Okay, then where is Andorra located? I’m sure many of you may have heard of it, but may not know exactly where it is. In any event, that was the case with me. It is actually on the border of France and Spain near the Pyrenees. It is a micro-state, or in other words, a very small country.
Being the only area of the world which has declared Catalan as its only official language, it is full of fairy tale villages and towns with green valleys and pastures surrounded by snow capped mountains. It has a mixture of French, Portuguese, and Spanish cultures.
A Little Bit of History
Andorra has a long and fascinating history. Originally of Catalan descent, the Andorrans are a Romance ethnic group. It is believed that Charlemagne created this country in the middle ages around the late eighth (8th) or early ninth (9th) century. Some have speculated that it was around 805 AD. If you go by official documents, Charles the Bald is the one who created it as a donation to the Council of Urgell. Its present principality goes back to the thirteenth (13th) century, having been formed by charter in 1278.
During World War I Andorra actually declared war against Germany, but did not participate in the fighting. A few Andorrans joined the French and participated in the conflict. Since Andorra was not part of the Treaty of Versailles, it officially stayed in a state of belligerency until 1958.
Andorra was occupied by France in 1933 due to social unrest. On July 6, 1934 the General Council supported Boris Mikhailovich Skossyreff, a Russian Nobleman and adventurer, as the Sovereign of Andorra. This was based on his promises to bring modernization and freedom to the country. Then on July 8, 1934 he proclaimed himself King of Andorra. He was eventually arrested and expelled.
Andorra was neutral during World War II. In the 1930s tourism and tax haven advantages contributed to the country’s beginning as a capitalist economy. Shopping and skiing became attractive to tourists in the late 1930s, which resulted in a renovation of the hotel industry. The tourist industry continues to thrive as well as developments in communications and transport.
In 1993 the political system was modernized, and a constitution was drafted. It then became a member of the Council of Europe and the United Nations. Diplomatic relations were established with the United States in 1996. Although not part of the European Union, a monetary agreement to use the Euro was set up with the European Union in 2006.
A Few Facts of Interest
- The capital of Andorra is Andorra la Vella
- Andorra is known as “El Pais dels Pirineus” or “country in the mountains”
- The currency of Andorra is the Euro
- Although Catalan is the only official language, French, Spanish, and Portuguese are widely spoken as well
- It is the sixth (6th) smallest nation in all of Europe, the eleventh (11th) smallest in population in the world, and the sixteenth (16th) smallest country in the world
- The population of the country is approximately seventy-seven thousand (77,000)
- Its elevation is three thousand three hundred and fifty-six (3,356) feet (1,023 meters)
- They are not a member of the European Union
- They get around ten (10,000,000) million visitors each year
- It is a member of the United Nations
- At eighty-five (85) years of age, it has the highest life expectancy in the entire world because of its nutrition and diet
- The current Prime Minister of the principality is Xavier Espot Zamora who has been acting as Chief Executive of the government since May 16, 2019. He was appointed by the General Council.
- Its climate is a mixture of oceanic, continental, and alpine, which is dependent on the altitude. There is an abundance of rain and snow dependent on the time of year.
- Tourism contributes eighty (80%) percent to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The banking area has tax haven status, and the skiing industry brings in millions of visitors each year.
- The country has duty-free status
- The majority of food is imported since agriculture is limited due to only five (5%) arable land. Some tobacco is grown, and sheep raising is the main livestock activity. Manufacturing consists of furniture, cigars, and cigarettes.
- The unemployment rate is 2.9%.
- Established in 1997, the Universitat d’Andorra (UdA) is the only university in the country. The two (2) graduate schools are the School of Computer Science and School of Nursing.
- Transportation is by car and bus. There are no airports in the country, but there are commercial helicopter services. There is an airport at Alt Urgell in Spain, as well as airports in France and Spain which provide international flights.
- The country is known for its folk music and traditional folk dances (marratza and contrapas)
- The cuisine is primarily Catalan with Italian and French influences
- Winter sports are popular as well as roller hockey, rugby, football (soccer), basketball, cricket, swimming, handball, cycling, judo, volleyball, tennis, motor sports, gymnastics, and Australian Rules football. Andorra first participated in the Olympics in 1976.
- They also have a team of castellers or Catalan human tower builders.
Now check out this video to get a good idea what Andorra is really like:
Things to Do
* Let’s Go Shopping — its duty-free status makes this a popular destination for shoppers within Andorra as well as people from other countries. Even though it is not a Gucci paradise for you high fashion folks, it does provide plenty of choices at reduced prices. You can find all your major brands at the Pyrenees Department Store.
* Skiing and other Winter Sports — there are about one hundred and ten (110) ski lifts in this country. In addition to skiing you can snowboard, take a dog sledge or even ski raquettes. Gran Valira is one of the largest ski resorts in the world as a result of the merger of two (2) large resorts. If you want to get real adventurous you can take your skiing and snowboarding to remote parts of the mountains by hiring a helicopter for the day. Heli-skiing is certainly a rare treat.
* Visit the Churches — it is well worth the time to view the Romanesque architecture by checking out the over forty (40) churches in this country which date back to Medieval times. Take a road trip and explore the countryside as you go from church to church. Summer is the best time to do this as in the winter many of the smaller churches are closed to tourists. One of the oldest churches is the Church of Sant Climent de Pal. It dates back to the late eleventh (11th) or early twelfth (12th) century. Also, close by is the Romanesque Andorra Interpretation Center which is worth spending some time where you can learn much more about this architectural style.
* Enjoy the Mountain Food — the food in this part of the world is extremely delicious. The “old Mountain Barns” called “Bordas” are restaurants with unique architecture located in the northern part of Andorra and Catalunya. Here you will get meat-based meals consisting of large portions based on traditional recipes. The meats are grilled on an open fire and then served up with garlic allioli, vegetables and potatoes. Horse meat is also a traditional delicacy, as well as “a la llauna” or garlic snails.
* The Caldea Spa Complex — this is a natural spring complex located in Escaldes Engordany. It has numerous outdoor and indoor swimming pools, areas for hypnotherapy, and jacuzzis throughout the complex of eighteen (18) floors. It is the largest thermal spa complex in Europe as well as being the tallest building in Andorra. There are separate sections for families and children, and the adult section is called Inuu. Since the spa area is made of glass you can get great views of the stars at night. There are shows and activities going on all day and night since it doesn’t close until midnight. You can enjoy the natural springs, take a Turkish bath, or even get a massage.
* Hiking and Trekking — the Pyrenees provide much virgin nature and incredible scenery. It is the perfect place in which to hike around. There are numerous hiking trails marked with signs and maps. You’ll find quite a few trails around Incles and Canillo Valley and one particular hike takes you to the largest lake in Andorra, Lake of Juclar. You can have an enjoyable time in the winter hiking about in snow shoes. You can also hike around Andorra’s only UNESCO site, Madriu-Perafita-Claror Valley, which is a glacier valley with strong spiritual roots to the locals, and plenty of endemic species wandering around. You have a number of trails from which to choose with different levels of difficulty.
* The Iglu Hotel — this is an ice hotel. Every year it is built from snow and has five (5) rooms that can hold up to thirty (30) people. The downside is that the temperature averages around zero degrees, so dress warmly. They do provide sleeping bags. All in all, I much prefer a more traditional heated dwelling. One alternative is in Borda Jaume (the parish of Ordino), where there are a few glamping (or glamurous camping) tents which provide all the comforts of a hotel, and heated by a wooden fire in the winter.
* The Viewpoint Roc del Quer — this viewpoint is on the mountainside suspended over the valley. You get some fantastic views, and it has bottom glass areas where you can see below. Right next to the bridge is The Ponderer by Miguel Ángel González, a bronze statue of a thinking man. This mountain range, Roc del Qur, was formed eighty-five (85,000,000) million years ago when the Pyrenees was created.
* Check Out the Villages and Towns — there are plenty of towns, villages, and hamlets to check out throughout the country. Many are not barely populated so you can explore things pretty much in solitude. For example, Auvinya is a very small village on top of a mountain with only a few residents. The stone and wood houses have a unique type of charm. One house is covered with iron keys, which is the oldest house in the village, built in 875 AD. While Santa Coloma is not really a small town, it is interesting to explore as its street dates back to the eighteenth (18th) century. There’s also an archaeological site with a rock shelter where the first people in the area lived twelve thousand (12,000) years ago. In the capital, Andorra La Vella, check out the Andorra sign, which is a strange looking fuschia pink sign which will definitely grab your attention. You will find plenty of places to shop along Avinguda Carlemany. After shopping, you can take a lift to Placa del Poble, which is a square where festivals and celebrations take place throughout the year. From the top you can some fantastic views of the city below. And finally you can catch a glimpse of La Noblesse du Temps which is a sculpture by Salvador Dali.
* The Museums — there are several good museums to check out. The Tobacco Museum provides plenty of history of the country’s many years of growing tobacco. Actually, the museum itself is a former Reig tobacco factory which closed in 1957, and has a multimedia display to show the tobacco making process. The Arenys Plandolit House is an ethnographic museum in 1986 with many artifacts and furniture from when the Areny Plandolit family lived there. They were one of the most prominent families in Andorra for a few centuries. There is plenty of Andorran history here as well as beautiful gardens. The only contemporary art museum in the country is the Thyssen Museum. It has the private collection of Baroness Thyssen-Bornemisza.
* Naturlandia — this is the closest to a theme park you are going to get around here. It has two (2) sections and is located in
Sant Julia de Lloria, about fifteen (15) minutes from Andorra La Vella. Since it is open year round, the activities vary by season. Don’t expect the normal roller coasters and rides of a more traditional theme park. Here you will find more active type of activities like trekking and hiking, as well as buggy tours, and snowmobiling. There is fun stuff to do for both kids and adults. There are bouncy castles, tobotronics and tubbing, zip lines, and trampolines. There’s an animal park with deer, wolves, bears, lynx, wild goats, and pigs.
* Engolasters Hydroelectric Plant — this is a former hydroelectric plant and dam high above sea level which was built in 1934. You can check out the old guard house and take in some spectacular views. During the summer months the Museum of Electricity is open. There is a restaurant here.
So Why Visit?
The country is really a jewel in the midst of Europe. Although it does get ten (10,000,000) million visitors each year, these folks are mostly from surrounding countries. Other parts of the world, and even other parts of Europe, do not know much about this country.
Since its average elevation is six thousand five hundred and sixty-one (6,561) feet (2000 meters), some of the main activities are hiking and skiing. It is really an all year-round place to go. December to March is the ski season. Spring is a splendid time to show up as the plants begin to awaken from the long winter’s sleep. In the fall/autumn you can catch the changing of colors of the leaves.
If you are visiting the surrounding countries, allocate at least a few days to take in the sights and activities here. The mountains, churches, and overall culture is well worth it. And don’t forget about its duty-free and tax haven status.
Enjoy your Travels,
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