An alpine nation wedged between France and Spain, Andorra is one of the smallest countries in Europe. Haven’t heard about this tiny principality? That doesn’t bother Andorrans so much. Nestled high up in the Pyrenees Mountains, geography has shaped Andorran mentality. The country remained separate from the rest of the world for quite some time in an effort to protect itself from potential outside threats. It isn’t still a member of the European Union and isn’t too eager to join.
Despite its isolationist exterior, Andorra hosts more than 10 million visitors per year. This is a high number considering that it isn’t the most accessible travel destination. There are no airports and the only way in is to enter via mountain passes from Spain or France. Perhaps it continues to draw an increasing number of tourists because its unique cultural, natural and fiscal attributes. Here are my top five ways to experience Andorra.
1) Natural Splendour
Snow capped mountains, deep lush valleys and pristine natural beauty are undeniably among Andorra’s most impressive attractions. It is home to wildlife including bears, wolves, and other species rare in other parts of Europe. Although small at only 458 km², 90% of Andorra is forest leaving much of it well preserved and undisturbed. One can find themself alone in the wilderness. This calm feeling is a sought after luxury for tourists from bustling cities in neighbouring France or Spain.
Outdoor sports are an important part of life. In the summer, Andorrans and tourists flock to the mountains to walk, hike and cycle along trails carved into the forest. Andorra’s forests are also a prominent destination for motocross and hosts international competitions in the sport. The winter season is spent at one of world-class ski resorts at Grandvalira and Vallnord. Skiers and snowboarders of any level can practice with 300 kilometres of slopes available. There is even a tourism website dedicated entirely to skiing in Andorra.
2) Fiscal Paradise
Andorra is arguably most famous for its status as a fiscal paradise. Low taxes and non-existent income tax attract wealthy foreigners to deposit large sums of money into Andorran financial institutions. This practice, along with tourism, has made Andorra into quite a prosperous nation. However, the government is in the process of reforming its tax regime after a request from the European Union.
Along with its tax haven label, shopping in Andorra is like being in a giant airport: every thing is duty free. This leads many French and Spanish shoppers to cross the border for a daylong visit to take advantage of lower prices. From cosmetics to alcohol, any item is available for sale in one of more than 1,000 stores open 361 days per year. They only close for Christmas and New Years day as well as the two national holidays: Constitution Day on March 14 and Our Lady of Meritxell Day on September 8th in honour of the principality’s patron saint.
My first stop on my shopping adventures was in Pas de la Casa, just across the French border. I bought a brand new wool sweater for $15 and makeup for $25 in two of the immense outlet stores. For deals on cosmetics, Júlia Perfumeria is a good choice with most major international brands. Better yet, it is a local institution founded and headquartered in Andorra.
Keep in mind: Andorra may be duty-free, but France and Spain have limits on imports. Since it is impossible to reach Andorra without first arriving in France or Spain, it’s best to declare all purchases at the border. It isn’t uncommon to see anguished travellers who have been caught by customs trying to sneak more products than allowed, and who face a stiff fine.
3) Cooking Andorran style
Andorra doesn’t have an independent culinary tradition per se and most recipes are rooted in Catalan cuisine from the Catalonia. Fresh vegetables, olive oil, cheese and pork are key ingredients in regional cooking similar to other Mediterranean nations. However, that doesn’t mean that there is a lack of local cuisine to try.
Perhaps the most famous specialty is Turrón, a dessert similar to nougat. It is a cooked mixture of honey, egg whites and almonds resulting in a creamy sweet dessert. Although traditionally eaten at Christmas time, it is a must try during any season as it is difficult to find outside Andorra and Spain. I admit to buying a few boxes as souvenirs only to devour them before leaving. It is that addicting!
My personal favourite part of Andorran cuisine is the ambiance. There are open-air cafés, bars and restaurants serving up local and international flavours all over the country. The prices are decent and the food is good. All-you-can-eat buffets are marketed towards tourists for low prices, but they lack the Andorran charm.
What is the best place to eat like locals? Picnicking in front of stunning mountain vistas. There are nice spots to eat along the roads so it’s a good idea to stop wherever you find a lovely viewpoint that’s not too crowded. So pack a meal and see where your wandering feet lead you.
4) Early Beginnings, Modern Façade
Andorra is a peculiar state. It has existed in its form for over 1000 years and is the only nation in the world to have two heads of state. Remnants of its ancient past still exist with medieval era edifices remaining intact. One of the most famous is the Church of Sant Serni de Nagol in Saint Julià de Lòria dating from the 11th century. However, almost every village has their own ancient ruins to discover.
The contradiction between urban and rural can be surprising. Small winding roads lead to old mountain villages that preserve old Andorran lifestyle. Farmers tend livestock like cows, sheep, and goats for milk, cheese and meat. Buildings are rather small constructed with a particular brown stone. It seems a world away from the vibrant capital of Andorra la Vella with its modern metal and concrete buildings.
5) Speaking Catalan
The Catalan language is central in Andorran national identity. It is the only independent country on the planet with Catalan as its official language. Despite its widespread usage in Catalonia in Spain and the Pyrenees-Orientales in the southwestern corner of France, Catalan has been the target of bans on both sides of the border and it’s incredible that it has managed to survive until modern times.
Many Andorrans also speak Spanish, French or Portuguese. Limited English is spoken except in very touristic areas. This is quite logical as most tourists and immigrants come from Spain, Portugal, France or Italy. Although most Andorrans speak 2 or 3 languages, they are happy to hear tourists use a few words of their native tongue. Here are some key phrases to help you along in your Andorran adventures.
Hello – Hola
How are you? – Com estás?
My name is… – El meu nom és…
Do you speak English? – Parles anglès?
I don’t speak Catalan – Jo no parlo català.
I am Canadian – Sóc Canadenca…
Where is the Turrón? – On és el Torró?
There is something for every kind of traveler to enjoy whether sports addicts, foodies, shoppers, nature lovers and high fliers. Thanks to its rich history, culture and stunning views (not to mention tax haven status), Andorra is the beating heart of the Pyrenees mountains and certainly worth a visit.