Wednesday, April 18, 2012


Andorra has more than 2000 shops. That’s more than one for every 40 inhabitants. Does this have anything to do with the world’s highest life expectancy of 83.5 years? Or is it the skiing in resorts that have invested way more than €100 million in high-speed lifts, car parks, snow-making machines and groomers, hotels and restaurants?

This mini-country is only 468 square km but has some of the most dramatic scenery in the Pyrenees, and we were on our way to the capital of Andorra la Vella after a stop in Carcassonne, France
. Famous for skiing, shopping and smuggling, all three were immediately obvious upon crossing the north border. A long line of cars waited to pass through the French border control, and an even longer line of cars was parked on the sides of the road leading out of Pas de la Casa, the first shopping opportunity sans the high French taxes levied on goods by the neighbor to the north. The setting of all this drama was a single road leading up through the town, past perfectly white skiing runs to what seemed like the end of the world. We were surrounded on walls of white on all sides and the road continued on until the very cusp of this whiteness, with nothing visible beyond except blue sky.

Having reached the highest point on the largest road leading through the country the scenery changed, as we could see the road continuing on down into the valley, curving its way down along with the Valira d’Orient river. We passed a dozen little villages, and it was then I understood what our Lonely Planet guidebook had been hinting at when it warned that “greed and uncontrolled development risk spoiling the valleys.” The sparse villages were filled with giant cranes, brand new stores lined the sides of the roads and the few old farm buildings that remained were abandoned and probably slated for demolishment.

Having arrived at Andorra la Vella we checked into our hotel, discovered that the locals speak even more quickly than in France, and then went for a walk down the main shopping street. There were four main types of stores: clothing, jewelry, electronics and pharmacies. We made our first purchase, a car charger for my iPad (which was/will be used very often to help the almost-two year old survive these road trips) and discovered that the electronics stores sell a lot knock-offs. Most of the jewelry and clothing stores had their own security guards manning the door, and there was an obvious police presence enforcing parking regulations, directing traffic and helping tourists.

The prices are lower than in France (and Spain, I’m told), mostly due to the lack of all sales tax. However, when compared to the US, the prices still seemed on the expensive side. Roberts quickly started converting liters to gallons and euros to dollars to calculate a universal index – the price of expensive scotch and medium-range vodka. His conclusion was similar to mine, the prices were lower than in France, but not low enough to justify gas money to make a run. (Speaking of gas money, gas was significantly cheap for Europe, but the gas station we stopped at was bizarre. There were about twenty lanes curving in and out of a giant warehouse with pumps. Although there were attendants, Roberts had to get out of the car while the tank was getting filled, and they accepted only cash.)

The next morning we saw the Barri Antic (historic quarter) which was all there was of Andorra la Vella until after World War II. The architecture was beautiful, wood and stone interwoven for a dramatic final effect. This theme often carried over into the modern construction, and combined with large windows the housing looked airy, light and comfortable.

We spent quite some time at the rooftop Plaça del Poble, a gathering place with cafes, basketball courts, children’s playgrounds and plenty of views of the valley. Shortly before leaving we finally found Parc Central, which would probably have been our primary destination if we had known about it earlier. Tourist money at work, the beautiful park had dozens of jungle gyms, swing sets, slides and other playground equipment, along with little ponds, ducks, and everything else a two-year old could wish for (except the “choo-choo” we have in our Clermont-Ferrand park).

Although we did take a look in several stores, most of our shopping was done at the grocery store. We found food to also be priced lower than in France, especially fruit, chocolate and sweets, my three favorite food groups. We must have eaten a few kilos of the strawberries from Spain over the course of our trip; I believe the most fragrant and full of taste berries never make it to the shelves in our supermarket. In Clermont-Ferrand the French strawberries are known for their flavor, but the luscious giants we had on our trip could provide decent competition to the home-grown variety. Before heading on south to Barcelona, we stocked up on chocolate as I found coffee flavored bars and regular M&Ms which are scarce at home.

Verdict? Although I am happy to cross Andorra off my world travel list, I didn’t care much for the shopping opportunities. We decided that our next visit would be for Roberts to go skiing while I enjoy the lagoons, hot tubs and thermal spring saunas at Europe’s largest spa complex, La Caldea.

The brochure - "forget about everything!"
A few more facts about Andorra... The population in 2010 was 84,864. Citizens do not pay any direct taxes or engage in military service. Postal services are free, and most land is communally owned. The traditional livelihood was from stock rearing and crop cultivation until the first roads linking Andorra with the outside world were opened, in 1913 on the Spanish side and in 1931 on the French side.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoy learning about these different places from your posts. If I ever get back to Europe, I'll refer to these posts for travel choices.


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