The Long Road to Andorra

TIMEDecember 9, 2021

When I landed in Barcelona, the whole plan was just a vague idea, a notion, something fluttering in the back of my mind, without an actual framework. Rolling my suitcase and reaching the end of the terminal, I was about to make the turn to the taxi line when, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted them—the rental car counters. Would they have vehicles available? And if so, would the cost be exorbitant, given the current shortages around the world.

Approaching the counter, the friendly agent explained, with a staccato Catalonian accent, that she could make me a deal. And what about crossing the border? No problem, just a small extra fee, sir. How far is it to Andorra? Maybe a little much for a day trip, but you could do it, she smiled.

Soon, I was behind the wheel of a small Volkswagen SUV, and headed for the Pyrenees. While I’ve been to almost every country in Europe, Andorra has always eluded me. This microstate (Europe’s sixth smallest country, with less than 200 square miles of territory) has a population of about 80,000, and sits tucked into the mountains between Spain and France. They’ve enjoyed independence since 1287, its population settled into a narrow, Y-shaped valley backed on all sides by sharp cliffs and soaring summits.

It’s all relatively difficult to get to—the train doesn’t run there, and this tiny country isn’t an easy stop on the way to anywhere else. You might visit Monaco during a trip across the Cote d’Azur, and San Marino on a trip down the Italian coast. To get to Andorra? You’ve got to really want it.

And I did. Having visited all of the other European microstates, I’d talked about visiting Andorra for a long time, including just a couple of weeks prior with a friend from Barcelona.

“You should do it!” she said. “It’s not too long to drive—about three hours. We used to go there for the weekend, all the time.”

I slowly freed myself from heavy traffic in Barcelona, as well as thunderstorms swirling above the city. Climbing higher and higher, my GPS took me off the expressway on a scattered route, rolling through tiny villages and, at one point, down a one-lane road almost completely overgrown on both sides by heavy vegetation. As I made one disheartening turn after another across an arid, nondescript landscape, it started to feel like I would never get there—like a trip to Andorra wasn’t meant to be.

But soon, the scenery started to change. The mountains rose up ahead. While often overshadowed by the Alps and their glamorous ski resorts, the Pyrenees have a beauty all their own, running more than 300 miles and reaching altitudes over 11,000 feet. Proceeding, at one point they formed a wall in front of me, the road just curving into a cleft, the highway proceeding through tunnel after tunnel, many of them stretching for miles.

Epoch Times Photo
Andorra is known as a ski (as well as a shopping) destination. (Alexey Oblov/Shutterstock)
Epoch Times Photo
Duty-free shopping is a big draw for visitors. (Martin Silva Cosentino/Shutterstock)

It felt like the Volkswagen was transporting me into another world, a hidden kingdom. Approaching the border, traffic slowed, the highway narrowing to a single lane. A simple sign, blocky black letters on a white background, announced my arrival with a single word: ANDORRA. No formal welcome, no splashy signs, just a plain, unmistakable demarcation of an invisible line. I had made it.

Border agents looked at each car as it passed, but didn’t stop anyone. Soon, I was making wrong turns in Andorra la Vella (literally: “Andorra the town”), Europe’s highest capital, sitting at 3,356 feet, and one of its smallest, with a population of just 22,000. Streets are narrow, and the whole town is sandwiched between the mountains. At one point I drove down a back lane and reached a dead end, having to carefully K-turn myself out of a tight situation.

Parking safely in a garage, I walked along a series of elevated walkways thrust up above the gridwork of streets below and found Casa de la Vall. A handsome stone structure built as a manor house in the 1500s, it served as Andorra’s parliament from 1702 until it moved into a modern, glassy building next door in 2011.

Epoch Times Photo
Casa de la Vall. (Maria Rose Ferre/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Inside, two guides at the front counter explained to me that they’d finished their last English tour of the day. But they were happy to chat about their tiny country, which has become a popular spa and ski destination. They explained that Andorra is the world’s only co-principality, with leadership shared between a Catalonian bishop and the president of France. It’s also the only state where Catalonian is the only official language.

Were they proud to be Andorran? Absolutely.

“Our leaders have been smart, to maintain our independence for all these centuries,” one explained, noting that neither Napoleon, to the north, nor Franco, to the south, was able to take this away. Relenting, the other guide offered a whirlwind tour, quickly taking me upstairs and showing me the handsome wood chamber that hosted parliamentary deliberations for centuries, as well as the Cabinet of Seven Keys, which held important government documents, and could only be opened when all seven regions of the country were present.

The final stop on the tour: an old stone kitchen. Before the road came through, a relatively recent development, parliamentarians would actually live together here when meetings were in session, cooking, eating, and sleeping right on site.

It was just an afternoon, and I had plans back in Barcelona. Reluctantly, I rolled the VW back down the highway, the skies darkening quickly. My last microstate, and it was a bit of a micro-visit. But I would be back. To ski and spa, and maybe work a little on my Catalonian here, high in the Pyrenees.

If You Go

When to Go: Summers are pleasant and warm in Andorra, with high-altitude temperatures hovering in the 70s, and in winter, snowfalls create a carpet of powder that draws skiers from all across Europe.

Getting There and Around: While the country has a small airport, most travelers will reach Andorra by road, either in a rental car or by bus, with regular departures from Barcelona. At a moderate speed, the drive takes a little under three hours, longer by bus (closer to four).

Shop: Andorra has long been a magnet for duty-free shoppers, as well as those seeking luxury goods among the many boutiques lining the narrow, cobblestone streets of the capital.

Note: While Andorra is not a member of the European Union, it uses the Euro as official currency, and it sits within the Schengen Zone, meaning you won’t need to pass formal border checks to enter. However, you’re still crossing an international border, so it’s a good idea to carry your passport.

Tim Johnson
Toronto-based writer Tim Johnson is always traveling in search of the next great story. Having visited 140 countries across all seven continents, he’s tracked lions on foot in Botswana, dug for dinosaur bones in Mongolia, and walked among a half-million penguins on South Georgia Island. He contributes to some of North America’s largest publications, including CNN Travel, Bloomberg, and The Globe and Mail.