I wrote earlier this year about my visit to tiny Liechtenstein, second to last of the small European countries left for me to step foot on. Nestled between Switzerland and Austria, it is protected by mountains which helps explain perhaps why it survived as an entity over the centuries. Well, 2017 was the year to close the book of the small European countries for me: I got to visit Andorra in September!
Andorra is a strange political entity – technically, a principality. And oddly, without a royal family… As Liechtenstein, it is nestled in mountains between two other countries. In Andorra’s case, Spain and France. It is an old place – first chartered over 1,000 years ago and the current version of it (i.e., the principality) created in 1278. Back then, there were two co-princes: a count from Spain and a count from France. Well, the French side of things changed over time to just be the President of France whereas the Spanish side evolved to be the Bishop of Urgell, a Spanish town not far from the border with Andorra. [An interesting factoid: Andorra declared war against Imperial Germany in World War I but, somehow, it was left off the peace treaty ending that war so it remained at a state of war until 1958 (well past even World War II!) – awkward…]
In any case, we drove into Andorra on our way from Lourdes, France to Barcelona, Spain. The approach through the Pyrenees from the French side was a beautiful, long ride through small rural towns and mountains. We entered Andorra without a good spot to stop and get a picture with a “Welcome to Andorra” sign (or the equivalent…) – unlike Liechtenstein where I got to take that obligatory, cheesy pic.
In any case, the roads were really good and we noticed that while on mountains, one could see long, gradual slopes on some of the mountains around us. I learned later there are a lot of lakes and trails in the 181 square miles that make up this country making it a great place to hike and enjoy the outdoors. Or ski in the winter; ski tourism being a key income earner for the tiny country.
We approached Andorra’s capital, Andorra la Vella after passing a couple of smaller towns. (Andorra la Vella has about 24,000 inhabitants to give you a sense of scale). It felt very modern and it sits right by a river valley between mountains. Great spot!
We stayed close to the oldest part of Andorra la Vella, at the Andorra Center Hotel. I figured at least we could walk easily to the old buildings while being close to the main shopping streets and good restaurants (that I found in TripAdvisor). We were very close to St. Stephen’s Church (finished in the 12th century) and to Casa de la Vall (a home from the 1580s that is now home to the General Council of Andorra). We meandered the older small side streets (not a large area) and then also walked the shopping streets in the area. Except…
Except… We noticed the streets were largely lifeless, empty. Everything was closed. We assumed it was siesta time and, hence, why everything was closed. We learned when we got back to the hotel that it was Andorra’s national day and EVERYTHING was closed. I mean, even the hotel’s little store! Those restaurants which I had researched ahead of time were all closed. These folks take their national day seriously but, yet, there were no festivities to be witnessed, no people just hanging outdoors either – very odd…
So, after walking around the old part of town, we ended up back at the hotel’s buffet restaurant since there were no other options. We were going to leave the next morning early to head to Montserrat, Spain and then Barcelona so we had no time to spare in this tiny country. While I was glad to check off Andorra from my list and now have a good visual of what it looks like (topographically and architecturally), I am bummed at the sheer bad luck (what are the odds??!!) and the lack of anything going on on a national holiday (at least seeing some local celebrations would have been cool).
Perhaps I need to return in winter to enjoy skiing with a bunch of visiting skiers?