Wednesday, 22 October 2008


Andorra, the 21st and last country that we've visited on our 6 month long tour around Europe, suffers somewhat by comparison with where we've been before. This tiny country (which calls itself a Principality even though it is now a democratic republic and was formerly an episcopality) is sandwiched quite neatly between France and Spain. So neatly in fact that you don't notice any disruption to the outline of either country, which I'm sure is one of the reasons why it still exists. It's also the only country where Catalan is the official language.

Having been to all the other European micro-states, it seemed silly not to satisfy our curiosity and pass through Andorra on our way to La Alberca, especially as, of all the micro-states, Andorra is the most curious. Squashed between two powerful neighbours, both with rival claims to sovereignty - France through the Count of Foix and Spain through the Bishop of La Seu d'Urgell - you would have thought it would have ended up being partitioned like Navarre, another Pyrranean state. Instead the joint sovereignty arrangement lasted all the way from 1278 right through to a referendum that lead to formal independence in 1993. I could only come up with Anglo-Eygptian Sudan when trying to think of other joint-sovereignty arrangements, but that didn't last a century and can hardly compete.
I'm sure Andorra was quite pretty once, and indeed the roads into the country from both France and Spain offer spectacular views as their hairpin their way up the Pyrenees through woods turning red and gold (on the French side; on the Spanish side they were still a lush green). Once inside the country, however, the views are marred by tangles of cable cars and urban sprawl.

Andorra is basically a series of steep river valleys in the middle of which sits the capital, Andorra la Vella, and ski slopes. The bland apartment blocks and bargain-stuffed shops (Andorra has a sales tax of only 4%) hem in the road, which only increases the claustrophobic feeling the steep valley walls create. A European cul-de-sac until the 20th century, Andorra took off as a smugglers' crossroads during the Spanish Civil War and WWII, and since then it seems to have been trying to turn itself into the world's biggest duty free hall. Ironic really, seeing as it doesn't have an airport.

We stopped for a coffee and then bought some supplies in one of the supermarkets before having the novel experience of a customers officer examining Sheena and quizzing us on our purchases - we've been asked before (Switzerland, Croatia), but nobody has ever bothered to look thus far! Our three bottles of port and slab of beers didn't qualify as contraband so within a few minutes we were back in Spain.

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