Exploring One of Europe’s Stranger Hidden Corners


Andorra is a very strange place.

It’s the 6th smallest country in Europe, hidden away in the Pyrenees between France and Spain. It’s a Principality formed in 1278—but the role of monarch falls to two joint “princes”: the Catalan Bishop of Urgell and the President of France. Its people have the 4th highest life expectancy in the world, kicking off on average at the ripe old age of 82. It’s the kind of place you wouldn’t even notice on a map, unless you were looking for it.

Andorra was isolated for an awfully long time. It only became a member of the United Nations in 1993. What the heck was it doing before that? Playing a centuries-long game of hide and seek?

Not exactly. But it did have a history of hiding others. The Principality remained neutral during the Second World War, and was an important smuggling route between Vichy France and Spain.

These days Andorra is primarily known for 3 things: winter sports, duty free shopping, and as a tax haven for the super rich.

I didn’t go there for any of those things. I may be the only Canadian who can’t skate. I don’t care very much for shopping. And I haven’t yet qualified for membership in the gold-plated circles of the world’s wealthy elite.

I went to Andorra for hiking. The entire country is threaded with trails, and because ski season is peak season, you won’t find a whole lot of other people cluttering up the view.

I also wanted to see this rather strange piece of national geography for myself. And so I flew to Barcelona, picked up a very nice BMW rental car, and headed for the hills.

Paying road trip homage to the landscape of Catalonia…

Rolling agricultural Catalan countryside soon gave way to the foothills of the Pyrenees. A couple tunnels and water-filled gorges later and we were surrounded by tall rounded peaks. Paragliders filled the middle distance—jumping off these peaks and sailing through the valleys is a popular local sport.

The Pyrenees are much older than the Alps, and so they lack the jagged snowcapped drama of places like Switzerland. And you won’t find any of those frigid, clear lakes that fill the lateral valleys of that younger mountain chain of central Europe, either.

But that doesn’t mean they’re absent of mystery. In this remote chain mountain passes are rare, and they’re usually found at great elevation. Valley climbs tend to end in a cirque: those vast cathedral-like semicircles of towering cliffs. And the entire chain is rich in waterfalls. Every hike showcases mountain torrents that channel meltwater from the peaks and provide the gentle bubbling music of your march. The entire range is also graced by an abundance of mineral springs and hot springs.

The capital, Andorra La Vella, is squeezed into a lush green valley between tall mountain ridges. It’s a crowded place with too many cars, and the main strip looks like one vast city-sized duty free shopping mall. Bus trips rumbled through the centre, bringing day-tripping tourists on supersized shopping binges. And the stores were bursting with cut-rate brand name clothes, electronics and high-end watches.

Yes, we did spent a few hours picking through the shops. Clothes are expensive on my island, and there aren’t a lot of choices. I bought a pair of sneakers and a some polo shirts in pastel shades. I shed a tear at the price and selection of the booze, and grabbed a bottle of Moët rosé to console myself. And then we got in the car and fled by the nearest tunnel. Our base was the little village of Erts, just outside Arinsal, up in the parish of La Massana.

The next morning we laced up our boots, drove through Arinsal and left the car just beyond the avalanche wall. We were soon crunching gravel on a rapidly ascending trail that spiralled up from the little hamlet and crossed quiet pine woodland that smelled of damp and green things.

The ascent began soon after, and it was steady climbing all the way. Much of it followed the course of a rushing stream, and waterfalls cascaded down mountainsides in the distance. We passed through meadows of fragrant wildflowers, and counted squat stone huts in clearings across the valley. We were soon above them, and still climbing.

The trail levelled off as we entered the high alpine Valls Del Comapedrosa. We stopped at the mountain hut for coffee, and ate lunch at the edge of a cliff overlooking the valley we’d just climbed through. The frigid waters of the Estany de les Truites rippled at our backs. And Andorra’s tallest peak—Comapedrosa itself—looked down on us from across the barren cirque.

Ice is civilization!

We only had time to trek a little further; another hour up the cirque to where the trail climbs a ridge for the summit of Pic de Sanfonts. The day was late and dark clouds were blowing in from Spain. But I wanted to see what remained of the snow. To pack it into a hard ball in my hands, and remind myself why I migrated to the Mediterranean. Snow is nice, as long as you can choose when to interact with it…

I found a suitable rock high up in the valley to sit and think, and to look on the vast Pyrenees landscape spread out all around us. And a little while later we began the long descent.

That night we had the hotel entirely to ourselves. In a region devoted so strongly to skiing, summer is the off season. The Palome in Erts was a beautifully decorated boutique hotel, and we were the only guests. That evening at supper, the chef and staff were cooking just for us.

Photos ©Tomoko Goto 2012

About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of A Sunny Place for Shady People and Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Writer at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.



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