Europe’s Hidden Places
Andorra and Other Pocket Principalities in the Pyrenees
Story and Photo By Daniel Gabriel
A Pyrenéean mountain valley in northwest Catalonia.
The majestic central Pyrenees offer two pocket principalities that few visitors to Europe have ever seen: Andorra, the only Catalan-speaking nation with a seat in the UN, and Val d’Aran, politically a part of Spanish Catalonia yet separate from Spain both geographically and linguistically. Divided by the Noguera Pallaresa river and an impassable stretch of peaks, the hidden principalities feature the finest skiing in the Pyrenées. In summer, the region is a wonderland of high mountain hikes, with dark stone villages clustered around ancient churches.
Since the 13th century Andorra has been a co-principality, split between the Bishops of Seu d’Urgell in Spain and the Counts of Foix in France. This dual rule has effectively kept either country from gobbling it up over the centuries. Since Andorra is not part of the European Union, it remains tax free.
But my family and I didn’t come to shop. For me it was a chance to relive a memorable previous visit. I spent a month in Andorra with my parents in the early ’50s, at a time when there were only about 6,000 people living inside the principality. While there, my mother slipped in a mountain stream and had a miscarriage. There were no hospitals, so she stayed at the local doctor’s house while she recovered. Dad and I camped in the main square of the capital, which was still a cow pasture, and explored the neighboring villages.
Most of the little villages have since been inundated with stores and ski chalets. So we headed straight up over the highest road pass in the Pyrenées (Port d’Envalira, 7,500 feet), then through stunning scenery down into Ordino in its little side valley and finally up the valley beyond Llorts to a fine hiking trail along a mountain stream. All around us were sun-dappled peaks and the incongruous sight of tobacco fields. (American tobacco companies buy the entire mediocre harvest as a trade-off for selling their own U.S.-grown product in the local shops.)
There are enough mountain hikes to keep you going for weeks, but if you tire of the great outdoors, Ordino offers such attractions as tours of the old Andorran noble houses or the Postal Museum, with an extensive collection of stamps issued by France and Spain for Andorran service (Andorra uses dual postal services).
In the capital, visit the Barri Antic (the tiny old town) and its centerpiece, the Casa de la Vall, which has served as Andorra’s parliament building since 1702. Or drop over to the amazing Caldea spa complex, which looks like a futuristic cathedral. For about 20 euros you have access to an enormous heated lagoon and more saunas, baths, and hydromassages than any place in Europe.
Most of the Pyrenées are divided at the crestline and watersheds between France and Spain, but in 1312 the people of Aran Valley were allowed to choose their allegiance in a public referendum. Their river, the tiny Garona, flows north to France (where it becomes the mighty Garonne), but they chose to ally with Spain. Since there was no reason for either country to bother them, the people went along on their own, even developing their own language, Aranese (which is closer to Occitan or Provençal to the Catalan spoken in this region of Spain).
We stayed in Salardu, perhaps the loveliest of the Aran villages, where we found a family suite in the Pension Aïguamog, a family-run place with a view facing a 13th century Romanesque village churchyard.
Next day we maneuvered our car up a series of switchbacks past the renowned Beret ski area (a favorite of the Spanish royal family) and onto a 7-kilometer dirt road for a visit to the abandoned village of Montgarri.
Hikes into pristine woods and lake-strewn valley bowls lead to a variety of mountain refuges for overnight hikers. The valley is also home to a series of fine Romanesque churches, each with its own unique features.
Getting There: The nearest major airport to Andorra and Aran is several hours to the south, in Barcelona. Another possibility is to fly into Toulouse, France, two or three hours to the north. Flights from Paris to Toulouse depart almost hourly. Unless you come strictly for skiing, it’s probably best to rent a car.
Accommodations: Lodging in Andorra ranges from rustic mountain huts to exquisite paradors. Walkers can sleep for free at any of Andorra’s 26 mountain refuges—which have beds, water, and fireplaces but no cooking facilities. The Sport Activities booklet, available at any Andorran tourist office, lists over 50 walks and a dozen routes for mountain biking. The rooms at Hotel Casamanya in Ordino (fax 011-33-83-84-76) are basic, but they cost less than $30 for a double—with a breakfast buffet included—and the views of town and mountains are superb.
In Andorra’s capital, choices vary from budget (Pensio la Rosa; Tel. 011-33-82-18-10) to blow-out (Hotel Flora, fax 011-33-86-20-85).
In the Val d’Aran, Salardu is centrally located and allows easy day outings to anywhere else in the valley. The village mountain refuge (Xalet Refugi Jul Soler; Tel. 64-50-16) is just above the main road at the east end of town. To reserve rooms at the Pension Aiguamog; Tel. 64-54-96. (All phones in the Aran Valley use the Spanish prefix 973.)
For information on the Andorran ski season, start with Andorra’s Tourist Office (Tel. 82-02-14) or, on the web, visit their Spanish outpost at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In addition to providing practical advice on lodging and transport, the Conselh Generau d’Aran (www.aranweb.com) prints a surprisingly slick series of pamphlets on Aran attractions.
The most useful map of the region is probably the Michelin #443 of Northeast Spain/Catalunya.