Being the typical uninformed American, I hadn’t known
that the country of Andorra even existed until I got my hands on a large,
detailed map of Europe near the beginning of my trip. This little sliver of
a country, land-locked and surrounded by France and Spain, seemed mysterious
and unusual. According to the online CIA Factbook, the entire country was
only “2 and ½ times the size of Washington D.C.” My curiosity
ran wild. I wanted to unlock the secrets of this obscure country and report
on it while pretending like I knew it was there all along. Oops. Stupid honesty.
To say that Andorra la Vella, the capital city of Andorra, was
a huge let down would be a disservice to all of the other things I have called
a “huge letdown.” In fact, it was a monstrous, stunning, flabbergasting
letdown of biblical proportions. Yeah, that about sums it up.
This scorching downer didn’t start immediately. In fact,
my first impression of the city had considerable potential. As you descend
into Andorra la Vella, population 32,000 - the entire country has just under
66,000 residents, only a quarter of which are actual Andorran citizens with
the remainder comprised mostly of Spanish ex-pats - you can see the entire
city in all its claustrophobic glory. The city is nestled in a gorge between
two gigantic mountain ranges. From the bottom, picturesque peaks and landscape
can be seen from any point in the city simply by looking above the rooftops
of the shoulder-to-shoulder apartment buildings that line the streets. The
sprawl of the city has required that new apartment buildings be built up,
seemingly hanging off the valley walls with narrow streets separating the
buildings, planed crosswise into the mountain. You don’t walk up the
streets in this part of town so much as you scale them.
After the short, but steep, walk from the bus station to my
pension (there isn’t a single hostel in all of Andorra), I set out to
explore the city and see what it held within its sharply rising streets and
alleys. The short answer was; one ostensibly bottomless ravine of choking,
I started to become a little disillusioned with the intentions
of Andorra la Vella’s tourism heavy industry as I walked block after
block only to see endless strings of shops selling nothing but watches, jewelry,
perfume, booze and electronics. I had been half looking for a grocery store
for a mid-afternoon fruit snack, but as I kept walking I saw nothing other
than more shops selling the exact same items, except for the streets that
had nothing but uninterrupted rows of hotels. Having done absolutely no research
on the subject, I can’t be sure, but I’d lay money that Andorra
la Vella has more hotel rooms per capita than Las Vegas.
It turns out that my duty-free comment wasn’t just a knee-jerk
assessment. A little reading in the Andorra Cultural Itinerary pamphlet that
I was given at one of the numerous tourism offices (they also have a higher
tourism office to tourist ratio that I have ever seen) revealed that in order
to further their tourist appeal, Andorra had somehow arranged a tax-free,
shopping utopia. It was truly a duty-free nation. One can walk into just about
any shop on the street and save a whopping 25% on their essential bottle of
CK1. On the flip side, you have to ask directions and steer way off the beaten
path to find someone who will sell you a fricking apple.
After walking through half the city and seeing endless shops
selling the exact same doo-doo at the exact same prices, things changed quite
suddenly as I entered the motor vehicle district. Now, instead of being surrounded
by shops selling the same five items, the streets were lined with automotive
related businesses. Car and motorcycle dealerships, garages, parts and accessory
stores and post-factory soup-up shops. This trend went on for about seven
blocks before the city abruptly ended at a small pasture at the foot of one
of the mountains. That was it. That was Andorra la Vella. Crappy shops, wall-to-wall
hotels and an obsessive automotive industry. I was starting to get annoyed.
I was also starting to feel physically ill.
The dull feeling of my head trying to implode had started on
my bus trip into Andorra la Vella during the climb into the Pyrenees, but
now the head throbbing was reaching a incapacitating, ice-pick-in-the-eyeball
crescendo and it was accompanied by an disquieting upset stomach. Moreover,
I found that I was strangely short of breath and there was a nasty burning
sensation in my nose. Suddenly I realized what the problem was. As I walked
the streets of Andorra la Vella, I was constantly assaulted by the exhaust
fumes of the non-stop parade of cars and motorcycles that were plainly not
regulated by any emissions standards. I kept on thinking that the foul air
was the result of me walking through rush hour on a busy street. But as I
walked out of the heart of the city and the rush hour time frame ended, the
air quality never seemed to improve. It eventually occurred to me that I had
not gotten down a full gulp of fresh air since I arrived in Andorra and the
fumes from all the motor vehicles were quite obviously causing my discomfort.
Then the full explanation hit me like racquetball to the groin... I was in
a city that loves its vehicles like wrestlers love lunch and that same city
was surrounded on all sides by enormous mountains. The valley was one huge
cesspool of carbon dioxide fumes. Like Mexico City, the surrounding mountains
prevented the pungent haze from circulating out and letting fresh air circulate
in. The carbon dioxide was going nowhere except into my lungs. Andorra la
Vella was slowly killing me!
Being newly and acutely aware of the situation, my condition
went downhill fast. The stomachache got worse. The inside of my nose was on
fire. I could feel thousands of oxygen-starved brain cells silently expiring
every minute and it affected my ability to think clearly. I was a basket case.
I started panting as I climbed hills, trying to get enough useable oxygen
to my brain, but it was hopeless.
Another thing I noticed was that although the traditional rush
hour time had long since expired, the streets were still hopelessly clogged,
requiring a supremely brave traffic cop at all decent sized intersections.
Andorra was like a tiny Los Angeles. The citizens drove everywhere,
thus traffic was bumper-to-bumper all the time. I couldn’t figure out
where all these people were going in their cars. I had just walked the entire
length of their largest city in less than 30 minutes. Honestly, who needs
a car or even a scooter when you live in a city that small? In fact, from
what I had gathered, there was little excuse to have a motor vehicle anywhere
in the entire country. One of the first things thrust upon me at
the tourist office was a full country map of Andorra. My mouth gaped open
as I noticed that the scale-distance ruler in the lower right hand corner
was measured in meters! Not miles. Not kilometers. Meters. By my
“calculations” (i.e. eyeballing the distance and then doing the
math on my fingers and toes, along with some generous guess-work) the widest
east-west span of Andorra was only about 20 kilometers (12.4 miles). After
factoring in the twisting and turning of the roads and all the uphill walking
you would be faced with, you could still probably walk the entire length of
the country in less than seven hours. Maybe nine hours if you walked backwards
and stopped for a long lunch. Assuming that they don’t commute from
one side of the country to the other, even if these people crawl
to work, they will still be on the road for less time than the average commuter
in the U.S. They clearly don’t need all of those cars and motorcycles.
Furthermore, when you consider the constant traffic congestion that Andorra
la Vella suffers from, the residents could easily walk to wherever they need
to go in less time than it would take to drive. Though come to think of it,
with the air quality being what it is, I suppose I would drive everywhere
too. A brisk walk up one of those hills can deplete your blood-oxygen levels
almost to the point of losing consciousness.
The air quality in the valley may also explain why so many Andorrans
smoke so heavily. Given the choice between filling my lungs with carbon dioxide
and nicotine, I’d probably choose the nicotine too. At least that way
I’d be able to get a nice little buzz while I waited for slow, sweet
embrace of death.
I struggled back to my pension as my various ailments worsened.
It occurred to me why the pension was on the top floor of the building. None
of the natives in that city were dumb enough to have an apartment up that
many flights of stairs. They’d never make it home at the end of the
day. I pictured worried little kids, sitting by the door wondering why daddy
hadn’t come home yet. Eventually the kids would open the door and find
daddy passed out between the second and third floors, puke dribbling out of
the side of his mouth.
I had pre-paid for two nights at the pension, so I was stuck
in Andorra la Vella for a minimum of 40 hours. Thirty-eight hours too long.
The one and only high point of my internment in Andorra la Vella
was the costly, but savory dinner that I managed to track down. The Baviera
restaurant was pricier than I would have usually tolerated, but I had chanced
upon a 20 euro note that someone had undoubtedly dropped while in the final
throes of Emphysema and it was begging to be spent. I ordered a brilliant,
magnificent meal. I started with a dish that was described something like
“marinated, seasoned mushrooms and shrimp,” but it turned out
to be a the classiest fricking omelet that I have every eaten, mixed with
savory scrambled eggs, piled on a flaky pastry. Then came the main course.
The most tender duck I have ever eaten, in raspberry sauce with mixed, sautéed
vegetable. I washed it all down with two glasses of white wine and finished
with four extravagantly presented chocolate truffles. Huhuhuhuh!
While I was eating I couldn’t help but notice that the
Baviera, indeed none of the restaurants in the fine dining alcove I was in,
had outdoor seating. Andorra la Vella, may be the only city in the world where
outdoor dining is shunned like the table next to men’s room. I visualized
a typical encounter at the hostess’ table:
Hostess: “Well, you’ll have to wait 90 minutes to
get a table in the dining room, but we can seat you out on the patio with
a stunning view of the mountains, valley and river right now.”
Patron: “Screw that! We’re going to Wendy’s.”
On my second day, I decided to do whatever was necessary to
get an inhalation of fresh air into me. Not only was I suffering on the streets,
but my pension room had the most dreadful, unidentifiable smell and I couldn’t
decide what was worse, having the window open or closed.
I walked to the neighboring community of Escaldes-Engordany,
Andorra’s second most populous city - in less than 20 minutes I might
add - to take pictures of the only cool building in the area; the hugely promoted
and over-priced Caldea Spa building. Then I kept moving out of town and up
the mountain where there was rumored to be some nature trails. Sure enough,
the higher I walked the fresher the air got, though I had to be careful not
to over-do the exertion. Seeing as how I was only getting a fraction of the
usual amount of usable oxygen into my lungs, I didn’t want to end up
passing out on the pavement and getting run over by a screaming Andorran on
his motor-cross bike. Eventually, I could go no further due to the road deteriorating
into a narrow mountain pass with no sidewalk and almost no shoulder. By now
the air quality was almost as good as one might find in the heart of downtown
Minneapolis. I stood there and breathed the wonderful, invigorating air for
a long interval before seeking out the nature trail, which was disappointingly
littered with trash and dog shit. I reluctantly took the trail back down and
into Andorra la Vella.
Though I cringe to do so, to be fair, I should mention that
according to the pile of pamphlets that I was enthusiastically burdened with
during my visit, the country of Andorra seems to have a fair number of seasonal
sporting activities for one to partake in if you are looking for something
other than a Rolex or getting a whale fin mounted on the trunk of your vehicle.
Andorra has supposedly squashed 275 kilometers (179 miles) of ski slopes at
five different resorts within its borders as well as numerous nature hikes
(though for the sake of your health, you should avoid any that take you below
the city skyline), horseback riding tours, kayaking/canoeing, rock climbing,
fishing, hunting, mountain biking and a few museums that you will love
if you are a car enthusiast. Zzzzzzz. Additionally, you can go on numerous
self-guided tours of the country, although you need a car to indulge in this
diversion (surprise, surprise). The Andorra Tourism Bureau has gone through
the daunting task of cataloging each and every item of significance in the
country and set up several varieties of tours for you to follow, each with
its own cute theme (i.e. “The Silent Valleys,” “Unforgettable
Scenery,” and “Gateway to Art”). They are obviously trying
a little too hard. These tours document each and every building, bridge, church,
sculpture, brick, rock and noteworthy blade of grass, no matter how minor,
exhausting every possible attraction that the entire country has to offer,
all in one little pamphlet. If I hadn’t been choking back dry heaves
and wiping away tears from my bloodshot eyes at the time, I would have almost
felt sorry for them.
I closed out my mercifully short stay in Andorra la Vella with
some over-price, over cooked lasagna and a glass of red wine, before retiring
to my stinky room where I breathed through my mouth non-stop until I got on
the first bus out of town at 6:30 the next morning.
Don’t go to Andorra la Vella.