The Complete Guide To: Andorra

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It's tiny, sandwiched between France and Spain, and its football team come to Wembley this week. But this miniature gem should never be underestimated

HEIGHT OF SUCCESS?

For this strange geopolitical anomaly, squeezed in the high Pyrenees between France and Spain, success is unlikely on the football field; Andorra's entire population of about 85,000 would not even fill Wembley Stadium, where the national team play England in a World Cup qualifier on Wednesday. The plucky Pyreneans have managed only a single goal so far in the tournament, and they currently sit at the very bottom of Group 6, with no points and a -13 goal difference. But as an example of how much interest and adventure can be packed into a mountainous co-principality of only 181 square miles, Andorra is supreme.

The landscape basically comprises three long, narrow valleys: Eastern Valira (including Canillo and Encamp), Northern Valira (La Massana and Ordino) and Gran Valira (Andorra la Vella, Sant Julià de Lòria and Escaldes-Engordany).

Andorra la Vella is the diminutive capital. The tiny nation is administered from here, but bizarrely its joint heads of state are the President of France and the bishop of Urgell, a small, overlooked town in Spain. Seclusion from the rest of the world has left a legacy of well-preserved Romanesque architecture in Andorra, of solid medieval churches and monuments hewn from mottled-brown Pyrenean granite and roofed in black slate.

A BRIEF HISTORY?

The existence of the Basque Andosinos tribe was noted by the ancient Greeks. At the turn of the ninth century, Charlemagne allegedly granted a charter to their descendants in return for fighting off the Moors, and after a few centuries of feudal disputes over the territory between the neighbouring French and Spaniards, a co-principality agreement was signed in 1278. Today, though, the Principality of the Valleys of Andorra (to give it its full title) is now a sovereign democracy, with Catalan the official language. Yet it remains outside the EU, which has long given it advantages as a glorified duty-free supermarket.

WHERE DO I BEGIN?

Pal: a sleepy medieval village, whose church, Sant Climent de Pal, dates from the late 11th century. The main reason to come here, though, is the Romanesque Andorra Interpretation Centre in Pal (00 376 839 760). It opens 9.30am–1.30pm and 3pm–6.30pm Tuesday–Saturday, 10am–2pm on Sundays, admission free. Besides the exhibits, this is also the place to sign up for an audio-guided bus excursion covering one of the three valleys.

Next, you could hike or bus the Iron Route around the town of Ordino. This is a comprehensive, carefully constructed tour that covers the history and geography of Andorra as much as it does mining and metalworking. The trip ends at the Rossell Forge, a 19th-century workshop turned interpretative centre (00 376 835 852); €3, open 9.30am-1.30pm and 3pm-6.30pm Tuesday-Saturday, 10am-2pm on Sundays.

Social and architectural history buffs should take the Rural Heritage Route. The Casa Cristo in Encamp (00 376 833 551), Casa Rull in Sispony (00 376 839 760) and Casa Areny-Plandolit in Ordino (00 376 839 760) reflect Andorran life during the 18th to the early 20th century, from the austere to the country's only aristocrats; a Three Museum passport (€6) will get you into all of them.

GOING GREEN?

Andorra's industrial past hardly touched the wild Pyrenean landscape, and recent development has been primarily limited to the valley floors. Get out into the mountains proper on one of the newly instated "Ecotourist" hiking tours. In the Coma Pedrosa Nature Park, guides offer two easy two-hour rambles to introduce the local flora and fauna, while keen (and properly equipped) hikers can sign up for a day trip to the summit of Coma Pedrosa peak (2,942m), the highest in Andorra.

Pick up an "Ecotourism Trails" leaflet at any tourist office for information on trek departures; similar walks are organised in the glacial Incles Valley, the lush Sorteny Valley, and the extensive Madriu-Perafita-Claror Valley, which was recently designated a World Heritage Site by Unesco.

Experienced trekkers will find a wealth of walking maps and guidebooks in the local tourist offices, covering an extensive network of walking trails up and around Andorra's 65 peaks, including "Grandes Routes" that cross into France and Spain. This little country boasts close on 30 hikers' refuges, most unmanned and sleeping somewhere between five and 15 people on a "first come" basis; avoid the larger Compedrosa and the Cortals de Sispony in La Massana, the L'Illa in Encamp and the Juclar at Canillo if you prefer not to sleep in close proximity to other hikers.

UP THE ADRENALIN?

Andorra's 15-odd vias ferratas – mountainous trails with fixed metalwork to help you across the trickier stretches – are well maintained, designed for a range of abilities and free. A large proportion of the routes are located around Canillo, where you can take an introductory lesson at the Grandvalira resort (00 376 801 074: grandval ira.com) for €30, then rent the necessary equipment (helmet, harness and lanyard) to explore the easier routes at your own pace. More experienced climbers have a wide choice of sport routes and peak summits; contact Naturai Aventura (00 376 349 542; naturaiaventura.ad ) for guided itineraries. Experiencia en Muntanya (00 376 8478 888; experienciamuntanya.com ) offers week-long programmes that include canyoning, via ferrata, climbing and treetop circuits, from €53 to €113.

Grandvalira ski resort has a decent, mostly downhill bike park, but the Vallnord resort bike park at Pal (vallnordbikepark.com) is a destination in its own right. There are cross-country and downhill trails to suit all abilities, a free bike trials park, north-shore inspired Wood Park, BMX track and a giant supercross. Lift passes cost €21, bike school from €30 and bike hire from €20, but the real bargain is the resort accommodation: three nights in an eight-person apartment costs just €27.75 per person, less than €10 a night.

Both ski resorts offer a vast range of activities for children. In Grandvalira's family park at Canillo, free activities include mini-golf, bouldering and a giant playground; pony treks, electric buggies, canoeing and trampolining cost between €2.50 and €5 a pop, with husky-drawn wheeled-trike rides – snowless mushing, if you will – at €15. Vallnord boasts a mountain bike park for three- to 10-year-olds at Pal, along with a downhill kart track, quad bikes and zip lines.

Brave the strain on your wallet for adventure in miniature and on tap at the so-called "eco theme park" Naturlandia (00 376 844 962; naturlandia.ad ), close to the southern border. There's the obligatory adventure playground, horse riding, archery, paintball, trekking – and the Tobo Tronc, the main attraction, the longest tobogganu o ride in the world, at 5.2 kilometres. Forget old-fashioned dodgy, white tubes; this is more like a rollercoaster track, whipping through the Rabassa forest. Admission is €9 for adults, €5.50 for children. Or get into nature proper: the Adventure Company (0845 609 1137; adventurecompany.co.uk ) runs week-long family adventure holidays in Andorra from £729pp; based in little Soldeu, participants hike Pic Maia, bike the Iron Route and raft on whitewater.

CAN I REST YET?

Finish up at Caldea (00 376 800 999; caldea.ad ), a watery theme park which harnesses the region's sulphur-rich hot springs. It is housed inside a glass structure in the centre of Andorra la Vella. Avoid the hordes marauding through the mock "Indo-Roman" caves and outdoor thermal river by paying an extra €50 on top of the €33 general admission rates: not cheap, but a passport to a quiet world of grapefruit baths and rooftop hot-tubs.

Quieter still is the Sport Wellness Mountain Spa in Soldeu (00 376 870 500; sportwellness.ad ). You don't have to be a resident of the neighbouring five-star hotel to enjoy the four floors of water and pampering; admission is a very reasonable €27.

Hit the family-friendly ski slopes for winter fun

Pick up a bargain

Blizzards start to bombard the high Pyrenees in earnest in December, and the country turns into a giant ski resort. Well, two, officially: busy Grand Valira ( grandvalira.com ), incorporating the villages and lifts of Pas de la Casa, Soldeu, El Tarter, Canillo and Encamp; and quieter Vallnord, to the west, which includes Pal, Arinsal and remote Arcalis. The latter is worth the trip on a powder day, with some of the best free-riding on offer in the Pyrenees.

Well-tuned to the needs of beginners and younger customers, with plenty of mellow terrain and a wide assortment of terrain parks, the Andorran resorts are inexpensive and not busy outside the main European holidays.

Inghams (020 8780 4433; inghams.co.uk ) is currently offering a week in a self-catering apartment in Pas de la Casa next season from £230, flights and transfers included.

Andorra has taken on a self-appointed role as the duty-free shop of Europe. Close to the borders, the roads are dotted with barns advertising alcohol, cigarettes and that third duty-free staple, cured meats.

Head to Avinguda Meritxell in Andorra la Vella for a selection of perfumeries, boutiques, jewellers and electronic shops; imagine a large airport shopping area, outdoors, and you'll have an idea of what to expect.

Escaldes-Engordany and Pas de la Casa also have large shopping centres; and Pas de la Casa is a good spot to pick up discounted streetwear and snowbrands.

Traveller's Guide

Getting there

Andorra has no airport, but there are several options in both France and Spain. Barcelona is the best served, with up to five buses a day during winter; prices start at €48 return ( andorrabybus.com ). Barcelona is also the most sensible route during the winter for those planning to rent a car, as, coming from the south rather than crossing the Pyrenees from the north, the roads are usually clearer. Girona is also served by bus during the winter months.

The main airports in France are Toulouse and Perpignan. The approach from Toulouse is faster (around two hours by road) than from Perpignan, but the latter is more scenic. Travelling by rail is the most agreeable way to reach Andorra, though it takes a bit of planning. Begin by reaching Paris, for example by Eurostar (08705 186 186; eurostar.com ) from London St Pancras. From the Gare d'Austerlitz in the French capital, you take the train via Toulouse to L'Hospitalet, just beside the Andorra border. There is a direct train from Paris at about 10pm to L'Hospitalet, arriving at 7.20 the following morning. From L'Hospitalet, connecting buses run to Pas de la Casa, Soldeu, Encamp, or Andorra la Vella. You can also approach Andorra from Barcelona to La Seu d'Urgell, again with connecting buses, or from Perpignan; change at Villefranche for the Petit Train Jaune to Latour-de-Carol.

Getting around

The roads are good, if winding. Renting a car may be the easiest way to explore except in the towns, particularly the capital, in which the one-way systems and narrow streets are far better navigated by foot. The local bus service, the Clipol (00 376 82 04 12), is pretty comprehensive. Eight routes depart Andorra la Vella from 7am–9.30pm daily. There are also free buses connecting the villages within the umbrella resorts of Grandvalira and Vallnord.

More information

Andorra Turisme: 00 376 89 11 89; andorra.ad .

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