorn the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament.Adjoining the Cathedral of St Jean on Place Gambetta, the ‘Campo Santo’ is an interesting historic building notorious for its long rows of white marble Gothic porticoes. It is in actual fact a cloistered graveyard, one of the oldest buildings in Perpignan, ghostly, magical and unique in the whole of France. Definitely a must-see for lovers of medieval architecture.South of the city centre on Rue des Archers, one finds the majestic Palace of the Kings of Mallorca. This huge redbrick fortress set within its own grounds is structurally immaculate and oozes history. Its impressive castle-like Gothic features are an extreme example of military architecture. The rooms and the tiny chapels within are empty of furnishings and decorations but they are nonetheless worthy of a visit for their imposing structural design. The top platform of the main tower provides great views over the city that stretch out to the mountains and the sea in cloudless weather.Place de La Republique, a short stroll south of the medieval quarter is a shopper’s paradise. Besides dozens of small individual shops, the square and its neighbouring streets are packed with cafes and restaurants, most specialize in fine Catalan cuisine or innovative Mediterranean fare. In summer, the square becomes one long dining area. Tables perched outside and shaded by large parasols fill in most of the space, creating a refreshing ambience of entertainment.It’s good to know that Perpignan’s medieval quarter is just one side of the picture. The other side is unfortunately a slum area inhabited by illegal North African immigrants who live in depressing poverty. If you venture east of the Old Town centre and walk uphill in the direction of the Church of St James, you will get a taste of a Perpignan that is utterly different from the Perpignan you have already discovered. Known as the Arab quarter, the area around Place du Puig and Rue des Mercadiers is a disgrace to society. The smell of North African spices, herbal concoctions and red-pepper paste may appeal to some but join the crowds of Arabs on the market square every morning and you will feel otherwise. The strong sneezing smell that abounds is simply too much for a European. Close
Written by marif on 25 Jun, 2012
Ryanair’s flight to Girona placed me miles away from my desired destination – the Eastern Pyrenees, but not as far as to make my trip too arduous and the spots I longed to visit unreachable.The small arrival terminal at Girona airport and the facilities it…Read More
Ryanair’s flight to Girona placed me miles away from my desired destination – the Eastern Pyrenees, but not as far as to make my trip too arduous and the spots I longed to visit unreachable.The small arrival terminal at Girona airport and the facilities it formerly offered have expanded by quite a few degrees since I last visited three years ago. Direct bus transport from the airport to nearby towns on the Costa Brava coastline is now available, although the frequency varies with the season and with the popularity of the destination. Transport to towns west and north of Girona is not yet regularly available, except perhaps in the high season. On the other hand, buses to Barcelona depart half-hourly on a regular basis.Whatever your itinerary, except if you are heading for Barcelona, the best option is to take the frequent airport bus to Girona centre (2.60 Euro one-way) from where transport service to all destinations is excellent. The airport bus reaches the main bus terminus in Girona in 30 minutes. The big building you see behind the covered waiting platforms houses the train station and the bus station. Besides the usual information screens, each station is provided with an information desk where one can get more personal and ask the officer in charge for advice or a required timetable. First on my itinerary was the small town of Figueres, accessible by frequent trains from Girona in about 30 minutes. North of Girona and midway between Girona and the French border, Figueres has few attractions but one big attraction has given stature to the city and succeeded in pulling in crowds of visitors. Staying overnight in Figueres is not a bad idea, particularly if you want to make sure to get access to Dali’s theatre-museum with ease. Bear in mind that Dali’s attraction in Figueres is the second most visited site in Spain, after Madrid’s Prado.Two hours before closing time, the queues in front of the museum’s main entrance on Placa de Gala i Salvador Dali were so long that I decided to be back again the following day before the doors are unlocked for visitors at 9:30am. Finding a hotel in the centre of Figueres not far from the town’s main attraction was easy, far easier than I imagined. Obviously, most visitors come here on a day trip from Barcelona and do not stay overnight. As a matter of fact, Figueres becomes quiet, noiseless and almost deserted after the museum closes down for the night. This gives the opportunity to those who stay to wander on their own at leisure along the medieval quarter or linger on La Rambla as the locals do. Several restaurants, particularly in the neighbourhood of Placa de Catalunya remain open till late. Most of these specialize in Catalan or Mediterranean fare, including on their menu a list of enticing seafood dishes or daring dishes as absurd (but surprisingly tasty) as Dali’s works of art. Imagine eating out of a plate with legs of unequal length or out of a bowl set within a motorcycle tyre. Early after breakfast next morning, I walked back to Dali’s theatre-museum. The atmosphere in the vicinity of the museum was still serene and quiet, giving me time to go around and see the external features of this huge complex at leisure. All souvenir shops were still closed but I could peep into their window displays and get acquainted with a diverse range of queer ceramic knickknacks, obviously poor-quality replicas of what I expected to see inside the museum.Painted dark red and studded with golden loaf-like poppers, one side of the museum’s external structure comprises a towering enclosing wall crowned with a row of egg-shaped forms and elongated statuesque figures. Bizarre modernism it certainly is, but all these peculiarities are somehow brought together so gracefully that visitors stand to look with awe at such marvels of architecture. The metal cage-like dome one sees from the main road is another out-of-the-ordinary structure that appears more remarkable when illuminated from inside.Purchasing an entry ticket in the absence of queues is a straightforward affair. Costing 12 Euro, it allows access to Dali’s theatre-museum and the Dali Jewels exhibition. Once inside the museum, make your way towards the semicircular courtyard where the highlights are the 1978 Al Capone Cadillac and a fishing boat aptly balanced on columns of used car tyres. On the first-floor corridor, the highlight is the huge surrealist oil painting of Dali’s wife, her nude rear facing the audience. Move away 20 metres and the portrait of Abraham Lincoln comes into view instead. Visiting the Mae West room is a trip into the absurd, an exciting unreal world of fictitious faces that often verge on the ridiculous. On no account should one miss the Palace of the Wind Gallery, an exposition of colourful surrealist paintings and monochrome bas-reliefs that are a delight to explore. One painting in this gallery that stands out for its magnificent composition and its shades of bluish hues is the ‘Galatea de las Esferas’ an artistic piece depicting several moving spheres that seem to bounce out of the picture. The museum’s central patio is a combination of green climbers and huge paintings. The walls are dotted with rows of statuesque figures thrown in amidst the greenery.Included in the price of the entry ticket is the Dali Jewels exhibition. Housed in a separate building that adjoins the Dali theatre-museum, it comprises a collection of 37 jewels, designed by Dali himself and made by jewellery specialists in New York. In addition to the jewels, one can view a display of the designs, each design being itself a work of art renowned for its originality and uniqueness. Visitors I met in Figueres confirmed after seeing the museum that Salvador Dali’s acute sense of the absurd is not sheer madness as some might think. It is the result of a vivid imagination that goes beyond our real world; it is a unique attempt at demonstrating through colour and shapes the depth of our emotions and how these change from spells of sorrow to moments of cheerfulness.Figueres is definitely synonymous with dear Salvador and his mistress Gala who joined the surrealist movement later. If you have a couple of hours to spare however, it is advisable to visit one or more other attractions as well. Near Dali’s museum, the huge Gothic building you see on Placa de Sant Pere is the parish church. Dedicated to St Peter, it is a huge Gothic edifice whose main architectural features are typical of churches in the south of France. Built in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and extended twice over the years, it is almost devoid of decorations. Worth a visit for its sheer size and its well-preserved interior, the church opens for the public on weekdays from 9:00 to 13:00 and from 16:00 to 20:00h. The small recessed stained-glass windows that line the choir and the rose window above the main entrance are artistic and beautiful but are not enough to illuminate the huge interior. Consequently, the church is dark and gloomy. The redeeming factor is the decorated tympanum above the main doorway on Carrer de Sant Pere. Depicting the bust of St Peter mending a fishing net, it is a colourful painting that is worth examining for its wonderful harmonizing hues. Collections of toys that have vanished from the scene decades ago have been put together in the Museu de Joguets on the northern side of La Rambla. Kids are amazed by what they see; adults may feel nostalgic when they become aware that some toys similar to the exhibits were their playthings forty years ago. The museum is vast and visitors can only give a passing glance at most of the exhibits. Items with a rich historical past however require time for inspection. These include a collection of early nineteenth-century Spanish dolls and miniature replicas of trains, formerly used in the region. An adult visitor using a viewfinder he picked from the exhibits was fully engaged looking at magnified images of photo slides. An accompanying kid, bored to tears was heard saying: "Where’s the playstation?" Close
Written by Armed With Passport on 18 Apr, 2002
As I mentioned in a previous entry in this journal, we arrived in Andorra from France on the N-22, arriving at customs and passport control for Andorra in the ski town of El Pas de la Casa. The skiers seemingly ended their run where…Read More
As I mentioned in a previous entry in this journal, we arrived in Andorra from France on the N-22, arriving at customs and passport control for Andorra in the ski town of El Pas de la Casa. The skiers seemingly ended their run where the highway cut off the trail. The lift line ran right along the side of the road.
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.
As I mentioned in the overview, ever since I was a little boy, I had always wondered what the tiny country of Andorra was like. Were the people very little too? How come France or Spain didn't just walk over the mountains and…Read More
As I mentioned in the overview, ever since I was a little boy, I had always wondered what the tiny country of Andorra was like. Were the people very little too? How come France or Spain didn't just walk over the mountains and conquer it?
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.
Toni and I had really enjoyed our time in Carcassonne, but as much as we wanted to stay forever in a medieval castle, it was time to start heading to Barcelona. It was at this moment of departure from Carcassonne and the inevitable circling…Read More
Toni and I had really enjoyed our time in Carcassonne, but as much as we wanted to stay forever in a medieval castle, it was time to start heading to Barcelona. It was at this moment of departure from Carcassonne and the inevitable circling around French roundabouts, that Toni and I decided to, as Robert Frost put it, take the road less travelled.
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!
Written by jemery on 31 Aug, 2003
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…Read More
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.
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…Read More
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.
Written by Irishlouise on 20 Mar, 2003
To travel to Andorra, you can fly into Toulouse Airport in France or Barcelona Airport in Spain--either way, you'll get a fantastic 4-hour trip through the Pyrennes! Roads are some of the best in Europe despite going through the mountains and there is some fantastic…Read More
To travel to Andorra, you can fly into Toulouse Airport in France or Barcelona Airport in Spain--either way, you'll get a fantastic 4-hour trip through the Pyrennes! Roads are some of the best in Europe despite going through the mountains and there is some fantastic scenery.
In the winter, most people only go to Andorra to ski, as there is very little else to do during the day. However, night time is a different matter. The apres-ski is something else!
We stayed in the resort of Arinsal, which boasts buzzing apres-ski and nightlife which was a great value. There is a great selection of restaurants as well as countless bars. Be sure to check these out!
I had the great misfortune of spraining my ankle on the second day which is why I had to go looking for alternative things to do. As I'd look quite silly trying to put snow boots over a big plaster!
Andorra La Vella is a great little city , it has numerous cafés, restaurants, and Duty Free shops . . . AND THAT'S ALL. So, the remainder of the week was spent hobbling between these. If you are only going shopping for a day, it's great fun, however doing this for 5 days solid made it lose it's appeal!