A Pint-Sized Principality

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June 9th 2016
Published: July 16th 2016
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Scenic PathScenic PathScenic Path

Walking path along the side of one of the mountains that flanks the valley of Andorra la Vella.
Bilbao's efficient metro system, Spain's extensive bus network and ALSA's spacious, modern buses ensured that the seven-and-a-half hour journey from Bilbaoto Barcelona was absolutely painless. Comfortable, even.

It was great to be back in Barcelona again. It was where I spent three months learning Spanish before I set off for South America just over eight months previously. I had great memories, fun memories, of my time here and those memories were rekindled almost as soon as I arrived back in the city.
Although most of the friends I made here have already left, there were still a couple hanging about (as well as revisiting Barcelona at the same time as me!) the place and it was great catching up with them.

Just like I did when I was living here, I partied hard – resulting in a completely nocturnal body-clock which was annoying to say the least and difficult to reverse. It was also partly due to jet-lag but drinking every night since arriving back in Europe and going out until 6-7 in the morning on my first two nights in Barcelona probably didn’t help.

Barcelona served as a pit-stop; to take a break from sightseeing, to catch up on the blog, to replenish energy and supplies,
Casa de la VallCasa de la VallCasa de la Vall

Andorra's seat of parliament. Like the Iceland's Alpingi in Reykjavik, it is about as rustic a parliament building as I've seen.
to run errands (like getting my hair cut for the first time in over four months) and doing some planning for the weeks ahead.
I had dabbled with the idea of staying put for say, a month – but my arrival back in Europe reinvigorated me somewhat and the ease of travelling in Europe made me feel that I could and should keep going, and stick to my original plan.

As well as energy and supplies, I needed to replenish my funds as well. Luckily for me, some share that I own in my old company hit a price that triggered the sale of some of them, I after some political delays – my American stock management agency didn’t wire the share sale proceeds to my account because I made the share sale while I was in Cuba – I was suddenly flush (sort of) with cash after paying off my credit cards.
And just as well, given the prices of things in Europe. They were much higher thant they were the first time I backpacked the continent, especially accommodation. I needed to get to Eastern Europe as quickly as I could.

One thing I noticed back in Barcelona is just how rich Spain
Sign O' The TimesSign O' The TimesSign O' The Times

Andorra's modern side in all its glory on Avinguda Carlemany.
and Europe is. After eight months in Latin America, I really do have a different perspective on things. Going to the shopping malls in Barcelona, seeing the prices of things and comparing them to what I was paying in Latin America, I realised just how much better off the average person in Spain is than the average person in Latin America. And I realise again just how lucky I am and how lucky everyone in Europe is. I know that it is a cliche to say that travelling completely changes your outlook on life - but it's a cliche because it's true.

As for my Spanish, after feeling good about it in Cuba, it has hit a new low since being back in Barcelona. Far too many people here can speak English, which isn't good if you're trying to develop your Spanish, with Catalan diluting your opportunities to practice as well.
If a Spaniard speaks slowly, then I understand everything. If not, then almost nothing. People speaking English back to you is a blow to the ego, for sure. I realised that I have a long, long way to go before I get to a level of Spanish I
Esglesia de Santa ColomaEsglesia de Santa ColomaEsglesia de Santa Coloma

Andorra's oldest church in Santa Coloma - a separate town next to Andorra la Vella that simply feels like an extension of Andorra's capital city.
am happy with. That work, practice and study will have to wait until another time. I almost can't wait to get to a non-Spanish-speaking country, just to take the pressure off myself, knowing that I hardly know any French, for example.
Nevertheless, I felt sad about leaving Spain - I'll definitely be back one day.

Located high up in the Pyrenees, the journey to Andorra through the said mountain range is quite stunning. I'm not I've seen such a landscape of mountains so dry, yet green and lush. And compared to what I got used to in South America, the roads and infrastructure here is amazing too!
With just 468 sq km of territory, Andorra is the sixth smallest sovereign state in Europe - one of six "micro-states" on the continent. The history of Andorra and how it came to be is a little complicated with the territory being granted to the people of Andorra by Charlemagne in the 9th century for helping him fend off the Moors. The territory was looked after by the Count of Urgell who in the 11th century reached an agreement of co-sharing the territory with the Lord of Caboet in return for military
Església de Sant EsteveEsglésia de Sant EsteveEsglésia de Sant Esteve

Parish church just outside the Barri Antic.
protection. Over the years, this co-ruling agreement has seen Andorra today now co-ruled by the Bishop Of Urgell (head of the Catalonian (sort of) branch of the Catholic church and the President of France. Perhaps because of its religious 'co-ownership', Andorra was has not been annexed to either France or Spain on a permanent basis.
Anyway, there is always a sense of novelty and curiousness about visiting tiny countries; as most of us are from larger countries, it is almost as if we can't imagine that a country can be so small. So therefore we- OK, I - am fascinated to visit them.

As well as some stunning mountainside, Andorra's countryside is dotted with cute, Catalonian towns. Catalan is the official language here and although Barcelona will have signage in both Catalan and Spanish (mostly), here is definitely just Catalan. Which is an annoying language. Kind of Spanish, kind of French, but neither - I can sort of read it but can't actually.
Being a language sort of between Spanish and French, it is perhaps fitting that it is the official language of a country wedged between Spain and France - which in turn is a fitting transit point
Barri AnticBarri AnticBarri Antic

Inside Andorra la Vella's old town.
for me as I leave my Spanish slowly behind before heading to France, the first non-speaking country I will be visiting for almost a year.

I didn't have the most considerate dorm-mates back in Barcelona so I was quite happy to be staying in a hotel above a pub in Andorra. It was really my only budget option but it was excellent value for just 3€ a night more than what I was paying in Barcelona for a dorm - except that this time I had my own room with ensuite bathroom complete with a proper shower and shower box, multiple towels and little bars of soap. I haven't had luxuries like these for about er, three weeks! There was WiFi in the room too!

But while I was set up for a relaxing stay, it was anything but.
Firstly, the flimsy camera batter charger that I bought in Guatemala decided to stop working so I needed another one - so luckily Andorra is a tax-free haven where Spanish and French duty-free shoppers take day trips to stock up on consumer goods.
Secondly, I was having a nightmare trying to find reasonable accommodation prices in France. On the face of it,
Andorra la VellaAndorra la VellaAndorra la Vella

Andorra's capital city.
being in France during the European Football Championships sounds like a great idea - indeed my first ever trip to Europe was to watch the 2006 World Cup in Germany and that was an amazing time. The difference is this time, I don't have a van to sleep in and to ferry me around the country - and hostels were proving to be prohibitively expensive to book. I just didn't know what to do.
Thirdly, transport is expensive. I don't have a rail pass this time like I did in 2007 and getting from Andorra to France was extortionately expensive. Which is how I happened upon Bla Bla Car. I don't know why I didn't think of this myself because it is brilliant. Basically, with thousands of people driving across Europe every day, Bla Bla Car allows these drivers to connect with people needing a lift; passengers will then pay the driver a fee for a space in the driver's car. So it is basically like a verified, online hitchhiking site, except that the ride isn't for free (just a little bit more). But the process is stressful, as you have to find a driver going your way on the
Square In Barri AnticSquare In Barri AnticSquare In Barri Antic

Andorra's old town has plenty of pleasant squares for al fresco coffee such as this one.
right day and then to-and-fro (or just to in many cases) with them to confirm and arrange the journey and pick up. Just booking a seat on a train is way easier - but then you pay twice as much or more.
So add to all this trying to arrange for someone to vote for me back in London in the upcoming EU referendum and trying to catch up on my blog, everything was just adding up to STTTRREEESSSSSSS. I spent hours on my laptop making little to no progress and running into more and more obstacles. I was thinking that things were easier in Cuba! This isn't what I was supposed to be doing on holiday. So I stopped - and went out to explore Andorra.

And there's not much of it to see.
There are towns but as you approach the capital Andorra la Vella on the bus, the country soon starts to feel like one never-ending city.
It seems like a wealthy, modern place - a feeling that is backed up by the fact that Andorra had the highest life expectancy in the world in 2013. Relying mainly on tourism (80%!o(MISSING)f GDP - most of
Avinguda CarlemanyAvinguda CarlemanyAvinguda Carlemany

The main shopping street in Andorra la Vella.
it from ski resorts) and the tax haven's financial sector, the country is doing remarkably well.
Speaking of skiing, Andorra la Vella does kind of feel like an Austrian/German/Swiss mountain/ski town with a Catalan twist. But in saying that, you can really see the cultural and architectural influence from the surrounding regions in the country. There are a few Austrian/German/Swiss-looking country houses about but otherwise Andorra la Vella is a modern city.
And nowhere is this more evident than on Avinguda Carlemany, where all the brand stores are located in huge, glass shopping malls. The downtown area is actually pretty nice with loads of nice bars and restaurants - some of them huge. I'm thinking that during the ski season, these places fill up because for all of these bars, cafes and restaurants, there was hardly anyone around.
Everyone seemed to be in the old town - the barri antic - and more specifically, the pub downstairs from my room, where all the classics were being belted out by the jukebox from a-Ha, U2, Bon Jovi et al. And indeed the old town is a nicer place to be - a small, charming, romantic, pedestrian maze of smooth, beige, cobblestone
Passing SceneryPassing SceneryPassing Scenery

Scenes of the Pyrenees as my bus passed through it.
streets with modern-medieval architecture.

With so many mountains, it is a shame that I perhaps didn't make more use of them and go hiking. To sort of compensate, I walked the trail that snakes its way along the valley of Andorra la Vella on the side of one of the hills. With a small man-made stream following it and with sweeping views over the valley, it was a pleasant stroll even if it did take a bit of effort to get up in there in the first place. 1,000m above sea level, Andorra la Vella is also Europe's highest capital and there is a slight altitude effect - not anything near the effect of the Uyuni Salt Flats or Lake Titicaca but still, an effect nonetheless.

Surprisingly nice as it was, would it be worth a backpacker's while to spend the money to come and visit Andorra? If you like hiking and mountains then maybe. Otherwise no. Especially if you don't like kids as there are tons of them around here for some reason. But in terms of ticking off a cheeky single on my way to visiting 100 countries? Then absolutely.

Ens veiem després,

Additional photos below
Photos: 15, Displayed: 15


Placa del PoblePlaca del Poble
Placa del Poble

"People's Square" has a great view over Andorra la Vella and its valley.
Avinguda MeritxellAvinguda Meritxell
Avinguda Meritxell

One of Andorra la Vella's main roads.
Pont de ParisPont de Paris
Pont de Paris

Suspension bridge crossing one of the fastest rivers I have ever seen.
The Krypton FactorThe Krypton Factor
The Krypton Factor

This weird building looks like something from Superman's home planet of Krypton.
Placa Princep BenllochPlaca Princep Benlloch
Placa Princep Benlloch

Arguably the very heart of Andorra la Vella.

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