Andorra is Europe’s sixth smallest country, with 181 square miles of mountains and valleys squeezed in between France to the north and Spain to the south in the eastern Pyrenees. With a population of 77,000, it’s a rather sparsely populated country which swells to approximately 8.5 million each year because of visitors, mostly from Spain and France, who come to Andorra for three reasons: fabulous winter sports conditions, great walking, hiking and nature experience in the summer and … tax-free shopping year around.
Andorra does not have an airport, but the country is well connected by road and rail to her neighbors. I traveled to Andorra from Barcelona, a comfortable coach ride of 3 hours. The buses run every three hours and there are trains, too. Entry to Andorra is visa free and there are occasional border controls on the return because of the tax-free shopping.
Andorra isn’t only a romantic mountain country with beautifully preserved traditional stone houses and Romanesque churches, it also features exquisite modern art and architecture and one of the most stunning spas I have ever visited: La Caldea. It’s this contrast within a comparatively small and easily accessible space that I like best and you will too.
Andorra is not a member of the EU, but the currency is the euro. Languages that are spoken are Catalan, Spanish and French, but English is no problem, either.
La Vella, An Open Air Museum
Andorra La Vella is the name of the capital, at 3356 feet, the highest capital city in Europe. The Gran Valira River rushes through town, crossed by a few bridges. You have to climb up and down steps and streets to get from one level to another to admire the countless sculptures that made me call La Vella an open air museum. Starting with the massive “melting clock,” called La Noblesse du Temps by Dali, which is 16 feet high and stands in the Plaça de la Rotonda. Art lovers from all over the world come here just to see this masterpiece. Followed by The Seven Poets — white, opaque glass statues of poets, sitting on top of tall poles in front of the modern parliament building and, my favorite, The Alphabet Man, the sculpture of a male and female figure made entirely from letters. More huge metal sculptures stand near the river.
As if the spectacular outdoor art isn’t enough, there are also several museums and art galleries to be found in La Vella. The newest is the museum Carmen Thyssen and Art al Set Galleria is also dedicated to modern art.
Another place worth visiting is the Casa de la Vall, a stone mansion built in 1580 which today houses the General Council of Andorra but is open to visitors.
As we said, La Vella is a shopping paradise. Many French and Spanish from border towns just come weekends to stock up on tax-free alcohol, cigarettes, and perfumes. The main shopping areas are The Shopping Mile and Avinguda Riberaygua, all interconnected and partially pedestrian areas. It houses designer boutiques, souvenir shops, and jewelers.
Perfumeria Julia is the oldest and most prestigious perfume shop in La Vella and a must-visit because the shop doesn’t only sell precious scents, but also exhibits a huge collection of rare glass perfume bottles collected by the owner.
Spa Indulgence At La Caldea
The soaring, sparkling main tower of Europe’s largest thermal spa, La Caldea is a stunning landmark of La Vella and visible from just about every angle in the town. Opened in 1994 and designed by French architect Jean Michel Rois, the concept was to reflect the transparency of water as well as the mountain landscape of Andorra that surrounds the spa. Covered in thousands of mirrored sheets, this unique and avant-garde building is far more than just a thermal spa. It’s a work of art and a wellness oasis with views of the snow-covered mountains from all of the many pools that comprise the spa. The centerpiece is a circular aquarium.
To enjoy the full options, plus fabulous food in several restaurants, plan for at least half a day. If you forget towels, flip flops, or swimsuits, that’s no problem, because at the entrance there is a chic boutique. There are pools for people 16 years of age and older, a pool for kids called Likin with trained staff supervising, and an adults-only pool called Inuu. Different health and beauty treatments are also available.
Exquisite Combination Of Romanesque And Modern Architecture In Meritxell
Meritxell is a sanctuary and basilica within the parish of Canillo in the north of the country close to the border with France. It’s the most important religious temple in Andorra because it is dedicated to its patron saint, our Lady of Meritxell. The church has Romanesque origins but the image of the saint in the church and most of the buildings were almost completely destroyed in a devastating fire in 1972. It was decided to rebuild the sanctuary and a competition was launched which was finally won by renowned Catalan architect Ricardo Bofill. What he created was a very different and absolutely eye-catching modern building. It combines pure white, open arches and open cloisters with a church that has huge windows, a fountain in the middle, and no adornments except one stained glass window over the altar explaining the history of Meritxell. He wanted to include the landscape in his design, i.e., deep snow in winter and green pastures in the summer and to reflect peace and tranquillity. The main room also exhibits photos of the old sanctuary and of the virgin that was destroyed.
You can reach Meritxell and other interesting places in Andorra comfortably with Andorra Tourist Bus No.1 from La Vella. The full tour takes half a day and departs in the morning. If you only want to visit Meritxell, take a taxi.
Hit The Slopes In Winter
Due to the high altitude and its location in the Pyrenees, Andorra is an often overlooked but ideal destination for lovers of winter sports. There are two main regions, the Grandvalira ski area, and the Ordino Valley. Popular destinations in Grandvalira are Pas de la Casa and Grau Roig. The former is lively, with 130 miles of slopes and a hopping apres-ski scene. The latter is quieter, more suitable for families but with an equal number of slopes and lifts.
Solden is the largest ski area in the Pyrenees, suitable for skiers of all levels and even with a Kids Forest for the youngest. Arcalis in the Ordino Valley is a hotspot for free riders and adventurous skiers as is Vallnord. For those who want to take it easy, there is La Massana.
For accommodations, there are one or two luxury hotels but mostly it’s self-catering in chalets rented out by the locals for the season.
Smell The Flowers In Spring And Summer
The tiny country of Andorra is home to over 1,100 species of plants and flowers. Especially the Rialb Valley, which bursts into bloom in spring and summer with alpine roses, poet’s daffodils, the national flower of Andorra, the bright yellow ball flowers, and the blue, and poisonous, monkshood. Put on your hiking shoes and explore the riot of color and scent in the Rialb Valley. The river Riad flows at the bottom, high mountains surround it and cattle graze in between. The Rialb Valley lies just north of the mountain village of El Serrat. There are several hiking tours available in Andorra, and here is one weekend hiking trip. You’ll also go past a lookout point, called Mirador Roc del Quer, a great photo op with the river meandering down below and a winding mountain road next to it.
Visit Rural Homes
Yes, even Andorra has sort of an aristocracy. One member was called d’Areny-Plandolit, an important figure in Andorra history. The family lived in an impressive stone mansion in Ordino, which you can visit and admire the splendor of furnishings, drapes, and artifacts that wouldn’t be out of place in any rich man’s townhouse in a big city.
Very much the opposite is Casa Cristo in Encamp. This is the abode of farmers and laborers from the early 19th century, full of original furniture, bedrooms, and kitchens with rooms for the sheep and cattle in the harsh winter. Casa Cristo is also Andorra’s ethnographic museum.
Eat And Drink
Given the climate, it’s no surprise that Andorra cuisine is warming and hearty. Specialties are grilled mountain game, baked snails, and trixat, similar to bubble and squeak or hash browns made from mashed potatoes with grilled bacon on top. A great restaurant in La Vella that not only serves all these dishes but also has a delightful old-fashioned rural atmosphere is Borda Estevet.
Given the proximity to France and Spain, there is no shortage of excellent wines to go with the meals.
Andorra and even La Vella are mountainous, so bring good walking shoes and a jacket or cardigan even in summer because it gets cool in the shade and higher up in the country. If you, like me, stay in Andorra for two days, go on a minibus tour. It carries only six passengers plus a local guide and takes in all the major sites as mentioned above. La Vella, you can explore on foot and on your own.