Andorra is not one of the most popular travel destinations in Europe. I would not be surprised if some people living outside of the Old Continent, would not even know that it is a country. This tiny state is trapped between the Pyrenees Mountains and its towns occupy the valleys. The biggest fame Andorra has is thanks to ski resorts. The Pyrenees Mountains aren’t maybe as popular as the Alps but ski lovers still come here. The country looks pretty during the spring and summer, but still, most of the tourists come during the winter. That’s when Andorra truly shines. The autumn is a dead season.
Discovering Andorra's Fascinating Principality
Andorra is quite unique. It is a principality. The currency is the euro, even though Andorra isn’t part of the EU. Catalan is the official language, though signs everywhere are in French, Spanish, and English. Contrary to other micro-states like Monaco, it doesn’t have a prince per se. Andorra has been an independent state since 1278, however by a longstanding arrangement, the King / President of France is one of the two co-princes in charge. The other is the Bishop of Urgell in Catalonia.
Andorra doesn’t have an airport and isn’t well linked by public transportation with neighboring Spain and France. There are buses and even a train to Andorra la Vella, but they are slow and expensive. The easiest way to get to Andorra is by car. Most of the car companies don’t allow you to take a car abroad and those who do allow, charge extra. To get there you must drive through a costly, paid tunnel. Spanish road tolls are a nightmare as well. There are free roads that run parallel to highways, but using them means you will drive longer and spend more money on petrol. In the end, you will pay the same amount of money anyway! I knew that the trip to Andorra would not be the cheapest, but I didn’t want to miss the chance of exploring this micro-country. I really knew very little about it and I was already so close.
Before leaving for this micro-state I found loads of articles saying to give Andorra a miss because there was not much worth seeing. Now I must both agree and disagree. As for the architecture, Andorra doesn’t have much to offer. There are some old buildings, Roman churches, and Roman bridges, but nothing catches the eye for longer than a short moment. But visitors to Andorra are made speechless by the views provided by Mother Nature.
Embracing Nature's Majesty in Andorra La Vella
Entering Andorra was like entering a fairyland. Next to the road that meandered between mountains, ran a mountains brook, and there were flowers everywhere. April in Andorra was full bloom in spring. I hadn’t enjoyed the pure views for too long, as soon after crossing the border buildings appeared. Most of them were very basic city centers and malls. At that moment I reminded myself words of our hotel’s receptionist. When he heard that we were going to Andorra he wished us happy shopping. We told him that we were not planning to shop, but he said, that we will shop anyway. Andorra la Vella, the capital of the country and the most famous tourist destination of the micro-state is a shopping mecca as the prices there are much cheaper because of the super low tax policy. Andorra la Vella looks like one big shopping center. Items like perfume, tobacco, and electronic items are tax-free so the country makes a good income from consumer and luxury goods. Petrol is also much, much cheaper. But like I said we hadn’t come to Andorra to shop (well maybe except for petrol). We wanted to see what the country had to offer and we began with its capital.
Andorra La Vella - A Walk Arround
Andorra La Vella is the highest, capital city in Europe. It is tiny. Andorra la Vella began in the 1200s so it is considered “old” and I love visiting old towns. That’s why I love Europe in the first place. The oldest part of Andorra la Vella is the “Barri Antic”. It has been the heart of the city since the times when the principality was little more than a village. It feels very medieval. The Old Town has cobbled streets, heavy walls, and stone houses that were typical in Europe in the middle ages. I wondered why a city like Andorra la Vella would need protective walls. After all, it has the Pyrenees to protect it. I had never heard about Andorra being involved in any war.
The most prominent building in Andorra la Vella, the church of Sant Esteve, is located at the entrance to the old quarter. The present building is the result of various alterations and enlargements of the Romanesque church.
One of the city’s oldest buildings is Casa de la Vall. It was built in the early 1500s and became the parliamentary house two centuries later. The Parliament no longer meets here. It moved next door, to a modern glass structure.
As we left Casa de la Vall we searched for stairs leading us up to a walkway that gives the best, eye-bird view of Andorra la Vella. Rec del Solà is a perfect place to overlook and photograph the city in all directions. From here you can see how the mountains ring this little city that sleeps deep in a valley. I thought it might be hard to find these stairs, but finding them came faster than I expected. Andorra la Vella is not a too complicated town. During the climb, we could see a large number of vegetable gardens where the parish, country folk grow their own food. It was too early to see any fruits or veggies. These gardens were also home to countless number of cats. They weren’t like Greek or Turkish cats that wait for food and caresses. They rather avoided us.
The Rec del Solà path is bricked and very pleasant to walk. Next to it runs the irrigation system. On a hot day dipping one’s legs in this seemingly, cold water felt really tempting. We didn’t meet many people on our way. In fact, we met only a couple with a dog and a solitary man. They didn’t look like tourists. Rather, locals take advantage of the nice weather and take a stroll. The views from there were just perfect. The peaks of the mountains were still covered by snow. Snow against sunny weather, greenery, and the cloudless sky looked out of the place, but magical nevertheless.
Walking the stairs down was much more pleasant. We again passed vegetable gardens and cats. I was wondering who wants to have a garden here. Having a garden like this mean you need to climb every day to water plants or do some gardening. A bad vision for an anti-climbing fan.
The stairs down took us to the newer quarter of the city. The modern part is made of glass and steel and is not what you would call pretty. There are a few tiny bridges, a few sculptures – one of Salvador Dali is the most famous, here. There is also a “mini Shard” and hotels of well-known chain names. And that would be pretty much all to see in Andorra la Vella.
The best thing the city has to offer is above the roofs. The mountains! While being in Andorra la Vella you can’t escape from seeing them. They are the permanent background of everything.