Road Trip Through Andorra
A few years ago I convinced my good friend Louise (Lou Lou) to join me on a trip around Europe. Having agreed to what she thought would be a pleasant little drive down to Italy, she was shocked at the long hours on the road, the furnace like heat of the Smart Car - "Don't open the window! The wind will throw us about like a crisp packet." - and the fun of camping in what was advertised as a 2 person tent. So how did I convince her to join me for a second outing?
Well, this time around the trip is going to be smaller, that means fewer miles and less time spent in the car. We'll drive through France, through Andorra, and then on into... - "Woah, hold it there. What's an Andorra?" - Hands up those of you who know where Andorra is? Well I'll tell you. Bordering France and Spain in the eastern Pyrenees lies this little landlocked independent principality. And I must admit that's about as much as I knew at the time.
Lou Lou is a teaching assistant for children and young adults with learning difficulties. It means she gets six weeks off for the summer holidays. It's a good amount of time off, but it also means that every child in England is off at the same time, so the holiday prices are at their peak at this time of year. If we look on the positive side, we're driving so we avoid all that, and it's August so we can rely on the weather being good. We packed up the Smart with some camping equipment, food and clothing and hit the road.
We made our way through France, avoiding all the toll roads. I much prefer doing it that way, it's a better drive through all the tiny out of the way towns and villages instead of just powering along a motorway. Not that the Smart Car powers it's way anywhere.
Despite being right in the heart of the holiday season, we didn't see much traffic until we reached the Andorran border. There were hundreds of cars queuing to get out of the country, parked in every and any available space, all blocking each other in.
Andorra is a tax haven, and everything being sold is duty free. You can buy most things cheaper, the highest in demand of which are electronic items, cigarettes and of course alcohol. This was not holiday traffic, this is everyone who lives within about 100 miles doing their weekly shop.
As you enter from the French side you'll move along a shopping street of duty free shops. Every one of them packed with people, each with a full trolley as if it's the only day of the sales. Thankfully the bulk of the traffic was attemping to move in the other direction.
A few minutes later it was as if all that chaos was left a thousand miles behind. The mountain roads with no other cars on them and wide open skies was all we could see. That and petrol station. - "There's a petrol station. And there's one opposite it. And another a hundred metres further on, and another one opposite that, and another 50 metres down the road. Oh and another one. What the hell is going on here?" - It's duty free fuel of course. There's nothing on the road, yet the petrol stations are full of cars.
The weather was great, the road was smooth and the views were pretty good too. We were heading for the capital, Andorra La Vella. It lies in a valley, so whichever route you approach from you get a lovely view over the city with the mountains sitting on both sides.
We took our time driving this beautiful landscape, stopping every few miles to take photos and walk around. We needed somewhere for the night and somewhere to have dinner. We stumbled upon the Campsire Valira. €20 for a patch of grass, hot showers, clean toilets and a short walk to the main road.
For breakfast and lunch I don't need much to keep me going, my first thought is usually driven by saving money. When it comes to dinner I like to make more of an effort. We're in a new country, so what's the national dish...
It's called Escudella. It's a type of stew with all sorts of meat, bone, vegetable, potato, rice and pasta all mixed together. Whilst the waitress was explaining what went into it I was distracted by someone else being served an enormous Paella in a deep dish, so I had Paella.
After dinner we had a walk around some of the shops. It really is every duty free shop you've ever been to, only this actually feels like it's 'duty free'. Then it was back to our campsite for a dip in the pool in the shade of the mountain. Despite being summer, this is the quiet season and things close early.
Andorra, more of a winter destination than a summer one for most. It's not somewhere I would fly to with the sole intention of staying for any period of time, and for that reason I would never fly here for a holiday. If I happened to be in Barcelona with a hire car or passing this way again in my own vehicle then I might re-visit as I look to explore more of the Pyrenees. As a skiing destination I can see the appeal. The resorts are excellently maintained, the restaurant are plentiful and reasonably priced for Europe, the nightlife apparently gets lively and the drinks are cheap. This is Western Europe at Eastern European prices.
- A campsite will set you back between €15-€30 per night depending on amenities such as swimming pool, sauna etc.
- Hotels start from around €30 per night. Some of the 4 star hotels start from as little as €50 per night.
This is a great place for shopaholics. You'll find huge discounts on electrical items and clothing. If you're setting up a funky home bar it's also a great place to stock up on novelty sized bottles of alcohol. A two-foot (60cm) high bottle of 4.5 litre Vodka will cost you €32. Maybe you'd prefer 4.5 litres of Bells Finest Old Scotch Whisky for €43. Absinthe comes in 3 litre bottles for €70, or there is an un-named brand of 96% proof liquid that comes in a 5 litre plastic bottle for the ridiculous sum of €10. Why? I have no idea.
There are some lovely spots in this little principality, though for me it will never have the beauty or the draw of a Switzerland or Austria. The Pyrenees stretch far beyond Andorra's borders and would warrant a trip all on their own. If you do happen to be nearby looking for somehwere to spend the day, Andorra has a view or two worth searching for.