Since 16 May 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy has been a prince. Not many people know this but they do in the tiny principality of Andorra. Along with an obscure Catalonian bishop, Sarkozy is co-prince of this famous ski resort. It all goes back to Henry IV of France who in 1607 issued an edict establishing that whoever happens to be in charge of France is also co-ruler of neighbouring Andorra, an independent country about the size of Doncaster.
Recently, Andorra has been tidying up its resorts – fronting its concrete blocks with local stone – and enjoying a renaissance. But this doesn't particularly impress the locals. The country keeps its collective head down and just concentrates on making money. Until the 20th century, and the first roads, very few people visited unless they happened to stumble in lost while crossing the Pyrenees. But Andorra's steep-sided mountains, blanketed in snow for five months of the year, became an asset as the British craze for skiing took off. Andorra's farmers also realised that they could make a good living from duty-free goods.
Take Pas de la Casa, for example, an unreconstructed party town on the French border. Not the most beautiful place I've ever visited, Pas consists of shops, bars and hotels of the kind that give four stars a bad name. When I climbed up the steep narrow steps to a hotel bar, I found it full of scary-looking guys with tattos on their shaven heads. Their tables were piled with MP3 players, cameras, GPSs and bottles of vodka. I decided to stay elsewhere.
Driving west down the steep inclines of the Valira d'Oriente I came to Soldeu, a chic stone village dominated by the Calbo family, local farmers who have built most of its hotels and restaurants, even one of its ski lifts. I checked into their five-star Sport Hotel Hermitage and sank into the lobby's huge leather sofa. My room had so many cushions and pillows you could hardly make out the bed. Soldeu caters for a very different market from Pas de la Casa. Moreover, it is in the middle of the Grandvalira, a sequence of linked pistes running between six Andorran villages.
Prices are steep at the Hermitage restaurant, but fortunately the Calbos have also built a typical British pub, The Villager, which serves typical British food, by which they mean chilli, curry and nachos with lashings of karaoke on Friday nights. Better still, the village has a few bordas left. These traditional farmhouse restaurants serve Andorran specialities such as trinxat (potato and cabbage) and escudella (a meat stew) and pitchers of good cheap wine.
The next day I drove down to the capital village of Andorra la Vella. I found the parliament building, tiny and built of slate and looking for all the world like a youth hostel. The cathedral is similarly rustic and minute. In the afternoon I drove up to Arinsal, a little family-friendly village on the country's western border. The tiny stone church of St Andreu d'Arinsal was chiming the quarter hour as I got out. Everyone was asleep, even the chairlift, but I found lunch at Hotel Micolau, a 13th-century stone building on the main street. Fiona, a cheery English expat, poured me a small beer. "Have you come far?"
"Pas de la Casa."
"Oh you've crossed coast to coast!" She laughed. "You'd better have a pint."
HOW TO GET THERE
Crystal Ski (0871 231 2256; crystalski.co.uk) offers seven nights half-board at the five-star Sport Hotel Hermitage in Soldeu from £899 per person, including flights and transfers.
Andorra Tourism (00 34 93 508 84 48; andorra.an).