About equidistant between Andorra and Barcelona is the renowned Montserrat. It would be easy to visit as a day trip from Andorra; as it happened, we stopped by on our way back to Barcelona. Erik asked me, "So what is this place?" I'm not sure he was thrilled with my answer of, "I don't know, but everyone talks about it." And they said things like, "Oh, you must see!" And my Barcelona guidebook listed it as a top day trip to do from there. It just seemed there was a lot of hubbub around it, and I put it on our itinerary on that flimsy knowledge alone. I didn't research it beyond reading it was a place of pilgrimage for some, and that there was hiking involved in seeing it. I just noticed it was directly on our route and figured I would be silly not to stop by, at the very least so I would know what it was!
In our ignorance, we also had some confusion about where to go once we got off the highway and where to park our car. But we decided to just keep driving up and up the mountainside that rose abruptly and dominated over the plains. Imagine our pleasant surprise when we discovered Montserrat for ourselves. Now, some might call me a poor traveler for being so ill-informed. But this method of travel is a lot of fun, oh detractors, for the thrill of discovery. With no expectations, mediocre sites are cool, and amazing sights are overwhelmingly awesome and joyful to explore. Plus, there are no expectations to turn into disappointments. And so I present to you our happy trails around Montserrat.
Upon arrival, you see the Benedictine monastery nestled into the imaginative rock spires and shapes of the mountain ridge. It's like Mother Nature cupped her hands just to hold this work of man.
We decided we should do hiking first as it was already afternoon when we arrived, figuring we could see the inside of the monastery as the last thing in the day, needing neither sunlight nor warmth to enjoy. When we discovered the next funicular (yay! love funiculars!) up to the trails at the top was arriving in the next 10 minutes, we decided to head straight up, disciplining our growling tummies to have a bit of patience while we exerted ourselves. The tummies weren't overly thrilled with our decision, but we managed. At least we had a water bottle!
There are trails all along the ridges and cut into the sides of the mountain. It reminded me of visiting Huashan in China, with it trails along its five peaks and occasional hermitages for its Taoist monks to engage in spiritual contemplation. Here, a little church-like hermitage perches, kind of lonesome, on a ridge ... sandwiched between overlooking a vast plain and loomed over by a vast sky of clouds.
Paths cut into the rock are fun to walk along.
Making our way across the paths and up through the crevices in the rock -- which, to be honest, were a little arduous and slippery heading straight up the natural cuts in the rock -- rewarded us with some spectacular views. For a sense of scale of the mountaintop rocks themselves, notice that the two little colored dots on the rock directly below are people. (open any pic in this post in a new tab to see at larger size)
Inside the courtyard of the monastery ... one of those shots that took some patience to grab in the couple seconds in which there were no people in it. Even though I'm no professional photographer, it's still fun to pursue one's own idea of the photograph they want to get. Patience paid off.
And more patience inside the church ... Fortunately, worldwide, people tend to clump into herds at tourist sites, so almost always there will be a break between clumps if you can just wait it out. Pretty much the only word that comes to mind for most of the tour around the sanctuary is "gold gold golden gold." OK, if you've been there, you'll call me out on the fact you're not supposed to take photos inside the church. But you know, when you are surrounded, literally, by people snapping pics on their cell phones and cameras, you almost feel like a chump for being the only person sporting a camera around your neck who's not using it, just letting it hang there like a dead chicken. So .....
One day from our mountain base in Andorra we decided to strike down into Spain to see what we could find. Our only real destination in mind was the city of La Seu d'Urgell which is the home of the Bishop of Urgell, who is the co-prince of Andorra, as explained in "Ambling Through Andorra." We knew this wouldn't take the whole day, so we remained open to any sights that caught our eye to explore spontaneously. This day, Erik was the champion at noticing fun activities. On the way to La Seu d'Urgell, he noticed a sign along the road that said "Castellar de Tost." Seemed to us indicative of a castle, perhaps, and Erik was particularly drawn to it on account of it sounding like "toast" ... we have to check out the castle of toast!
So up the exceedingly narrow and twisty road we drove until we came to a lovely ruin, which though not a castle, we had all to ourselves. It reminded us of some of the ruins we explored in Ireland, just lying around so casually and randomly in our modern landscape. Such ghosts. Such fairies. You heard -- fairies. We're not new-agey people who see spirits and nymphs and angels and whatnot, but Erik will swear he was surrounded by a swarm of fairies at an ancient ruin we were given secret directions to on a napkin from a guy we got drunk with at a pub (see "Passenger" in my travel essays section for more on this). Anyway, the ivy-covered lonely ruins of Castellar de Tost gave us a distinctly similar feeling, though we did not actually see any supernatural critters. Yet, we did get an odd craving for a piece of butter-slathered toast.
By now we had learned that in this region, restaurants close by 3:00pm until about 6:00pm. So there is no such thing as a late lunch. We learned this, of course, through lessons the hard way. So as we were getting close to La Seu d'Urgell, Erik noticed the car's clock and had the astute and timley realization that if we didn't pull over at the nearest restaurant, we'd be going hungry. Fortunately, there was a huge restaurant kind of randomly just off the highway. Looking almost like a truck-stop, but it was just a large restaurant ... there were cars in the parking lot -- a good sign. We rushed in the door practically wringing our hands with anxiety wondering if we were too late. Nope, we were seated and menu-ized; we chose one of the lunch specials, which included appetizer, main course, dessert, and a bottle of wine (each) ... for a stupendously reasonable price, considering it's Western Europe. We kind of expected truck-stop quality food for such a price. But the appetizer alone was as large as a main course ... I had a delicious meat and bread tray that was so overwhelming, I can't even remember now what I had for the main course even though I did, in fact, stuff one down my gullet. Along with a bottle of wine. At 3:00 in the afternoon.
Then on to La Seu d'Urgell. A nice town in a wide, high valley among the Pyrenees.
There wasn't too much to see in the town, mostly I was interested in seeing where the bishop lived and ministered, since he is the co-prince of Andorra. I expected that the cathedral and abbey where he resided would be really opulent. I don't know why, just somehow having the additional secular power with his religious Catholic power, I envisioned a place of luxury. Like how popes, although leaders of a religion that teaches piety, live among one of the largest treasure troves on the planet in the Vatican. But no, his digs are very modest indeed.
The skies started to cloud over and we decided it was time to head for our home base in Andorra. On the way to La Seu d'Urgell, Erik had noticed a go-kart racing track along the highway. He said that on our return home he wanted to stop there, and I was all game. In Cabo San Lucas (Mexico) we had a blast riding 250cc karts on a track, and that's what they had here. Though the people didn't really speak English, and we no Catalan, we managed to understand each other on the important points through Spanish, hand signs and our familiarity with the basic process. Fortunately, we accepted the option to wear rain suits, because on our second race it starting raining vigorously. This ended up being a good lesson in how severely wet roads can adversely affect your vehicle. The first few laps in the rain, I was convinced there was something wrong with my kart. I beat Erik in the first race and now I was pulling the wheel the same way and yet spinning out left and right, and crashing into the median while Erik zoomed past me. It took me awhile to figure out what was causing the kart to behave so differently and then to learn how to compensate for the wet pavement. So, we did two races and split the wins. It was a lot of fun.
Here are a couple window shots from the car to give you an idea of some of the landscape we drove through.
Here is a little photo tour of one of my favorite local haunts. I live in the middle of what was once a large network of gold and silver mines in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Every mountain town near me, including my own (Nederland), was founded as a mining community, centered either on a mine or a processing mill. There were large mines as well as individuals mining their own small claims. The last house I owned in Nederland, every year debris from the 1800s would surface in my driveway as rain and snow washed away dirt from the cut. I once learned how to date old tin cans and glass, so I could identify most of the artifacts in my driveway to the late 1800s and early 1900s. Old cabins and mills lie in melancholy dilapidation everywhere, deteriorating more each year. By now, most of the mine shafts in the area have been capped or covered with metal grates, but when I first moved to Nederland over 20 years ago, you could still walk into some of them.
One mine very close to me is the Blue Bird silver mine, which now lies inside the Caribou Ranch Open Space, managed by the Boulder County Parks and Open Space. Happily, the Parks department took the effort to stabilize several of the buildings at the old mine and also some old ranch buildings in the valley. Walking to them is both very scenic and super-duper easy. Why so easy? Well, besides the fact they lie in a broad valley rather than over hill and dale, the trail also largely follows an old railroad grade.
Back around the turn of the 20th century, Colorado enjoyed a reputation as the "Switzerland of America." Capitalizing on this, an extensive narrow-gauge railroad system was constructed to choo-choo tourists through our lovely mountains. It was an important improvement to the residents as well, providing a much easier and faster way to transport goods and supplies to and from mining towns than treacherous wagon roads through the mountains. The route was known as the Switzerland Trail. Well, it still is called that, but the tracks have all been torn up and the grades are now either 4x4 roads or hiking / mountain biking / horse riding trails.
Most of the photos I've taken of this space are in autumn (this collection is from several different years) when the aspen leaves are turning color. The area is closed February through June because the large valley is an elk calving area. So allow me lead you down a portion of the Switzerland Trail .....
This year I found lots of aspen leaves on the ground sprinkled with dew. I'm really partial to leaves and flowers with water and dew droplets on them.
And here's one shot I got in early summer of the trail ... this section is rife with daisies in summer -- from afar, it looks like a field of snow, then magically resolves into hundreds of individual daisies. Not an awesome picture, but you get the basic idea.
Along the way to the Blue Bird mine, you pass the wide valley (where the elk calve). In it is the historic DeLonde homestead. The DeLondes first moved here, as nearly everyone did, to be involved with mining, but eventually became ranchers, and they sold the land to another ranching family who raised Arabian horses. The next sale was to a Mr. Guercio who was in the record business, and beyond view, in an area restricted from the public, is the old Caribou Ranch recording studio where the likes of Elton John, Joe Walsh, Chicago, Steven Stills, Waylon Jennings and many, many others recorded albums -- even John Lennon came here to record a song with Elton John ... kind of a random tidbit about tiny little Nederland that we had so many famous people stay here and make an album in the middle of the Rocky Mountains. The first house I owned in Nederland was apparently partied in on occasion by Mr. Steven Stills. Check out this brief video about the recording studio.
Part of this valley is filled with a wetland habitat which was "constructed" by some industrious beavers who have built dams which have formed a series of ponds. I have never seen a beaver around here even though there are many beaver ponds in this region. I am just dying to spot one in the flesh!
And now we arrive at the old Blue Bird mine. It wasn't christened as such for the bird or the fowl's melodious name (I like the word "bluebird"), rather for a type of blue mineral, azurite, found inside the earth along with the silver for which the mine was established. According to the Boulder County Open Space website, "Azurite was known to the Ancient Greeks as kuanos, which means 'deep blue,' and is the root of the English word cyan." Here are a few pics of the mine itself, though the entrance is blocked, you can feel the cold air coming from inside if you stand next to the grate, and the mining cart tracks still emerge and lead into a pile of tailings.
This building was originally the bunk house for the working miners. When the mine waned at the advent of a crash in silver prices, the Switzerland Trail railroad began bringing tourists to the area. The Blue Bird mine became a whistle stop on the train route and the bunk house was converted to a boarding house for visitors over-nighting. I love the assortment of artifacts people have found and assembled at what I believe is the old ticket window for the train.
The 1965 remake of the movie, "Stagecoach" was filmed here and the bunkhouse was depicted as a stagecoach stop. So in addition to the musical artists who visited here, Bing Crosby and Slim Pickens also left their footprints.
The chicken coop is still intact as well as some outhouses and sheds, all of which are wooden. Most of these were built in the late 1800s, but the caretaker's abode built later was a solid structure of stone and brick. The mine ran on and off over nearly 100 years, closing forever in 1964. In an amazing coincidence, I met a man whose family was the last caretakers and he spent part of his childhood here at this house in the summers in the 1950s. He doesn't live in the area and I met him through a friend who lives on the East Coast whom I met in Prague. Random, small world! I don't have a photo of it, but in front of the house is a large cement pit for a pool which was eventually used just to hold trout.
Just behind the bunk house runs the North Boulder Creek, and the hiking trail that leads from the Blue Bird mine to the DeLonde homestead parallels the creek for awhile. So this is just a delightful and easy hiking loop that I recommend to all who visit me here in Nederland ... you have beautiful landscape with dynamic seasons, a creek, a valley, mountains; and you have many historical components that gave our little nook of the world its multi-faceted vitality.
A little end-note ... every year Nederland hosts our town's heritage weekend, called "Miner's Days." When I first moved here it included a parade and everything, and most of the athletic competitors were aging local miners. Now, there's no parade, only the athletic competitions, but what's cool is that even though the old "real" miners have dropped out of the competitions or passed on, there are a lot of young competitors. This year (2015) there were up to 10 entries in the events and also a women's competition -- they did all the same events as the men. The competitions are all activities that miners of old did every day ... such as mucking, where you shovel dirt or rocks into a mining cart as fast as you can until it's full then push it down some tracks and empty it; spike driving, where you pound railroad spikes into a wooden trestle with a sledgehammer to secure a track; hand drilling, where you use a hammer to drive metal spikes into solid granite rock as deep as you can in 5 minutes ... this is how holes were hollowed out in the rock to put dynamite in to blast the mine tunnels and also build the railroads. We're a very small town but take pride in our founding heritage.
Want to visit Nederland and the Switzerland Trail? You can come stay with me! I rent a small studio at my house to vacationers and would love to have you visit me. See my listing at: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/59868 for "Cozy and Quiet in Nederland."
Another of our favorite 3-hour tours from my home in Nederland, Colorado, is the 4x4 route over Kingston Peak pass. This one is a bit of a doozy in places -- definitely the most difficult terrain we have yet explored. Well, save one stretch of trail we did years ago in Jenny Creek that took us about 45 minutes to move about 3 feet forward. Our 4-Runner, Trusty Trudy, was precariously balanced on only two wheels -- one front wheel and one back. As we inched forward, literally inch by inch with me spotting continually and Erik getting out to survey and strategize every few inches, I also had to hang off the outside of the opened driver's-side door with all my weight to ensure Trudy didn't tip over on her passenger side. It was clear from various forms of evidence that previous travelers had spent a long time trying to get past this spot, as well.
The first time we attempted Kingston Peak with Trudy, we were turned back by one egregiously large boulder on a steep skree slope. Later that summer we made a second attempt and met with success. This year we have a new ("new" 1999) 4-Runner named Chewbacca. Chewy is a beast on this terrain with higher clearance than Trudy and a mean grunt in low gear. We love him. We started trying to get to Kingston Peak early in the summer. Every two weeks we went out, as the snow melted we got higher and higher each time. It was I think our fifth outing when the snow had finally melted enough for us to summit. We just chugged right over that boulder that had given Trudy such a headache. We then went over the route a second time in late August when we took a friend out to show him what our backyard had to offer in 4x4 trails. As you may have read in the Gamble Gulch post, most of these trails originated as old mining roads ... people were crossing them in wagons.
So by now we have crossed this terrain in early, mid- and late summer. So I present to you a little photo tour through the seasons. If you are thinking of trying this route yourself -- from Mammoth Gulch Road over Kingston Peak to Fall River Road -- know that I'm not understating the requirement of a high-clearance vehicle with low-4 gearing.
The wildflowers along the lower part of this route (upper Mammoth Gulch) are spectacular. The season begins with a sea of yellow pea in bloom dotted with clumps of our state flower, the blue columbine.
Next, the red spikes of Indian paintbrush take over the landscape, and these can last most of the wildflower season. (FYI: Cozy & Quiet B&B is my guest studio I run in Nederland ... some of these pics were posted to its Facebook page, hence the C&Q watermark)
We love collecting wild raspberries from this area. I'll keep it a little secret precisely where we go ... there are many side roads. :) The character below is our new guy, Chewbacca.
Our first attempt with Trudy ... you can see her hood just peeking up over the horizon of the trail and Erik walking back toward her after we left her temporarily to see if there were any other show-stopping obstacles ahead.
Our second attempt with Trudy ... success and the reward of copious wild bluebell flowers, also called harebells, which I absolutely love. As you can see, we were traveling at our usual time of late in the day.
After crossing the pass above timberline, the route drops into Fall River Road beside St. Mary's Glacier near Idaho Springs. (these days, we call it more of a glacier-ette)
This year when we made our first crossing, I was very excited because it was a rare blue sky above the mountain peaks and we could clearly see the layers and layers of mountains heading back into the heart of the Rocky Mountains. I had brought my camera and as I clicked the shutter with glee for my first pic, my smile turned a little upside down when I realized there was no memory card in the camera! I had left it in my computer from downloading some other pics. So the beauty of that day is just in my private memory. The next time we crossed it with our friend in late August, we had pretty much the polar opposite sky ... low and heavy with fog and rain. But it lent the route an air of secrecy and mystery. By now the green grass was largely turning to gold and red.
Chewy seems like such a sizable truck until you get a little perspective of his place in the mountain landscape.
I've never been to Scotland, but I envision its highlands somehow like this, maybe just because of the low, heavy mist so iconic to that part of Scotland. The red and gold grasses had a lovely rich color in the rain and midday diffused light. (we started earlier than usual on this day)
We got out to hike a little ways to see the mountain lakes below (my friend is a marvelously accomplished photographer and was very keen to walk about with his camera). You can just spy him and Erik as little black pixels off on the upper right-hand side of the photo. It started raining quite substantially and I stopped to try to get some pics of my beloved harebells without kneeling in the soaked grass, as my feet and head were already soggy. Sort of got a pic ... In standing up I banged my shin on a rock and between that pain and being wet and cold, I didn't forge on to see the lakes. That will be a gift for me another time. (p.s. you can view all these pics at larger size by opening in a new tab)
Once you start descending the other side down toward Fall River Road, you are treated to a Seussian forest of wind-sculpted trees. Can you guess which direction the wind blows? :) Some day I would spend more time exploring this little forest that marks the beginning of treeline. Such fantastical shapes and colors in the trunks.
The doors of summer are closing already this year. But I imagine, as we've become quite fond of this route, that we will be back soon. And maybe my memory will allow the inclusion of a memory card inside my camera!
Check out the excellent photography of my friend, Garett Gabriel, much of it taken in Colorado in the Nederland area.
While we stayed in Andorra, we breached the border a few times (as it is so quickly and easily accessed at either end of the country) to see some sights in the surrounding countries of France and Spain. I'm making this post about day trips to France with pretty much one single motivation ... which is simply to share some of my photos from these sights, as I was having so much fun with my wide angle lens (10-22 mm). It's more fun to share the fun -- haha -- than to keep it locked in my own little computer. Plus, maybe it will inspire you further to visit this delightful corner of the world. So, without further ado or much accompanying text ... I give you a slice of the French Pyrenees and the Languedoc region.
So ... we found ourselves in Villefranche de Conflent at the meeting of two rivers in a valley in the gorgeous snow-capped French Pyrenees Mountains. This region is culturally and historically part of Catalonia, even though I typically think of that as a Spanish region. Catalan was the language spoken in Villefranche de Conflent. Because of it's geographical misfortune or fortune, I'm not sure which you would consider it, the town was often fought over between the neighbors -- France and Spain. And so it evolved a stout defensive wall around it and a military fortress on the hillside above it, Fort Liberia. Now a small population keeps the town alive mostly for tourists. But alive, indeed -- cafes and souvenirs shops, a train station and of course the fortress. It's roughly a 2-hour drive from here to Canillo, where our home-base was in Andorra.
We spent the afternoon inside the fortified medieval town of Carcassonne, which has been impressively restored to provide the experience of an ancient European walled city. The only part you have to pay money to see is the actual fortress part. You can stroll the quaint cobblestone streets inside the walls all you want, otherwise. The restaurants are pricey, being such a tourist zone, but I had a delicious lunch of duck, which frankly, was totally worth the price to me. The "beer," however, was not. haha. The French aren't really known for a beer-making prowess. But their breads and pastries and duck are divine.
I imagined the country of Andorra would be a bit provincial when the directions to our studio rental said to drive through Andorra until we reached Canillo, turn left at a particular sign and then “please look for a public telephone booth which is the only one in this town. Behind is the entrance.”
I didn’t know anything about Andorra, first established in the 9th century and established as its own principality in 1278, until I decided to visit it. It looked awful purty in the pictures, perched in the Pyrenees Mountains between Spain and France. It’s one of the micro-countries of Europe, has a population of about 80,000 in an area of about 180 square miles. All of it is mountainous; the primary revenue for the country is a healthy ski industry (and hiking/trekking in summer) and its duty-free shopping. With a total country population of 80k, you can imagine no city is terribly large (the capital is 24k), but you can find some pretty mind-blowing liquor stores and novelty shops just along the roadside for the purchasing pleasure of skiers and other random tourists like ourselves.
Visiting at the time of year we did, April, was kind of a bust for activities, because there wasn’t enough snow left for snow sports but there was still too much left to do any hiking. But the cool thing about this time of year was how quickly you could move between snowy fields on the mountains and pink and white spring-flowering trees in the valleys.
Expecting it to be a scenic country, I had imagined we would do a fair amount of “Sunday driving” just to look around, but being so mountainous, turns out there aren’t really very many roads. So that didn’t take us very long to explore around. We ran across several picturesque abandoned stone houses and farmsteads. (You'll notice stone is the primary building material both in city buildings and farmsteads.) The main road through the country, since there is, after all, only one, can be quite clogged with traffic particularly around the cities, but once you turn off onto the side roads into the smaller villages, you have the road to yourself … so much so that we would just stop dead in the center of the road to get out and take pictures if something caught our eye.
One time, though, we saw a little ruin on a hillside and drove on a slightly rocky dirt road and parked in a grassy field to explore it.
It was a nice little ruin, and photos of it give you kind of a basic summary of Andorra … mountains and steep valleys with cities in the valleys and abandoned farmsteads on the slopes. Andorra doesn't have the grand ruins typical throughout most of Europe, such as the one we would soon find in Spain (stay tuned), or the copious castles abandoned in Irish farm pastures, etc. But there's something playful and imaginative in exploring any kind of abandoned past.
With a rough estimate of completion 3 hours hence, as we understood it anyway, we walked away and killed some time inside a pub (surprise) and then inside the very random Museu de la Moto -- a Motorcycle Museum, which was incongruously situated beside this 11th-century Romanesque church.
Just past the lower left corner of the photo above is a little hatch leading to an underground museum full of motorcycles. This had caught Erik’s eye immediately upon entering the country. So here was the perfect opportunity to check it out. I’m typically up for anything, so while I can’t say I experienced the same excited anticipation to see a motorcycle museum as Erik clearly did, (even though I ride them, if you didn’t know … I have a sport bike and a dirt bike), and even though it was like the dinkiest museum ever in terms of square footage, I found it very interesting (and there were over 100 bikes packed in!) and was glad we visited it. The old ones are, of course, the most interesting. I would even go so far as to say that some of them were full-on fascinating. Take, for example, this gem here below, which is steam-powered! You built a little fire in the cylinder on the right and the steam traveled through various tubes to power a piston. So I guess you had to carry a sack of coal on your back if you were to go very far! I would love to ride this thing around town. haha ... the looks I would get!
It’s even more random to find a museum of motor vehicles in a country that didn’t have real roads until 1938! I often thought to myself that Andorra is the Lesotho of Europe … haha … Lesotho being a mountain kingdom with desolate roads, as well. (read about our time in Lesotho if you are unfamiliar with this little-known African nation)
While most citizens may not have needed to travel very far and roads may not have been too important to them; the one class of folks who did need to travel far were the parliament members. So until nearly half way through the 20th century, they rode to the capital on horseback. And here is a cool thing, that maybe my country and some others could benefit from this arrangement … after riding to the capital, they stayed overnight during session in the actual parliament building, known as Casa de la Vall. They ate dinner together in the kitchen first before going into chambers. So they were congenial and conversant with one another, unlike the elected officials of my country. When you are forced to hang out with people, you are forced to know them a little and understand them a bit, and a lot more gets accomplished with this type of empathy. That being said, there were not very many of them who had to tolerate each others’ company. It’s a pity that they don’t allow photographs to be taken in any of their museums in Andorra. But here is one of the session chamber from the official website about the former parliament building (www.casadelavall.ad/en/inside-the-house). They built a new parliament building only a few years ago … it’s square and drab, just across the courtyard, and still really small.
The parliament members are elected from each of the 7 provinces in Andorra. But who sits at the helm? A president? A king? A prime minister? It’s kind of a surprise if you don’t already know the answer … Andorra is co-ruled by the President of France and the Bishop of Urgell, Spain – they are referred to as the “co-princes.” So it’s a government really based on cooperation all the way around. Here’s another nice little thing, a dedication to honesty rather than cunning and deceit among elected officials: important papers are kept in a wooden dresser with seven key holes, and the heads of each province must put in their key in order to unlock it. So if one province isn’t represented, the important documents can’t be accessed.
Andorra doesn’t have its own army. Until 1993 Andorra paid tribute to France and Spain in alternating years for military protection. In addition to cash, the tribute included cows and large loaves of bread. Probably at some point I’m guessing the bread was phased out. We were told that it was the law that every man own a gun since there was no national army. We subsequently asked two men about it … they both confirmed the law but one of them didn’t own a gun and the other did begrudgingly – they were both young men and really wanted nothing to do with the weaponry.
During World War II, Andorra hid and sheltered many Jews. One hotel in particular was pointed out to us as an establishment that housed a lot of refugees.
So it was disappointing that we couldn’t take photos inside the parliament building or the two museum houses we visited, but they certainly tried to compensate for it with excellent guided tours, even though we always ended up having to kill time until we could be scheduled in. But that was good in its own way for forcing us to just chill and “hang out,” and be exploratory rather than always moving from here to there to see this and that. For example, while waiting for a tour in Ordino, we meandered and found this church and clock tower.
Anyway, so much information was given to us I couldn’t even keep track of it all. All of the buildings were so small, we couldn’t believe it when we saw how long the tours took … what could possibly take so long in such small spaces? I cynically suspected they would be padding their presentations with a bunch of boring minutiae about the furniture or the history of the owner’s second cousin’s wife. But as a person who often avoids guided tours, I must credit these as genuinely interesting (to me), and very well done by very knowledgeable people in very good English. And except for having one other guy with us in the parliament building, it was just me and Erik and the guide.
We visited two house museums -- one of a wealthy family (somewhat rare in the Andorran valleys, and typically acquiring their wealth from a once-thriving mining industry) and one of a peasant family. They complemented each other well, to learn the differences in how the elite and the typical poor farmer lived, as well as the things the houses and their owners had in common. Take for example in the “common” category … In the (not too distant) past, in almost all houses in Andorra, wealthy and poor alike, even including the parliamentary house, the first room when you came in the front door was for livestock. The animals provided warmth for the house and also were kept safe. In the parliament house, the members kept their horses there when in session. I love the idea that you enter the capital building in the capital city and have to work your way through a bunch of horses (and presumably horse manure) to reach the courtroom and the parliament chamber.
Another interior feature common in all houses was what you could call “Murphy tables,” after the Murphy bed concept -- the benches in front of the kitchen fire would fold out into tables. This way the kitchen could be kept small and warm, with the table taking up space only while eating.
Here is the courtyard of the wealthy house (Casa d'Areny-Plandolit). One amusing thing is that one of the family members (I can’t remember now precisely how long ago) got a letter from the Pope himself which is framed on one of the walls. It was a letter of approval to break a taboo which is common across all cultures … can you guess what the Pope granted permission for? It was for the guy to marry his first cousin. Interesting range of powers the pope has .....
The family of fortune left their home in the 1940s and sold the furniture and interior contents along with the building. But the family member who grew up there and donated almost all the toys on display in the children’s room comes to visit sometimes, and the only thing she asks to have back is a tiny little painted wooden doll of a black baby. Our guide confessed she’s tempted to take it from the display cabinet and give it to the lady to make her happy … it was hers, after all.
One of the family members became a dentist and taxidermist, among other professions. His dentistry room was upstairs in the house attic, sporting a horrifically stark, simple chair … a torture chair, I dare say. His hours were mostly in the evening, when farmers had put livestock in for the night and could afford the time to have a tooth pulled. And, to be honest, if his inconsistent taxidermy skills were at all indicative of his dental skills, I would be wild with fear to sit in that chair.
Here is the quaint street along which the peasant family museum lies, called the Casa Cristo Ethnographic Museum. We had to wait for the guide to show up and then get our (excellent) private tour.
The family who owned this house also left in the 1940s and also sold the furniture and interior contents. In this typical farmer’s house, rather than a spooky dental office, the attic was used as a place to dry fruits and herbs on top of hay, and dry animal skins on racks, and keep grains up high out of the way of mice. According to the guide, people have taken an interest in purchasing historic houses in the last 10 years; before that they would say, “oh, that’s old junk” and tear it down. Andorra is relatively new to the “modern” scene. It seems every society goes through this. The older people are the ones calling it junk, just their old stuff. The lady who sold the peasant house came by once to visit and was like, “meh.” No reverence for it being her past. Everything the guide pointed out, most having been sold with the house, was made by the peasant family themselves … the furniture and tools and blankets, everything … as Andorra didn’t really have any importing relations.
For such a tiny country, it turns out I’ve had quite a lot to say! I leave you with this … if you follow me at all you would be surprised if I did not mention the beer selection! So here’s how we discovered this house of beers from all over the world, including two selections from breweries in my very own ‘hood in Colorado ... this will surprise you guys (not) -- I suffered an injury! I twisted my ankle while walking down some stony steps near the parliament house and fell. You can see the scene of the crime in the very back, where the railing is along the ridge. And notice the peculiar organic component inside this lovely metal sculpture.
My new camera hit the ground and fortunately Erik reacted how I would have wished and saved the camera before me. Haha. So it was OK. I was a bit bruised and very upset at twisting my ankle with another week of walking planned on our sightseeing itinerary. So Erik helped me hobble to the nearest pub/restaurant, we asked the proprietor for a bag of ice and I sat there for several hours under ice and drinking some beer. Erik being the chatty fellow that he is, chatted up the proprietor and soon learned he owned this other beer house, which was a store as well as a bar. He said it opened at 5:00, so at 5:00 we hobbled over there (not far away). And in the meantime, Erik had found a pharmacy and bought me an Ace bandage for my ankle. Due to the immediate icing, I recovered quite well within a couple days. Oddly, we decided to go back to the "birreria" several days later. It was fun that the proprietor remembered us and asked after my ankle.
And so dear readers, I leave you with a glimpse of Andorra and recommend its beautiful Pyrenees landscape to anyone. If I get the mojo, I’ll tell you about some day trips into the neighboring countries of France and Spain. Here's a sweet little fountain in Andorra la Vella.