Many people think of the tiny principality of Andorra, hidden on the border between France and Spain, as a ski destination. But there are plenty of pastures new to explore when the snow melts
Nestling in the Pyrenees, and measuring barely 32km by 32km, landlocked Andorra may be tiny but it has plenty to offer those who love the great outdoors - and not just during the busy winter ski season. More than 1,500 species of flora and fauna flourish in the Andorran countryside and in the warmer months, the snow-covered slopes and meadows of winter make way for a blanket of flowers and luxuriant grass. The craggy, mountainous scenery, made up of 65 peaks, creates a breathtaking backdrop to unspoilt villages and the cosmopolitan capital of Andorra la Vella, which is a VAT and duty-free shopping haven.
Whilst it’s easy to organise a twin-centre break, combining a trip to Andorra with a stay in Spain or France, Andorra stands up as a destination in its own right. Although it doesn’t have an airport - plans for one are in the pipeline - or railway, Andorra is crossed by a main road that provides easy links with the neighbouring countries. The nearest airport gateways are Barcelona and Toulouse, which are both 180km away, with a road transfer time of around three hours.
Walkers and outdoor enthusiasts will never be stuck for something to do, as Andorra has three natural parks, including the UNESCO-listed glacial valley of the Madriu-Perafita-Claror. Dotted with azure blue lakes, tumbling streams, old shepherd’s cabins and traditional dry stone walls, it was where we headed on our first day.
Well signposted trails make it easy to go on a self-guided tour, but our walk really came to life with guide Mark Crichton from the Experiencia en Muntanya organisation. Escorted walks range from gentle strolls to challenging hikes on the highest peaks, complete with a thrilling helicopter transfer. When we landed we really felt we were miles from anywhere and totally surrounded by nature. With no airport, the only overhead sound you’ll hear is birdsong, which adds to the feeling of total tranquillity.
Mark brought the lie of the land to life, stopping to discuss plants and animals and generally share a wealth of knowledge that comes with 15 years as a professional mountain leader. We spotted the poet’s narcissus, the symbolic white flower of Andorra that flourishes among the red pines, oaks, birches and fir trees, and glimpsed a sure-footed chamois goat darting up steep mountain tracks. At lunchtime we stopped off at one of the sparsely-furnished mountain huts, which offer free respite to walkers, and tucked into sandwiches and a welcome glass or two of wine, which set us up for the afternoon descent.
The next day we had the rather incongruous experience of sharing a mountain gondola, which would be packed with skiers and boarders in colder months, with a group of mountain-bikers getting ready to head down the snow-free pistes. Many ski resorts offer a host of different attractions during the summer, which will particularly appeal to sporty types and families. We discovered plenty going on at the Vallnord Mountain Park, including quad biking, pony trekking, go-karts, mountain biking and archery. All equipment and tuition is provided by English-speaking staff and after an exciting quad bike expedition and karting session we were ready to relax in the open-air cafe.
Centuries of history have created Andorra’s architectural and cultural heritage. Visitors are often surprised that such a small nation has more than 40 churches in its valleys, along with beautifully preserved medieval bridges. One of the most noteworthy churches is Santa Coloma, in Andorra la Vella, which dates back to the 9th century and is one of the few with a circular bell tower.
Picturesque Pal, with its Andorra Romanic Museum, is one village that also shouldn’t be missed. Guided tours of the church, which also has a distinctive bell tower and intricate wall murals, can be arranged, and afterwards you can wander around the narrow streets and soak up the tranquil atmosphere.
For such a small principality, there is certainly no shortage of places to eat. In fact, Andorra boasts around 350 restaurants. Good choices for visitors on a budget are bordas, traditional Andorran houses that have been converted into welcoming, rustic restaurants. Sandwiched between two countries that are both renowned for their food and wine, Andorran dishes are heavily influenced by Catalan and French cuisine. A delicious, and often hearty combination of ingredients and flavours, many dishes are based on traditional recipes handed down over the years.
It’s usual to start a meal with an assorted dish of appetisers to share, which is a great way to try different dishes. Tasty starters include a mouth-watering tomato and garlic bread, where the ingredients are brought to the table in a large basket. Simply cut a garlic clove in two and rub over the sliced bread according to taste, drizzle over some olive oil and then cut a tomato half and squeeze some of the juice over the top. Delicious!
Main course specialities include trinxat (a dish made with strips of pork, cabbage, potatoes and yet more garlic), fresh river trout, home-made sausages and local tupi cheese. Just the thing when you’ve worked up an appetite after a day in the fresh air. Moli del Fanals, in the village of Sispony, two miles outside Andorra la Vella, is a typical example of an atmospheric family-owned restaurant with an extensive menu of traditional treats.
And if you’ve got a few post-hike aches chill out in Caldea, the largest recreational spa complex in southern Europe. The futuristic building, a focal point in the centre of Andorra la Vella, is home to a huge range of water-based treatments, pools and thermal water baths, suitable for swimmers and non-swimmers alike. You can swim outside in warm water, whatever the weather, and be carried along by the current in a novel artificial river.
Scheduled and charter flights are available from London and regional airports. Carriers to Toulouse include British Airways, flybe, bmibaby and easyJet. Airlines flying to Barcelona include British Airways, Iberia, Lufthansa, Monarch and easyJet.
Where to stay
Andorra has 11 campsites, including the two-star Camping Borda d'Ansalonga in the Ordino Valley, which has a heated outdoor swimming pool and barbecue area. Prices start from around £5.65 per person, per day, excluding tax. An Aparthotel with completely furnished apartments is available next door to the camping site.
There are 29 mountain huts, offering free shelter for walkers and trekkers, in the main walking areas and along mountain paths. They are all unstaffed except for the Comapedrosa and els Cortals de Sispony huts, which are manned in summer and offer meals and accommodation from around £6 per night, per person.
Ahotels Princep, in the heart of Andorra’s main shopping area and five minutes from the Caldea hot baths, has double rooms from approximately £70 per night, including breakfast.
Experiencia en Muntanya offers a range of guided outdoor activities included trekking, canyoning and rock climbing for all ages and experience levels.
Vallnord Mountain Park summer pass costs around £28 for adults and £23 for children and includes use of ski lifts, one hour of mountain biking, a 30-minute archery session, karting and other activities.
Caldea spa is open daily (closed for improvement works June 2-12 2009) and admission costs from £30, with three and five-day passes available. Massages and treatments are available at extra cost.