Andorra was supposed to be visited at the start of my trip and I’m fitting it in after Munich, as Covid restrictions prevent me from going to Slovenia, Bulgaria and Hungary, as planned. This involves traversing France and back again, so I can get back (sort of ) on schedule. I’m heading from Munich to Paris and then to Toulouse, where I catch a bus to Andorra.
The TGV trains are incredibly slick - travelling at over 200 mph. I can track the route on my laptop - they award you a diploma when the speed reaches 300 kph – and the opportunity to post your achievement on Facebook. There’s a palpable jolt sideways when we pass another train and my ears pop when we shoot through a tunnel. And definitely no chance that I can take a decent photo. Fields and fields of cheery yellow sunflowers, heads all facing expectantly in the same direction. Every seat is filled, so no one metre distancing here. It’s like travelling on a plane, masks on at all times.
Toulouse and a catch up with friend Nico. It’s south of France at its best today. The temperature has dropped to thirty degrees in the evening, so the street cafes are bustling and it’s comfortably balmy on the restaurant terraces by the Garonne.
Then, the bus to Andorra which departs from Toulouse station. Covid regulations have reduced the (obliged to run only half full) service to once daily. The outward journey leaves at noon. The return goes at five in the morning. I’m really looking forward to that!
There are road works on the Toulouse by-pass, making for a slow journey. Climbing up into the Pyrenees, the scenery is increasingly beautiful, with solid tree covered slopes, plunging valleys and mist covered peaks. The border crossing into Andorra is at the top of a string of hair pin bends. I’m glad I took my travel sickness pills. The border town, Pas de la Casa is every bit as hideous as Smithsonian magazine suggests. They call it ‘The Ugliest Town in Europe’, ‘with its huge warehouse-like hotels and supermarkets stacked artlessly like shipping containers along narrow streets, where people eye the identical offerings of a hundred tax free junk stores. Other cement buildings seem abandoned, making them fair game for graffiti enthusiasts..’
We zip past and eventually arrive in the capital, Andorra la Vella; we haven’t even stopped for a toilet break. La Vella is also chock full of boutiques and jewellers on the main srteet, not to mention several shopping centres. It’s not as ugly as Pasa de la Casa but it’s certainly not La Bella. The highest capital in Europe (1,023 metres above sea level) is crammed into a long valley so narrow that they have to build high to accommodate everyone. There are terraced rows of grey stone or concrete apartments eight to nine storeys high, capped with grey slate roofs, interspersed with cranes and building works. It’s nothing like the Vaduz with a few more shops spread prettily across the mountain slopes that I had happily anticipated. Now I know why it's been dubbed 'The Poor Man's Switzerland'.
A slightly redeeming feature is the old quarter, Barri Antic, which houses the ancient, but restored church of St Esteve and its square bell tower and the Casa de la Vall. This was a family house taken over for use by the General Council: Andorra's parliament. The walls display both the current coat of arms of Andorra and the old one (from after the 14th century. There are even some machicolations. The building's now been restored. There are also a few modern sculptures to zhuzh the place up, a couple of bars and a few shops. But I can tour the stone buildings and dark narrow streets in five minutes. In fact, I can walk the Barri twice in five minutes.
A light lunch is another challenge. There is no sign of supermarkets, or even small grocery shops amongst all the duty free merchandise. Many of the stores close for a couple of hours in the afternoon, though we’re not allowed to call it siesta. They’re just shut. It will have to be ice cream then..
Then, I gird my loins, don my mask and set off up steep flights of stone stairs (even these, though hardly crowded, are arrow designated one-way, to prevent social interaction) leading to a path that ambles along the valley side above the town. This is the Walk of the Sun (Passeig del Solar). Above are mountain terraces with smallholdings, flowers: spiky gladioli and roses and vegetable plots. They are nurtured by a suitably gushing mountain stream that has been diverted along a concrete water channel that runs alongside my stone walkway. In between are numerous rock slides and beneath me, the gloomy sprawl that is Andorra la Vella.
So, my first day in Andorra hasn’t gone brilliantly. No-one speaks English. I’m told the locals speak French, but they’re not understanding my attempts. They all seem to be speaking Catalan, so I can’t even try my really basic Spanish. I haven’t had anything substantial to eat and none of the restaurants open until eight. It’s mandatory to wear masks, even out in the open air and there are gloves and sanitiser everywhere. This is the most serious approach I’ve encountered so far this trip.
I must learn not to jump to conclusions. The stone walls in the online advertising made me think mountain side chalet style hotel. However, Hotel de L’Isard is on the main shopping street in La Vella. It’s pleasant inside - in fact, my room is wooden and spacious, if rather dark. The lady on reception is lovely. But the Wi-Fi doesn’t reach to my area, although noise from the building work going on opposite does, as does the clomping of the other residents. And because Andorra isn’t in the EU I don’t get free roaming either. And I wondered if two nights would be enough…
I'm taking a taxi up to the Roq del Quer mirador - viewpoint - above the village of Canillo. The ride has cost me almost as much as the bus from Toulouse, but it's worth it to get out of town. It's not exactly peaceful, as there are Spaniards or locals also visiting - they're all sensible enough to have their own cars - and the noise from the road below echoes up the steep slopes. The houses beneath, with their dark roofs aren’t entirely pretty either. But the mountain views are lovely, across the Col D'Ordino mountain pass. The string of hairpin bends we've just navigated are below us. The air is refreshing - there are patches of snow on the peaks - and it's another beautiful day, despite the weather forecast, which suggested otherwise.
There’s a metal sculpture - The Observer - slung at the end of the viewing platform. The promotion says that there's also a splendid glass area where you can feel suspended above the valley too. I was terrified by the one at the Grand Canyon, so I've resolved to avoid it. But here there are just a few glass slabs set into the concrete and the drop is only huge right at the edge. Even I, can cope with that.
I’ve been on a short stroll up the slopes above the mirador, amidst gorgeous patches of flowers. But most of them are thorny or thistly and when I finally do find a clear patch to sit down my arch enemies the ants detect me immediately and launch a full scale attack. Antdorra!
My driver picks me up again and is prattling away gesticulating wildly around, presumably giving a commentary. Sadly, I can't understand a word. I'm not even sure what language he's speaking and there's a perspex screen between us. I do manage to comprehend that I am being whisked around the heart of Andorra. More towering peaks. We stop for him to take my picture. The Andorrans thoughtfully provide metal stands for selfies at all the viewpoints.
We dive under a gondola lift carrying mountain bikers up to the ski resort of Arinsal and stop at the village of Ordino. 'Antic. Antic,' cries the driver. So I scurry round, taking pictures of the old church and the museum signs as instructed. This village, with its curving medieval streets is described as charming in the literature. It's certainly prettier than the capital. And there's a small Romanesque bridge.
Tomorrow is early start time. Carcassonne via Toulouse.
This is a contentious one. Andorra, perhaps surprisingly, has the most visitors in the world per capita. Andorra is known in the main for its ski resorts and tax-haven status. The vast majority of the visitors to Andorra are Spanish and French citizens who go there to shop and purchase fuel at cheaper prices. Duty-free shopping has made Andorra a wealthy country. Unfortunately, this comes at a cost. The huge malls and cement buildings have earned Andorra the nickname ‘The Ugliest Country in Europe'.
According to Smithsonian Magazine, Pas de la Casa, the first town one encounters when entering from France, has also been dubbed ‘The Ugliest Town in Europe’.
There are also, apparently, beautiful mountain views, skiing (in Arinsal and Soldeu) and hiking, lurking beyond the glass and concrete.
Look at Andorra La Vella - Summer Covid-19 Part 6 to see what I did.
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