Tell most Ariegeois that you’re going to Andorra, and they’ll assume you’re popping over to stock up on hooch, cigarettes, cosmetics and cleaning products, then fill the car with as much petrol or diesel as it’ll hold.
The Principat de les Valles de Andorra is a little historical oddity. It’s a Catalan speaking independent country, only 468 square km., slap in the midst of the Pyrénées between France and Spain. It was, since 1278, co-ruled by the President of France (as the Count of Foix is no more) and the Bishop of La Seu d’Urgell in Cataluña. In odd numbered years, France receives tribute money, and in even-numbered years, the Spanish bishop calls in 900 pesetas (or the euro equivalent, I suppose), 12 chickens, 6 hams and 12 cheeses. 1n 1993, the Andorrans voted for democracy and a constitution- but those tributes still get paid.
What makes Andorra popular, here in the Ariège as elsewhere in France, is its lack of taxes. Petrol therefore costs something like 40 cents a litre less than in neighbouring France, and you can buy 3 new car tyres for the cost of two here. And so on. So Andorra’s border towns are nothing more than huge unpleasant shopping malls, blighting the slopes of the wilderness Pyrénées on which they’re situated. The capital city, Andorra le Velle, and the surrounding towns which have become its suburbs, are given over to little other than retail therapy.
In other words, not really our cup of tea.
Andorra, though, offers so much more. Zig-zag up the narrow mountain roads only a few kilometres away from the capital, and you’ll be alone amongst grand peaks, dense forest and craggy paths. Apparently, the further you travel from the capital, the wilder and more spectacular the scenery becomes. Tiny villages remain undefended by castles: the circumstances of its past government meant castles were forbidden. But charming Romanesque churches, often with original frescoes, are common throughout the country.
Henri and Brigitte invited his cousin and wife and us, to join them on a mid-week break at an Andorran hotel they’d chanced upon a few months ago. Henri doesn’t do bargain basement, so we were surprised when he told us that full board at this 3 star hotel was 51 euros each.
Hostal La Font is in a tiny village, Os de Civis, clinging to the mountain side not, as it turned out, in Andorra at all. It’s in Spain. But it might as well not be. The one road serving the community connects the village to Andorra la Velle and to nowhere whatsoever in Spain. Out of season, 20 people live there.
It was busy when we checked in to the hotel though, just in time for lunch. Vegetarians need not apply. Before the meal, tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, dried sausage, olives all appeared on the table. Then a hearty meatball-cabbage-chickpea-potato soup arrived. Then a selection of salads and charcuterie. Full yet? I hope not. There’s grilled lamb and 3 different sorts of grilled sausage with baked potato, and a large choice of puddings to come. The secret of course is to help yourself to tiny portions of everything offered: that’s what I did anyway, because I knew there would be a 3 course meal in the evening, and Henri has a way of making sure that nobody does their own thing by skipping dinner – or even a course.
Anyway, after lunch, we all chose to stride forth into the mountains. Henri’s cousin, Jean-Claude, has been a lifelong farmer, and made a great walking companion. We learnt from him the grasses that any discerning sheep chooses, given half a chance. He showed us how the local cows, a Swiss grey breed, have narrow agile hooves and legs to enable them to cope with climbing up and down the steep slopes of their summer pasture. And he told us tales of transhumance: the days in spring and autumn when cows and sheep are taken up to high pastures for the summer, and down again in winter: for his sheep, each journey took three days.
Later, we explored the village. Just as well the streets are equipped with handrails. Steepest village I’ve met. The dark local stone is the picturesque material both houses and streets are built from. It might look pretty in the September sun, but life looks tough here, and I’m not surprised the village all but closes once the tourists go.
We’ll be back. A walking week or so in these wild and empty mountains is a must, and hotels are affordable. Anyway, the car needed 2 new tyres, and the money we saved by buying in Andorra all but paid for the holiday.