Andorra


 

I just returned from a small trip to Andorra. I hadn’t been back in about 15 years (16 maybe?) and it was quite an interesting experience to return after so long, especially because I used to go every year or even several times a year before that hiatus.

But before telling you more about why it was interesting on a personal level, let me tell you a little bit about the country as I understand not many people know about it outside of France and Spain.

Andorra is an independent country that has come to existence in 1278 and despite the fact that it’s is older than most countries in the world it remains relatively unknown, mostly because it has remained extremely isolated until recently and it has stayed out of the way of the main episodes of history throughout the ages.

 

Village of Canillo and its valley in Andorra

The village of Canillo

 

Andorra is a peculiar country in many ways.

As previously mentioned, it was founded in 1278 when a feudal charter between the Bishop of Urgell and the Count of Foix placing Andorra under the suzerainty of both men. This system is still in place nowadays, and while Andorra granted itself a Constitution in 1993, the charter (called Paréage of Andorra) has remained in effect for more than 700 years as its main set of laws.
Nowadays, Andorra is the last remnant of feudalism in Europe. While it is an independent country with its own government, prime minister, and parliament, it is also the vassal of both the Bishop of Urgell and the President of France (when Foix became part of France, the King of France became co-prince of Andorra, and when France became a Republic, that status was transferred to the French President).

The fact that Andorra is a very small country (468 km2 – 181 sq. miles) entirely located in the heart of the eastern part of Pyrénées makes it a very isolated country and it has remained as such until very recently. Even nowadays, it is possibly the only country in the world without an airport. It doesn’t have a railroad system either, nor navigable rivers.

 

Grau Roig valley in Andorra

Grau Roig valley

 

Andorra being so small and isolated, it has basically been forgotten by history. An interesting example is the fact that during World War One it was part of the alliance against Germany but was not included in the Treaty of Versailles and because of that, it technically stayed at war with Germany until 1959. However, no Andorran ever took part in a single fight during that war. Actually, Andorra is one of the most peaceful countries in the world, it hasn’t been involved in a battle for about 700 years (most likely since the signing of the charter in 1278).

During World War Two, while officially neutral, it served as a safe haven for both the French resistance and Jews escaping the Nazis, and the Spanish Republicans hiding from Franco’s troops.

Saying that it has been forgotten by history is a bit unfair though. It has a very rich and interesting history especially because of its unique status of co-principality, but a history that stayed away from the main turmoils of the world.

 

Cows in the Grau Roig in Andorra

Grau Roig valley

 

Everything changed for Andorra in the second half of the 20th Century, when skiing and tourism started to develop in Europe. Andorrans realized that they had an opportunity to develop their country through tourism and this is exactly what they did.

Nowadays, 80% of the GDP comes from tourism that was developed through two main means: skiing and tax free shopping!

Products like alcohol and cigarettes are heavily taxed both in Spain and France, so Andorra started to sell them (as well as other manufactured products) without any sales tax, making them much cheaper than in its neighboring countries. And this really helped putting Andorra on the map for most French and Spaniards.

Also note that Andorra is one of the countries with the highest life expectancy (83 years) and the lowest unemployment rate (about 0%!).
All of these factors have triggered a development that is unheard of in any other country (at least to my knowledge). To give you a better idea, here is the evolution of the numbers of people living in Andorra in the past few decades:

  • 1900 – 5,000 people.
  • 1950 – 6,100
  • 1960 – 7,800
  • 1970 – 18,900
  • 1980 – 33,400
  • 1990 – 52,700
  • 2000 – 65,900
  • 2010 – about 85,000

This boom of population is as impressive as understandable (when you have a thriving economy and your neighbors are struggling) and nowadays there are more foreigners living in Andorra than Andorrans (33% are Andorrans, 23% Spanish, 21% Portuguese, 17% French, 3% North Africans and 3% other, including Britons and Italians).

 

Escaldes-Engordany in Andorra

The town of Escaldes-Engordany, not the most beautiful part of the country. Blame a crazy growth for that.

 

And that brings us back to my personal history with Andorra.

I can’t remember the first time I went. I must have been a toddler. Between the early 70’s and the mid 90’s I went at least twice a year, during the Winter (while I never skied in Andorra, I used to go ski just a couple of miles from it) and other times of the year (usually day or week-end trips to go shopping).

When I was a kid, I remember a country that was pretty odd. The capital, Andorra-la-Vella was the only real city in the country, and even that city had a very rural atmosphere at times when you strayed away from the main avenue. I remember unpaved parking lots, farming fields just a few blocks away. I remember the other towns being just small underdeveloped mountain villages with the exception of Pas de la Case, the bordering town with France, but I will talk about that peculiar place in a later post.

While it didn’t look like a poor country, it still didn’t look like a “normal” country.

Fast forward last week.

I remembered a country with less than 40,000 people and I found a country which now housed double that number. Yes, in the 15 years that I was absent from the country, its population had doubled and it could be felt everywhere.
All of those remote villages are now well connected small towns. Where pastures used to spread all over, now there are dozens and dozens of houses.

 

Most new houses and buildings have this traditional look and feel, even though they're less than a decade old for the most part.

 

However, for the most part, this urban development is not chaotic and seems to be under control. Nature is not too disfigured (except by the many new ski slopes that are as many scars in the forests) and I actually surprised myself thinking that this was now a place where I could live (in a very imaginary kind of way, I know I wouldn’t be able to stand winters there).

So overall, it was a great experience to be back there. I actually discovered a country that I didn’t know that well (partly because I did most of the visiting as a kid and my memories are pretty blurry, partly because the main purpose to go there in more recent years was shopping).
And I’m now glad to be able to introduce it to you (and I will continue to do so over a few posts if you don’t mind).

 

Sant Esteve Church and Place del Poble in Andorra-la-Vella

 

There isn't any food specialty really. Except maybe for ham, just like anywhere else in the Pyrénées?

 

Andorra-la-Vella

 

Andorra-la-Vella sometimes offer an interesting mix of new and old.

 

This spot in Andorra la Vella has been nicely renovated, especially if you consider that it was the busiest intersection and it is now pedestrian. (on the left side you can see the hotel where we stayed).

 

The view from my hotel room

 

If you want more information on the country, Wikipedia, as usual is a priceless source. You can also check out the Andorran Tourism Office‘s official site.

 


About David Billa

David was born and raised in the French South West. After a few years in the US and a few more in Paris, he finally settled down in Japan. He blogs here about his various experiences and travels, with an emphasis on his home country, France.

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