Existing as an anomaly in Europe, the once isolated little nation of Andorra is becoming a popular tourist destination. Tucked high in the Pyrenees between France and Spain, tiny Andorra has been an independent country since 1278, jointly ruled by the French Head of State and a Spanish bishop until it made those titles mere formalities during the 20th century. Most Americans do not even know that Andorra exists unless they’re avid skiers or geography buffs, but Andorra’s 60,000 citizens welcome more and more tourists to its attractions each year. After all, over three-quarters of the country’s gross domestic product comes from the tourism industry.
Like Monaco, Andorra attracts some rich residents who seek to avoid the income taxes levied by most other countries. But these folks will find that Andorra is more “hidden” and less accessible than its Riviera counterpart. In fact, Andorra even lacks an airport. The only way to reach the little nation-state is to wind through Pyrenees on roads from France or Spain. Bus service from Toulouse or Barcelona is usually the best way for tourists to see Andorra’s attractions.
So what are the attractions? Because Andorra is comprised of towns and villages sprinkled among mountains and valleys in the Pyrenees, the most popular tourist spots are ski resorts, spas, and the rugged landscape itself, but there are also old churches and other architecture of interest. Visiting Andorra is much like visiting northern Spain or Southern France, and tourist facilities are well-developed. Many people speak English, French, or Spanish – even though Catalan is the official language.
Thermal Spas in Andorra
Caldea. Calling itself the “largest mountain thermoludic center in Europe,” this strange-looking spired spa stands in sharp architectural contrast with the otherwise quaint Andorran setting. Renowned for its thermal origins, which many believe to have therapeutic, healing qualities, Caldea’s Escales Engordany waters spring at temperatures as high as 68 degrees Celsius (154 degrees Fahrenheit!), and the spa modifies this sulfur-heavy water to fit its various treatments, including its exotic grapefruit water bath. Any sort of facial mud mask, massage, or water therapy you can imagine is offered here, but Caldea is more than just a simple spa. It’s a relaxation center and resort, with multiple restaurants, bars, and shops. Like an oasis in the Pyrenees, Caldea welcomes weary travelers to its pools and saunas for surprisingly reasonable prices. Just 78 Euros ($92) will buy you a three-day pass to Caldea, but even cheaper passes are also available for three and five hour stints. Though it can be quite busy, especially during the summer months and on weekends, Caldea is a must-see attraction in Andorra.
Termes Carlemany. Avoid the crowds at Caldea by visiting a smaller, less prestigious spa in the same town of Escales Engordany (a section of the capital, Andorra la Vella). Termes Carlemany, part of the Hotel Carlemany, offers thermal water treatments, including hydro-massage with salts and algae, among its many rejuvenating services. Though its offerings are less extensive and less renowned than those at Caldea, Termes Carlemany is a bit more private.
Snow Sports in Andorra
Grand Valira. Situated near the border with France are the ski and snowboarding stations of Pas de la Casa and Soldeu el Tartar, part of the Grand Valira ski operations. This is a full-scale ski haven which was recently expanded during 2003-2004. Andorra has considered bidding for Winter Olympic games and is planning to use these slopes to help convince officials that their tiny nation can host an international winter event.
Vallnord. Similar to Grand Valira but considered somewhat less challenging for more sophisticated skiers and snowboarders, Vallnord offers two sectors, Ordino-Arcalis and Pal-Arsinal.
La Rabassa. Though most ski resorts in Andorra focus on downhill skiing, La Rabassa is known for its cross country runs. Offering snowshowing, sledding, snowmobiling, and cross-country skiing, the resort is popular with families because there’s something for tourists of all skill levels. And if you though dog-sledding was only popular in Alaska, think again: La Rabassa is also a training center for mushing, Pyrenees-style.
Palau de Gel d’Andorra. If you want Andorra’s take on the late ’70s roller disco fad, visit the Palau de Gel for ice disco. The music is updated to European club beats and the roller skates become ice skates, but the gawdiness and fun are ever-present. This skating place offers traditional ice skating too, but the disco nights are so novel that they must be experienced.
Casa de la Vall. Home to Andorra’s parliament, this intimate and well-adorned government building dates back to 1580, when it was a private residence belonging to a noble family of sorts, the Busquets. Civic officials purchased the building and fitted it for government use in the early 1700s. Important paperwork was kept in a special locked cabinet that required seven different keys, each held by a different official to ensure cooperation among leaders of Andorran divisions. Though it houses the legislative and judicial functions of Andorra, Casa de la Vall open for tours.
Churches. Many old churches in the Roman Catholic country of Andorra date from the 12th century and feature Romanesque stone architecture with wooden altars and icons. Notable churches include St. Martin’s in Ordino, which features murals over 900 years old. Santa Coloma church (in the capital) has a wooden Virgin Mary icon dating from the 1100s as well, and this carving is popular with the devout. The churches of St, Michael and St. Stephen also offer tourists a taste of medieval stone architecture.
Castle of Sant Vicent d’Enclar. What would a tiny European country be without a castle to overlook its capital? The Santa Coloma part of Andorra la Vella can be seen from this dramatic vantage point, a medieval Catholic enclave on a hill. With records of construction dating from before the year 1000, this was a spot for Church nobility during the turn of the first milennium. As the Spanish Bishop of Urgel shared oversight of Andorra, he and his attendants used the small compound-like castle as a post.