Andorra – Tiny Pyrenees Principality

Trip Start May 12, 2010
Trip End May 28, 2010

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Flag of Andorra  ,
Monday, May 17, 2010

We entered Andorra yesterday afternoon and promptly pointed our coach up a narrow, winding mountain gorge along a rushing stream, swollen with spring runoff. Eight kilometers later, we'd crossed back into Spain and arrived in the diminutive Spanish village of Os de Civis. Here we enjoyed one of those memorable, never-ending, rural meals, complete with a generous flow of wine and the pleasure of the good company of fellow WAI travelers and Erika, our guide for the Andorra portion of the Adventure.

Located in the heart of the Pyrenees, where finding a flat parcel of land larger than a postage stamp is a rare occurrence, Andorra is about the size of an average county in the USA. In the Middle Ages, the region had been a source of land-hungry conflict between the French and a neighboring Catalonian duchy. The ultimate solution involved a dual monarchy represented by both parties.

Though the position of head of State is still shared by both parties, for practical purposes, Andorra is an independent democracy. Its position relative to the European Union is another of the ambiguities that seem to surround Andorra. Not officially a member of the EU, it still participates in many of EU programs, particularly in the area of agriculture.

Generally impoverished prior to the mid-20th century, a chief source of income was smuggling between Spain and France. When enterprising Andorrans realized that weather and terrain of the homeland is conducive to skiing, the resulting rush of building yielded ski lifts and resort hotels, and a steady flow of new cash. Favorable tax regulations (or lack thereof) and banking safe-havens, have drawn a plethora of banking concerns and casinos, helping further to pull the population into a new position of prosperity.

One of the questions I generally ponder when traveling in a new region is "who are these people"? In this case, we learned that Andorrans share a common heritage, language, and ethnicity with Catalonia, with strong influences from the French side of the border as well. School is taught tri-lingually – children learn Catalan, the official language, Spanish (Castilian), and French. Erika’s four-year-old son was already fluent in four languages, adding her native German to the three languages commonly spoken in Andorra. 
This morning, Erika met us again at the hotel, and we began our exploration of this delightful, enigmatic little land. Our day included a trio of walks – the first followed an old iron trail along this side of a valley flush with spring wildflowers. The whole of the Iberian peninsula has endured a cold, wet spring (a mixed blessing for a region often plagued by water shortages), and Erika told us that a week ago, the trail we walked had been covered in several inches of snow. Our trail had been used in centuries past to transport iron ore from mines further up the valley, to the smelters in the villages below.
Lunch was planned at a mountain inn in the neighboring valley, starting point of part 2 of our walk. We are still adjusting to Spanish/Andorran time tables so the restaurant was not yet serving lunch. While they worked on our sandwich orders, we took a walk through the forest with Erika, then returned for a simple lunch before trekking a delightful, easy trail across a mountainside with stunning panoramas over the craggy mountains and plunging valleys of Andorra.

The bus met us on the other side of the trail and took us to visit Sanctuary of Meritxell, a medieval church that achieved status as a national monument before tragically burning down in 1972. Andorrans rallied to support a new structure next to the restored medieval church, and the result is a stunning modernist architectural celebration of stone arches and reflecting glass.

Last stop for the day was one of the many Romanesque churches that grace the villages of the Pyrenees. Erika hopped off the bus to gain access from the parish priest and returned with a ring of huge metal keys that looked like they’d been forged hundreds of years ago from iron dug from the trail we walked this morning.

It was cold inside the church – thick stone walls rejecting any of the warmth of the early spring sun, and as we sat in the simple wooden benches, Erika explained that Romanesque refers to an architectural style linked to a specific period – 10th to 12th century. These little churches sit picturesquely at the center of most Pyrenees villages, sometimes still in use, always an alluring combination of majesty and cozy.

Our day ended with a sumptuous buffet in the hotel, where in this “shoulder season” between skiing and summer hiking, we were the only guests in the hotel!

Dan Friesen
Walking Adventures International 
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