PART 1 (the short read for those in a hurry!)
Driving up from France with my family on a blue-sky, summery day in June, I was excited to visit the tiny mountain kingdom of Andorra. Small countries in general fascinate me. And small mountain kingdoms – well, fairy tales are set in small mountain kingdoms. I was expecting a few picturesquely placed sheep on the mountainside, and a restful hamlet or two, with ancient fountains and crumbling rooftops. And maybe a few felt hats on the heads of some rural folk?
The small country that is Andorra can be found on any map when it is held an inch from the nose: it is hiding in the Pyrenees, wedged between France and Spain. Andorra, an independent principality since 1278 (that’s uncommonly long), is the traditional home of the Catalan people. Dark-skinned and dark-haired – a generally good-looking people – they rattle on in a language one feels close to understanding, but never quite. French here will help a little, though I found locals are more likely to speak Spanish as a second language, and Portuguese is also fairly common. English got me nowhere.
Driving up the steep, zigzag road to the Andorran border post from the French side, our unassuming holiday car was waved through unchecked, yet at that very point my expectations received a check of their own. Squat, hefty buildings, painted in loud colours or made from glass, could be seen rising up out of the sloped ground. Petrol stations were positioned along the roadside every fifty metres or so and billboards stood proud and high. Ski lifts could be seen flung up and out in every direction. Big empty parking lots spoke of the countless visitors that winter brings. What I saw was up-to-the-minute modernity. Turns out fairytale-kingdom expectations are often the result of too little research.
PART 2 (more detail for the committed reader)
So Andorra is no storybook kingdom, but it is a beautiful and fascinating country nonetheless. I doubt that the Andorra of today can really be understood without reference to its dynamic ski industry. Millions of skiers flood the country every winter, while Andorra itself has a population just short of 90,000. There is a seemingly endless choice of hotels and resorts. Just by looking out the car one can see that this is a first-world country geared towards efficiency and being a world-class ski destination. There are two main ski areas, Grand Valira and Vallnord, as well as cross-country routes further south near Sant Julia de Loria.
In summer, the country is a hotspot for adventure sports, such as quad-biking, mountain biking, trekking, via ferratas (mountain-climbing routes), canyoning, canoeing and rock-climbing. Or fishing, for the quieter soul. The country is so mountainous that any walk becomes a hike, and beautiful viewpoints are a dime a dozen. It’s little wonder the Tour de France often chooses to pass through this spectacular country.
Our June visit found low-lying patches of pink and yellow wildflowers (reminiscent of fynbos) blanketing the mountainsides. Everywhere one looks the landscape is dramatic: conifers cling to the slopes, old snow patches cling to the peaks, and small streams and waterfalls trickle down from the heights, wetting exposed shale, before joining together to form glutted rivers further down in the valleys.
Andorra has always been, and still is, reliant upon its two neighbours for survival. Up until the end of the 17th century its population, living in a feudal system, did not exceed 3,000. That’s tiny. Non-inheriting descendants of families (i.e. the losers in primogeniture) were forced to look for livelihoods elsewhere and so emigration kept population numbers low.
Andorra has no airport nor train station of its own, owing to its extreme terrain, and so one has to drive in from either France or Spain. Roads linking it with Spain and France were only built in 1913 and 1933 respectively. Until its first Constitution in 1993, the country was ruled by two co-princes: the king or president of France, and the Spanish Bishop of Urgell. Today, native Andorrans account for just over one third of the population, while Spanish, French, Portuguese and other nationalities make up the rest.
Most of the country’s settlements run along the valley floor and the sound of rushing water permeates towns as the summer thaw replaces the white stillness of winter. While I was there the summer sun was warming, but a fresh mountain breeze was its constant companion. I kept my jersey firmly buttoned up, but I saw local women drop their shoulder straps all the better to soak up the rays while sipping their coffees in sidewalk cafes and chatting confidently among themselves.
Andorran society impressed me as being very orderly and stable. Not only did theymanage to go for 700 years with just one type of governance (think about it: no civil wars, no princes killing off rival princes, no disruptive coups), they never now make the news for anything more serious than, say, a banking policy. Brightly-clad traffic police have a steady presence on the streets and every time I so much as lifted a foot in the direction of a pedestrian crossing, all cars come to a quick standstill. This I like. Webcams throughout the country mean you can turn on the TV to check traffic and weather conditions on all the major roads and pistes before setting out.
The historic old town of Andorra La Vella does, when searched out, have cobbled streets and a couple of millennia-old churches. But very conspicuous was the building boom being experienced. The vine-covered buildings I had originally expected were instead scaffold-covered, and yellow cranes jutted into view whichever way I looked. Instead of ancient sculptures, avant-garde and abstract statues decorate public squares, turning circles and fountains. The white Pont de Paris is a fine example of the striking and strikingly modern architecture and artwork that helps to define the town.
One of the capital’s landmark buildings is the Caldea Hot Spring Resort. It is an arresting, ultramodern glass building that soars upwards to a point like the peaks that surround it. Inside, all is opulence, glass and mirrors, and on the ground floor there is a large thermal lagoon. The resort has exorbitant spa packages offering everything from a vaporisation room to a … wood’s lighting ionisation room? (Raise your hand if you know what that even means.) With a little luck my purse could have stretched to a tonic and water in the bar, but I wandered about with the self-assured air of a dressed-down millionaire.
Coming away from my trip, I now know that Andorra is a high-tech playground for the wealthy. Instead of smiling at its sweet antiquity, as I had expected, I was educated in engineering and modern art. But even after my visit, the country is still something of a mystery to me. Coming from the wide open spaces of a developing and sunny South Africa, I find it hard to wrap my mind around what it must really be like to live in this ultra-modern society with its snow and cold winds, its long shadows and steep streets, and its towering mountains that constantly hem you in while at the same time impress you with their ever-present, awe-inspiring grandeur.