Andorra: The Last of the Tiny Ones

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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.

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Typical French tiny (and pretty lifeless) town near the border with Andorra

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Pretty cool tunneling

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.

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Beautiful mountain landscapes

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!

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In Andorra, near Andorra la Vella

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You kind of see where the capital lays in this photo (OK, almost…)

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…

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My Mom, sister and I posing near St. Stephen’s church

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Water fountain

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Casa de la Vall

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Federal government offices next to Casa de la Vall

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Mom and uncle posing for me by Casa de la Vall

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…

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Curious bridge (empty road)

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Around Andorra la Vella’s commercial district (empty)

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“Skyscraper” (empty?)

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?

Exploring France and Spain around the Pyrenees

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My recent trip to Europe was centered on exploring a bit of Spain and France around the Pyrenees which serve as a natural border between these two countries.  I wanted to write this introductory post to the trip’s writings as the trip combined a few different objectives that neatly came together into a one-week trip.

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There is only one way to travel, especially with loved ones!

My mother and sister are both named after the Virgin of Lourdes who appeared to a peasant girl named Bernadette in a grotto near the town of Lourdes in the 1850s.  It has always been a dream to go visit this place that was so prominent in their lives given the tie to their name.  But, we also wanted to go to Lourdes as a religious pilgrimage to such a special place for us Catholics.  We wanted to go in thanksgiving for good health after illnesses suffered, and as prayer for continued health.

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Two Lourdes!

Another personal goal for me and everyone in the larger family is to visit ancestral lands in the Basque country of Spain.  These are not terribly far from Lourdes (about 3 hrs drive) so I saw the opportunity to connect these two destinations in one trip.  The specific towns were our ancestors came from (they left Spain for Cuba at the turn of the century near the year 1800) lay along the coast between San Sebastian and Bilbao, and inland from there with some ancestors coming from just west of modern Bilbao.  Ii had also always wanted to visit San Sebastian as I heard it had some of the most phenomenal cuisine in Europe.  Bilbao is an hour from San Sebastian, give or take, so flying into the larger airport at Bilbao made the most sense.  There we would rent a car that would take us around the Basque country and later to Lourdes.

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At the Bilbao airport headed to get our car

While getting to Lourdes from San Sebastian would take so little time, we decided to be sure to stop along the way or drive through small French towns that are easily accessible on the route.  We drove through charming Saint-Jean-de-Luz, stopped for a walk and lunch at Biarritz, and drove through impressive Bayonne (wish we had had more time to stay there and explore!).  Biarritz was a place my mom and her best friend growing up had always dreamed of so that was a bonus!

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At the edge of the pedestrian streets of Bayonne’s city center

After Lourdes, the most logical end points if we were not going to backtrack, were Toulouse, France or Barcelona, Spain.  Well, that was an easy decision.  I had been to Barcelona for the 1992 Olympics for three days but, really, was too focused on the Games to get to know the city (plus, I was sure it had changed!).  My mom has been to Barcelona decades ago but my sister had never been.  So Barcelona became the end point for the trip which, very conveniently, allowed me to drive through Andorra, the last of the tiny European countries for me to visit…  We split the drive from Lourdes to Barcelona by staying overnight in Andorra (which may have been a mistake, but who knew – stay tuned for that post!).  This allowed us, on the way to Barcelona, to stop at Montserrat to visit the monastery nested atop a mountain and accessible by cable car or train.

crossword puzzle

I always look forward to crossword puzzles on long flights

This plan sounded so good that my mom’s only brother opted to join us in this adventure.  Next came resolving the plane tickets to get there.  My uncle was headed there from Philly so he worked his itinerary separately.  My mom and sister, coming from Tampa, would naturally fly through Atlanta.  I had saved many miles with the local monster airline hoping to someday to do a fun trip with family and decided to go all in.  I lucked out in finding three seats in first class from Atlanta to Bilbao via Paris, and from Barcelona back to Atlanta on dates that would work for everyone.  My mom and sister got to do first class all the way from Tampa and back so no one was unhappy with the travel comforts!

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The four travelers awaiting the train in Montserrat

Once in Bilbao, we picked up a car.  I had under-estimated the trunk capacity and, though the four of us did very well in bringing a small roller bag each, I needed to upgrade the vehicle.  Unfortunately, the next level up was not available which meant I had to upgrade two levels with no goodwill from the rental company (I will name it for its lack of spirit:  Sixt).  This cost me dearly but, considering the plane tickets were free, and that this was a special trip, well, no regrets and all the way onward-and-forward!  The plan was to return the vehicle when we arrived in Barcelona as we figured we did not need there and I figured I would be tired of driving a large vehicle in Europe (it was a BMW X1).  I was glad to get rid of it, much as it was a great vehicle to drive!

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Our wheels in Europe

In terms of accommodations, we hoteled it everywhere except in Barcelona where we rented an apartment a block from Las Ramblas – prime location!  The owner, Carlos, was phenomenal and the apartment was spacious, comfortable and as-advertised (if anyone needs to find this apartment, just reach out and I can share).

So in the end this was the itinerary:

  • Day 1:  Arrival in Bilbao and head to San Sebastian
  • Day 2:  Drive the Basque countryside and visit ancestral lands anchored on the town of Andraka
  • Day 3:  Depart San Sebastian and head to Lourdes with a stop in Biarritz
  • Day 4:  Spend the day in Lourdes
  • Day 5:  Drive through the beautiful Pyrenees and explore Andorra la Vella in the afternoon/evening
  • Day 6:  Head to Barcelona with a stop in Montserrat, Spain
  • Day 7:  Explore Barcelona
  • Day 8:  Explore Barcelona some more
  • Day 9:  Head home!

I have to say that we packed a lot into 8 days but it was well worth it.  We had a mixture of lots of walking, lots of enjoying the food and resting, and just happy to be together going to all these special places.  Hope we get to do it again – salud!

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Salud!

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