This trip to Europe like the last ones started with a conversation with dad along the lines of:
“Tim, I’m going to a conference in <European Country> in about 12 months, mum is going to come, would you like to go to Europe as well?”
“Sure, can we also go to <small European country / principality / micro-state>?”
This time I wanted to go to Andorra. They have the le Tour de France to thank for that, they rode through their last year and I decided I wanted to visit it.
Andorra is tiny, smaller than the ACT, it’s half the size of Canberra, and Canberra isn’t big. It has a population of not many – around 85,000 of which only 35,000 are of Andorran ancestry. While it uses the Euro, it isn’t a member of the European Union, but is part of Schengen. The primary industries seem to be spending money, and skiing, with a small amount of agriculture dedicated mainly to tobacco.
As it was summer it was off-season, very off-season. We managed to get a hotel about about a third the usual rate. I almost didn’t believe the price when I booked it, but I checked the cost in winter and the cost was more appropriate to the quality of the hotel we thought we were booking.
We caught a bus from Barcelona and when we reached the border it stopped and two police officers from Andorra got on, asking for passports. Earlier in the day we had agreed it was far too much effort to get my passport out of Dad’s suitcase – where we had locked it in Barcelona while staying in the AirBnB (no safe like a hotel). After fumbling around with the suitcases under the bus one of the police officers said “Don’t worry about it, just get back on the bus.” So I did. It is Schengen, so randomly crossing borders isn’t really a problem for a bunch of tourists on a bus.
That evening after getting ourselves settled in the hotel Dad and I went for a walk in the wind and the rain down the main street. Down being the operative word, everything in Andorra is either downhill or uphill, and our Hotel was most of the way up a hill on the north side of the valley. The main street through Andorra la Vella is barely two lanes wide and is lined with shops on either side. There is a very strange mix of high end, boutique stores and junk electronic stores that look like something between an eBay store brought to life and something transported out of Hong Kong.
The electronic stores were competitively priced. A HDD was a couple of dollars cheaper than Officeworks, a GoPro Hero 5 Session was about 10% cheaper than JB HiFi. They all sold watches (Swiss, and Japanese, but mainly Japanese – the Swiss watches were reserved for the high end boutique jewellers with the armed guards or the branded stores like Breitling), selfie sticks, fidget spinners, and other random paraphernalia.
After we completed a lap of the main street we returned to the hotel for dinner. It would have been after 7, and despite being high up in the Pyrenees in a valley, and there being a lot of rain and cloud cover, it was still quite light. To avoid the rain and too much effort we enjoyed room service for dinner, an advantage of staying in quite a nice hotel, that we could only afford in the off season.
The next morning we caught a local bus to Encamp, about 15 or 20 km further up the valley from Andorra la Vella. The local bus turned out to be a coach, with no standing room. It flew off down the main street, manoeuvring between parked cars and pedestrians, accelerating into corners I wasn’t sure it could fit around. The traffic in Andorra can be surprisingly aggressive.
Like other tiny places in Europe there was more of a separation between Andorra la Vella and Encamp that between Sydney and Wollongong, where the suburbs just seem to bleed into each other. We got off the bus early, worried there might not be many stops in Encamp and we could easily fall out the other side. We walked through the empty streets, getting the occasional strange look from a local, why would three foreigners be walking through Encamp this early in the morning, in summer?
We found the automobile museum we were going to visit, but it wasn’t open for another hour or so. We continued further up the valley looking for a Casa Cristo, a traditional Andorran house as it would have been at the start of the 20th century. The house itself was first built about 200 years ago. The very friendly guide greeted us outside and invited us in for the tour.
The lower floor was for the animal to huddle in, out of the cold. There was also a cellar, with the only electric light bulb in the place, installed quite recently. The next floor had the “kitchen” and “dining” area, with the best china and silver on display, reserved for Sunday use only. The warmth from the animal down stairs and the hearth meant this was the warmest area of the house, and had the bedrooms for grandmother and the parents. The third level had an open area, the biggest in the house used for big meals with the extended family and the children’s room.
The guide explained the life they lived, not that long ago. They’d trade honey, wool, tobacco, sometimes milk for other things at the market. They’d hunt for food, and grow crops to eat and trade.
What I couldn’t workout during all this was why does Andorra exist? What was there before skiing?
In 998 (quite a while ago) the area was a gift from Count of Urgell (Spain) to the Diocese of Urgell for some land in Cerdanya – so really more of a swap. Andorra didn’t have a military, and the Bishop of Urgell was afraid the Count wanted the land back, so he sort alliances. In 1095 the Bishop signed an agreement with the Count of Foix (France) for protection, and co-sovereignty. This all got a bit testy later on with some disagreements following a crusade by the French Crown in France. A bit more mediation and another agreement was signed in 1278 declaring Andorra a sovereign nation (again) with two co-heads of state. The title of the Count of Foix has since moved the President of France, French Revolution etc. Making Andorra a country with two heads of state they have no influence over, a Bishop and a President of a foreign nation. These roles are mostly ceremonial though, with an elected legislature of 28, where the majority forms a cabinet of 7 ministers. They passed a law ensuring separation between church and state, while having a Bishop as a head of state.
But why were there people here? It’s high in the Pyrenees, and while one of the easier passes between Spain and France to negotiate I’d still take the coast or sea. The best we could figure was there was some natural resources in the way of wood, hunting, and iron, and the pass through the Pyrenees was well used.
After leaving the Casa Cristo we set back to the automobile museum. The person at reception seemed eager to test their English, and explained all the cars were privately owned, and we weren’t allowed to take any photos. This was quite annoying, because there was an amazing collection of machines, going back to the late 19th century and including some very unique items including a Lancia Stratos, and a Messerschmitt “car” – which looked a lot like the cockpit of a small plane with no wings. They also had a great collection of bikes, pedal, motor and a combination of both. They even had a genuine Thai tuk tuk – mum and dad tried to read the writing on it, and decided it was in fact Thai.
After some morning tea, we caught a bus back to Andorra la Vella, and the hotel.
Later we went for a walk down the valley in the other direction from where we had been previously and managed to find Casa de la Vall built in the 1500s, and the new improved council offices. The governing council only moved into the new offices in 2011, after using Casa de la Vall since 1702.
We had a guided tour of Casa de la Vall, but weren’t allowed to take photos inside. They showed us where the government sat, and the courts (well, the one court room, where 3 judges preside over cases, there are no juries in Andorra). The guide was excellent, and gave detailed answers to a number of questions. As is traditional in Europe, they apologised for their excellent English (their third or fourth language).
Andorra is a strange place. It exists to have money spent on things, and for skiing. With a population of 85,000 they have a tourist population of over 10 million a year, Australia with a population of around 23 million had “only” 7.2 million tourists in 2015. One of the downsides of being on the way to nowhere, except maybe Antarctica and bits of New Zealand is you need to want to go to Australia and invest time and money in getting there (or out of there – something we are reminded of whenever anyone ask “Where are you from?” – they are always slightly surprised when you say Australia). Andorra is a bus ride from Barcelona, and a number of other Spanish and French places, Australia isn’t a bus ride from anywhere.
I would definitely spend more time in Andorra, in the summer again when I can afford it, and try and do some walking (hiking is a strong word) and some bike riding.