Starting 2019 as I mean to go on, by exploring the world! I have done some travelling since dad died, but havent felt up to writing, I am still figuring stuff out and looking at ways to combine more travelling and earning a living now I don’t need to be based in the North West UK anymore. But since last summer I have been back to Greece, also to Albania and Jordan, so I will aim to write those travels up soon. For now though, I have just landed back from Country 51, Andorra!
Andorra is one of 5 countries I believe that doesn’t have its own airport, so travelling in by car or bus is your only option, as there aren’t any trains either! The nearest airports are in either Spain to the south or France in the north, I flew in with Easyjet to Barcelona in Spain and I flew home from Toulouse in France. Most airports in the UK have regular and inexpensive flights to Barcelona, and you can fly into Toulouse from Bristol, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Manchester and London, so lots of options.
It’s so easy to then get yourself to the capital Andorra la Vella as Andbus provides regular direct services from both airports to the main bus station, taking around 3 hours and around €33 each way. Andorra is located high up in the Eastern Pyrenees, so the views as you make your way up to the capital are pretty spectacular if it’s not too foggy! The Andbus’s were on time, clean, USB ports everywhere and although there was supposed to be WIFI, they do warn you it could be temperamental, and I wasnt able to connect at all during both journeys. Other departures that I saw on the board at the Estacio Nacional d’Autobusos d’Andorra were Madrid with Alsa Bus, Lleida (also in Spain) with Montmantell and I think Eurolines do an overnight bus to Porto in Portugal too. Both border crossings in and out of the country were quick, we didn’t stop at all, which was great, meaning no delays, but also no stamp in your passport either. The bus station itself is clean and modern with toilets, vending machines, lots of seats and plenty of lockers, great if you’re only staying a short while, it was €3 for 24 hours use.
I have to admit, I had zero clue about the history of the country before I got here, so I had some research to do. Settlements have been found in this region high up in the Pyrenees mountain range as far back as 9,500 BC, as hunters found places to rest whilst exploring the often inhospitable surrounding landscape. The area that is now Andorra was originally created as a buffer to keep the Muslim Moors out of France by the then leader Charlemange in the late 700’s AD. By the 1300’s the 16th smallest country in the world, decided to share allegiance to both the Spanish and French princes. This role goes to whoever is the Bishop of Urgell in Spain and whoever is President of France, at the time of writing this, its Emmanelle Macron. In 1993 the result of a referendum decided to reduce the power of the co-princes and establish separate branches of government and it also joined the United Nations. The only country in the world with Catalan as its official language, the total population is around 77,000, it’s never had its own currency, and although not part of the EU, it does use the Euro.
It has to be said, that unless you are mad on duty free shopping or skiing, there isn’t one outstanding must see building, church or museum. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth a visit by any means. The capital Andorra la Vella is friendly with lots of quaint little back streets, surrounded by epic mountain views and lots of duty free shops, so if you fancy a bargain on a go pro or iPhone this is the place. I was on a tight budget as usual, so I just fancied a wander along the streets, to drink good coffee and find a few places of cultural interest. A good place to start is at the Tourist Information Centre, a modern stand alone building where the shopping street Avinguda Meritxell meets the Place de la Rotonda. Here you can get free maps of both the capital and the country as a whole, pick up some souvenirs, book a tour or get bus timetables, the staff speak English and are really helpful too.
Casa de la Vall This is the place to visit if you want to learn some history about Andorra, this 16th century building is one of the oldest and most continuous seats of parliament in Europe. It is open Mon-Sat, closing at midday but opens again at 3. Unfortunately, even though I got there at 3 on the dot, it never opened on the day I visited, when I asked at the Tourist Information Centre, they very kindly rang as they presumed it should have been open, but it was indeed closed for the day, despite the sign outside saying differently. So I never got to explore it during my stay. Even if you don’t want to visit inside, still head over as there is a great viewing area out front.
Staying in this historic area a short walk from Casa de la Vall is a small but beautiful Romanesque building, otherwise known as the Church of Sant Esteve. Quite a simple and calm interior, the outside is pretty impressive and worth a visit.
Avenue Meritxell is one of the main shopping streets in the capital, lined with clothes, gadgets and jewellery shops, if you’re in the market for a bargain, spend some time window shopping along here. Andorra is exempt from excise duty tax, so you’ll find things much cheaper than at home. Also along this street are lots of restaurants, some souvenir shops and the large Pyrenees shopping mall.
Heading East along the Avenue Meritxell, you will eventually come to a junction and if you turn right the shopping street, becoming a pedestrianised area, with more malls, restaurants and bars. Whilst I was here, it was 12th night, and the avenue was converted into the Three Kings Parade all covered with sparkly Christmas lights and floats. It was memorable for maybe some of the wrong reasons, as the children threw boiled sweets from the floats preceding the three kings arrival, they were like missiles flying through the crowd, I’m sure there will have been a few black eyes the next morning, gosh they hurt!
The Salvador Dali clock called ‘Nobility of Time’ is found here too at the point where the Avenue Meritxel crosses over the river (Pont de la Rotunda) as well as the impressive Andorra La Vella sign, where you must get a photo as proof of your visit, of course! (especially if you didn’t get a passport stamp).
Exploring the capital with a stop for some tapas and coffee pretty much took up day one, so on day two, armed with a bus timetable I headed off to another town nearby.
Encamp – One of the main ski resorts in the country, its only a short 20 minute bus ride from the capital. Bus L2 leaves regularly and costs €1.85 for a single trip or if you plan on visiting more places, a €4 ticket will give you a day pass. Catch the bus on Avinguda Príncep Benlloch, there will be a yellow bus sign painted on road, or just keep a look out for skiers stood at the bus stop, as the ski resort at Encamp has real and artificial snow, so attracts skiers 365 days a year. If you are already staying in Encamp, then there is a free Funibus that travels through the town, taking skiers direct to the cable car station.
You don’t have to be a skier at all to enjoy a visit to Encamp, there are still enough things to fill a couple of hours. The small town has a few museums such as the Casa Cristo Ethnographic Museum a 3 story refurbished rural house, giving visitors a real in site into Andorran life at the end of the 19th century. If cars are more your thing, there is also the National Automobile Museum all walkable from the bus stop.
A real delight though, was the area in the town called Les Bons a historical village with amazing views across the valley, it’s a bit of climb, so have some decent footwear on. There is a 12th Century Church the Sant Roma up here with a small altar with beautiful murals and an impressive defense tower too.
The big draw to the town though is the stomach clenching (if you’re not great with heights that is) 6KM Funicular and one of the longest cable cars in Europe. Its €12 for a return journey taking just over 15 minutes each way and transports you to the top of the snowy mountains and the Solanelles ski area. It does stop half way, but I wasnt quite sure what was there, other than the option to hop off half way to go hiking, as there wasnt any snow there or a rest area, so I stayed on with the other skiers till it terminated at the summit. As well as skiing and snowboarding, there is a coffee shop and restaurant area both with outdoor seating, so none skiers like me can grab a hot drink (or beer), wrap up and enjoy unbelievable views. Well worth it and was probably the highlight of my trip to the country.
With only a few daylight hours left of day 2, I decided to walk to the village of Santa Colomba, to the west of the capital, it was only a 25 minute walk from my hotel, although I did see the L1 bus driving along the main road, if your hotel is a bit more central than mine was. The reason tourists head to this village is to view the Pre-Romanesque Santa Colomba Church with its unusual circular bell tower the only one of its kind in the country and the multi coloured wooden bust inside.
If you are visiting between 1 June to 31 October and are short on time and car-less, a good idea would be to board one of the various Tourist Buses. They offer 6 different routes with audio commentary in Catalan, Spanish, French and English. They cover all areas of the country, including the epic landscapes, the best of the Romanesque architecture and the main museums, I think I would have used this had I not visited in January for sure.
Coffee and Cake
Fleca Font appears to be a bakery chain, as I spotted a few dotted around. They are simple, nothing fancy, but they seemed friendly, the waitress spoke English and they had a good selection of pastries and decent coffee and free wifi. There is one right by the Church of Sant Esteve, it was a handy place to rest my feet, upload some pictures and recharge with an Americano. Another coffee shop in the capital that provided a good caffeine fix was Santagloria and although not the best coffee in the world, its worth grabbing a drink at the coffee bar atop the mountain if you take the cable car in Encamp.
Although a german burger joint wouldn’t normally be high on my list for places to go eat when visiting a, well, none German town, I was drawn to Frankfurt Chester because I could see it served local Andorran beer which was on my list of things to try. The place looked inviting too, with lots of seats by large windows, so I ventured in, ordered a bottle of local beer and a delicious huge plate of Patatas Bravas, I spent a good hour people watching, the total cost being just over €7. I really fancied visiting La Birreria for some local beers too, but once again, it was closed on Sundays.
Another place I really wanted to visit was Veggies World in the city centre, it didn’t open until 7PM, so I held off eating and made my way there for just after 7, but on arrival, the place was still closed. It didn’t look like it was opening any time soon, there were no lights on and the chairs were all stacked up, I was too hungry to hang around, and never had time to make it back during my stay. To stick to a tight budget this time, I bought lunches from the big supermarket SuperU in the city centre and stocked up on the impressive and large breakfast I was served at Hotel Cervol where I was staying for the weekend.
Others Sights – I really wanted to visit the one and only Andorran UNESCO site Madriu-Perafita-Claror Valley. 9% of Andorra is a designated world heritage area, covering forests, lakes and mountains and promises spectacular scenery and wildlife. Buses are reduced in the winter months, and none were running close to the start of the valley on the Sunday when I was there. I also read that some of the hiking trails were more suited to the summer months and as I wasnt really kitted out for all-weather hiking, I didn’t venture over, but I have definitely put it back on my list for a possible return.
Andorra is a unique little place, it absolutely cannot compete with its neighbour Barcelona for architecture, cathedrals, museums and nightlife, but it does have its charm and the mountain landscape is breathtaking. I am really glad I visited and wouldn’t rule out a return in the summer months with my hiking boots to see more.
Always Be Polite – A few phrases to go armed with – Hello ‘Hola’ – Thank you ‘gràcies’ – Yes ‘sí’ – Goodbye ‘adéu’