Why do I choose to write an article about Andorra first? It’s because Andorra is our favourite European microstate that we’ve visited, and it’s not a very well known one. Andorra is a very small country with a total area only 468 km2. To illustrate the size, this is about two third of the total area of Singapore (but with only 1/60 of the populations). Andorra is the 6th smallest sovereign country in Europe after the Vatican City, Monaco, San Marino, Liechtenstein, and Malta (in that order). It is also smaller than the self-governing British territory Gibraltar.
Andorra is located high up in the eastern Pyrenees mountain range between Spain and France. Geographically, the whole surface of Andorra is mountainous, with 65 mountain peaks, a lowest point of 870 m and a highest point of 2946 m. Currently there is no airport or railway in Andorra, so people come to this country by the roads. There is only one road coming to Andorra from Spain and one from France. Most travelers start in Barcelona (Spain) or Toulouse (France), take a road vehicle like coach bus, rental car or private car to Andorra with a driving time of about 3 hours.
Madrid was the last city we visited in Spain, and in that time Toulouse was the cheapest escape. From Toulouse, we took a bus to Andorra la Vella, the capital of Andorra. The distance is only about 190 km, however it took almost 4 hours to reach the destination, because of the winding mountainous road once we entered the Pyrenees mountain range. It was a continuous breathtaking view that we had along the way. Mountains over mountains, valleys over valleys. Snow capped peaks, sheeps, and wild flowers. EverythingÂ was peaceful and enchanting.
Andorra la Vella is a pretty little town that mainly evolved along the main road that connects this town with Spain and France, with only about 23 thousands of people living in it (2004 survey). This town is full with duty free shops, while outside the town you can find plenty of ski lodges. These are the main two attractions of Andorra: beautiful ski hills in the middle of Pyrenees mountain range, combined with duty free shopping due to the country status as a tax haven (no tax). With these, Andorra has about ten millions of visitors every year. We were here during the summer time, June 2009, and the town was emptier than it should be in the winter time when people come for the ski holiday. During the summer time, outdoor activities are mainly hiking and trekking.
Shopping experience in Andorra is quite wild! We found many items that are considered illegal or need registration in other countries. The typical weapon stores here have body armors, police equipments, shields, batons, handcuffs, guns, knives, swords, tasers (Don’t tase me, Bro!), and pepper sprays. The drug stores offer pharmaceuticals drugs with no prescriptions required, Viagra for example. Every grocery store and department store basically has duty free alcohol and cigarettes.
I love the 12th century churches of Andorra. They look typical for this place, but quite different from churches in other places, with their square stone brick bell tower. This particularly one (see picture), the Sant Esteve in Andorra la Vella, is located in a hill side, giving a very beautiful view from behind as pictured.
So, that is Andorra.
While currently most people reach Andorra by flying to Barcelona or Toulouse and then driving or taking bus for 3 hours to Andorra, soon a commercial airport will be opened very close to Andorra’s border. La Seu d’Urgell Airport or Pirineus-Andorra Airport, located only 12 km away from Andorra in Catalan, Spain, is currently only used for private airplanes. Catalan government has purchased this airport and developed it accordingly to make it suitable for commercial flights. The reopening is scheduled for Easter 2010. With this, coming to Andorra will be much easier than now. My opinion though, I will probably still choose to go by land if I have the choice between flight or land-ride. The reason? The breathtaking countryside and Pyrenees mountains, it was irreplaceable.