Andorra a wonderfully strange country high in the Pyrenees

Andorra is truly a really rather silly place.


View of Andorra
View of Andorra

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.