Where: Andorra, a tiny country in the Pyrenees Mountains, between France and Spain. We stayed in Andorra de Vella the capital.
When: November 2015
Why: What do you get a husband who loves travel for his 30th birthday when you don’t have a huge amount of cash? For me, I bought Jeff trips to two countries that he hadn’t visited before, so that he could knock them off his list; but that could be accessed by budget-airlines: Andorra and Liechtenstein.
Andorra is a strange place. Hidden away in a valley between France and Spain, it’s a micro-nation that seems to have defined itself by being duty-free. It’s a rich country: half French, half Spanish, a little bit Catalan; full of shops, surrounded by beautiful mountains. I’m not sure what to make of it.
I first visited Andorra in 1985, whilst on a family holiday to the Spanish costas. My parents took us all on an overnight trip to see this mini-country. I don’t remember a huge amount from this trip, apart from steep mountains, watching the sun set over the crest of the mountain and being amazing that I could actually see the sun move; and going on a trip where the driver nearly reversed over the side of a mountain. I think we stayed in Andorra de Vella, but I don’t remember where or what else we did (I was only 6). I also remember someone asking my dad if he could sneak some duty-free cigarettes out of Andorra by saying they were his, as this was pre-EU days and the borders were a lot stricter then.
I do remember really liking Andorra though and thinking it was really beautiful. So 30 years later, with my new husband, I ended up going back.
Jeff turned 30 in October and I didn’t know what to get my travel mad love that wouldn’t cost too much. We are slowly trying to visit every country in the world, so in the end I decided to take advantage of the great budget airline deals that are prevalent in October/November, and bought him trips to Andorra and Liechtenstein.
Andorra is not a place that you would naturally visit: it’s not en-route from any major destinations and it’s hidden away in the mountains. Public transport is limited and it’s quite a drive to get there.
Our trip was super fast: we flew to Barcelona early on Saturday, drove to Andorra and got there mid-afternoon, then left at lunchtime on Sunday ready for our flight back to the UK in the early evening. It was worth it though and it was wonderful to be in Spain and Andorra again. The drive to Andorra was stunning, there was a dusting of snow on the mountains, the sun shone and though we were tired, we had a great time.
I’m still not sure what to make of Andorra, but I’d definitely go back – even just for the shopping.
October and November are great times to travel in Europe and this is when you can get the best budget-airline flight deals. A good trick for getting the best deals is to sign up for the airlines e-newsletters and then they will email you as soon as the flight deals come out. Also, it’s well worth keeping an eye on skyscanner and using their everywhere destination feature.
We flew from Birmingham to Barcelona with Monarch and then flew back with Norwegian. The flights cost about £30 each way, per person. Both airlines were good and Norwegian even had free wifi in the sky, which I thought was brilliant.
To get to Andorra from Barcelona airport or Barcelona central you can get a direct bus with Direct Bus. It takes about 4 and a half hours and costs €33.50 for a single adult ticket (March 2016).
For us, as we were on limited time and as I have driven extensively in Spain before, we decided to hire a car to drive to Andorra. We hired our car with Sixt and it cost €100 for two days hire with reduced excess. We checked before we booked that we could take the car into another country.
There’s two main routes to get to Andorra from Barcelona: one route takes the fast roads A2/C16 (which has tolls) and the other route goes via the C14 and the A2 (with no tolls). We drove to Andorra on the fast A2/C16 route and the tolls came to about €20 in total. The roads were smooth, it was really dramatic and gorgeous after Burges and we got to drive through the ace Cadi Tunnel, which is 5km (3.1 miles) long.
We hit a little bit of traffic going into Andorra, and I get the impression that this is normal. Otherwise, the roads were pretty clear.
Coming back, we decided to take the non-toll route and this was perhaps even more dramatic and beautiful. As this was a normal highway, we drove through more Spanish communities, past Sunday markets and people out having lunch; we drove through dramatic gorges, saw hundreds of peak-top castles, and spent the whole drive just going “woooooooow!”. We did get a little lost, but we worked it out using Google maps, and in the end the journey time was about the same.
The Visit Andorra website has information on how to get to Andorra from a number of regional airports, by car, by bus and by train. It’s a bit of a fiddly website to use but has loads of useful info and links.
What we did on our night away
So we really just went to Andorra to see Andorra. We knew we were going to have a super fast trip here. This trip was primarily about the journey and seeing a part of the world that we don’t normally visit.
What I love about quick trips like this is the reminder that there are really interesting, different places so close to us in the UK. It only took us two hours to get to Barcelona (the same time as it takes me to get to London), but in those two hours we’d travelled to a world of sunshine, peak top castles, dramatic mountains, baocadillos and tapas. And it cost us less than a standard return train ticket to London.
October 2015 was a stressful time for me at work; England was cold and grey, and we hadn’t quite got into the Christmas count-down yet – so to go and feel the sun on our skin, get some fresh mountain air and have an adventure was just what we needed. I got to practice my Spanish, try out some Catalan, speak French and to see a quieter part of Spain. Two weeks after this trip, we visited Oviedo in Asturias, northern Spain, and it was a complete contrast to this dry area.
The road trip was interesting. I was really scared at first as I hadn’t driven on the left hand side for two years, but the roads were pretty good and so I soon got back into it. We got out of the Barcelona area pretty quickly and then headed north, towards the mountains. The first part of our journey was a little depressing: many of the towns we passed looked very poor, industrial and had a lot of half-built apartment complexes. There was a strange dusty light hanging over everything, which gave the land a slightly mournful, claustrophobic air. Many of the roadside cafes and service stations were shut. Also, we were quite tired from our early start and so this affected us, I think. There were still some amazing things to see though: we passed the monastery at Montserrat, some beautiful romanesque churches and cliff hanging, peak top castles.
We stopped for lunch at a strange campsite place just outside Berga. It had been advertised as a service station, but it was a cafe attached to a campsite leisure centre (Berga Resort Mountain and Wellness centre) and we felt a bit strange going in – but we were hungry and they had bocadillos. It was interesting as the menu was in Catalan, but we were able to work it out and order ourselves some delicious crunchy sarnies.
After Berga and after lunch the drive improved. The sun came out, the scenery became much more dramatic, there were lakes and big bends in the road and looong tunnels – and then when we turned off the main highway and drove along the base of the Pyrenees there were river side meadows and gorges, small pretty towns, castles galore. The driving was a lot more gentle on this quieter road and it was nice to pootle along through small towns.
There’s one main road into Andorra from Spain. This is a pretty modern highway but we got caught in a traffic jam here, and I get the impression that this is a pretty regular thing. Once we drove through the border (where we weren’t stopped) the rest of our trip to Andorra la Vella was mostly through Andorran towns (which all seemed to be one long town to me), past the huge malls and car showrooms, with towering mountains on either side.
Driving in Andorra de Vella was a pain in the bum: the roads were really tight and narrow, some of the drivers were a little aggressive and the road signs weren’t great (at one point they disappeared), but we found if we just went slowly we could find our way and maneuver. There was quite a lot of parking in the centre and though the machines were hard to understand, we did work it out in the end and didn’t get fined.
One the Sunday, we went for a little pootle around some of the higher up mountain resorts. It was fun to zoom through the tunnels and over the overpasses, and to see some of the more outlying villages. We didn’t have a lot of time to explore so we didn;t tackle any of the high peaks or go onto any of the really fun, dramatic looking roads – but we did have a nice drive around in the sunshine.
Coming back from Andorra to Barceona, we took the C14/A2 route and this was really dramatic. There were amazing muntains, gorges, high peaks, stupendous high passes. This was a wonderful drive and we really enjoyed the return trip- even if we did get lost.
We stayed in the centre of Andorra de Vella, the main town in Andorra. Andorra de Vella is a nice town, cut through by a white-water river, surrounded by high peaks.
Much of the town centre is based around shops. There seemed to be two main shopping high streets, on either side of the river. We stayed on one of them.
There was a nice pedestrianised area over the river (literally over the river), and on this platform there was some pretty artwork (including a statue of Dali’s melting clocks), the information centre and some restaurants.
Apart from the shops and the pretty setting, there wasn’t a huge amount in the town. The shopping was pretty good though. There were a lot of duty free style shops, with perfume etc, but then there were also some high street clothes shops with pretty cool bargains (I got a gorgeous throw from Zara) and there was a large supermarket in the centre with nice food and preposterously cheap booze. If Jeff and I move to Spain, as we plan to, then we will so come here for duty-free shopping.
What we didn’t do
There’s a really nice spa in Andorra de Vella called Caldea. They have night spas and lots of wonderful pools, inside and outside. We planned to go here, but then we went for tapas and wine instead. Looking at the pictures on the website, I think we made a mistake because this place looks amazing!
Three hour general entrance is €37.50 and the night spa, which is for two hours, is €31 (as of March 2016).
The website is only in Spanish, Catalan and French, but the booking request form is on the front page and pretty easy to understand: www.caldea.com.
Apparently you can ski in Andorra and my colleague says it is a great place for skiing. I don’t know anything about this sort of thing, but Wikitravel has more info about skiing in Andorra.
Ventured up into the high peaks
We went for a little drive on our second day to go and have a little look-see at the country. We didn’t get right high up into the mountains or take any of the majorly dramatic roads, but we did drive up to some of the nice resorts higher up in the hills.
On my previous trip, when I was six, we’d taken a bus tour into the mountains and I remember it being slightly alpine, but also with moor-lands and meadows (I might be remembering wrong). At one point our driver pretended to nearly drive us off a cliff. That was fun.
Where we stayed
Hotel de l’Isard
I booked de l’Isard because it’s central and cheap and the name sounds slightly like Izzard and I love Eddie Izzard, the comedian.
It was warm and basic, had a good cafe, great buffet breakfast included and nice views of the surrounding mountains. It was very central and on one of the main streets in town. It was slightly dated, but as we were just staying for one night we didn’t really care.
The double room cost us €59 (£45) and we booked it via booking.com.
Where we ate and drank
We didn’t go into Don Denis at first as we thought it was racist. It had a gollywog on its menu, and so we thought we’d better not support such a place. But then we couldn’t find anywhere else to eat (apart from a strange fake-prison place, with fake prison models. I wanted to eat here but Jeff didn’t like the menu), it was getting late and Don Denis had the most perfect menu and set up – so our principles became less important than our.desire for a good meal (we’re so weak in the face of Iberrico ham).
The main restaurant had hams hanging from the ceiling and walls full of booze bottles. There were photos everywhere of the owners with celebrities, and there was a great, buzzy atmosphere inside. It was busy but they had a huge extra space downstairs and we were served pretty quickly down here. We had a wonderful meal of grilled meat and veg, with lots of wonderful freebies thrown in, including tapas (nuts, cheese and chorizo), chocolates and champagne. I ordered a mini-wine and they bought me a whole stand-alone ice bucket for it, which made me giggle. It was a warm, wonderful place to eat, with delicious food and great service and I’d definitely return here.
Please note, some, if not much of this information may not be correct, or may be out of date. All these articles show is how we found these places when we visited and what we personally thought of each place. Where possible I will include links to site which will contain more up-to-date info. All of this is my own work and any opinion expressed is that of the author only.
If you think I’ve missed something important or have got something wrong, please let me know in the comments section below.
All photos copyright of J Clemo-Halpenny. If you would like to copy or reproduce any of these images, please email me to ask permission.