Showing posts with label Andorra. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Andorra. Show all posts

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Andorra, SW France and NE Spain, plus Llivia

What a phenomenal day; ten and a half hours, three hundred and fifty kilometres, three and a half countries and absolutely terrific company. Touoring in the Pyrenees is a wonderful pasttime.

In a fine indication of the extraordinary amount there is to do in the South West of France, notably the Languedoc; we decided to drive a circuit that took us high into the Pyrenees before dropping into the Andorran capital of Andorra la Vella, and then returning by driving south into Spain, toward Puigcerda close to the French border. Thence to the rather remarkable Spanish enclave of Llivia before returning through the stunning Gorge de St Georges to Home in Esperaza.

The region never ceases to amaze me with the cornucopia of languages, topography, economies and the presence of simply silly places. Not that Andorra or Llivia are silly in and of themselves, folks in neither roll around laughing helplessly nor engage in silly walks, but neither should really exist in the 21st century, but I am delighted that they both do.

The Pyrenees are an unquestionably thoughtful, and even spiritual place. The region was home for many years to adherents of the Cathar faith, a Christian belief, but one so popular in the early part of the last millennium that the pope (indecently called Pope Innocent) called a crusade. This crusade, the only Christian on Christian such walloping caused the deaths of over two hundred thousand in these parts, and the valleys and villages resonate with ancient memories, and even a still-fomenting belief in their ancient ways.

In any case, the question of reincarnation was a biggie; and assuming (and this is a very long-shot indeed) that after my death the parts of my soul are rearranged into something more than an ocelot or sea-anemone, I would rather fancy being Andorran.

Firstly, one would have the advantage of speaking Catalan officially; one would not be bothered by the European Union and one would live in the most picturesque land in the world; one would also have a great opening gambit at cocktail parties. Balance this against the lack of an airport, the requirement to like mountains, a remarkably large Russian population, and one of those funny economies so loved by dodgy bankers and prone to burst rather spectacularly, and one is left with a pretty good place to live.

Heck, even reasonable football players get to take on the likes of England every so often and play at the Nou Camp in Barcelona.

But I digress. Tourists, and there are plenty of them there, arrive in droves to either ski or shop; in June it is almost all the latter. It is a tax haven, and for a population base of 90,000 offers a eye-watering selection of wrist watches, electrical goods and alcoholic refreshment.

The drive into the principality was easy, but I do remember a few years ago being required to buy tyre-chains before making the long climb up the mountain from Ax les Thermes ... I was fortunate to be travelling with a couple of Icelanders familiar with these wretched devices, and knew how to put them on.

At this time of year, and under a brilliantly sunny sky, the country was simply gorgeous, and although we would have liked to linger for longer, our itinerary forced an onward rush south to the Spanish border.

This is one of the few rather serious land-borders left in Europe; wary of its citizens setting up pipelines of cheap booze and cigarettes (and presumably watches), there is a substantial customs post to navigate before arriving in Spain; actually, Catalonia if one asked an inhabitant, but the point is take.

The southern hills of the Pyrenees offer as wonderful landscapes as their northern cousins, if a touch gentler.  The road to Puigcerda is marvellous, as are most roads in Spain; perfectly cambered, and a delight to drive. Small and ancient villages dot the landscape, horse farms predominate, and as is the case in much of the region, life continues to evolve as it has for eons.

Puigcerda is rather interesting. A major regional market centre of about 9,000 folks, it dominates local commerce; during the Spanish Civil War, it had an elected Anarchist Council, a very peculiar form of government if one thinks it through, and more recently was the birth place of the 2010 World Champion cross-country mountain biker.

This is a lot to ponder over a coffee, amidst a touch of reconstruction and a rather pleasant medieval town centre. But ponder it we did, and came to little conclusion other than is was a rather pleasant place to stop before heading into Llivia.

The next chapter in the day's ride.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Andorra (and Azerbaijan)

Well, Andorra is truly a really rather silly place.

It lies perched high in the Pyrenees, accessible from either France or Spain by a single road that runs through the country, and for much of the year, one needs snow chains to do so. I know of no other sovereign state (although Bhutan perhaps qualifies) that is so remote from its neighbours.

It is not a member of the European Union, although it is a full member of the United Nations; it has 60,000 inhabitants of whom roughly 10,000 are “Andorrans”, the others being guest workers and rich ex-patriate hide-aways. A remarkable amount of Portuguese is spoken, and Sagres, a popular Portuguese beer is readily available on tap.

The three primary industries are money, skiing and duty-free sales; wit prices for many items up to 70% cheaper than in France (a carton of cigarettes in the mountain kingdom €19, compared with about €50 in France, and a bottle of Johnnie Walker will only set you back about €9), it is not hard to see why there are long snakes of cars hauling themselves up the main road into Andorra in the morning, and equally long lines heading back at night. Not to mention the customs traps that the Gendarmerie set up up to thirty kilometres into the country.

It is a great place to shop, my daughters tell me; huge department stores, all the electronic and fashion names that one may want, and apparently well priced. An attraction, no doubt, for the wealthy who choose this odd little cranny to sock away their ill-gotten gains. One hears more Russian spoken that one might expect.

It is, for these poor souls squirreling bazillions of dollars, hard to reach. There is no airport, and as transiting through Barcelona, and thus the European Union might lead to awkward questions, not to mention the reassuring snap of a latex glove, it is not unknown for a helicopter to fly directly from a tycoon’s yacht lying in international waters to the Principality.

All very mysterious; in addition to these types of fiscal shenanigans, skiing is quite obviously the sporting king. This one can tell as soon as one crosses the border from the north. The pass is at about 2000 metres, and within a kilometre lies the most unlovely ski resort one could imagine. Painted in dramatic pinks and apparently built from huge concrete blocks, the “chalets” are simply ghastly. It has to be said that there are one or two well developed ski-towns, but in general, it has been a case of unbridled and unregulated development. Which is a shame, because Andorra itself is extremely beautiful.

One English newspaper reporter described Andorra as “a cross between Shangri-La and Heathrow’s Duty-Free shops”; an observation that is not too far from the truth.

However, we love going up there, and despite the drive, which can be a bit much in one day (we keep saying that we will overnight, and get to experience their wonderful spa, Caldea but we never do), it is well worth it.

This time, however, we had to get back sharpishly to pack. Time and Lufthansa wait for no man, and we were booked to fly to Azerbaijan, and more adventure.

I was there. Briefly, in November, and liked it so much that I wanted to bring my girls back to explore some of Azerbaijan and Georgia, so contacted my friends and colleagues in Baku and Tbilisi, and off we headed.