A Journey to Andorra

You might never have heard of the tiny principality of Andorra, sandwiched between Spain and France high in the eastern Pyrenees. Charlemagne gave this country its independence in A.D. 784, and with amused condescension, Napoleon let Andorra keep its autonomy. The principality is now ruled by two co-princes, the president of France and the Spanish archbishop of La Seu d'Urgell.

Less than 464 sq. km (180 sq. miles) in size, Andorra is a storybook land of breathtaking scenery -- cavernous valleys, snowcapped peaks, rugged pastureland, and deep gorges. It's long been popular for summer excursions and, more recently, as a winter ski resort.

Because of its isolation, Andorra retained one of Europe's most insular peasant cultures until as late as 1945. But since the 1950s, tourists have increased from a trickle to a flood -- 12 million every year, in fact. This has wreaked havoc on Andorra's traditional way of life and turned much of the country into one vast shopping center. Andorrans live almost entirely on earnings from tax-free shopping, along with the thriving ski market in the winter months.

Most people make their base in Andorra-la-Vella (in Spanish, Andorra-la-Vieja), or in the adjoining town, Les Escaldes, where there are plenty of shops, bars, and hotels. Shuttles run between the towns, but most shoppers prefer to walk. Many of the major hotels and restaurants line the main street of Andorra-la-Vella (Av. Meritxell) or the main street of Les Escaldes (Av. Carlemany).

But unless you've come just to shop, you'll want to leave the capital for a look at this tiny principality. Two nearby villages, La Massana and Ordino, can be visited by car or by bus (leaving about every 30 min. from the station in Andorra-la-Vella). Buses cross the country from south to north and vice versa. The drive to Andorra takes you through some of the finest mountain scenery in Europe, with a backdrop of peaks, vineyards, and rushing brooks. From Barcelona, drive via Puigcerdà to La Seu d'Urgell. From here on the C-145, it's a quick 10km (6 miles) to the border of this principality, one of the world's smallest countries.

Although no one ever accused the Pyrenees of being more dramatic than the Alps, they are, in fact, far more rugged. The climate of dry air is brisk in winter, and some of Europe's best skiing can be found here. Abundant snow usually lasts from November to April. Pas de la Casa-Grau Roig is the oldest resort, located just within the French border. Along with a slalom course, it has 18 trails for advanced skiers, some tame slopes for neophytes, and 25 lifts. The largest complex is Soldeu-El Tarter, with 28 slopes, 22 ski lifts, and a 12km (7 1/2-mile) cross-country course. The resort of Pals features 20 trails, 14 lifts, and a forest slalom course. Arinsal offers 25 slopes serving both the experienced skier and the beginner. But the most beautiful and dramatic resort of all is Ordino Arcalis, with 11 lifts and 16 slopes. Many British visitors flock here in winter, as Andorran ski packages are, in general, far more reasonable than those offered in Switzerland or Austria.

Warning: Border guards check very carefully for undeclared goods.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.