Today, I traveled northward from Barcelona to Andorra la Vella, the capital city of tiny country / principality Andorra! As a quick primer, Andorra is nestled between Spain and France and is a very small nation compared to the average country – although not compared with some of Europe’s smallest nations! Despite being bordered by Spain and France, the national language is Catalan; it’s known as a ski destination in winter, an occasional tax haven, and for having the largest spa complex in Europe.
The drive up from Barcelona was shockingly beautiful – as you enter the Pyrenees, you begin to see gorgeous little towns / outcroppings along the way; once you are in the mountain range, you start to see gorgeous features like lakes. To be honest, it was such a contrast to the desert landscapes I saw from Madrid to Barcelona that I almost forgot I was in Spain! As with the last several posts, photo quality isn’t quite up to previous standards due to iPhone rather than my Nikon (the following two also were shot from a fast-moving bus!).
Unexpectedly (not sure how I missed this in my planning), today was ‘National Day’ which means that a large number of shops / restaurants were closed. However, I made the best of it wandering the city and enjoying some of the local opportunities. Upon arriving in the bus depot, it’s a quick walk to the center of town – and from end to end, the city of Andorra la Vella is only about ~25 minutes walking, depending on the timing of cross-walks. Since it’s National Day, the city was all dressed up, shops were closed, and folks were enjoying spending a Sunday morning strolling together.
My favorite parts of the main drag in Andorra la Vella were the quirky art pieces – I couldn’t figure out what the snails represent (or perhaps its just a fun way of engaging people during their strolls through the shopping district!), and unfortunately Google doesn’t seem to have too many suggestions either. However, they were a hit, with folks jumping on them to pose and take photos. The shopping district itself has unique architectural elements as well, as well as a variety of stores.
Due to the national holiday, I struggled initially to find someplace for breakfast – finally, I wandered into the main Novotel hotel, thinking at least they’d have a breakfast buffet to offer. They did (sadly, my most expensive meal of the day), but with very interesting options, including 6 different egg preparations (fried, scrambled, scrambled with fillings, poached, soft-boiled, hard-boiled), 4 different types of sausages, and a variety of local breakfast items, including artichokes! As an artichoke lover, I of course has a healthy portion. While I waited for my Airbnb check in to become available, I wandered the primary shopping areas, stopping occasionally for a coffee, and, several hours later, for lunch at another hotel cafe which had opened. Fortunately, my Spanish is good enough to get me by here, as English has not been commonly spoken by anyone I’ve interacted with even at hotels.
Once my Airbnb was ready, I proceeded to Barri Antic, Andorra’s ‘Old Town’. It’s a relatively small neighborhood, probably about 3 streets by 4 streets in total area, filled with the couple backpacker bars and hostels that I’ve seen in the city. It also seems to have a bit more of a ‘local’ feel (not sure how to gauge this, given most locals can’t actually live in this area), if only due to the drying laundry I saw visible and the kids calling out to pedestrians from their window overlooking the plaza.
On the edge of the Barri Antic, there’s a beautiful little pathway up a hill where you can take in the beauty of the Pyrenees and see essentially all the way down to the Spanish border. While there, I watched what looked like a “Life Flight” medical evacuation helicopter rush from somewhere in Andorra la Vella down towards the edge, land, and minutes later fly again overhead and past Andorra la Vella’s main hospital, probably heading up to Toulouse, France for a larger hospital.
The highlight of Barri Antic is the Romanesque church, Eglasia de Sant Esteve (sadly closed today for the holiday, but I’m hoping to return tomorrow). This church and the house next to it, Casa de la Vall, are two of the truly historic elements remaining in town (Andorra is known for is Romanesque churches and villages, which I’m hoping to see more of tomorrow if I can figure out a means of transportation!).
In the afternoon, I visited the spa complex (Caldea, celebrating its 25th year, known for having both thermal pools and an innovative design for adult-only and mixed age group soaking pools) for a swim and massage. Oddly, although the building was beautiful and the staff very friendly, I wouldn’t recommend the experience – or, rather, I wouldn’t recommend getting spa treatments (the massage was not among my favorites and didn’t leave me relaxed at all). However, the pools are compelling – my favorite is the outdoor heated whirlpool, which has ‘lounge’ areas within the pool so you can lay back, enjoy the warm whirlpool around you while feeling the sun directly on your face – combined with a cool breeze, it was a great way to spend an afternoon.
After my spa adventure, I headed back to Barri Antic to grab dinner. I ended up at a French restaurant, which served absolutely delicious steak as well as tomato / mozzarella salad. Funnily, I initially thought the proprietor was speaking a version of Catalan I hadn’t heard before – my Spanish has been getting me pretty far, but the confusion in this case was clear. After a couple moments, it became clear why I was so confused: he was speaking French! After the fact, it was obvious, but I chuckled to myself at the time.
While the meal wasn’t gourmet per se, it was well executed and simple – and amazing value at just over 20 Euros with everything included. Tomorrow, I’m hoping to explore a couple of the villages outside of Andorra la Vella, as well as just take some time to relax and enjoy the natural beauty outside.