Andorra, one of the tiniest European sovereign countries (its area is three times smaller than the area of London!) is known best as a skiing or shopping destination. The country's duty free policy attracts many visitors from neighboring states - they can purchase many goods (especially tobacco and alcohol) at much cheaper prices than at home - under strict EU rules. Although few come to Andorra for sightseeing and tourism, this little country has something else to offer - original architecture of the capital - Andorra la Vella, cozy villages, beautiful mountains and multiple hiking trails. My visit to Andorra was a completely spontaneous decision and I'm presenting my impressions, pros and cons about visiting this micro-state.
How to get to Andorra
Although squeezed between two of the most famous and well known countries in the world - France and Spain, Andorra remains a mystery to an ordinary tourist. And that's one of the reasons why I chose it!
I was visiting Paris for the first time with a couple of friends, and after getting horribly disappointed, we decided not to waste more time in the French capital and go somewhere crazy and unknown. We found a great deal - an overnight bus to Toulouse for 5 EUR(5.50 USD) (it was probably the worst bus journey in my life but for the price I have no rights to complain). From there, we took another bus to Andorra - this time, although the journey took only around 3 hours, it wasn't cheap at all - 36 EUR (41 USD).
Andorra has no airports so there are no flights there - but you can fly to three of the nearby cities and take a bus from there. And that's the easiest way to reach Andorra using public transport. Buses run from Toulouse, Barcelona Airport and Girona. You can check the exact timetable and buy the tickets online here.
Andorra on a budget and first impressions
The route leading from Toulouse to Andorra is particularly picturesque - many sleepy villages scattered here and there among Pyrenees - the higher they get the closer you are to Andorra.
I visited Andorra in April and the snowy peaks of the hills and mountains looked quite impressive. The first bus stop after crossing Andorra's border from France is the village made almost entirely by shopping malls and stores - it's here where most of French come for shopping.
Then, luckily it gets better. Next villages were nice and cozy with beautiful houses and old stone churches surrounded by spectacular mountains - this is what I like! However, while getting off at Andorra la Vella bus station, one thing struck me - that this small country seemed so perfect! A little bit too perfect, at times. I had the impression that I was in an artificial town created as a movie set! To be honest, I feel better in a more chaotic, vibrant, less posh environment. That's why Balkans is my favorite region in the world! The surrounding mountains and beautiful nature, however, made up for all that "too perfect" inconvenience. Nevertheless, if you love luxurious things, spas, hotels and at the same time silence and nature, you'll like Andorra!
There's one more thing which is not so nice about Andorra - the prices! Although some items are cheaper due to duty free policy, the cost of food in restaurants and accommodation is very high. Despite that, we managed to rent a very nice apartment on Airbnb with a kitchen, washing machine and a great view over Andorra la Vella for a fraction of the price we'd have had to pay if staying in a hotel. So, if you're on a tight budget that's the way to go!
What to see in Andorra
Andorra la Vella
The capital of Andorra - Andorra la Vella is the size of a small, sleepy town. It has a vibrant feel to it, though. As I mentioned before, Andorra la Vella seems perfect. All the buildings are in an ideal condition - the river is regulated and the architecture is a wise mix of old and modern.
First building that you will notice is, without a doubt, the only high-rise structure in the city. It looks like a church, and at first I really thought it was a church! But a church made entirely out of glass? And there was no cross on top so there was something wrong. The building I'm talking about is a spa center called Caldea. I'm not fan of spas - I prefer nature and mountains but if you are, you can find a price list here - it starts from around 30 EUR (33 USD).
Walking further down towards the city center (along the river), you'll notice that Andorra la Vella is filled with many kind of weird and interesting statues and monuments. Right at the white modern bridge, you'll see a clock - a statue which resembles the Dali's famous painting - "Persistence of Memory". The information center is located right beside.
Following down the river, you'll end up in the old town within a couple of minutes. Here, you can admire the 12th century Saint Esteve's Church, old town square and the 16-th century Casa de la Vall - the seat of Andorran Parliament. What's more - you'll see even more strange statues - work of modern art - like for example street lamps in the shape of a sitting man!
Try the hiking routs around the old town (called Rec del Sola and Rec de'l Obac). Perfect for a picnic, or just admiring the peaceful surroundings on a nice, sunny day.
Engolasters Lake Trail
What is great about small towns in the mountains is the fact that you can start hiking right from the town center. If you love beautiful views, lakes and walking - try the Engolasters Lake trail. From the district of Escaldes in Andorra de Vella, go towards d'Engolasters Road (on the way, see Saint Pere Martir's Church - incorporated into a modern street). Now you can either follow the curvy road or go up following one of the paths. It's an easy and rewarding hike. Unfortunately for the lazy ones, there are no buses to Engolasters Lake - the only option is to walk.
The country side is beautiful and there's another lonely stone church along the way - Saint Miquel Engolasters Church.
The entire hike from Andorra la Vella to the Engolasters Lake may take around 4 hours. And there really is no point to walk down back to Andorra la Vella the same road. Instead, go to the other corner of the lake and go down the path through the woods to the village of Encamp. This is what we did and it was a great idea! From there, you can catch a public bus back to Andorra la Vella.
Hiking in the Pyrenees
Andorra offers many hiking opportunities in the Pyrenees. The most impressive is the region with the highest peaks - the starting point is in the village of Arinsal. You can easily catch a bus from Andorra la Vella and get off at the last stop in Arinsal (line 5 - you can find the timetable here). Walk through the tunnel and you'll end up at the beginning of the trail.
Our goal was to reach Andorra's highest peak - Coma Pedrosa but unfortunately, although the temperature was around 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit), in the upper parts of the mountains, there was still too much snow. Nevertheless, the views were breathtaking, the air was fresh and it was really pleasant. If you ever have a chance to hike in Andorra, do it in the summer.
If you want, however, to do some hiking in Europe in early spring, choose Tatra Mountains in Poland - this is the best time to witness an amazing natural phenomenon - millions of crocuses cover mountainous meadows with a purple carpet of flowers! Have a look here at my article about it.
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