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.

Driving the main highway through Andorra in April.

Driving the main road through Andorra. Snow-capped peaks in April.

Typical street in an Andorran town. Spring flowering trees and signature stone buildings.

Creekside path in Ordino, Andorra.

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.

The road above Ransol, Andorra, typical stone farmhouse along the roadside.

Abandoned stone farm house along the road in Andorra.

Abandoned stone farm house along the road in Andorra.

Abandoned stone farm house along the road in Andorra. (perhaps my favorite photo from the trip)

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. 

Our rental car on a grassy field as we explore some ruins. Andorra.

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.

Small farmstead ruins on a hillside overlooking a village in the valley. Andorra.
Abandoned stone farmstead in the hills of Andorra.
Abandoned stone-built farmstead in the hills of Andorra.
Can you guess what happened next, after that exceedingly mild adventure?  Fortunately, being the small country that it is, we were not too far from a full-service gas station so that we were able to drop off the car in the nearest town and walk around killing time for several hours in Canillo while they fixed our flat tire. Such a civilized affair compared to all the times we had to change flat tires in the middle of the roads in South Africa! I would have felt more nervous about leaving our car keys with a gas station cashier who didn’t speak any English -- and we don’t speak any Catalan (the national language) -- who couldn’t really say when the mechanic dude might be back and therefore when the tire might be fixed, but such a small country inspires a fair amount of faith in the locals.

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. 

Sant Joan de Caselles Church, Canillo, Andorra.

Sant Joan de Caselles Church, Canillo, Andorra.

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!

Steam-powered bicycle (i.e. "motorcycle") in the Museu de la Moto, Canillo, Andorra.

Sweet cruiser (look how long it is!) from the 1950s. Museu de la Moto, Canillo, Andorra.

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 parliamentary chamber inside La Casa de La Vall, Andorra.

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. 

Saint Corneli and Saint Cebria Church, Ordino, Andorra.Saint Corneli and Saint Cebria Church, Ordino, Andorra.Saint Corneli and Saint Cebria Church, Ordino, Andorra.

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 .....

Courtyard of Casa d'Areny-Plandolit House Museum, Ordino, Andorra.

 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. 

Outside the Casa Cristo Ethnographic Museum (on the left), Encamp, Andorra.

Cobblestone street outside the Casa Cristo Ethnographic Museum, Encamp, Andorra.

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. 

Art sculpture in Andorra la Vella, Andorra.

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 (wink), we decided to go back to the "birreria" several days later. It was fun that the proprietor remembered us and asked after my ankle.

La Birreria liquor store/pub, Andorra la Vella, Andorra.

La Birreria liquor store/pub, Andorra la Vella, Andorra.

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.

Fountain in a courtyard in the historic quarter of Andorra la Vella, Andorra.


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