Andorra is a mini-country of valleys and mountains. It has never been invaded, had a war or even kept an army. It’s not France and it’s not Spain, but is nestled between the two; and if you know anything about it, you’re probably thinking ‘skiing and shopping’.
Being a mountainous principality tucked into the Pyrenees, there’s not a lot of room for an international airport, so the choice is between Toulouse and Barcelona. We opt for the latter, and although the thought of landing in the wrong country isn’t all that appealing, the three-hour, €30 bus gets us from airport to Andorra la Vela in the stated time.
Gabriel: Our hotel, the Princep, is just off the famous 2km-long shopping street. Being so close, and with Andorra’s 4% VAT rate, it seems rude not to have a wee peek. Surely with tax this low it’s more like saving than spending.
Tom: To say the least, shopping isn’t my thing. In fact, as soon as I walk into a shop I am overcome with a desire to turn around and leave. Clearly I’m in the minority, though, as Andorra has more than 2,000 shops – with a population of just 80,000, that’s one shop for every 40 inhabitants – and that’s before you start counting the tourists. Just thinking about this makes me want to run away. Let’s just say there’s no shortage of shops or shoppers.
G: On our first morning, we drive north-east towards France (directions here always start with ‘head towards France’ or ‘head towards Spain’) to the Grandvalira Ski Resort, where we meet Pere and Ezequiel, our guides for the day. A pair of sexagenarians, they are in fact volunteers who work the season in exchange for a lift pass. ‘It’s an idea from Canada,’ Pere tells us. ‘We just look after anyone who has fallen over.’
Fully embracing their role as mountain ambassadors, the jolly gents stop wherever there’s a wipeout and help miniature skiers up onto the ski lifts.
T: I can’t help but think Pere and Ezequiel would be like this without their armbands. Skiing here has a noticeably relaxed and friendly feel. Perhaps it has something to do with the number of Andorrans on the slopes, as opposed to hordes of tourists, which would make it less personal.
G: Certainly there is a villagey feel throughout the principality, but with 130 miles of pistes, Grandvalira is a surprisingly large ski area. A common misconception in the UK is that Andorra is just for day trippers and beginners, and although undoubtedly family-friendly, Grandvalira has 112 runs, including 22 black and 32 red.
T: The ‘piste’ de résistance, however, is the Avet slope, which hosted the Women’s World Cup in February this year. It is over in Soldeu,
one of the five areas that make up Grandvalira (one of the other areas, El Tarter, is popular in summer for its nine-hole golf course).
Pere and Ezequiel lead the way and we set off fairly smoothly, but suddenly they drop over an edge only to appear as specks hundreds of metres below. With runs like these it’s easy to forget we’re not in the Alps, although the landscape is less foreboding, with curved mountains, lakes and pine trees scattered across the slopes.
G: The Pyrenean architecture has its own charm, too, with dark stone chalets in place of the usual wood. ‘You are obliged to build with the local stone,’ Ezequiel tells us as we stop for a breather and discover it’s his 64th birthday. We try to buy him a drink to celebrate. ‘No, no, I’m getting these,’ he insists. ‘It’s my birthday – it’s how we do it here.’
Another contrast with the Alps is the price of après-ski: it’s not often you get change from €10 for three beers and a glass of wine.
T: Pleasantly surprised by the quality and quantity of the skiing, we head back into town to see how the food measures up. El Bon Racó is housed in a former cowshed, and the walls are still lined with water troughs – although now filled with the distilled variety of liquid – and there’s an open fire, low beams on the ceiling and bare stone walls. We order local mushrooms, ham which they carve fresh from the joint, and the ‘Iberian Surprise’ – pork cooked on an open grill in front of the fire.
G: The next day we drive north-west towards France, and within half an hour we’re at Vallnord, Andorra’s second ski sector. While Grandvalira has five areas, Vallnord has three and we start off at Arcalís, a bite-sized resort with wide open slopes.
Once again the unexpected happens, and we are delighted to see a man skiing past accompanied by his dog. Then, as we slide down a windy run, we notice that in front of us the serpentine bends turn from snow to tarmac. ‘That’s the road in summer,’ Marta Rotés, the director of Ski Andorra, tells us later. ‘It was part of the route for the 2009 Tour de France.’
T: All roads to France used to be closed in winter because of the snow, and this encouraged the Spanish influence over the French:
Catalan is Andorra’s first language and before the euro, the peseta
was the currency.
G: Arcalís is in the parish of Ordino, and on our way home we stop off at its namesake village. A plug socket in the car park is an encouraging nod towards going green, although sadly we haven’t spotted any electric cars yet.
Romanesque architecture, arched bridges, narrow cobbled streets and large houses built into the mountainside make up this picturesque village. We take shelter from the spring sunshine under white parasols on the main street, and as we sip coffee, it’s hard to imagine we were skiing just an hour ago.
T: Our last day takes us away from the slopes and south towards Spain. The plan is to ride the Tobotronc, at 5.3km the world’s longest mountain roller coaster. In this little country, that’s kind of a big deal; and with tourism and finance driving the economy, a trip to the Tobotronc is one of those outings that is perfect for families (much more fun than visiting a bank). But just a quick warning: it picks up a fair amount of speed.
G: The limit is 40km an hour, to be precise, and let’s just say Tom made sure the brakes were working. Laughing away, and feeling just a little bit sick (roller coasters can leave me shaky for days) we return to town and stop for lunch at Don Denis.
T: Owned by the same family for 40 years, this tapas restaurant is just off the main shopping drag. Needless to say, we stop off ‘just to have a quick look’, as Gabriel says. Two tops, a pair of jeans and a fair few euros later, Don Denis calms my nerves by serving what was, hands down, the best jamón ibérico I have ever tasted.
G: Fed, watered and a little shopped, we make our way to see another record-breaker: this time it’s the world’s smallest parliament. Built in 1580 and originally a private house, Casa de la Vall became Andorra’s parliament in 1701. While we’re at it, Andorra has one more record. This is the only country in the world with two heads of state, neither of whom are from the country itself: one is Spain’s Bishop of Urgell, the other France’s President Hollande.
Founded in AD 784 by Emperor Charlemagne, Andorra has a colourful history, and it’s well worth spending a day exploring the old town and hearing about the connections with the Spanish Civil War and the French Resistance. One local tells us his grandfather was a smuggler, moving British agents between France and Spain – luckily by that time the mountain passes were no longer the prowling ground of bears and wolves.
G: Charming though it may be, Andorra is not the most forward-thinking country – women didn’t get the vote until 1974 – but its seven parishes span just 181 square miles, making it not even a third of the size of London, and refreshingly manageable to explore in a few days. It’s no wonder Napoleon said that Andorra is ‘too extraordinary to be invaded’ and should ‘stand here for ever as a museum piece’.
T: But before anyone takes offence at comparing a country to a relic, just remember that this landlocked nation has the world’s fourth-highest life expectancy, with people living on average to the grand old age of 82. They must be doing something right.
‘We are quite special, and different from the rest of Europe,’ Marta tells us with a smile.