Andorra: I Go There So You Won’t Have To

I like standing high on a ridge looking into a rugged mountain-ringed basin, where nature cradles an ancient tribe. Located in the former Yugoslavia, it’s looking down on the royal city of Cetinje, the historic capital of Montenegro — Europe’s newest country (independent for about one year)…a land where you expect to see short men with long beards. It’s so humble that when the Turks came in to rape, pillage and plunder, they decided it just wasn’t worth the trouble, rolled up their carpets and went home. (I’ll be there later in this blog.)

A few days ago, my TV crew and I drove and drove to finally stand high in the Pyrenees Mountains, which separate France and Spain. Before us lay the principality of Andorra.

Europe’s midget countries have an undeniable curiosity factor. In Europe’s tiny derby, the Vatican is the big little winner. Then comes Monaco…San Marino…Liechtenstein…Malta (which, while an island in the Mediterranean, is considered part of Europe) and finally — measuring in at about 13 miles by 13 miles, with 80,000 people — Andorra. (We’re now four-fifths finished with a TV show featuring these little guys. Only Liechtenstein — also later in this blog — remains.) All of these countries would fit easily into Europe’s next smallest country…the relatively vast Luxembourg.

Andorra has a long history. In their national anthem, Andorrans sing of Charlemagne rescuing their land from the Moors in 803. In the 13th century, Spanish and French nobles married. They agreed that the principality would be neither Spanish nor French. This unique feudal arrangement survives today. And, while they have co-princes from other countries (the president of France and a Spanish bishop), locals stress that Andorra is 100 percent independent.

Until little more than a generation ago, Andorra was an impoverished and isolated backwater. Puny 12th-century churches and their stony bell towers stand as strong as the Pyrenees around them.

Recently, Andorrans have become wealthy — thanks to the same mountains that kept them so isolated and poor for so long. Hiking and skiing are big business, stoking a building boom. Huge Vail-like ski-condos, built of perfectly crafted rustic stone, both contrast and match the historic stone buildings they now dwarf and outnumber.

And Andorra employs those special economic weapons so popular among Europe’s little states: easygoing banking, duty-free shopping and low, low taxes. The principality has morphed from a rough-and-tumble smugglers’ haven to a high-tech, high-altitude shoppers’ haven — famous for its bargain-basement prices. More than 10 million visitors — mostly Spaniards and French, enduring famous traffic jams — pour in yearly to buy luxury goods, electronics and other goodies while avoiding their high taxes back home.

The country’s capital and dominant city is Andorra la Vella. On my first visit here back in the 1970s, I remember it felt like a big Spanish-speaking Radio Shack. Today, it retains the charm of a giant shopping mall. I didn’t tell the tourist board, who kindly helped us film, but if people ask, “Why Andorra?” I have to answer, “I go there so you won’t have to.”


9 Replies to “Andorra: I Go There So You Won’t Have To”

  1. A Change Of Pace

    It’s nice to see places that we don’t know being covered by you Rick.

    Obviously you can’t cover every single town and village but new and interesting places are nice to see as we are so familiar with many of your favourites.

    Last September I went to Bad Bentheim in Germany just over the Netherland’s border.
    A poster on the Graffiti Wall had mentioned it and I was intrigued.

    It was a very late day visit but I got the flavour and it was nice to see small town in Germany with no tourists at the time and just a nice easy going feeling as if you really were a local.

  2. Rick,

    Two things happened this past year: 1) After long illness, I became well enough to begin to plan, with my wife, ideas for possible trips to Europe and 2) we accidentally came across you when watching a PBS pledge drive.

    Since then, we’ve been buying your CD’s, we have you programmed into our DVR and watch every one, and we have begun buying our baggage and other items at your online store.

    And I’ve been prowling your website.

    Everything has been wonderful. You fill our hours with pleasure, with your intelligence, wit, and joy of traveling, and you fill our minds with the promise of adventures to come.

    At age, 65, I’ve been given a reprieve, and synchronicity has given us a good teacher (the student must have been ready).

    Gifted teachers are rare and precious. Thank you for arriving at just the right time.

    Just wanted to let you know.

    Enjoy your trip.

    Bill and Dalia

  3. Outside of Andorra la Vella, I really enjoyed the time I spent in Andorra, especially the hiking. Well worth a visit, imo.

  4. As we headed from France toward Andorra, we crossed a high mountain pass, and were in heavy fog. It had been a long day, and I was driving enthusiastically as if the day has just started, but Emmy was very tired. Andorra seems to exist in deep valleys, with some towns hanging on the adjacent hills, with only one narrow crowded highway for all the traffic. There was a campground right in downtown Encamp, so we checked in early so Emmy could rest, and I could go walking in the rain. There is a building boom in town, with large cranes that can transfer building materials from the main street, clear across the buildings in this block, to the new buildings in the next block. We were told these are vacation and second homes for people in other countries. (1980)

  5. My friend and I were actually staying at the Art Hotel and noticed you working with your crew over breakfast. If you hadn’t been working, I would have stopped over to say hello.

    I would agree with your comments in regards to Andorra resembly a large shopping center. We can also attest to the traffic problems in that we experienced an accident within 5 minutes of arriving into the city. The police were very kind and we gave the locals an opportunity to laugh at a couple of tired tourists who had just arrived.

    Instead of shopping, however, my friend and I spent our time hiking in the mountains. The scenery was beautiful and the paths were in good condition and well-marked. Although, their definition of an easy trail and mine were somewhat different.

    In planning future trips, I wouldn’t make the effort to drive back to Andorra should I return to southern France and Barcelona again. I believe we could find some great hiking elsewhere.

  6. Perhaps eighteen years ago we traveled through Andorra on our way to Spain. We expected an idyllic mountain town compete with sheep and shepards. What we got was more like Reno–no, more like Winnemuca–and I’m not planning second trips to either–ever. So, thank you Rick, for also letting your loyal readers know where not to go!

  7. You might want to go up to Triesenberg when you’re in Liechtenstein. If the weather is nice you’ll have a nice view of the valley down below. They also speak the Walser dialect there, like the folks in Gimmelwald.

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