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Forget skiing – Andorra is an unexpected summer holiday hit

Relatively few Brits visit this tiny Pyrenean principality outside of the winter sports season. But Julia Hammond travels there by the scenic route to find that there’s plenty more to recommend it than ski slopes

Thursday 17 August 2023 14:58 BST
<p>Mountain high: The impressive viewpoint at Mirador del Quer </p>

Mountain high: The impressive viewpoint at Mirador del Quer

Andorra doesn’t have an airport. Even if it wanted one, there’d be nowhere to put it. But while most visitors hurtle down the motorway from Toulouse or Barcelona to reach this pint-sized Pyrenean principality, I intended to follow a more convoluted route. From the sleepy town of Villefranche-de-Conflent in southwestern France, the Ligne de Cerdagne beckoned me into the Catalan Pyrenees.

This rail journey is better known as the Train Jaune because of its canary-yellow livery. When the line was built more than a century ago, its 39 glorious miles of track required some serious engineering – not least 19 tunnels – to conquer the mountainous terrain and put an end to the isolation of the area’s upper cantons. Though it operates all year round, open wagons are attached in summer so that passengers can get a better look at the vertiginous drops on either side as the train crosses the line’s many bridges and viaducts.

Rain was forecast, but the sky was blue, so I decided to chance an outside spot. We meandered sedately through a bucolic landscape characterised by narrow gorges, mountain streams and trackside lupins. The train stopped a handful of times, once to pick up a couple of backpackers at Bolquere, the highest railway station in France at an elevation of 1,593 metres; I disembarked a few stops down the line at Bourg Madame.

The Train Jaune has open-air carriages in summertime

Information on how to reach Andorra from here had been sketchy. The few paltry sources I’d found gave the internet equivalent of a shrug and advised hopping in an expensive taxi. Undaunted, I figured I’d walk across the border into Spain and find a bus. This seemingly sketchy plan worked: a couple of hours and three buses later, I found myself in the Andorran resort of Arinsal in the middle of a thunderstorm. The rain had finally caught up with me.

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The Andorran Pyrenees are an adventure tourist’s playground, with a plethora of opportunities for mountain biking, high-altitude hiking, horse riding and caving. I was keen to take a more leisurely approach, however, and had arrived with no firm plans. In fact, my inspiration for the first day’s activities came from an advert I saw on the bus.

Andorra’s Pont Tibeta, a suspension bridge that spans the verdant Vall de Riu, is barely a metre wide – just sufficient for two people to pass. The structure measures 603 metres from end to end; at its highest point, it rises 158 metres above the valley floor. With no head for heights, I was relieved to find that it didn’t bounce much, though a tightrope walker would have made speedier progress along a wire than I did inching my way slowly forward. I steeled myself to take in the view. Free from their winter carpet of snow, craggy slopes clad with mountain pines created a backdrop for a dazzling array of colourful wildflowers. I stared at it for as long as I could before my head started to spin.

The ‘Ponderer’ statue at Roc del Quer

The Mirador del Quer was just as impressive. You can just about pick out the outline of this cantilevered walkway as the bus winds its way uphill from the town of Canillo. Close up, it’s impressive. Installed in 2016, part of the floor is glass, though with so many scratches it’s now lost much of its original impact. At the end of a 12-metre overhang is a sculpture called The Ponderer – a lifelike figure by artist Miguel Angel Gonzalez that sits on a beam reflecting on life, the universe and everything, inviting you to do the same.

The following day, another bus took me to Ordino. Some say this quaint little place is one of the prettiest villages in the country, yet in late June there were barely a handful of people strolling around. I parked myself at a pavement cafe table opposite the grandly named Esglesia de Sant Corneli i Sant Cebria d’Ordino to admire its stonework and Romanesque-style belltower. I should really have called in at the Casa d’Areny-Plandolit, the only stately home in the country, but by the time I arrived it had shut for lunch.

Some say this quaint little place is one of the prettiest villages in the country, yet in late June there were barely a handful of people strolling around

Instead, I caught the community minibus to hop further up the valley, and made tracks for the Ruta del Ferro. This delightful 2.6-mile valley trail celebrates the area’s iron-mining heritage. Today’s hikers follow in the footsteps of the pack animals who carted out the ore. It’s possible to tour the mine near to Llorts, close to where the trail begins. Visitors are also welcome to call in at the Farga Rossell Centre d’Interpretacio del Ferro, a restored forge near La Massana. Art installations made from materials such as stone, wood, and of course iron, litter the route, which ends at the historic church of Sant Marti de La Cortinada.

On my last morning in Andorra, I set my sights on a spire, but it had nothing to do with any place of worship. Instead, it belonged to Caldea, a luxury thermal spa in Escaldes-Engordany, near the capital, whose architecture mirrors the surrounding mountain peaks. My ticket got me into Inuu, its fabulous adults-only zone, which features a spectacular indoor-outdoor pool. While others obsessed over its bubbles and waterfalls, I was content simply to relax in the mineral-rich water and take in the view.

The futuristic spire of Caldea spa

“How was it?” the attendant asked when, still damp and wrinkled as a prune, I handed back my robe and slippers.

“Heavenly,” I replied. Much like Andorra, I thought, as I made tracks for the bus stop.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Travelling flight-free

To ride the Train Jaune, travel overland by train from the UK via Paris, Perpignan and Villefranche-de-Conflent. To reach Andorra, catch a bus from the Spanish town of Puigcerda, a half-hour walk from Bourg Madame station, and switch buses in La Seu D’Urgell for the leg to Andorra La Vella, from where local bus routes radiate in multiple directions.

Travelling by air

The nearest airports with connections to Andorra are Toulouse and Barcelona; they’re served by low-cost carriers such as Ryanair and easyJet. Companies such as Andbus run direct coach services from there to Andorra La Vella.

Staying there

In Villefranche-de-Conflent, A l’Ombre du Fort is a characterful B&B right beside the train tracks. Managed by the charming Florian and Marina, a double will set you back between €70 and €80 (£60-£68) a night.

Aparthotel Sant Andreu offers studios with a small kitchen and mountain view. It is conveniently located beside the penultimate bus stop on the L5 route, which connects the resort of Arinsal to Andorra La Vella.

Getting around

A network of local buses and gondolas opens up many of the country’s towns, villages and mountaintops to those without a car. The Andorran tourist board runs daily themed excursions throughout the summer.

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