Uday K Chakraborty explores a tiny nation tucked between the peaks of Pyrenees, a mountain range that forms a natural border between France and Spain
Locked away between the peaks of Pyrenees, protected by two benign princes who rarely set foot in the country, blessed with seven centuries of peace, freed from the taxes and conscription – one might have foreseen Andorra as a lost horizon where human spirit could blossom unfettered by civilisation’s darker demands.
Arrival in Andorra
So I hoped, anyway, as I drove Spain’s winding Route 145 toward the Andorran frontier, bracketed on both sides by the Pyrenees, suddenly startling, even breathtaking in their proximity. The road turned a sharp corner into a jumbled border crossing, full with returning motorist, a few border guards and a sizeable contingent of customs officials. I drove on, a little disappointed to find my passport denied an exotic new stamp but gleeful to have at last arrived amid the Valleys of Andorra.
A short drive past billboards and warehouse stores bought me to Andorra la Vella, whose traffic jams, packed sidewalks and glitzy storefronts suggested a city far larger than its official population of less than 80,000 (that excludes three times more migrants who live here to earn a living). An endless array of electronic stores, liquor outlets and perfumeries saturated the main avinguadas of Princip Benlloch and Meritxell, giving ground level Andorra la Vella the feel of a gargantuan duty free shop. Even the most mundane fixtures evinced how efficient the Andorrans had become at separating visitors from their money; parking meters took credit cards.
Except from the tiny Barri Antic, where several venerable – if – modest structures remain, the city seemed entirely composed of dreary modern apartment blocks. Indeed, 700 years of peace have left the country bereft of the landmarks the rest of Europe takes for granted. “No wars,” explained my journalist friend, “means no castles.” Its other smaller cities like Laragoda, Zaragoza, Calatayud and Guadalajara are slightly better. Rural scenes, however, are very pleasing to the eyes viewed from anywhere.
Exploring the countryside
And yet, amid a society of hustle and bustle of its towns, an elemental Andorra remains. The real Andorra lies in the countryside, not in the shop infested cities. The mountain trails and meadows are a world away from Andorra La Vella. Getting away from the towns brings one into contact with a wholly different world, one of verdant valleys alive with hares and chamois, luxuriantly covered in shrubs and daffodils. Offset by occasional ruins of a spare Romanesque church, or of a tiny-millennium-old stone bridge, the handsome, remote landscape evokes ever-more-precious solitude that once defined the valley. It is with certain nostalgia that the visit or views the peaceful mountain villages and hear distant cowbells.
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The Pyrenees: The true lords of Andorra
But whether one is in busy towns or verdant countryside, one cannot escape the true lords of Andorra: the Pyrenees. Presiding over both sides of the schizophrenic principality, the huge steep mountains impose, in the most direct way, on virtually every aspect of Andorran life. Walk more than a few meters across the breadth of any of Andorra’s towns or valleys, and you bump into a mountain, stumble across a waterfall or even enter the mists of a thermal spring. The eternal Pyrenees, snow covered in winter, densely forested in summer, make up 90 percent of the Andorra, their immense, immovable presence casting the mundane activities of the towns in an air of surrealist. Few places have juxtaposed man’s folly and nature’s grandeur in such clear relief.
Time should definitely be set aside for serenely experiencing the majesty of the mountains. Agencies in Andorra’s capital offer half-day excursions to the most remote forests and peaks of the country. Day trips by private cars or reasonably fared minibuses to the ski slopes of Evalira, Pas de la Casa or La Massana provide exhilarating encounters with nature at its most beautiful. A pleasant afternoon can be enjoyed riding the cable car to Engolasters Lake from the village of Encampa or relaxing in a thermal bath at a hotel spa of Les Escaldas. But to know the country, to grasp what sets it apart, one must hike it – and, given its size, one could hike all of it in just a few days.
The country today faces two major issues – tax free regime and rapid development that brought a lot of outside money together with a large number of migrants that now far outnumber its own citizens. Currently EU headquarter is pressurizing to dismantle its duty free regime go towards more representative and inclusive democracy. The nations currently is a constitutional co-principality, with equal number of voting right of its seven parishes or districts. It has strict naturalisation rule, where immigrants can become citizens only after three generations live in Andorra.
The current co-princes of Andorra, their portraits hanging below that of the Pope in the 400-year-old parliament chambers, are the Bishop of the Urgell, Spain and the President of France. The total independence has never been sought by its populace, whose national anthem underscores their political feelings: “Faithful and free I wish to live, with my princes as my protectors”. Their language and culture is similar to the Catalonian region of Spain.
Whether visiting for the duty free prices or enjoying its imposing mountains and verdant valleys, you will be sure to be charmed by the contrasts and intrigued by al that little Andorra has to offer.
How to reach: Andorra, currently can be reached from Spain and France by road or by air from a few European cities.