When I told my friends I was going to Andorra, two of them asked me why. They told me it was just a shopping mall in the mountains. I am glad I didn’t listen to them. The scenery is stunning. Some visitors love the skiing or spas – but I can understand why someone who visited in the 80s or 90s might not consider revisiting. “It has changed beyond recognition in some areas,” Iain Archer of Neilsen Resorts, a ski package company, told me over a cuppa in the bar of an hotel in the capital, Andorra la Vella. That was something I heard a lot during my trip.
First things first. I was told that one of the first questions people ask is ‘where is Andorra?’ Well done if you know. If you don’t, the owner of local tour company My World of Experiences, Netherlands-born Bianca Meeuwissen, has developed a snappy sentence that helps people place Andorra. She says it’s ‘Between the Spanish Sun and Life is Good in France.’ It’s in the heart of the Pyrenees and it’s a beautiful setting.
The tiny principality of Andorra is the 16th smallest country in the world and is just one-fifth bigger than the Isle of Wight, or half the size of New York City. Andorra is 40 miles across and as you drive around, most of the villages are crammed into narrow valleys between impressive mountain peaks. It’s generally considered a place to be active and that might explain why the World Health Organisation says Andorrans have the world’s greatest life expectancy – an average of 83.5 years This 181 square mile landlocked country has just 80,000 people and has two Princes at the helm – a Bishop from nearby Spain and the French President share the role. It’s mainly ceremonial because the nation has its own elected government.
As Andorra is not in the EU, you’d think that could make the leader of France quite uncomfortable. But apparently not – he rarely visits. The country seems more Spanish, or to be precise, Catalan. That’s the official language. Andorra is the only country in the world to choose it.
The capital, Andorra la Vella has a different feel to Spain. It seems much more affluent than the nation next door. It is a financial services centre, a sort of tax haven, and that brings in money. You only normally find this much art and sculpture in the public places of well-heeled communities.
Andorra la Vella is attractive and occupies the floor and sides of a thickly wooded valley, with a narrow, fast flowing river cutting the town into two. Many of the buildings are also narrow but rise three or four storeys high and their stone and slate roof construction, balconies and gable roofs gives the place an Alpine appearance. I guess the mountainous landscape adds to that too.
As I mentioned earlier, Andorra is not in the EU so you’re stopped and asked to hand over passports at the border, which was a surprise. The low-VAT level also makes shopping here cheaper and that’s been a major attraction over the years. I expect Francois Holland fills his boot when he pops over. I had expected the place to be overrun by hypermarkets flogging cheap fags and booze, like a Catalan Calais of the 70s. There are a few cheaper stores but most of the town centre shops are quite swanky. The shopping experience is pleasant, stretching along a very long high street – a change from airless, characterless malls.
Honorary British Consul Fiona Dean told me, “The shops are similar to the sort you’d find in any major city with the added benefit of lower tax. There are top brands sold in every other shop – all the Paris haute couture, perfume and big bag stores. It is 50% of the price of countries with VAT.”
It’s not just the price that’s attractive in Andorra. Iain advised me that anyone seeking sports clothing or kit should come armed with their credit cards. “There is a huge choice,” he told me. Iain’s company, Neilsen Resorts, has operated package holidays here for years. And these days, his customers want three-star or higher accommodation. Andorra made its name through cheap and cheerful skiing breaks and it seems my friends are holding on to that memory. But when Eastern Europe opened up to tourism, Bulgaria undercut the low-cost market, so Andorra upgraded facilities to attract more discerning holidaymakers.
Iain says the resorts here are now playing to their strengths. “It is a leader for beginners in English-speaking ski schools and a very competitive player in the intermediate and advanced levels as well,” he said. “The reason is the investment in the ski areas. Two sectors, Grandvalira and Vallnord, have invested multimillions of euros in lift capacity, area coverage, ski schools, children’s facilities and restaurants. That has lifted us up to a European plateau. Hoteliers followed suit with renovations a to a very high standard.”
I understand why people who came here twenty years ago might be dismissive. But today’s Andorra offers much more than the piste. “You can be skiing in the morning and shopping in the town centre in the afternoon,” said Iain. “You can enjoy one of Europe’s largest spas or doing something active, like husky dog sledding or taking a helicopter ride. We make this easy to do on a seven-day holiday.”
Improving quality doesn’t mean you can’t party hard either. “It’s still a fun place to come and ski,” Iain told me. “The après ski scene in the villages and resorts like Pas de la Casa remains a big part of it, although these days the partygoers mix very well with the three- and four-star clients. But Soldeu and Arinsal have little village-type bars with live music that attract a different sort of client.”
As well as looking after Her Majesty’s subjects that get into trouble, Fiona also looks after her guests at Arinsal’s popular Hotel Montané, which she owns. We sat in her spacious bar, looking across at the snow-capped mountains and I imagined how cosy this hotel is when the fire is roaring.
Fiona told me that the village has a good atmosphere in the evenings. “The town is quite well known for its party atmosphere but even the families join in with the après ski, which is designed to suit children. Then they can go back to the hotel for dinner and everyone else stays out drinking. It’s certainly good fun!”
Skiers returning to Andorra after many years absence will also notice how they’ve brought ski areas together to improve the experience. On the Grandvalira side, the Pas de la Casa has been joined with Soldeu and El Tarter to create a ski area of 210 km2. Within that there’s something for everyone – from the total beginner to the good intermediate and the advanced skier, with every freestyle product in between. There’s been expansion on the Vallnord side too and both resorts have upgraded their infrastructure.
“The lift system has been modernised,” said Iain. “There’s none of your very old slow chairlifts and there’s now a limited number of drag lifts. There’s been a huge investment to make getting people up the mountain quicker and the fluidity is a huge selling point. It means that queuing is very rare even in the busy weeks of February and New Year.”
Fiona introduced me to another ex-pat. A young man in his twenties beamed as he shook my hand and introduced himself with a strong West Yorkshire accent. Scott Maughan first visited in 2003 and got an unusual job – to film skiers. The footage is replayed in the bars. ”Some of it gives people a chance to show off but some of it could end up on You’ve Been Framed,” joked Scott.
He soon passed his ski instructor exams and his new-found passion for the piste encouraged him to check out resorts and runs all over the world. But he returned to Andorra because he says few places are as exciting. “Some of the big resorts might have hundreds of kilometres of piste but it’s all very samey. It’s what I call motorway skiing – or M25 skiing,” said Scott. “Here you’ve got something interesting all the time. There’s really good stuff from beginner level and a very nice progression through the levels. The runs move up to some quite different and challenging stuff. In Pal there’s a lot of tree-lined line runs. It has a really Alpine feel to it.” I certainly understood the Alps reference. It was hard to believe that Spain was just 5 miles away.
I’d been told that Andorra is the best place for Brits to learn to ski and Scott reaffirmed this. “The reputation for its English-speaking ski schools is second to none,” he told me. “Learning in your own language is tried and tested as being one of the most successful techniques and is also one of the reasons people progress so much here.” That’s great if you want to start skiing but the country has also improved the offer for intermediate and advanced skiers. “They have carved more blue, red and black runs. They have developed free ride areas for snowboards, skiers and freestylers. There are also ‘first tracks’ where people can go up the mountain in the morning and ski down before the stations open,” he added.
If you’re an accomplished skier and want to push yourself further, then Mark Crichton offers a unique service in Andorra – heli-skiing, where you’ll be airlifted to the top of the mountain. “You’re left on the peak. Sometimes there’s not even much space up there. It’s kind of exhilarating, just to ride in a helicopter. Then you have the ski down, normally in untracked terrain. It’s a skier’s dream to ski in that kind of environment.”
Mark personally checks the safety of the route before the skiers are dropped off. He also employs a separate company who carry out additional checks. Mark also offers ski mountaineering, which he compares to hiking on skis. He has a website but his company name is tricky – it’s Experiencia Muntanya, that’s mountain experience in Catalan. “If you search for heli-skiing Andorra, you’ll find me,” he laughs, noticing how I was struggling with the Catalan.
As I’ve said, everything you buy in Andorra, whether it’s food or drink, clothing, jewellery or perfume, seems cheaper than other places in Western Europe. The same goes for your skiing. “Our group ski lessons are the most competitive in Europe,” says Scott. In Arinsal, companies offer nineteen hour courses at €155 a head, with a maximum group size of ten. “And it’s not so expensive when you are up on the hill,” he adds. “A coffee isn’t €4 or €5. €2 is an absolute max and more often it’s €1.50.”
Scott said they often have snow until late in the season too. “Andorra remains white when the French resorts look like golf courses,” he smiled. Snow can remain until after Easter but as it’s so close to the Med, attention usually turns to the beaches by spring.
Andorra’s average elevation is 6,500ft but even so it is rarely inaccessible in winter weather. The 200km route from Barcelona is more reliable than the road from France, which might explain why this border-straddling country speaks Catalan and not French. “The highways from Spain are well maintained,” said Scott. “The French route can be a bit tricky because there’s winding roads and sharp bends. If it’s going to be dangerous they close that road.”
So what can you do after the snow melts? There are plenty of choices, whether you like being busy or bone idle when you’re on holiday. It’s possible to rank activities in the order of energy expended doing them. Iain started with the most active summer pastimes. “The mountains are used for walking and trekking. Both sides of Andorra are really into downhill biking and road biking. Vallnord and Soldeu have downhill bike parks. Road cycling is another activity and the Tour de France was here for two parts of a stage last summer.”
Fiona had told me that cyclists seem to book up her hotel in the warmer months. “Our ski locker turns into a bike workshop in the summer.” That surprised me. “I bet you need to be fit to cycle the steep roads in this mountainous country,” I remarked. “It’s certainly for keen bikers,“ laughed Fiona. “I see people cycling past from eight o’clock in the morning. They get to the top of the mountain and come back again in the afternoon. It’s high altitude training for some.”
If you want more adventure, Mark Crichton offers the chance to jump off a 25m bridge. You ‘fall’ around two thirds of its height so its not as high as a bungee jump and unlike bungee, you’re not on elastic. “It’s done with ropes, like a big swing,” said Mark. “You jump off one side and do a big swing under the bridge,” he explained, in the African accent he’s retained since moving here in 1974. “It’s the same acceleration and adrenalin rush as bungee.”
If you fancy something less frenetic you can hike around the hills and mountains. That’s tour-guide Bianca’s passion. “When you go into the mountains it feels like the whole country is yours. It is so beautiful – it’s almost like Heaven,” she enthused.
Mark hosts four-hour long, half-day walks. The summertime hikes take in lakes and meadows filled with stunning flora and fauna. “We have a natural park further up the valley from the village of Ordino. Out of the 1,300 types of flowers that you can find in the Pyrenees, you’ll see 753 varieties just in this park. The colours are quite incredible.”
There’s wildlife to see in the mountains, too. Mark told me that you can often spot roe deer or even wild boars, which cross the border from France and Spain. Mountain goats, called chamois in the Alps, are known as isard here. And you might spot a solitary bear. “We have the one bear that roams around the northern part of Andorra,” explained Mark. “He’s on his own, I’m afraid. We have only have 23 left in the entire Pyrenees.”
For a long time Andorra was very isolated, tucked away high in the mountains, so it’s easy to understand how so many folklore stories and legends have developed. Bianca has a collection of stories that she shares with her tour party guests. There is the one about the water that is supposed to make women more fertile if they drink it. You can also see the Bishop’s Fountain, which is said to be the fountain of youth and will prevent ageing. There’s a legend of the White Lady and also a lake, Engolasters, which used to be frequented by witches and is said to be haunted by men who were turned into mysterious black cats. The women used to practise witchcraft naked and when they noticed the peeping toms watching them, they turned them into ‘toms’! “You’ll see plenty of black cat references around Andorra,” added Bianca, as if trying to validate the story.
Today, the site of this spell, a glacial lake, helps power a hydroelectric plant. Roads were carved through the mountains to enable electrification and the process transformed Andorra, ending its isolation. You can learn about the electricity story at the Hydroelectric Museum.
There are a number of interesting small museums dotted around the nation. If you’re interested in culture they might provide you with a more sedate way to pass the time. I’d take history over heli-skiing personally! I visited the Postal Museum, which displays 50,000 Andorran stamps and a video explains how the daily mail deliveries helped open up this mountain principality to the outside world.
But not everybody who decided to come to Andorra had honourable intentions. The local brewery sells a beer called ‘Boris’. It is named after a pretender to the throne, who turned up in the 1930s and was taken seriously for a while. Bianca told me he was a Russian who claimed to be the King. His deception lasted for eleven days before a doubting parliamentarian told the Bishop of his concerns.
Parliament itself offers another museum visit – The Casa de la Vall in the centre of the capital. This 16th century stone manor is a handsome, square building with brown-painted wooden shutters on its windows. It housed the parliament until recently, when a new assembly was built next door. The Casa contains an old kitchen because Members of Parliament used to move in for days on end, for the long sessions.
Inside the Casa, there are seven lockable cabinets – one for each parish. Traditionally each Member of Parliament was given a key when they were elected. All seven cabinets had to be opened before parliamentary business began.
Fiona told me some of the villages in Andorra are worth discovering. “The older villages have all got Romanic churches, either built by the Romans or built in the style of the Romans,” said Fiona. “People lived in houses called bordas that were designed to house the cattle downstairs and the family upstairs.” Some of these have been converted to restaurants. “Try and get to Ordino,” Fiona advised me. “It has five museums and two of them are old houses that people used to live in.”
I took Fiona’s advice and caught a bus for the 15-minute journey from town. It was a stunning ride. The route took us through a tunnel and then a new bypass, which ran across a high bridge spanning a deep gorge. Andorra’s road infrastructure is impressive for such a small country.
Ordino is a quaint village of stone and slate houses and churches on the side of a valley and centred on one main street. While apartments and shopping developments have gone up in many of the villages of Andorra, Mark Crichton told me that this settlement hasn’t changed since the seventies. “This is a village that has kept its original look – one of the nicest in Andorra.”
I was surprised how clean the entire country was. I’d noticed litter-pickers in action and rubbish and graffiti were noticeable by their absence. “The government and parishes have people who clean up and ensure that rubbish is removed. They put a lot of effort into that,” Mark said.
I made one final museum visit in Ordino and I’m glad I did. The Miniature Museum features micro miniatures by Ukrainian artist Nicolai Siadristy. They are tiny works of art, so small that you have to look through a magnifying glass or microscope to see them. They include drawings and words etched onto things as small as a grain of rice.
The museums are always open but summertime also brings regular events. I mentioned that food is highly affordable in Andorra. It’s good quality and there is plenty of choice too. You can get any international cuisine because so many different nationalities work within the financial sector. “You can eat out extremely well every day if you wanted to,” Fiona told me. “The top price for a menu du jour is €15.” Drinks were incredibly cheap too. €2 glasses of wine are not uncommon. And there’s excellent tapas, because you’re minutes from Spain. Traditional Andorran dishes are generally meat-based and designed to fill you up for mountain living, although you’ll also find local river trout on menus. “Some restaurants make cooking a spectacle,” Fiona told me. “They cook an amazing selection of sausage and steaks on an open fire pit, over charcoal or wood. It’s very wholesome and hearty food,” she added.
At the far end of our exertion scale is doing nothing – and that’s ok in Andorra. If you want to be pampered, you’ll find the perfect place in the centre of the capital. Just five minutes walk from a hot spring, which steams and gurgles 70°C water into a town centre trough, you’ll find the thermal resort, Caldea. It is Europe’s largest spa and covers 6,000 m² over 18 floors. The structure includes an 80m high tower, which is Andorra’s tallest building. It looks a bit like London’s Shard – a pointed glass triangle.
The interior is like a futuristic bond-villain lair with subdued lighting that changes colour. The centrepiece is a huge vertical fish tank, rising through two floors. Tania Baulina, the wellness centre facilities manager, showed me around. The resort is in two parts. The Caldea combines a gym, with impressively large, curved pools on different levels, both inside and outdoors. The Inuu section is very calm, with ambient chillout music playing, pleasant scents filling the air and low lighting. And it’s child-free!
Tania guided me around some of the treatment rooms. Some looked space age. You can be massaged by someone using Tibetan singing bowls – the metal containers are struck and generate a noise, which some people say improves the benefits of a massage. It is ‘sound’ therapy. There was a treatment that offers you a massage under a hot shower. And I loved the water mattress – as you lie on the squidgy, soft bed, it changes colour from within. The Caldea is open from 10am to 10pm all year around and until midnight in high season.
Just walking around the enormous resort was a very calming influence. In the past few days, I’d taken great delight in correcting my friends who tried to dissuade me from visiting Andorra. It’s clearly changed from the place they experienced twenty years ago. For me, this tiny country has left a big impression. “Most people that visit us come back – not only for nature but also for the people and the culture,” Bianca told me, before adding, “and we have 300 days of sun and blue sky!”
Andorra’s nearest airports are Barcelona and Toulouse. Both have regular, direct connections by low cost airlines from the UK. The car journey to Andorra takes around two hours and forty minutes. There are also regular and reliable direct buses running around five times a day between the airports and the main town centres.