Well…not completely. The Principality of Andorra is the sixth smallest nation in Europe, having an area of 468 km2 (181 sq mi) and an estimated population of 84,484 in 2008. If size qualifies a location as “adorable”, there it is. But wait, there’s more.
Why travel to this tiny sovereign country nestled in the Pyrenees between France and Spain? Because it is there? Ali’s dad thought so, and since he: 1. Drives our rental cars and 2. Does not usually request specific destinations, leaving those decisions to me (to our mutual benefit) it was off to Andorra we went, by way of Montserrat, one of the most fantastic places in the world . Go there when you visit Barcelona and plan to spend the day.
Until 2006 I had no idea that Andorra has a capital city and that the name is Andorra La Vella (Andorra the Old in Catalan, more on that shortly). I learned that fact from my daughter, the owner of this blog, in a trivia game. (Yes I am a librarian.) Andorra La Vella is not an attractive city. Its dual purposes appear to be to hide copious amounts of currency (a la Switzerland) judging from the number of international banks lining the streets and to facilitate large tax free purchases of alcohol and cigarettes for Europeans. We were not in the market for either of those items; still we were stopped by Spanish customs officers upon our exit. Andorra is not a member of the EU and apparently the tax free issues are taken seriously by the border patrol. Once they heard our American accents and my poor attempt at speaking Spanish and non-knowledge of Catalan, they waved us on and we were on our way back to Spain.
Andorra La Vella does have a tiny old town (well the whole place is tiny) that is reachable by hiking up a mountain or taking an elevator. Guess which option was taken by 50somethings in the dusk and drizzle. Old Town does have a certain charm, including the smallest parliament building in Europe which was locked, although the woman in the TI told us it would be open. It was Saturday night, dark by then with a more steady rain, so we purchased a copy of Harry Potter in Catalan for Ali’s cousin who collects Harry Potter in as many languages as possible, found a non-descript cafeteria for a quick bite and headed back to the charmless New Town.
In a departure from my usual, nay obsessive research I chose the first hotel I could find in my online search, the Andorra La Vella Crowne Plaza. Not a good choice, virtually indistinguishable from any other CP in the world, and expensive to boot. It turned out that there are quaint looking small hotels in Old Town. However parking our rental car/lugging our suitcase up the mountain might have been problematic.
By Sunday morning, a difficult time to find things to do in many smaller places in Europe, it was snowing lightly, and despite that the fact that we were heading up a mountain we decided to visit Ordino, a small Pyrenean village which IS charming. Ordino is also distinguished by two tiny museums housed in the same building, right on the main street. At this point the snow was really coming down, but since we are intrepid upstate New Yorkers who know how to deal with snow, we decided to visit one of the two museums, both founded by a Ukrainian named Nicolaï Syadristy who found himself in Andorra. The Museum of Russian Icons looked interesting but we had just been in Russia six months earlier, so we chose the Museum of Micro Miniatures. In reading about this museum in the tourist brochure—my only source of information since this librarian could not locate a travel book dedicated to Andorra—we pictured some of the small portraits in tiny perfect frames that we had seen in other museums. NOT SO. This museum had miniscule objects and scenes in gold leaf—the one that immediately comes to mind is a desert scene complete with camels and pyramids. It fits in the eye of a needle. I later learned that this scene is the favorite among museum visitors. There are powerful monoculars to view these objects. We could not comprehend how they had been created.
We could have spent hours studying these fascinating creations but at this point the snow was really heavy and discretion won out. We headed down the mountain and into Spain where the sun was shining. We had originally intended to exit through France since we like to travel in a circle, but were dissuaded by the snow and by the admonition of the TI lady in Andorra La Vella that it is “really far”. Actually nothing is truly very far in Andorra.
About the Catalan language: it is an amalgamation of all the other Romance languages however it sounds like none of them. In spite of our experiences traveling in Barcelona and the rest of Catalunya, I had no idea that Catalan is the national language of Andorra. And French appears to be #2. To my admittedly non-linguistically trained eye Catalan most resembles Portuguese in its written form. Since I speak decent French and have a basic reading knowledge of Spanish and even a smattering of Portuguese (from one visit) and Italian (from travels, but mainly from opera) I thought I would pick up some Catalan phrases. Here it is: “Si us plau”—that’s “please”. And that’s it.
Even though not a member of the European Union, the unit of currency is the euro since Andorra has no currency of its own. Prior to the advent of the euro Spanish pesetas and French francs were both accepted.
There are also no airports anywhere in the county, nor is there a train station. You must fly to Toulouse, France or Barcelona, Spain . The best way to get around is to rent a car. The roads are good, although frequently snow-covered. We were there at the beginning of November and the snowstorm we encountered did not seem to be a rare occurrence.
Do we expect to visit Andorra again? Nope. There are too many other places on our bucket list. Are we sorry we went? Nope. We’ve visited other places “because they were there”. It makes for interesting party conversation. On to Liechtenstein!