By Susan McKee
The Spanish customs official took one look at my rental car with its Spanish license plates, and motioned me into the “search” lane. I was driving from Andorra’s southern border back into Spain and — since the microstate isn’t part of the Schengen Agreement — there are formalities at the border.He was visibly disappointed when he looked in my empty trunk. “No alcohol? No cigarettes?”
“No, señor.” There wasn’t even a suitcase, since I was staying in Catalonia.
In fact I didn’t buy much more than a coffee mug and a couple of postcards.Not that I couldn’t have bought more: Andorra is a discount shopping paradise. Americans such as myself are restricted to one suitcase and one carry-on flying across the pond and back. We aren’t likely to be hauling much out of the country.
Europeans, however, were buying cigarettes and liquor and food and jewelry and prescription drugs and clothing and sporting goods and eyeglasses and flowers and, yes, kitschy souvenirs such as my mug.
This is the place to come with an empty suitcase and buy the latest styles for the coming season.
Stores are everywhere in the microstate: there are more than 1,200 retailers in 22 designated shopping areas in this country of only 181 square miles (for comparison, the City of Los Angeles covers 469 square miles).As the crow flies, Andorra is less than 19 miles from east to west, and about 16 miles from north to south.
I was doing Andorra as a day-trip from Girona, Spain, so I didn’t spend much time in the stores. I did hit some of the highlights as I breezed through the country on the main road running north to south – somewhat more than 16 miles given that it has to traverse mountains and valleys on its way.
The Tourist Information office in El Pas de la Casa – the first town I encountered – was surprisingly interesting because of its photography
exhibit on the second floor outlining the early history of the country’s ski industry. The end of World War II brought a tourism boom with serious investment in resorts and amenities. Snow sports and hiking are Andorra’s main draws (aside from shopping).
Grandvalira is Andorra’s biggest ski region. It includes the resorts of Soldeu el Tarter, Pas de la Casa/GrauRoig, Encamp and Canillo.Vallnord, the other big ski region, combines the resorts of Pal, Arinsal and Arcalis. I was there in September, however: no snow except on the tallest peaks.
Our Lady of Meritxell
Our Lady of Meritxell is the patron saint of Andorra, so my next stop was the Meritxell Chapel. The story involves a statue of Mary.
The legend goes something like this: On a January day in the late 12th century, villagers in Meritxell on their way to Mass found a wild rose bush in full bloom (needless to say, winter is not the season for roses). On the ground at its base was a statue of the Virgin and Child.
The congregants took the statue to the Canillo church – but the next day, it was found again under the same wild rose. This time, they took it to the church in Encamp. The next morning? It was back under the rose bush.
Obviously, there was nothing to be done but build a chapel in Meritxell to house the statue.
The legend has such “legs” in the country that Our Lady of Meritxell is the patron saint of Andorra, and is mentioned in “El Gran Carlemany”, the country’s national anthem. Her feast day is September 8, not coincidentally the National Day of Andorra.
The original statue was destroyed when a fire leveled that chapel in the early 1970s, so it’s a replica I found in the new building, a very Mid-Century Modern chapel designed in 1976 by Ricardo Bofill, an architect in Barcelona.
I drove into Andorra via France, which, in an earlier incarnation, was responsible for the country’s creation. The microstate is the last independent survivor of the Marca Hispanica — the buffer states created by the Frankish king Charlemagne in the 8th century to separate the Roman Catholic territories of the Franks from the Muslim territories of the Iberian Peninsula.
During World War II, the country was officially neutral, and its steeply mountainous terrain became a well-used smuggling route between France and Spain.
Today Andorra is a ski destination (primarily for Europeans), with more than 125 miles of ski slopes ranging from little more than a mile in length to a mile and a half each. After a day spent on the slopes (the season usually extends into April) or hiking in warmer weather amongst peaks topping 9,000 feet, spas, saunas and steam rooms refresh sore muscles.
Andorra has been a parliamentary democracy since 1993, although retaining French and Spanish co-princes. (The two rulers arewhoever is the current Bishop of Urgell – a Catalan region of Spain — and the President of France.) In 1993 it became a member of the United Nations and the Council of Europe.
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Susan McKee is an independent scholar and award-winning freelance journalist specializing in history, culture and travel. She travels widely and to amazing places–including Armenia, Chad, Finland, Mongolia, and Antarctica. A member of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) and the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA), she lives in Indianapolis, Indiana.