Andorra la Vella - Andrew - 2000
Tiny Andorra is sandwiched between France and Spain in the midst of the Pyrenees. It has been a sovereign state for many centuries and is the only country where Catalan is the official language.
Although there are few historic sights or towns of great beauty the landscape is breathtaking. The 'capital city' is Andorra la Vella and is little more than a small town - but appropriate for such a small country.
Andorra la Vella - Andrew - 2000
My day trip to Andorra began with the long bus journey from Barcelona. This took me past Montserrat, the Catalan 'holy mountain' with it's distinctive jagged outline, and then up into the Spanish Pyrenees on ever more windy and dramatic roads through the Tunel del Cadi to La Seu d'Urgell and then to the Andorran border. I was quite surprised at how stringent the border checks were, my passport was taken away and examined (but disappointingly not stamped) before the bus continued into Andorra itself.
The first views of Andorra from Spain are not particularly endearing. Because Andorra is tax-free the Spanish come here to do cheap shopping and over the years a string of large and rather ugly shopping centres has sprung up around the town of St. Julià de Lòria which gives a very poor first impression of this little country. It was a taste of things to come because although Andorra's landscape is dramatic and beautiful there has been some appalling buildings erected in the towns (that I saw) which have marred the scenery.
Traffic between St. Julià de Lòria and the capital, Andorra la Vella, was terrible - so I was quite pleased to get out of the coach (after 3½ hours) at the coach station. The old town of Andorra la Vella (the Barri Antic) is built part way up one side of the valley of the River Valira which you have to cross from the coach station and then either clamber up the hill or take the lift in a car park which brings you to the Plaça del Poble, a small sqaure-cum-garden on the edge of the old town.
From the Plaça del Poble views can be had of Andorra la Vella's two 'landmarks'; the Casa de la Vall and the Church of St Esteves (presumably Saint Steven). The former is the old town hall, from where the country is administered and is the oldest secular building in Andorra (dating to the 16th century), the latter a Romanesque church of the kind which is apparently typical of Andorra. Neither of these were open to visitors.
So I went for a wander around the Barri Antic - which is really rather small indeed - and around the rest of the upper town. This mostly consisted of electrical goods shops which were shut until 3 pm at the earliest. It was about 1:30.
In fact the whole of Andorra la Vella seemed to be shut. There were very few people around and despite the pleasant weather even the Plaça del Poble was empty save for one of those wandering old men you tend to find in southern European parks everywhere. So I went and had a coffee and a cake. Then I wandered around a bit more.
I went for a closer look at the Casa de la Vall. Possibly it's most impressive feature is it's position, almost dangling over the valley's edge. Although the man balancing on a ladder balancing on some dodgy looking scaffolding was quite impressive too! In fact, the same could be said for the whole town - and from what I'd seen the whole country - it was impressively situated with lovely landscape but the towns are ugly and unimpressive. On the whole I'm sure Andorra is a paradise for hikers, but there are prettier parts of the Pyrenees in France and Spain and once the novelty of being in this tiny country has worn off there isn't a lot to replace it.
I went to see if any of the shops had opened. They hadn't. Not even the souvenir shop which didn't open at all whilst I was there. Somewhat disheartened I headed back down the hill to the coach station. I had another coffee then boarded the coach for the journey back to Barcelona. This turned out to be even more torturous than the journey up, winding down tiny mountain roads in the dark was terrifying as a passenger - God knows what it would be like for a driver.
We stopped in a place called Ponts which was slightly beyond the middle of nowhere (and which the Rough Guide to Spain rightly describes as "an undistinguished, flyblown town"). All the Spaniards got out to have a cigarette whilst I sat inside wishing the journey would finish. Sadly when we hit Barcelona the traffic was amongst the worst I've seen anywhere in my entire life and it took 4½ hours to get back to the coach station.
All in all, I'm glad I went to Andorra for only a day - longer would have driven me to distraction I think - and it's not a place I'll be hurrying back to.
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