The small principality of Andorra, given the often bloody history of Europe, probably shouldn’t exist. Although it's sandwiched between France and Spain, Andorra has never had any real strategic importance, which could be the key to its survival. Landlocked, it covers just 4681 square kilometres and, being mountainous, has little to offer in the way of agricultural wealth. But in the post-1950s tourist boom, the apparently insignificant Andorra has seen a surge in its popularity, bringing in over eight million visitors a year.
Andorra, traditionally, was created by Charlemagne2 who granted the lands to the locals for their help in guiding Christian soldiers over the treacherous Pyrenean passes. At that time areas bordering Spain were given the title Marca Hispanica and were treated as buffer zones to prevent the Moors from progressing too far into France. Andorra is the last of the Marca Hispanica states to be independent. Charlemagne's grandson, Charles the Bald, placed the country in the hands of the Count of Urgell in Catalonia, who ran it as a princedom. The power passed to the Bishops of Urgell, and, after a century-long dispute, the Counts of Foix became co-princes in 12783. This power-sharing arrangement would rule Andorra for over 700 years.
There are two strange incidents worth a mention in Andorra's fairly quiet history. At the end of the First World War Andorra, which had been on the Allied side, was not invited to the signing of the peace treaty and remained at war with the Germans until 25 September, 1939. Presumably exhausted from being at war for over two and a half decades, Andorra decided that neutrality in World War Two was a wise option.
In the midst of this accidental war with the Germans, a period of civil unrest allowed a Russian opportunist named Boris Skossyreff to seize power briefly in 1933. Calling himself King Boris I, he immediately declared war on the Bishop of Urgell and stayed in power for several days. The severity of the situation is perhaps best summed up by the French response, which was to send in a few gendarmes to calm everyone down. King Boris gave up without a fight.
Population: 65,000. (Amazingly, only 25% of these are Andorran. An estimated 32,000 Spaniards, 5,000 Portuguese and 5,000 French nationals make up the numbers.)
Capital: Andorra La Vella (pop. 22,000; 40,000 including its suburbs).
Currency: Euro. Andorra has never had its own currency. Until the Euro was introduced, the country used both Spanish pesetas and French francs, with the peseta being the preferred currency. Similarly, Andorra has never had a national postal service; instead there are separate French and Spanish post offices that issue Andorran stamps. Andorra may thus be the only country that has its own stamps but not its own postmen.
Language: Catalán4. According to the locals, everyone speaks Catalán, Spanish and French, but in fact the only French you are likely to find outside the Pas de la Casa area is on a restaurant menu. If English is your only language, you may spend a lot of time pointing at things and playing Pictionary.
Government: 'Parliamentary Co-Princedom'. Effectively, the head of state role is filled by the bishop of La Seu D’Urgell in Spain and France’s president (known as the co-princes), although this role is ceremonial since 1993. The country is actually run by the Council General which, as in most democracies, has a system of ministers and a prime minister. (Unlike most such systems, however, they only feel the need to sit three or four times a year.)
Getting there: Andorra has no airport (probably due to the lack of flat ground) and can be a bit difficult to get to. The only ways in are by road across the mountains, or on foot across the mountains. By air, the nearest airports are at Toulouse, Perpignan and Barcelona, all of which have easy connections into the principality — but bank on at least a four-hour bus journey at the end. Intrepid types travelling independently around France or Spain could get to La Seu D’Urgell in Spain or Ax-les-Thermes in France and bus in from there. Even more intrepid hitch hikers should have no problems, on the N20 or N22 in France or the N145 from Spain5.
What to Do and See
Although Andorra boasts some of the finest and cheapest skiing in the Pyrenees, some superb low to mid-altitude mountaineering and beautiful, quiet mountain villages, the vast majority of people visit for just one purpose: to shop. Andorra is duty-free heaven, particularly for the hoards of French and Spanish day-trippers that make up the majority of visitors. This is a shame, not because they are missing out on so much, but rather because the shopping gives rise to all the downsides of Andorra. The traffic along the main sprawl of Andorra La Vella and neighbouring Escaldes and Engordany does detract heavily from the serene mountain setting. Neon lights and superstores all add to the unsightly effect. Development is all around, leading some unkind souls to suggest that the crane might be the national bird of Andorra. However, part of the beauty of the place is that there are all sorts of quiet plazas, often bedecked with fountains or artwork, within a couple of hundred metres of the mess of shoppers. The stress can easily evaporate over a carajillo6 in the sun.
Skiing and Snowboarding
The main ski areas are in the east (Pas de la Casa and Soldeu) and north-west (Arinsal, Pal and Ordino) of the country. The eastern resorts are the biggest and generally held to be the best, although this carries with it a premium, of course. If you like quieter resorts in more picturesque surroundings or are on a budget, you may prefer the north-west. The season generally runs from December to April, although in recent years snow has become less reliable than it once was, and skiers and snowboarders from first-timers to intermediates will find worthy routes in all the resorts.
Hiking and Mountaineering
In the summer, the main reason to stay (other than to shop) is the hiking. The highest peak is the Pic de Coma Pedrosa at 2942 metres, and ridges like the Cresta de l’Estanyo are a hearty challenge for anyone. Having said that, there are many much easier routes, the best of which are in the north-west of the country — although Andorra la Vella itself is the start of many very satisfying rambles. Make sure you take a map and compass and know how to use them, though; the tourist offices produce walking guides that have directions like: (In a forest) 'Turn left at the small tree' or 'At a rock, turn right'. Perhaps the subtlety has been lost somewhere in translation. Mountain huts also abound, many dating from the pre-tourist times when the Trashumancia7 was an important way of life. Two trans-European routes, the Pyrenean GR11 and the Lisbon-Black Sea GR7, run through and meet in Andorra. It is a serious, if frequently-overlooked, hiking venue.
Well worth a look is the futuristic cathedral called 'Caldea', in Escaldes. After a day out on the mountains, a trip to this series of Roman baths, body-shaped Jacuzzis, ice rooms, steam baths and a dozen other forms of water-based relaxation will invigorate the exhausted, aching body. Indeed, the effect of this tends to lead most visitors to believe that they are ten feet tall as they walk out8.
Andorra is about so much more than the traditional dinner party conversation of 'skiing and shopping'. Away from the one main street of bustle and noise, there are opportunities for peace and a relaxing, cheap and enjoyable time. If you can, indeed, begin to judge a country by its government, in Andorra you can find some clues. It has no visa requirements (if you’re no threat to the Spanish or French, the Andorrans consider they have nothing to fear). It has little taxation. The government itself takes most of the year off. If excessive shopping is all a country has for its negative points, well, it must have something going for it.