Andorra – A Hidden Gem

Andorra might seem like a rogue choice for the second half of my trip but it’s actually somewhere I’ve wanted to go for years. There something about it’s tiny size, it’s position entirely enveloped by France and Spain and the fact that it’s relatively unknown by many people. I myself didn’t know much about it at all but just the fact that it’s a bit off the beaten track drew me in. I knew I was leaving Lucy in Valencia on the Wednesday, the same day her parents were arriving, so I thought I might as well make use of my remaining time by going somewhere else – and why not Andorra? This was my chance to finally satisfy my curiosity about the little country. In doing some research before booking my trip, I read varying opinions from different travel blogs about whether Andorra was worth a visit but regardless, I knew it was something I had to do for myself.

A little background for those of you who, like myself, don’t have a lot of existing knowledge about Andorra. Andorra, or technically the Principality of Andorra, is a landlocked microstate located in the Pyrenees between France and Spain. It is the sixth smallest state in Europe with an area of just 468 square kilometres, making it about a third of the size of London, with a population of around 77,500. Catalan is the official language but French and Spanish are also widely spoken. Tourism accounts for the majority of Andorra’s GDP due to it’s tax-free shopping, ski resorts and hiking paths. Fun fact, in 2013 Andorra had the world’s highest life expectancy at 81 – must be all that mountain air!

Pont de Paris

From Valencia I took a bus to Andorra, via Barcelona, which took about 8 hours in total. It’s nothing I’m not used to but the buses were definitely more comfortable than the chicken buses in Honduras. There is no airport in Andorra nor any railways so the only way to enter is by road. The scenery along the journey was stunning, with the arid mountains on one side and the sea on the other on the way to Barcelona and then climbing higher and higher as we approached Andorra in the second leg of the journey. I arrived in to Andorra around 6pm. Andorra is in the Pyrenees so the last hour or so was coming through these amazing mountains that climbed up to the sky with the road sitting in the depths of the valley.

I arrived into the capital of Andorra La Vella, the highest capital in Europe. As most of Andorra is made up of mountains, the city is nestled in one of the country’s three valleys. I walked from the bus station up to my hostel which was technically in Escaldes-Engordany, another town that is basically attached to Andorra la Vella. It was about half an hour walk, slightly uphill all the way through the main shopping district. After a long day of travelling all I was really interested in that evening was going straight back out to find some food!

I had two full days and three nights in Andorra. I figured that between the two days I should have one in the city and one in the mountains. After looking at the weather, the next day, Thursday, looked like the better option for heading into the mountains. Considering that I didn’t have any proper hiking gear and that I would be going by myself, some of the more difficult or isolated hiking routes weren’t appropriate. I asked Rebecca who works at the hostel if she could recommend somewhere. She looked at the fact I was in jeans and sneakers and suggested taking the bus to a town called La Massana and walking from there to another town called Ordino.

It took me a while to find the right bus stop but eventually I was heading out of the city. La Massana isn’t very far from Andorra La Vella but feels quite different. I could really see the presence of the ski industry even though there was no snow yet. There were ski hire shops everywhere, ski schools, and even a chair lift heading into the mountains. It also feels more in the mountains than Andorra La Vella which sits in a valley surrounded by mountains by comparison. The timing of my trip, at the end of October meant that I had gorgeous views of the autumn leaves accompanied by soft sun and crisp air.

Leaving La Massana

I headed out of La Massana towards Ordino as instructed. The walk took about 40 minutes in total, heading uphill along a valley. The sun was shining and it really wasn’t cold at all, though Andorra was definitely cooler for me having come from Spain, mostly because of it’s altitude. By the time I reached Ordino I had taken my jacket and jumper off and was just walking around in a tshirt so still not that cold! All the way up I had views of gorgeous mountains with the most amazing autumn colours blazing across the forests. On my way I passed by a vineyard and also the Ruta del Ferro which charts iron production in the area.

Ordino was cute and even smaller than La Massana. I wanted to find somewhere to sit and have a drink and I came across a place that had such an amazing view that I had to stop. I sat for a drink and some lunch – a delicious crispy-based pizza topped with rocket, tomato, parmesan, beef carpaccio and a balsamic glaze. A big shoutout to what might have been my best meal of the holiday! The view itself was so gorgeous I almost felt a bit emotional! I really took my time there, enjoying the crisp air and the warm sunshine while eating my pizza and appreciating the view.

I got the bus back from Ordino and had a pit stop at my hostel for a wee rest before heading out for a walk around town. Safe to say my step count was off the charts this week! I set out towards the old part of Andorra la Vella that has most of the main things to see. The sun was starting to go down so it was a really nice light. First up, and probably most surprisingly, I walked past a sculpture by none other than Salvador Dali. The Nobility of Time (or ‘La Noblesse du Temps’) has been there since 2010. I remember studying Salvador Dali at school so it was pretty cool to see an authentic piece out in the wild.

Thank you to the couple that provided the only picture of me while in Andorra!

Public art installations are actually an important feature around Andorra, including another of Andorra’s must sees – the 7 Poets. The seven figures sit around 10m off the ground and represent the seven parishes of Andorra. It can be found below Andorra’s government building and lights up at night in a range of colours. Nearby is Casa de la Vall, an old manor house that was the parliamentary building until as recently as 2011. The square in front of Casa de la Vall gives an amazing view over Andorra la Vella, over to Escaldes and the surrounding mountains.

The 7 Poets
Casa de la Vall

After going for a walk in the mountains yesterday and also walking around the old town, I decided to take it pretty easy today. There wasn’t really much else I wanted to do and after almost a week of travelling and some pretty busy, activity-heavy days I was feeling a bit of the old travelling fatigue. I had toyed with the idea of going to Caldea, the famous spa, as it’s not actually super expensive but in the end I decided against it. I had a slow morning and then went out just to have a wee walk around and a coffee, mostly for something to do. I headed down to the central park and then looped back up to the main shopping street.

I spent most of the afternoon just chilling in the common room at my hostel, reading my book and chatting to people. One of the things I like most about staying in hostels is making friends with other travellers. It can be an intimidating thought when you’re by yourself and it definitely pushes me outside my comfort zone but sometimes that’s where the best experiences and connections happen. My hostel was full of Argentinians (and one Venezuelan) who had all recently arrived in Andorra for seasonal work. I got chatting to them on my first evening and got to know them more during the rest of my stay. It was nice chatting to them in Spanish, though the Argentinian accent is one I find difficult to understand. It was fine while I was directly involved in the conversation but it got a bit overwhelming once they all started talking to each other. After just a day though, I was able to follow their conversations a bit more as I got used to the accent. I ended up speaking way more Spanish while in Andorra than I actually did in Spain!

Now might be a good point to talk about some interesting things I noticed around Andorra. First of all, while I’ve already mentioned the fact that French and Spanish are both widely spoken, I only ever used Spanish. In my hostel, this was obviously because of all the Argentinians that were staying there but even when I was out in the streets, I heard much more Spanish than French. Whenever I was in a cafe or shop or spoke to a local I would naturally start in Spanish. I think Spanish’s proximity to Catalan, the actual official language of Andorra, might have something to do with it being more widespread, or at least seeming that way. Interestingly, the school system is also split into Andorran schools, Spanish schools and French schools, with the teachers in the latter two systems being funded by Spain and France respectively. The student population is pretty evenly split between the three, with slightly more in the Andorran system and slightly less in the Spanish system. Andorra also doesn’t have it’s own postal system. It relys on either the French La Poste or the Spanish El Correo.

I could definitely see the effect of the ski industry, even though there was no snow yet. Particularly in the smaller towns like La Massana I was reminded of the places in France I’ve skiied just without the snow, which I think is coming soon! The temperature was already getting cooler though I was lucky to still have good weather, at least for my first day. It was cool and clear and with blue skies and sunshine there was nowhere nicer to be. Saying that, on my second day I saw just how easy it is for the sky to fall in. It also took a long time for the sun to appear in the mornings and the opposite in the evening, the sun disappeared long before it actually got dark. I blame this on the steepness of the sides of the valley that Andorra La Vella and Escaldes-Engordany sit in.

Looking down the valley towards the Spanish side of Andorra

When it comes to the people of Andorra I have nothing but good things to say. Rebecca, who worked in my hostel, was lovely and very helpful whenever I, or anyone else, had questions. She made the hostel a warm and friendly place from the moment I arrived. Everyone I encountered, from servers in restaurants and cafes, the woman in the tourism office and the old lady at the bus stop who helped me find the bus I was looking for, to the woman I got chatting to before my bus out of the country, all were very open and willing to help or chat. I’ve already spoken about the other people in my hostel that I met and got to know, they had such an impact on my trip as well and are a big reason I’ll look back on Andorra with such fondness. It actually wasn’t just my hostel that was brimming with Argentinians but the whole city of Andorra la Vella. Just walking down the street I would see multiple people sipping on mate, a traditional tea-like drink from Argentina served in a gourd cup and drunk through a metal straw.

My journey back to Mulhouse started with a bus back to Barcelona on Saturday. I had the afternoon and evening there before flying out early on Sunday morning. I arrived about 2pm and walked to my hostel, stopping for some food on the way. It turned out the hostel I had booked was on the Passeig de Gracia, which I didn’t know by name but recognised when I got there. It’s one of the main roads that comes off the opposite side of Placa de Catalunya from Las Ramblas. It’s also just one block away from Casa Batlló, my favourite Gaudí house in all of Barcelona. My hostel was huge, quite a different atmosphere from the cosy, friendly vibe in Andorra. It had a fantastic roof terrace though, with views across Barcelona.

The view from the roof of my hostel
Casa Batlló

It was pretty late in the afternoon by the time I was ready to do anything, plus I was tired and Barcelona was uncomfortably humid so I decided to just go for a short walk. First up I headed to Palau de la Musica Catalana, quite possibly my mum’s favourite building in the entire world. I obviously had to phone her to rub it i- ahem, I mean let her enjoy it too… I looped round to the Barcelona cathedral (different from the Sagrada Familia) and headed back to the hostel to prepare for my 4am start.

After one of the worst night’s sleep of my life, I was on a plane and back in Mulhouse by 11am. It was a very easy journey home, if a little slow. As it was a Sunday, I had to wait longer than usual for the bus then the train then the tram back to my apartment. Even after an incredible week away, it’s safe to say I was happy to get home and into my own bed!

I really didn’t know what to expect when it came to Andorra but I was blown out of the water. I mostly came to satisfy an interest that I’ve had for years. I was prepared for it to be a bit underwhelming but at least then I would know. But that is absolutely not what happened at all. I loved my few days here. One thing I would say is that if you come any time other than the ski season, you probably don’t need very long. If you wanted to do a bit more hiking by all means come for a few extra days but my two days were perfect. I’m very tempted to come back in the future to experience Andorra in full swing during winter but I’m glad that I came when I did for my first time. The blazing autumn colours of the leaves were a sight to behold and were such a gorgeous contrast with the bright blue sky and dusty, far off mountains. I loved Andorra and think it’s perfect for a more unique long weekend away. A hidden hem indeed!

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