Funny place, Andorra. It’s where we went to satisfy our desire for a ‘white Christmas’ and it’s one of the smallest nations in Europe – only 468 sq.km, and tightly wedged between France and Spain. It’s a mountainous place – every bit of it is between nearly 3000′ and nearly 10,000′ high, and only one main road linking France and Spain drives though the country. All other roads off peter out as they reach the small communities they serve.
It’s a principality, jointly ‘ruled’ by two ‘princes’. One is the Spanish Bishop of Urgell, the other the French President, currently François Hollande, and yet it forms no part of the European Union. It used to be extremely underpopulated: it only had some 6,000 inhabitants right up until the 1950’s. Now it has more than 85,000. But these new inhabitants aren’t indigenous Andorran baby-boomers. They’re incomers from principally Spain, Portugal and France, but also Britain, Italy, and more recently Russia. They come because Andorra’s a tax haven, because there is no income tax and goods are cheap, or because they love to ski: Andorra has some of the most reliable ski-fields in Europe.
And this is what makes Andorra a funny sort of place. Much – most – of the building is relatively new. It has very fine Romanesque churches, but little else that counts as historic buildings.
So most settlements, even quite small ones, consist mainly of blocks of flats clustered together, often clinging apparently precariously to the edges of hillsides high above the valley floor. And everyone knows that Andorra is Shopping Central. People come in their thousands from France and Spain to stock up on – well, most things – and every weekend sees long lines of traffic from both countries as French and Spanish citizens flood into the supermarkets to load up with cigarettes – particularly cigarettes – alcohol, electrical goods, groceries, clothing…. before facing their own country’s customs who take a dim view of those exceeding their allowances.
Nevertheless, away from the towns, Andorra is beautiful. The mountains climb almost vertically skywards and this means that every road that leaves the valley bottom will zig-zag upwards with one hairpin bend after another. From our apartment in the tiny settlement of Aubinyà we could see a supermarket almost below us. We even thought of walking down to it (well, I did). When we came to try to shop there, we discovered we had to zig-zag to the valley, zig-zag back (left) to the nearest town, Sant Julia de Lorià, turn hard right and drive a kilometre or two to get there. Most journeys are like that. But it means that wherever you are, you will have fabulous views of craggy mountain sides cloaked in forest, or for much of the year, dusted or deeply covered with shimmering snow. Much as we loved the view from the window of our apartment, though, we wondered if eventually, we wouldn’t feel somewhat hemmed in, having no long distance views.
We had a lovely Christmas break, Malcolm, Emily and I. Many of our memories consist of eating out: it’s easy to find good Catalan cuisine , or anything else you fancy really at a very fair price. Skiing’s not our thing, but we enjoyed the brisk, sharp cold and the glaring whiteness of the snow set against the sombre green of the coniferous forest. We’d go again, but have no desire to join the many thousands of ex-pats from many nations who form much of Andorra’s day-to-day population. We’ll keep it as it was for us this time: a scenic and relaxing place for a break from routine.