The minute country of Andorra is an historical curiosity. Its population of 64,000 (1993) live on the rocky slopes of the eastern Pyrenees mountains, sandwiched between France and Spain.
Nearly half the population of this landlocked nano-state live in the capital, Andorra la Vella in the valley of the Gran Valira River.
The rocky, snow-capped mountains, pierced by fast-flowing icy rivers, provide some breathtaking scenery. The towns themselves are somewhat less idyllic. Andorra's status as a tax haven entices some ten million visitors each year to shop for alcohol, sporting equipment, leather wear, clothing, perfume and electronics, which are all duty free. This, combined with an extensive post-war construction boom has left Andorra la Vella with the appearance of one giant shopping mall.
Legend has it that the state was first created by the Emperor Charlemagne in the 8th Century. Arrangements were formalised in the 13th Century when the country was placed in the unusual position of having two sovereigns: the King of France and the Bishop of Urquel, in Spain. This bizarre arrangement has lasted to the present day and Andorra has managed to retain its independence apart from brief interludes during the Napoleonic and Second World Wars when it was occupied by France.
The country's political arrangements were modernised in 1993 and it is now run by an elected Prime Minister. While not officially an EU member state Andorra does use the Euro as currency, obtaining notes and coins from its neighbours France and Spain.
The town of Andorra la Vella is primarily a large shopping centre and 80% of Andorra’s GDP comes from the tourists who visit, or pass through, every summer.
There is, however, a small historic quarter called the Barri Antic. This is the real heart of Andorra and all cultural, gastronomic, and evening activity is centred here. The Casa de la Vall has served as the seat of Andorra's parliament and judiciary since 1702 but it was originally built as a private mansion in 1580. Guided tours of the interior reveal a beautiful example of domestic gothic architecture and it houses some gorgeous frescoes depicting the Passion of Christ. The tours are popular so be prepared to book a week ahead in summer months.
The Church of Santa Coloma is the oldest in the country. This pre-Romanesque church was built in the 9th century with a circular bell tower added in the 12th. To the south of the old quarter is the Placa del Poble, the main public square of the capital. Its position on the roof of a major government building gives some beautiful views of the city and the surrounding mountains.
Mountainous Andorra has a large number of budget ski resorts and Andorra la Vella is often used as a base for skiers. The largest resort is Soldeu-el Tartar to the northeast of the city. The town of Arinsal to the north is also a popular location. The surrounding mountains contain 13 ski lifts and the town boasts a lively après-ski scene.
In summer months the mountains, studded with lakes and rivers, make some great routes for walkers or hikers. There are also canyon-climbing expeditions that leave from the city. All equipment can be hired locally.
A visit to the hamlet of Segudet (north of Andorra la Vella) gives the visitor an impression of what life used to be like in Andorra. It won't take long to explore its narrow streets but then you can walk or bike around the nearby Pic de Casamanya which, at 2740m high, offers outstanding vistas of the Pyrenees.
For more adventurous or experienced hikers, the high mountains contain 26 refugis or mountain refuges. These hostel-like stopovers are unstaffed and free to use.
Duty free shopping is the lifeblood of Andorra. From the moment you arrive you will be bombarded with shops selling everything: clothes, electronics, wines, spirits, jewellery, perfumes, tobacco, leather handbags, shoes and even financial services - all at knock down prices. The downside is that you can quickly feel like you're in one big airport terminal.
Nightlife and Eating Out
Andorra boasts a range of bars and nightclubs. They fall into two general categories: the slightly down-at-heel places catering for locals, and the flashy, exceptionally trendy and extortionately priced joints servicing rich tax exiles and tourists. That said, a hunt around the Barri Antic should unearth some places with character but it's worth venturing beyond flash touristy bars to meet some locals.
Dining out can be a pleasure in Andorra as the country gets the best recipes from both French and Spanish cooking. In the mountains there are plenty of family restaurants cooking traditional foods like trinxat et coques - fried potato and cabbage served with flavoured flat cakes or pollastre de pajes - chicken cooked with raisins and plums.
In the city there are lots of restaurants gastronomiques serving delicious food at devilishly high prices but, if you're willing to venture off the main squares, you can find more humble establishments selling more reasonably priced dishes that are still mouth-watering. A trip to a late night tapas bar is a great way to sample Andorran cooking. They all serve huge platos combinandos so you can try a little bit of everything.
National Tourist OfficeAndorra Sindicat d'Iniciativa Prat de la Creu, 62 Andorra la Vella AndorraTel: +3(0)76 875700Fax: +3(0)76 860184 firstname.lastname@example.org