Tucked away in the eastern Pyrenees mountains is a tiny country that many non-Europeans have never even heard of – or if they have, they know very little about: the Principality of Andorra. Although Andorra may not require much space on a world map, if you make room for it on your travel itinerary, Andorra may leave a big impression on your heart.
For years, I’ve been extremely curious by Andorra’s obscurity, and I finally had a chance to explore the 6th smallest nation in Europe over the summer. While preparing for my travels, I had some reservations about including Andorra in my road trip after reading a scathing review by travel-guru Rick Steves:
Andorra, a small country in the Pyrenees between France and Spain, is as scenic as any other chunk of those mountains. People from all over Europe flock to Andorra to take advantage of its famous duty-free shopping. As far as Americans are concerned, Andorra is just a big Spanish-speaking Radio Shack. There are no bargains here that you can’t get at home. Enjoy the Pyrenees with less traffic elsewhere. Source
Sheesh, Rick. That’s a pretty harsh summary. Is there really nothing of interest to see or do in Andorra?
My answer is “No.” Travelers who love the great outdoors – and even the great indoors – can discover riches beyond belief in this tiny singularity called Andorra.
The last destination on our road trip, Andorra provided a literal and figurative breath of fresh air to my friend, SK, and me. As we made our way along the two-lane highway, we left the fields of France behind and entered the craggy mountain chain. The clouds rolled in, dressing the lush terrain in effervescent cotton. We passed herds of large cows, eating to their hearts’ content as they roamed the mountainside freely. I wondered how my driving reflexes would do if one of the massive bulls chowing down above us suddenly tripped, tumbled down the hillside, and rolled onto the road in front of our vehicle. Thankfully, all cattle stayed off the road.
Andorra, a microstate half the geographic size of New York City, has a rather docile history compared to its dramatic brothers and sisters within the European family tree. The country has not participated in a war since Emperor Charlemagne battled the Moors in the 8th Century. In the 13th century, Andorra became a co-principality with two sovereigns: a French monarch and the Roman Catholic Bishop of Urgell, who was Spanish. This duality of rule still prevails today. Even though the French monarchy no longer exists, the President of France holds the title “Prince of Andorra,” making him the only elected monarch in the world. Although French and Spanish are spoken in this small parcel of land, the official language is Catalan. Catalan is a Romance language that comes from the northeastern region of Spain (think Barcelona), and Andorra is the only country in the world where Catalan is an official national language.
With so much influence and immigration from its encompassing neighbors, visitors must pay close attention not to miss signs of historic Andorran culture. Every village has a Romanesque church, a medieval relic that stands as a quiet afterthought of the nation’s religious heritage. Also, hidden among the valleys and gorges, small stones huts are evidence of the shepherding people who used to care for their livestock in the mountains. Even though hooved herds still roam the countryside, I was surprised to learn that a different agrarian endeavor has found a home in the rugged sierra: the cultivation of tobacco.
The details of Andorran culture are hard to find for the average traveler. Rick Steves was right about some things in his assessment of Andorra: the shopping scene. High-end clothing vendors, perfume stores, and liquor shops can be found on every corner. Imagine placing all of the duty-free stores in every French and Spanish airport in a mountain valley, and ta-dah! You would have half of Andorra la Vella, the capital city. With low tax rates and some good discounts, Andorra is a mecca for Europeans to get some serious shopping done. For some, Andorra la Vella is like a gold mine, full of riches available for the reaping. I know a Czech couple who drove all the way to Andorra to take advantage of the cheaper prices; they returned home quite pleased with their purchases.
Disenchanted by the department stores in Andorra la Vella, SK & I both found the consumeristic vibe a bit deflating. So, we retreated to the mountains for an entire day. The cool, crisp summer breeze and a walk through the woods were all I needed for a rejuvenation of the soul. On that gorgeous Sunday afternoon, we experienced Andorra’s natural beauty – all thanks to our Airbnb hosts, Antonio and Montese. And thanks to this precious couple, we left Andorra with a beautiful relationship to write home about. But that’s another story for another day.
Hey readers! Would you like to visit Andorra? If so, what appeals to you?
If you have already visited this little dot on the world map, how would you describe your experience?