Wanderung 14

The Plane to Spain replaced by the Bounding Main!

April-May 2007

Day 19: Friday May 4 2007, Drive through Andorra

Noon Position: 42 degrees 30.045' N latitude, 001 degrees 30.575' E longitude, Altitude 3,244 feet (Andorra La Vella, Andorra)


This was our day to see the Principality of Andorra, so after a good night's sleep and a very leisurely breakfast (included with our hotel room), I worked the car out of its underground garage giving thanks to the Powers That Be that I had a small Ford Focus and nothing larger. In fact, if anything I would have preferred a smaller car in Spain, which is the same feeling I have had previously when driving in Europe.

Leaving town, we headed 10 kilometers North to Andorra. Andorra is basically a long, narrow valley sandwiched between the steep, craggy sides of the Pyrenees with France to the North and Spain to the South. Although it was intermittently spitting rain at us as we drove in, the mountains in Andorra seemed a bit more arid than the ranges further South in Spain. The light yellowish green leaves and occasional spring flowers like wild poppies alongside the road were a sign that the spring season had just arrived in Andorra at the time we visited.

Andorra was clearly experiencing a building boom. Construction cranes, cement trucks, and lane closures all testified to the new buildings going up everywhere there was still a flat surface to build on. In some cases, they were clearly carving away the sides of a mountain to get a flat space to build, and in one case that left a house perched rather precariously on the remaining pinnacle of rock. If I were that homeowner, I would have objected to suddenly having the fence line of my yard suddenly transformed into a cliff with a 100-foot drop off! I would imagine the owner would have to be super-careful of dogs and grandchildren to avoid losing them.

We had intended to drive all the way through Andorra to the French border, but as we approached the French side the road rose to an altitude of over 5,000 feet. As we continued to drive up the valley the temperature dropped down to 2 degrees Celsius and the rain turned into sleet with snow. The GPS unit with the topographical contour lines in it showed me that the road ahead climbed a series of switchbacks for another 1,000 feet or so before traveling along a ridgeline toward the French border. I simply didn't fancy driving mountain switchbacks in the ice and snow, so I simply executed a "180-degree turn" and drove back in the direction of Spain.


Since we were only 10 kilometers from the border with Andorra, we were curious what that little principality in the Pyrenees looked like. Frommer's had warned us not to expect too much, and they were right. Since there is no tax in Andorra it is a shopping paradise. Right across the border were two enormous shopping centers. We forged on however and soon saw the "town". There are supposed to be three towns, with Andorra la Valla the capital in the middle. But as far as I could tell it was one continuous group of hotels, apartments, and shops clustered around the river and into the mountains. We drove on the by-pass which had a bus lane that alternated from being in the middle to being on the right. Very confusing!

Finally after 10 kilometers the city seemed to end because there was just no longer much room to build although we still saw construction in the mountains. The road went steadily uphill, the temperature dropped, and it had started to rain. We decided, enough of Andorra; driving in freezing rain in the mountains is not our idea of fun. So we turned around.


Since the middle of Andorra is basically wall-to-wall city, it was difficult to find a parking space but finally we found a pay space and I eased our car into it. We went for a walk and found the main government buildings housing many different bureaucratic functions, but neither hide nor hair of a Post Office, which is the main thing we were trying to find. I had thought it would be neat to mail postcards from Andorra and maybe they would even have special Andorran stamps, but that was not to be. We did find a row of about 5 motorcycle dealerships and 9 motorcycle accessories shops, which is the largest concentration of those shops I have ever seen in one place. In fact, there are more motorcycle and automobile dealerships in Andorra than can be possibly used by the native population, so I strongly suspect that folks come in from Spain and France to buy vehicles because there seemed to be no Value Added Taxes nor Luxury Taxes in Andorra.

Just up the hill from the row of vehicle shops we found a similar run of at least 7 or 8 electronics shops. In fact, the central cities of Andorra seem to have all grown together into one huge outdoor shopping mall that Monika figured was about 10 kilometers long. The cities are hemmed in by the mountains and so they are not very wide, but that is still a huge number of people to be living in an area so small. The terrain is so mountainous that we saw exactly 1 small tillable field in the entire valley, and I just had to wonder what in the world supported the livelihoods of so many people. It wasn't agriculture and it wasn't industry, so I guess the entire population is supported directly or indirectly by the retail sales trade.

While walking along we would every once in a while see some sign of the "Old Andorra" peeking through all the new construction, and that was refreshing. I saw an old church and a couple of old houses with very nice designs on their sides. One thing that was completely missing was any greenery or open space like parks or plazas in the cities, which gave them an unrelieved cramped and congested feeling, especially when compared to the beautiful open cities in Spain that we had just visited. Even though we were there in an off season, the traffic was bad and there were a special cadre of Andorran traffic police working to keep traffic flowing at key intersections. I suspect that without those police the entire city would freeze up into a massive gridlock.

Walking along window shopping would have been fun except that the car exhaust fumes made me feel a bit queasy. I did find a brand new 200cc Piaggio (Vespa) scooter for 2,195 Euro; it was a special sale price and seemed like a nice 1-person scooter. The more substantial 2-person model (400cc I think) was quite a bit more, however, over 4,195 Euros. That's the one that Monika and I really needed, but I had already rented the car for this trip and we had way too much luggage leftover from the cruise to take a scooter trip. Reluctantly I gave up the idea of buying a scooter, riding it around Spain, and then shipping it home with us or maybe stashing it somewhere in Germany for use in the future. (However sad that made me, I expect that decision made my eldest son happy and his wife even happier!)


After a few kilometers I again had problems at a roundabout and we started to head towards the "Centre de Ville"--they didn't say which one. Turning around was impossible, so we kept going through one way streets, around roundabouts and across bridges. When I checked the GPS I was surprised to see that we were still going in the right direction. We finally found a parking space, to at least see something of the city. We headed back up the road we had driven and saw at least 10 motorcycle supply and clothing stores. It seems, they group the stores by category. On the way back we saw 8 or so electronics stores. We finally decided we were in the middle of Andorra de Ville when we hit a government building. We turned around and went back past an old church, a house from the old area, several hotels, and the aforementioned electronics stores.


As we drove back toward Spain, we stopped off at a camping store where we found a nice backpack in a child's size, and some "Commercial Centers" that were large discount stores with free parking (!) sandwiched between the main road and the river running down the valley. Food prices seemed reasonable and we stocked up on necessities like Toblerone dark chocolate (2.85 Euro for 400 gram size), Haribo licorice candy, butter biscuits, wine and soda. From that shopping list you can tell how healthy we eat! Digital cameras were heavily advertised and we looked for a replacement for Monika's Kodak V-610 but didn't find it at all. In general, the prices seemed slightly higher than we could find at discount stores or at Amazon.com in the U.S. when we converted the Euro prices to dollars using the 1.35 dollars-to-Euros exchange rate.

Stopping only to have our luggage searched by Spanish Customs, we returned to La Seu d' Urgell, squeezed the car back into its dungeon parking space, and walked back to the hotel to rest for the afternoon. We both finished updating our journals, checked our email, and Monika planned our route for the next day. That gave us also a chance to read a bit and really relax in the evening.


We climbed in the car and stopped at an outdoor store. The clothing was not especially cheap. But they had the cutest little child backpack. Of course, we had to buy it for Annalise. We stopped at the big shopping centers to look for cameras. They did not have the one we lost and the prices weren't really all that good. We did, however, buy some chocolate, wine, and a nice wallet for me. So I immediately transferred money and used it when we went into the next store. Coming out I set off the alarm, since I hadn't taken out the alarm sensor. Oh well, live and learn.

At the crossing into Spain every car had to stop and open the trunk. We still had our luggage in the trunk and they made Bob open the suitcase. Of course we didn't have cigarettes or alcohol, except for a bottle of wine for me, so they let us go. As for Andorra, it definitely is a "do once". The scenery is breathtaking but marred by the large built up city. Traffic is awful and we were there on a light traffic day. After we got back to La Seur d' Urgell, we rested. We then walked around a bit, enjoying the tranquil atmosphere of this pleasant little town and then turned in.


Copyright 2007 by R. W. Holt and E. M. Holt
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