A peek at one of Andorra's valleys.
Our visit to Andorra was short: From our arrival through the tunnel at the French border to our exit the next day, we had approximately twenty-one hours. Fortunately, the country is rather short too. In fact, Andorra is so small it makes Luxembourg look like a superpower.
At its widest point, Andorra is no more than twenty miles across. It's two and a half times the size of Washington, D.C., but with 82,000 residents, it's got only a fraction of Washington's population. But I'd guess it's got almost as much commerce: Andorra, a tax-haven, is a shopper's paradise. Its main city, Andorra La Vella, is full of high end retail shops, and the main roads out of the country are flecked with shops mainly selling tobacco, spirits, and for some reason, meter-wide paella pans.
The Rough Guide gives an apt description, calling it "a cross between Shangri-La and Heathrow Duty-Free." That's true, except that it's pretty easy to avoid the duty-free parts. Skip Andorra La Vella, and you're pretty much in Shangri La territory.
I'll also go out on a limb here, having visited Andorra a total of one time: Fall is definitely the best time to visit. It's low season for tourists, but high season for fall colors. The trees, primarily yellow-leaved birches, are spectacular against the mountainsides, creating a mosaic of dark green pines, clumps of yellow birches, and occasional splashes of orange and red.
Our route took us from the French border to Canillo, where we turned off the main road onto a twisting route across the mountain tops to Ordino. (Fortunately, our stomachs were empty.) Our hotel, Hotel Babot, was the first sign of civilization we came to, located halfway down the mountainside. Ordino lay in the valley—so close we could hear the children on the school playground, but sounds are deceptive on mountainsides. The path we walked down from the hotel was steep: the helpful young man at the desk warned us to avoid it coming up. Conveniently, a shuttle van provides frequent rides back to the hotel, for 50 cents a ride.
There are lots of hotel rooms in Andorra—it's a booming ski destination, as evidenced by the construction. No signs of the credit crunch in Andorra: roadworks are ubiquitous (on already fine roads), and new chalets and condos are in the midst of construction in the prosperous-looking towns.
But despite this boom of activity, it was surprisingly quiet, perhaps because we were in a secluded location on the mountainside. Our views were stunning, regardless of which direction we looked. Jagged mountain peaks, topped by mist the morning we left. Gorgeous fall colors—real competition for New England, I'm afraid.
We spent a couple of hours walking around Ordino, a small town described by Rough Guide as "relatively agreeable". (Compare that to their description of Pas de la Casa: a "ghastly high-rise border town" frequented by "Brits in search of snow, sex and sangria." Easy avoided, however, as it's off the main road.) There's a tourist office in Ordino, with brochures that proved to be helpful the next day, as we drove out of town. I wanted to see some of the Romanesque churches—there are quite a few in Andorra, which have survived Andorra's quite recent plunge into modernity.
Sant Joan de Caselles church in Canillo
In fact, a good agenda for Andorra would be to grab the Culture and Heritage brochure and see how many locations you can find. In Canillo we saw St Serni, and Sant Joan de Caselles, and in Ordino, we merely walked past the Postal Museum and the Iconographic Museum—the price you pay for only spending twenty-one hours in a country.
But we did buy postcards, to which we affixed purple Andorran stamps. (The French operate the postal system, so who knows when or if the cards will arrive at their destinations in the USA.)
If we had more time, I'd have loved to go further into the mountains, and try some of the hikes another brochure told us about. The Madriu-Perafita-Claror glacial valley, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is said to offer excellent hiking, some around glacial lakes. But twenty-one hours goes by fast—I found myself regretting I hadn't booked another night at the Hotel Babot.
As the light disappeared from the evening sky, we shared a bottle of Spanish Rioja on our balcony, overlooking the craggy mountains. And that was our best moment in Andorra. I remembered my childhood joy of discovery of Andorra, and marveled at the opportunity I have as an adult to visit such far-flung places. Maybe the wine was making me a little bit sappy. But I am truly lucky, I realized, to be able to sit and drink rich red wine in the Pyrenees in the fall.
That, perhaps, is why Andorrans live longer than just about anyone else. With every day offering breathtaking views, polyphenol-filled red wine, and steep heart-pumping hikes, who wouldn't want to live a long, long time here?
For more photos of Andorra go here.