Hidden high in the Pyrenees Mountains, tucked between its massive neighbours France and Spain, the tiny nation of Andorra had remained quietly out of view of almost everyone for nearly 1,200 years before the arrival of ski-tourism.
Capitalising on the country’s soaring summits, since the 1950s Andorra’s been evolving into one of Europe’s most popular ski destinations, bringing it out of obscurity and into the limelight.
To say tourism has been a game-changer in Andorra is a vast understatement. Prior to the 1950s, Andorra’s population was a mere 6,000 consisting of mainly rural farmers. And while farming and livestock still exist, they make up just 1% of its economy today, with Andorra’s 11 million visitors per year accounting for 80% of its GDP, helping to give it one of the highest standards of living and longest life expectancies in the world.
Due to its unique and complex history, Andorra also has “royalty” – in this case by historic decree.
It is the only country with two equal-standing, foreign elected monarchs: the Bishop of Urgell and the President of France (uniquely, this makes the President of France the only elected “monarch” in the world, albeit elected by the French people, not the Andorrans). Until
1993, the token annual tribute paid by Andorra to its vice-monarch, the
Bishop of Urgell, included cheese, meat and live chickens.
LAY OF THE LAND
Like its fellow European principalities (Liechtenstein and Monaco) Andorra isn’t an EU member, although it does use the Euro currency. It’s official language is Catalan, which it shares with the people of neighbouring Catalonia along the Spanish border. Andorra also hides a side that most day-trippers fail to discover, from ancient mountain villages, to summer hiking routes through the high Pyrenees, to the unique Catalan culture that defines the country.
Despite tourism development, Andorra still remains largely untouched due to its rugged terrain. There’s just one main highway connecting Andorra la Vella (Europe’s highest capital city at 1,028m), while outlying villages and valleys are reachable only by winding mountain roads.
GREEN SEASON ANDORRA
Despite its small size at just 468sq.km., Andorra has more than 60 summits over 2,000m. Outside of the main ski areas, like Grandvalira and Vallnord, this has kept large tracts of Andorra rural, traditional and best explored on foot along hiking trails.
There are dozens of hiking routes through the mountains, including the GR1 (part of the famous trans-European Grandé Randonnée network) connecting Andorra, France and Spain via a 5-day walking circuit starting and ending at the mountain village of El Serrat (1,520m), near the popular Ordino ski area. The route is serviced by mountain huts for each night’s halt, zig-zagging across the borders, and topping out on Day 3 along the upper slopes of Port de Baiau at over 2,700m.
Pic de Coma Pedrosa
Another popular and challenging hike is Andorra’s highest peak – the pyramid-shaped Pic de Coma Pedrosa (2,942m) – straddling the French and Spanish borders near the GR1 which runs up the adjacent
Estany Negre (2,627m). Much of the mountain lies within Valls del Comapedrosa Nature Park, insuring minimal human impact, making it home to a wide range native fauna including 77% of all species found in Andorra, such as eagles, the occasional bear and the rare Pyrenean chamois. Setting out from the village of Arinsal (1,500m), Coma Pedrosa can be climbed FIT, or via guided tours in 4-5 hours. Above 2,200m, the terrain transitions from pine forests dotted with numerous alpine lakes – including Estany de les Truites (or “Trout Lake”) and Estany Negre (or “Black Lake”) – into a scree scramble above 2,700m up to the summit.
WINTER IN ANDORRA
Andorra’s Grandvalira is southern Europe’s largest ski area that includes 118 skiable slopes, and 210km of piste. With lift access up to 2,640m, there’s nearly 1,000m of vertical drop, which ensures a consistent snowfall on the
upper slopes. Since opening in 2003, Grandvalira’s €93 million upgrading includes 3 freestyle areas, 6 ski and snowboard centres, 64 lifts and 3 World Cup slopes, 40 restaurants and wifi coverage across the entire resort, plus
live HD webcams covering the slopes. Other activity options include snowmobile, snowshoe, skijoring (skiers pulled by sled dogs), and moonlight dogsled rides. Uniquely, Grandvalira also boasts southern Europe’s only Igloo Hotel (2,350m), with access via CAT or ski-in, ski-out.
Ideal for couples, it’s privately remote but not isolated as there’s also a bar and jacuzzi serving the cluster of guest-igloos up on the mountain. Situated in eastern Andorra, at just 190 km (2.5 hours) from Barcelona, it’s also possible as a day trip from the coast.
While it’s missed by most day-trippers, Andorra’s culture, history, and festivals – especially in summer – are a major attraction for visitors who take the time to discover them.
For centuries, religion has had a huge influence on Andorran culture, and almost every village no matter how small has a historic, old church. Some great examples among the nearly 30 gazetted, historic churches in Andorra include the 11th century Església de Sant Martí de Nagol in the far south, the 9th century Església de Santa Coloma just outside Andorra la Vella, and the 11th century Església de Sant Esteve within the capital itself. These are
generally dedicated to particular saints, and burst into life on their respective feast days throughout the summer.
The Feast of Sant Jordi is one of Andorra’s (and neighbouring Catalonia’s) most important festivals, alongside the Feast of our Lady of Meritxell, held on Andorra’s National Day (8 September), celebrating the country’s patron saint. There are also designated Parish Festival days in each of Andorra’s 6 administrative parishes, happening throughout July and August each
Similar to the lowland Catalonian cuisine found in Barcelona, Andorran meals are heartier and generally begin with toasted bread, rubbed in garlic, tomato and salt. Steamed or stewed cargol (snails) are also extremely popular, as well as mountain trout, or anchovy and cod brought up from
the Mediterranean. These along with various stews, soups and roast meats are also prominently on offer at any Andorran festa.
Due to Andorra’s mountainous nature, there are only 2 widely-used
entries into the country by road: via France (N20) and Spain (highway
N-145). The easiest access is via Barcelona (Spain), which is about 3 hours’ drive away. For more on Andorra, see visitandorra.com.