“Why on earth are you going to Andorra for three whole days if you hate skiing?” my colleagues exclaimed. “You’ll see everything in a day!”
I was acutely aware that this mountainous micro-state nestled high in the Pyrenees between France and Spain was mainly (if not only) known for skiing. It comes as no surprise with the country’s landscape having three long valleys and blizzards hitting the high Pyrenees in December. With over 200km of ski tracks, the entire country turns into one big ski resort in winter. However, I’d also heard that hiking in Andorra was quite something. Given I had no love for skiing and was visiting in mid-January when ice makes hiking tricky to say the least, it was going to be an interesting three days.
“Uh-oh. I forgot to check. Do we need a visa for Andorra?”
Blithely unaware of the fact that Andorra wasn’t part of the EU or the Schengen zone, Chumila and I rocked up at Barcelona Airport. Coming from different European cities, we were waiting at a cafe in the deserted terminal for our late night bus to Andorra.
It all started with me joking that it would be fun to stop at the border and get our passports stamped. That led to some digging online which quickly revealed our Schengen visa did not apply to Andorra. Ah, the glory of holding South Asian passports. The first alarm bell went off. Luckily, the website confirmed no one needed a visa for Andorra. Quick sigh of relief. However, it said we needed a valid passport to cross the border. Second alarm bell started ringing: one of us didn’t have a passport (just ID). Our heartbeats accelerated while we planned a few scenarios (including one that involved racing back to get said passport) as the minutes counted down to our bus’ departure. I’ll never forget the moment the inspector checked our tickets and waived us through. Not sure what it is about country borders, but in my case, it’s definitely a recipe for palpitations.
Andorra’s rather unusual Heads of State
It’s not every day that you come across a country that is a ‘parliamentary co-principality’. Andorra is jointly headed by two princes – one of whom is the President of France and the other is the Catholic Bishop of Urgell (in Catalonia, Spain). It was the first I heard of the French President being a monarch of a totally different country.
Its rather unique position goes back several centuries. Emperor Charlemagne’s grandson handed over Andorra to the Counts of Urgel, who then passed it on to the bishops of Urgel. In the 13th century however, following intense quarrels between the Church and the French heirs to the Urgel countship, an agreement was reached declaring both the Bishop of Urgell and the French Count of Foix (eventually the French President) as co-princes of Andorra.
This remained in place all the way until 1993 when a new constitution was approved. It transferred most executive and legislative power from the co-princes to different branches of the government. While Andorra’s defence is the joint responsibility of France and Spain, during emergencies an alarm (sometent) is rung and all able Andorran men between 21-60 must serve – part of the reason why the head of each Andorran household should keep a rifle, by law.
Andorra La Vella – Europe’s highest capital city
At an altitude of over 1000m, there’s one way to know you’re not in any other European city centre while walking down the brand-filled, shopping-focused, restaurant-punctuated high streets of Andorra La Vella. It’s the backdrop of mountains in any direction. I mistakenly assumed that shopping in Andorra would be expensive and biased towards luxury goods. It actually turned out to be quite diverse. Aside from the fact that you can find items ranging from kitchen knives to walkie-talkies and rifles to clocks, the country’s low tax rate means shopping here is attractive enough to lure residents across the border from nearby France or Spain (most European countries have a 19% VAT rate while the majority of Andorran goods are taxed at 4.5%).
Another element I didn’t expect in the tiny capital was the quirky works of art. We randomly bumped into quite a few of these on the street – including an original handcrafted sculpture by Salvador Dalí, casually resting in a corner.
Caldea – the healing hot springs of Andorra
Owing to its geography, thermal hot springs occur across Andorra and go back many hundreds of years; hot springs whose mineral and sulphur-rich waters have pain-relieving, healing, and decongestant effects.
Near the capital is Caldea – one of the largest thermal bath complexes in Europe. With a shimmering glass tower (tallest in Andorra) that is reminiscent of London’s Shard or the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco, Caldea has found a magical way of using the mineral-rich water that emerges at 70ºC from the ground in a variety of settings. Ranging from pools to outdoor lagoons, hydromassage jets, jacuzzis, Indo-Roman and Icelandic baths, Turkish hammams and bubble beds, Caldea’s philosophy – thermal leisure – is one I lapped up straight away.
Opened in 1994, its external facade with semi-emitting, almost mirror-like glass symbolises both the profile of the surrounding mountains and the transparency of water, while the softer shapes inside are inspired by the human body. The whole experience revolves around alternating hot with cold, a familiar theme for many who’ve been to a sauna or steam room. But this was my first encounter with an ‘Icelandic Bath’ – inspired by different temperature combinations of water in Iceland. After emerging from the sauna, there’s plentiful ice in the ‘iceberg’ to rub yourself with while your feet are immersed in cold water, followed by some time in a hot water bath. The lack of temperature labels in the different baths was a cause for much confusion (and laughter). It became clear that many Spanish visitors hated the cold. General chatter amongst some or the zen-like aura of others approaching the Icelandic baths was quickly broken by loud shrieks and immediate retreat after stepping into the freezing cold water.
I usually love any type of hydrotherapy – perhaps it’s my island upbringing, or maybe it’s something else. But floating through the heated outdoor lagoon with mountains in the distance and a starry sky above was definitely an experience to remember.
Sola Irrigation Canal Trail
Whether it’s to inhale fresh air, understand agricultural methods in the valley or get panoramic views of the narrow, long capital city, the Rec del Solà Irrigation Canal Trail is ideal for a gentle stroll. Despite the initial steep climb, the relatively flat trail forming a ring around the city will lead you through numerous vegetable allotments and past many locals going on their Sunday morning walks with their canine companions.
Hiking La Coma Pedrosa
If you aren’t skiing or shopping, then hiking definitely is the best way to experience Andorra. Yes, temperatures were close to freezing with snow on the mountains in January, but how bad could it get? Certainly not a deterrent for us to attempt hiking up Andorra’s highest mountain – La Coma Pedrosa. Worst case scenario, we could always turn back if it was too difficult. Bristling with confidence we got off the bus at Arinsal (reminiscent of a deserted ski resort) and started the gentle climb.
The first part of the hike lulled us into a false sense of security – the incline was fairly gentle, with melting snow and some fine panoramas as we turned round a few corners. It was the only time I ever saw a semi-frozen set of cascades (mini waterfalls). The outer shell of the falls were frozen but water flowed underneath. The geography geek in me got very excited.
It was at the three hour mark that doubt started to creep in. We were hiking through heavy snow and came across a slippery ice layer in some parts. But our ingenious minds told us there would always be a way forward. Whether it was using tree branches for support, moving extra slowly, zig-zagging, or holding onto rocks, we kept inching higher. It was only after we stopped for lunch that we realised while there may be a way forward, the way back seemed near impossible. It was ludicrously steep and since none of us had crampons, we would have little grip moving downwards over the invisible ice layer.
Like any good adventurers, we did what anyone would have done at that point: laugh, then improvise. The solution? Sliding down the icy parts of the mountain on our bottoms (!), small distances at a time, using hiking sticks to steer and control our descent. All the while I kept thinking how true it is that the most memorable parts of any journey, are the ones that you least expect or plan for.
Take the yellow L5 bus from Andorra la Vella National Bus Station to Arinsal (every 30 mins; journey time of roughly 20-25 mins or so). Tickets cost €3 one way, or €5 return – cash only. Hike to La Coma Pedrosa and come back – we turned back mid-way as it was too icy and dangerous. It took us approximately 5-6hrs with stops.
I’m always curious to explore towns outside the capital, to get a feel for life in other parts of the country. So on day two we headed towards Encamp – a central Andorran town and the start of ski centres along Grand Valira. While walking through the centre was reminiscent in some ways of a small Italian town (the stone architecture, the ochre-painted townhouses), the most intriguing part was the dilapidated remains of a historical complex in the village of Les Bons. With sweeping views over Encamp, all that’s left here is the old medieval church of Sant Roma de les Bons and an ancient watch tower (La Torre dels Moros). Likely dating back to the 14th century, all I could find out was that it probably was part of a defence complex. Built by whom and protecting against what force, still remain a mystery to me.
Hike Southeast through the Madriu-Perafita-Claror Valley
Armed with experiences of sliding down icy mountain slopes on my bottom, I was a bit more cautious when I ventured into the spiritual heart of Andorra: the Madriu-Perafita-Claror Valley. One of the only remaining places in the country not to have paved roads, this UNESCO-designated heritage site covers almost 10% of the nation.
Hearing about its glacial landscapes, steep cliffs and lakes, I was determined to venture in. The expression on the man’s face at the tourist office needed no words. “You’re crazy. You have no crampons; it’s the middle of winter – there’s no way you can hike for more than an hour before the elements send you back home,” was what he wanted to say. “Maybe you’ll enjoy some shopping in the city, instead?” was what he ended up saying. “I don’t think it’s going to be fun hiking here in winter.” After thanking him for the map, I told him I’d take my chances and turn back if it was too dangerous. A few quick calculations revealed I could hike for at least 3-4 hours before it got icy – good enough for me.
Starting in the town of Escaldes (famed for its hot springs), a steep stone path quickly led me out of town and into the wilderness. It was only when I saw the low stone walls, the barns (where presumably hay was stored) and what seemed like old stables in the distance, that I could guess what creature’s droppings were frequently scattered near the hiking trail. Before I knew it I was passing through vast open pastures with Pyrenean cows lazily grazing. These pastures dotted with small huts reflect old mountain culture going back several centuries where communities moved around with their livestock, living in perfect harmony with their resource-constrained environment.
Given the very steep initial ascent (gaining roughly 500m altitude over the first 4km), it wasn’t long before I was passing through scenes of winter wonderland with fresh snow and Christmas trees. Just when I thought I was the only one mad enough to be there (I hadn’t met a single soul the whole way through), I heard some rustling in the distance. Initially I thought it was some animal coming towards me, so I climbed up the mountainside and hid behind a rock.
As the sound got closer and adrenaline pumped through my body, I realised that it couldn’t be an animal. There was another person adventurous (or crazy) enough to hike here in winter! Turns out it was a burly Russian guy who was equally surprised to find human company. He tried to excitedly tell me something in Russian but given my blank stare, we resorted to gestures. Turns out there was some kind of waterfall ahead, and the water was delicious to drink (many elements might have got lost in translation).
Smiling wryly at the thought of the man in the Tourist Office, I paused after I reached the waterfall. There was clear ice ahead, and to be safe I turned around at this point. The beautiful lakes and valleys that lay beyond on would have to wait until next time.
Favourite spot to refuel
Best spot for brunch: the vegan-friendly Orange Goat Cafe in Escaldes (close to the town centre) with freshly-squeezed juices, lattes brewed with care, and food ranging from blueberry pancakes to vegan burgers and omelettes with salmon and tomato chutney. At €17 each for the full spread, it was fairly pricey (Andorra isn’t exactly cheap) but the feast will definitely keep you well-fuelled for a day of outdoor activity. So grateful were we to have discovered this place that we ended up eating here every morning. If the tempting outdoors weren’t waiting for us, this would have been my ideal hideaway to curl up with a book and hot chocolate on a cold wintry day.
The added bonus was that everyone working here seemed to be among the friendliest in Andorra. After a few chats we learnt that few of them were Andorran – in fact most of them were from Argentina. Unsurprisingly, this small nation of 80,000 people needs far more workers to deal with the 10 million tourists that visit annually, mainly concentrated during ski season. To help meet this surge in demand during winter, Andorra has a seasonal work visa just for the ski months, inviting people from all across the world.