The Principality of Andorra is a landlocked microstate located in the Pyrenees mountain range. With only 85,000 inhabitants, only one third of which are residents, this is one of the smallest countries in the world. Its political system is a peculiar co-headed model with shared powers between the Bishop of La Seu d’Urgell and the French President, officially turning him into a Prince.
Andorra originated in the 10th century and has since been an independent country with strong ties to Spain, Portugal and France.
When we were kids, this was a popular weekend roadtrip. At only a couple of hours from Barcelona it made for a refreshing getaway between nature and mountains and it was a place where we could buy goods that were not yet available in 80s and 90s Spain, just out of a 40 year dictatorship. I am talking about Nutella and other non-essential items which were widely available in France and hence Andorra.
But this is not the only reason why Andorra was, and still is, a very appealing destination. Its duty-free and tax haven status made it the perfect destination for wealthy Spaniards looking to hide away their hard earned cash. Most people would drive their cars for the weekend or even just for the day and come back home with groceries at a significantly cheaper price which more than compensated for the cost of the trip.
Today, Andorra is an underrated destination beyond the Spanish and French borders. It receives over 10 million visitors mostly coming from these two countries but it is largely unknown to the rest of the European Union. Previously accepting Spanish Pessetas and French Francs Andorra uses the euro as a de facto currency. Although it is not part of the EU it enjoys a special relationship, reason why its tax haven condition has been eroded over the years as a result of mounting pressure.
For such a small country, it packs in a lot of interesting sights and activities and it is an year-round destination with beautiful trekking and nature in the summer and unlimited snow in the winter. Here is why you should visit Andorra for your next vacation.
Drawing in from its historical lack of VAT Andorra used to be a shopping paradise. Designer shops were all available, even when they were still not present in the Spanish market making it a great destination for Christmas shopping. Large hypermarkets line the road out of the country and into Spain and were always busy with visitors doing their grocery shopping. This was the reason why most people went to Andorra for shopping.
If you make it into town, stop by the Pyrenees department store where you can find all the major brands. The downtown area is filled with the latest in fashion and jewelry all within a few steps from each other.
Apart from groceries and apparel, Andorra used to produce tobacco and this was one of the items visitors would stock up on.
2. Caldea Spa Complex
Caldea is a large natural spring complex with various indoor and outdoor swimming pools, jacuzzis and hydrotherapy sections. You can enjoy a massage, visit the Turkish baths or simply relax after a long day of shopping or exercise at its many trails or ski resorts. The complex is in town and provides great views over the city and the valley. You can buy a 3h pass, a day pass or a multi-day pass and several hotels have packages including access.
Don’t let the flashiness of the place deter you, the thermal properties and natural springs are real.
3. Winter sports
The country lies at an average of 2,000 meters above sea level reaching 3,000 at its highest point.
Being so mountainous, winter sport opportunities abound. You can take the ski raquettes, a dog sledge, snowboardor simply ski. Because of its moderate elevation it is a popular destination for those looking to learn the sport. About 10 years ago, two of the main resorts in the country merged to create Gran Valira, one of the largest ski resorts in the world with 118 slopes.
In total, there are 110 lifts able to carry 156,000 skiers per hour down the 303 km of runs.
4. Romanesque architecture
Romanesque art and architecture is part of Andorra’s past. Over 40 churches dating back to Medieval times can be explored on a simple roadtrip around the country. Andorra’s tradition and heritage is very present today and with such a small size, these can be visited following a marked trail. For more details, the tourism board of Andorra has some interesting routes you can take self-driving with lots of details on the best churches.
5. Rustic mountain food
On every trip to Andorra we would stop at a “borda” for lunch. Bordas are old mountain barns cum restaurants and architectural masterpieces common of the Northern part of Catalunya and Andorra where winters are cold and the thick stone walls help protect from the snow and wind. In a borda you can expect meat based meals following traditional recipes and filling portions. Food is prepared usually in an open fire and grilled meats are served with a generouns amount of vegetables and garlic allioli. You can expect other delicacies such as stews or garlic snails “a la llauna” cooked in a tin tray in the oven which my father always used to order. Get the recipe here.
In the summer the country offers an unlimited amount of trekking trails, mountain scenery and lakes some of which are easily accessible.
When the coastal parts of Barcelona become too hot to handle, the Pyrenees are the perfect getaway to the higher and cooler mountains. We used to spend the summers near Andorra, in the Catalan side of the Pyrenees and would take the occasional trip to the Principality to shop. Borders, then and now, were an artificial construct and aside from the routine car check in search of cash stacks hidden away in the car or large amounts of goods above the duty free allowances the arrival and departure is relatively painless. The green pastures with sheep and cows and the beautiful valley are a great escape from urban stress and suffocating heat.
7. Igloo hotel
Andorra, also has its own ice hotel. Built every year entirely from snow it can acommodate up to 30 guests in 5 rooms. You are sleeping at 0 degree temperature so bring warm clothes. The hotel provides sleeping bags but I can’t imagine anyone would want to change into their pyjamas at any point.
Photos courtesy of Andorra’s Tourism site, Caldea, Pynreenes and Grandvalira.com
Have you been to Andorra? What did you think?