Andorra: a winter break

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, 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.

The Romanesque church at Aubinyà glimpsed through a village gate
The Romanesque church at Aubinyà glimpsed through a village gate

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.

Sunset seen from our window.  And yes, far below you can just see that so-near-yet-so-far supermarket.
Sunset seen from our window. And yes, far below you can just see that so-near-yet-so-far supermarket.

Bones Festes!

The church in our little hamlet, Aubinyà
The church in our little hamlet, Aubinyà

A quick post from Andorra to wish you all Happy Christmas.  Here we are in Andorra, half way between Laroque and Barcelona, to share a snowy Christmas with Emily.  Except in this part of Andorra there is no snow.  Just rain , rain, mist and more rain.  But we did arrive, unlike many English-bound travellers from the continent, and we haven’t been flooded, unlike many people in southern England and northern France.  So we’re very lucky.  I hope you too are having a lucky Christmas.

The view from our window this morning.  It's really not so bad, is it?
The view from our window this morning. It’s really not so bad, is it?


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.

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