Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Andorra la Vella, Andorra

Posted on 10/19/03

My ears popped and squeaked like a babbling drunk dolphin as the bus climbed into the Pyrenees mountains. Driving through these mountain passes reminded me of a similar trip through the mountains of Norway back in June. Awesome scenery and alarmingly daring driving on tiny, winding roads bordered by sheer cliff-sides. Some of the towns we were passing seemed a little odd. Even in the smaller farm towns, there were few, if any houses. There were only abnormally large apartment buildings, which looked extremely out of place standing next to cow pastures.

Being the typical uninformed American, I hadn’t known that Andorra even existed until I got my hands on a large 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 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) you can see the entire city in all its claustrophobic glory. The city is nestled in a natural crater between two gigantic mountain ranges. Once you are at the heart of the crater, 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 right up and onto the valley walls, requiring a climb up a daunting staircase to jaunt from one street the next.

As you can see, I was really stretching to take pictures of anything that was mildly interesting.

After the short, but steep, walk from the bus station to my pension, 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 mondo duty-free shop. I started to become a little disillusioned with the intentions of Andorra’s tourism heavy industry as I walked block after block only to see endless strings of shops selling 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. There were also a remarkable number of hotels. Having done absolutely no research on the subject, I can’t be sure, but my best estimate is 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 intensive society. It was truly a duty-free nation. One could walk into just about any shop and save a whopping 8% on their essential bottle of CK1. On the flip side, you had to ask directions and steer way off the beaten path to find someone who would sell you a fricking apple.

After walking through half the city and seeing countless 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 during the climb into the Pyrenees, but it had faded after I blew my ears open, SCUBA style, which if you believe in old wives tales, will ultimately result in me blasting out my eardrums someday. But now the head throbbing was back and it was accompanied by an 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 loved their 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 choking 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. My nose was on fire. I could feel thousands of brain cells dying 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 oxygen to my brain, but it was hopeless.

Another thing I noticed was that although the traditional rush hour time had 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 motorcycle 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 country. Everything was within easy walking distance. One of the first things thrust upon me at the tourist office was a full map of the entire country 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. You could walk the entire length of the country in less than eight hours. Maybe ten hours if you walked backwards and stopped for a long lunch. Assuming they weren’t commuting from one side of the country to the other, even if these people crawled to work, they would still be on the road for less time than the average commuter in the Twin Cities. They clearly didn’t need all of those cars and motorcycles. They just loved their vehicles so much that they drove everywhere further than the mailbox. Furthermore, when you considered the constant traffic congestion that the city suffered from, the residents could have easily walked to wherever they needed to go in less time than it would take to drive. Though come to think of it, with the air quality being what it was, I suppose I would have driven everywhere too. A brisk walk up one of those hills could deplete your blood-oxygen levels almost to the point of losing consciousness.

The air quality in the valley may have also explained why so many of the Andorrans smoked so heavily. If I had to choose between filling my lungs with carbon dioxide or nicotine, I’d probably choose the nicotine too. At least that way you were able to get a nice little buzz while you waited for slow, sweet 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.

I tried to make the best of it and sought out one of the only two internet cafes I found in the city to lose myself in friendly emails. It was getting late. As I walked in the Asian guy behind the desk obviously wanted to go home, but I promised to be in and out in less than 30 minutes and he relented. As I waited for him to activate a computer for me, I noticed that the guy had a mole on his cheek that had, I kid you not, three hairs growing out of it that were at least four inches long. These hairs were accentuated by the fact that the rest of his face was clean shaven. There were just these three, long, black hairs dangling down the side of his face. I was spellbound by these hairs. What had happened in this guy’s life that had caused him to let just these three hairs grow wildly? And how did the hairs not get accidentally caught and ripped out during every day grooming? Something very weird was going on here, but the internet service was two and a half Euros an hour, so I didn’t have the time to unravel the enigma at that moment, though it kept me awake later that night.

As I was bum-rushed out of the internet café, I looked down and saw to my surprise what appeared to be a five Euro note laying on the ground. I picked it up nonchalantly and kept walking out the door in case the freaky Asian guy wanted to try to make a claim on the bill. As I walked down the street chuckling to myself, I unfolded the note and saw that it was a 20! My brief confusion stemmed from the fact that Euro notes are all color-coded and for some reason the fives and the 20s are both blue/gray (pictured). My quick visit and the unwelcome case of the heebie jeebies suffered at the hands of the café attendant’s weird facial hair had paid off big time. I stopped at an expensive restaurant to spend my booty. The resulting meal was easily the highlight of my stay in Andorra la Vella.

The Baviera restaurant was pricier than I would have usually bothered with, but I had a red hot, hard earned 20 Euro note in my hands, 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 (pictured). 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.

That evening I returned to the internet café with the guy with the three mole hairs. While doing my best to not stare at the hairs, I convinced him to unlock the CD drive on one of his computers so I could upload files to my web site. The guy stood around me nervously the whole time, worried that rather than uploading picture and text files to my site, I might instead be unleashing the latest devastating worm onto the internet. After he relaxed a little, we talked about travel and travel writing. He turned me on to a book written by a British guy that was elegantly titled “Don’t Go to France.” The book sounded hilarious, but the information was poorly timed as I was leaving for France before dawn on the following day. I decided do my best to seek out this book and, if possible, read it cover-to-cover while I was still in France, if only for the novelty of sitting in a French restaurant and voraciously reading the book in clear view of the natives. I’m such a trouble maker.

To be fair, I should mention that according to the pile of pamphlets that I was enthusiastically burdened with during my visit, 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. Although you need a car to indulge in several of these activities (surprise, surprise), you can go on numerous self-guided tours of the country. The Andorra Tourism Bureau went through the daunting task of cataloging each and every item of significance in the country and set up numerous varieties of tours for you to follow, each with its own cute title (i.e. “The Silent Valleys,” “Unforgettable Scenery,” and “Gateway to Art”). They were obviously trying a little too hard. They covered each and every building, bridge, church, sculpture and brick, detailing the importance of every noteworthy blade of grass, no matter how minor, until they had exhausted every possible attraction that the country had to offer in one pamphlet.

Andorra also boasts 275 kilometers of ski slopes at five different resorts, numerous nature hikes (though for the sake of your health, you should avoid any that take you below the city skyline), horseback riding, kayaking/canoeing, rock climbing, fishing, hunting, mountain biking and a few museums that you will love if you are a car enthusiast. Zzzzzzz.

One thing you should know before entering Andorra is that there is very little in the way of English to be found anywhere in the country. Their first language is Catalan, but just about everyone also admirably speaks Spanish and French. Hence, English is typically their fourth or fifth language and few restaurants, shops and/or people bother with much beyond the first three. This required me to really be on my game with the Spanish. On the surface, this seemed to go strangely against the rest of Andorra’s overly tourist friendly tendencies, but hey, if I could speak three languages with passable fluency, I’d be pretty damn ecstatic with myself and everyone else could go screw themselves.

I ended my final day in Andorra la Vella with some decent lasagna, a glass of red wine and then retired to my stinky room where I breathed through my mouth non-stop until I left for the bus station at 6:30 the next morning.

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