This week’s trip from our home in L’Escala was to Andorra. We went there once before – many, many years ago – and had been, how shall I put it, underwhelmed. From the border and into the capital, Andorra La Vella, is just one long traffic jam; it is almost impossible, not to mention expensive, to park; and when you do finally get out of the car all there really is to see is a single shopping street with one unimpressive shop after the other selling booze, fags and perfume – oh, and elite cars. This time, as the place obviously hadn’t improved much, we didn’t linger in Andorra La Vella but passed on through with a view to finding out what the rest of Andorra had to offer. I suppose neither the size of the population nor the landscape are conducive to building anything other than ribbon developments. There are just two numbered roads in Andorra – the no. 1 from the Spanish border to Andorra La Vella and the no. 2 from Andorra La Vella to the French border. On either side of the road are numerous hotels and rental apartments, small shopping malls and car parks.
We came to a small town called Encamp and were surprised to see a cable car crossing the road. So surprised, in fact that we quickly parked the car and went looking for where we could get on it. I do love a good cable car – closest I ever get to mountaineering! We established that the cable car took 25 minutes to reach the summit, paid our €10 each and off we went. It was a wonderful ride up over one, smaller, peak-ette and on upward. There was a mid-station so the energetic could get off and walk the last part (or the over-ambitious who had started to walk down could give up and take the cable car the rest of the way).
Then on again and up to the top station where there is a ski centre and a cafe with an outdoor terrace with absolutely wonderful views. It must be even more spectacular in the winter covered in snow. We were 2502metres above sea level, the temperature was still 26 degrees, there was quite a stiff breeze but if you went onto the leeward side of the cafe and sat in the shade, it was just perfect. Two bags of chips and a couple of shandies (we did have the car!) – really living.
Also on the cafe terrace at the same time was a large group of British walkers – about 20 of them. I do appreciate that some people are far more committed to hill walking than I am, so I can see that some stout footwear might be useful, but long trekking trousers, fleeces tied around waists, huge sunhats, ruck sacks the size of a small child with straws coming out so they can walk along sucking. What’s that all about? Why do Brits have to look complete idiots just because they are out walking in a foreign country? We have even seen a group of British walkers striding purposefully, in full gear and complete with ski-poles, through the centre of Girona when it was over 30 degrees. My husband always takes great delight when we come across British tourists – he is Norwegian so is fairly unlikely to meet any of his countrymen as there are only 5 million all told. As soon as he spots Brits he says: “Your lot” as if I am personally responsible for the entire 60 million official residents of the United Kingdom (I say official as there is much discussion around what the true figure might be which resulted in the somewhat controversial outcome of the recent referendum).
The trip back down the mountain was equally spectacular, past hill farms, a strange tower with steps up it, little rivulets rushing down to the valley and, as we approached Encamp, the town rushing up to meet us. We were so pleased we had taken the cable car – we could now appreciate that Andorra was more than booze, fags and perfume. Back in the car, we drove on towards France. The ribbon developments continue. One small town was pretty – Canillo – which is apparently popular with Spaniards and has a couple of nice hotels and some good restaurants. Eventually we came to Soldeu which is probably the best known ski destination in Andorra. In summer it felt rather claustrophobic – large hotels on either side of the road meant you couldn’t see the sun. I have since been told it is the resort of choice for young Brits coming to ski and party (in no particular order) who find the layout very convenient as it is easy to skip from one bar to the next and the ski lifts are no more than a stone’s throw behind the hotels. Having said that, the ski centre looked very impressive with several lifts and what looked like some pretty challenging black runs. Probably give that a miss as my skiing skills are limited to some gentle cross-country preferably without anything too taxing such as turning a corner or stopping!
After leaving Soldeu it was getting a bit late so we chickened out of going over Andorra’s highest pass – the Pas de la Casa. The small town lies at over 2000 metres but the road over the mountain to it is windy and I was beginning to get mountained-out. So we took the tunnel and then joined the queue of traffic to cross the border into France. It was a reminder of how Europe used to be to have to go through customs on the way into and out of Andorra. Makes it feel more special somehow instead of just sailing on down the motorway with very little evidence of leaving one country and entering another.
Driving on the French side of the Pyrenees is very different from the Spanish side. It is obviously on the north side of the mountain so even in summer there are parts of the steep valleys that do not get much, if any, sun. The houses of the small towns are, like Andorra, built right by the roadside – there is literally about 2 feet between people’s front door and the traffic driving past. It all feels rather depressing – not somewhere I would want to live. The scenery on the other hand is awe inspiring. Deep ravines, rushing rivers, a couple of spectacular railway bridges – always something to see. The road follows the route of the famous Train Jaune. As we passed through Villefrance de Conflent we spotted the bright yellow carriages of the little train – such a bright yellow they are hard to miss. I think a trip on the train could be another wonderful day out.
On down, and down, and eventually we come to Perpignan where we again decided to forgo the more scenic route through Le Boulou and Le Perthus as it was getting dark, so picked up the motorway for the short stretch to Figueres and back home.
A very interesting day out. Andorra is still not somewhere I would rush back to but it is somewhere we could spend a couple of days either in Encamp or Canillo and explore the countryside a bit more.