Monday, November 14, 2011
Andorra intrigues me. High up in the Pyrenees, the country is nestled in snowy peaks sandwiched between France and Spain. It seems far away and inaccessible, yet alluring and enchanting in its remoteness. My 90 under 30 Travel Project prompted me to visit, and over the weekend I traveled to Andorra to discover the country’s nature, culture, and adventure travel opportunities.
A friend and I flew to Barcelona on Friday night and rented what was possibly the most beat up car from the most unethical car rental company in Europe (don’t go with Goldcar if you don’t want hidden fees amounting to nearly 100 euros before you even leave the parking lot).
Once on the road, we drove for three hours up, up, up into the Pyrenees. The drive was surprisingly simple and straightforward, and the country far easier to get to than I had imagined.
We arrived in Andorra to be greeted by our host, Bianca, from My World of Experiences. I met her in March at ITB Berlin and she generously offered to let my friend and me stay with her family in the Andorran parish of La Massana for the weekend.
After a good night’s sleep, we woke up the next morning to stunning views. Everywhere we looked were snow-capped mountains, trees with brilliant yellow leaves, and small stone villages with picturesque churches and rotundas. We couldn’t wait to explore.
Most people travel to Andorra for skiing in the winter or warm-weather activities in the summer. Our visit in November meant that we were too late for the summer sun and too early for the winter ski season. But there was still plenty to do in Andorra in the autumn, and we spent the next two days discovering the highlights.
Starting with adventure sports, we spent Saturday morning driving off-road on all-terrain vehicles. Neither of us had ever driven an ATV before, but we had a great time. We followed an old smuggling route between Andorra and Spain where people who took advantage of the tax differential between the countries transported alcohol and tobacco across the border.
The rocky trail led us all the way up to the top of a mountain, where we had amazing views over the Andorran and Spanish countrysides. Half way down the path we stopped for a snack at a small lodge in the hills before continuing back to the main road. On the way we splashed through puddles and across streams, and drove by picturesque villages in the Pyrenees.
At the end of our ATV ride in Andorra we drove across the international border in our quad bikes. It was one of the most unique border crossings I’ve ever experienced (the other being between Jordan and Syria, a crazy journey involving strange car washes and confusing signs).
Our adventure travel in Andorra complete, we then focused on culture. First and foremost, we discovered the national cuisine. Our morning of activity had helped us work up an appetite, and Bianca took us to lunch at Bar Quim, a restaurant in a town called Ordino. There we learned that Andorran food is very similar to Catalan cuisine. It made sense, as the two contiguous regions shared a language and culture.
For lunch I had a plate of ham with asparagus and a traditional sausage dish with white beans. Both were delicious, and gave me energy for our next Andorran cultural experience. This came in the form of a show in Sant Julia de Loria. The performance featured a number of dances from the area and paid homage to Joan Amades, who dedicated his life to preserving regional traditions.
The numbers featured intricate costumes and lively dancing, and afterwards the lobby was filled with traditional Andorran pastries. We sampled one that was covered in pine nuts and another filled with chocolate.
In order to work off all of the calories we consumed, we needed a bit more exercise. Thankfully Bianca had planned to take us hiking in Andorra.
In doing so we discovered more of the country’s natural beauty. We started out at a waterfall in a nature preserve at the base of the Coma Pedrosa peak in the town of Arinsal. It was located right off the main road and had a picnic area around it where locals enjoy lunch on summer days.
After exploring the falls, we drove high up into the mountains to a place called Port de Cabus. There we were able to stand with one foot in Andorra and one foot in Spain, all while enjoying stunning views of the valley below.
Nearby was a ski area in Andorra called Coll de la Botella, where we went hiking along the snowmobile paths. The scenery was beautiful, with streams flowing through the dry valley below and snow dusting the mountains in the distance.
We wished we could stay longer and explore more of Andorra’s natural wonders, but we had to catch our flight back to London. We drove to Barcelona and arrived with enough time to pop into the city for dinner at La Vinya del Senyor, a wine bar in the city’s El Born district. There we enjoyed tapas and a glass of wine at a table overlooking the historic church of Santa Maria del Mar.
Being back in Barcelona’s urban landscape threw Andorra’s natural scenery into stark relief. It made us feel all the more fortunate to have traveled to the fresh mountain air of the Pyrenees. Andorra seemed more enchanting after our visit than before, as if we had awoken in a city after dreaming of a snow-capped getaway in a land of fairytale villages, fascinating folklore, and fantastic outdoor activities. I’m glad it was real, though, because now I am one country closer to my goal of 90 under 30. Only 9 more to go!