Visit Andorra Now
By Aaron Binder
Centuries have passed, generations have slipped in and out of existence – most forgotten and buried in graves long paved over by modern highways for cars traveling from Destination A to the usual Destination B and sometimes on weekends to the mistresses house. We don’t get long as conscious beings and we need to continue enjoying it, otherwise we end up as some sort of cosmic punch line about the humans on a linear timescale never living up to any sort of potential aside from taking air from people that deserve it.
That in mind, why the hell haven’t you visited Andorra yet?
The tiny nation of Andorra sports just on the other side of 80,000 residents and spans a whopping 468 square kilometres in a good year. Often called Europe’s Shopping Mall, this tiny country’s tax-haven status lends itself to retail and banking industries as much as it does to arguably the best hiking and skiing in the world. Their architecture is marvelous too.
You could be spending your weekends with the mistress or you could be enjoying one of the weirdest places culture has birthed in the last millennium. Originally gaining a measure of independence in the 1400’s, this region became a dual principality, a formality it still holds today with the President of France and the Bishop of Urgell both holding what is now a figure-head position in their government. If that sounds confusing, it is, Andorra is the only country on Earth with this dual-country power structure and this presents itself in the architecture, culture and especially the multiple languages spoken – Catalan, English, French, German – Andorra is the Switzerland of the Southwest with cooler bridges and magnificent churches.
There lies a strange cultural balance in the air of Andorra, the country is in touch with the rest of the continent but distant in its remoteness, sandwiched between two romantic nations they’ve been left mostly to their own ingenuity to build an economy. Lately it has been tourism but international banking also comprises of a large segment of the tiny country’s GDP making it the perfect spot for high-flying luxury tourism – drop a million in the bank and then hit world-class ski slopes.
Parliament buildings are often pompous monuments to the self-proclaimed glory of government and designed to create an impression of power and progress. Then you have Casa de la Vall, the centre of Andorra’s federal government for centuries, originally built for a prominent family as a residential lodge. It stands on its own as an elegant piece of architecture and gains its governmental power from the hundreds of years it helped hold together stable administrations – a government building in reverse of the norm. In 2011, Andorra opened their new parliament building, even a country with 80,000 people can outgrow itself, and unveiled a structure fitting of its surroundings. Integrating natural stone into the front facade, it matches the traditional Spanish architecture most of the country is known for while taking on a modern flair with massive panels creating focal points and texture to an otherwise rectangular building.
Andorra was considered a back-water, if it was considered at all, for ages until the liberalization of the European Union helped open its doors to travelers. Andorra doesn’t retain membership with the EU but holds a special status allowing visitors access to the country with ease. While getting there is more time consuming than many destinations, there is no train station or airport, a two hour drive from Barcelona or France is nothing to balk at considering the beauty of the surroundings on your way there – Cardona Castle for example.
The drive isn’t for the faint of heart, especially those used to driving North American speeds, make sure to rent a confident car. Once you’re in the country though you’ll begin to notice why you want a confident car, the place is tiny but its citizens are mountain goats of the road and hellbent on driving as fast as possible through the tightly wound mountain roads – which may be a common trend across the whole continent. Driving through this countryside is taking a time machine into the distant past when geography was local and horses were the most expedient way to travel.
While the world is global and the horse an afterthought in many developed nations, Andorra remains distinctly locked in the past due to its geography that favours hiking far more than anything with a motor.
What this means for visitors is the opportunity to explore a country still mostly untouched outside of its tiny urban center simply because it cannot be disturbed by man-made structures. And when those man-made structures burn, this is a place they find new life. The church Meritxell is arguably the country’s most known architectural marvel and the most beautiful modern church ever designed from ashes and rock.
Destroyed by fire in the 1970’s, Our Lady of Meritxell was redisgned by Spanish architect Ricardo Bofill. Churches are a difficult design process, they must always find balance between reverence and functionality for the community while maintaining an interesting facade as a landmark structure. Meritxell is striking from the moment you enter its proximity, it towers as a 14th century fortress would and even the ramp is a throwback to fortifications of the day but it maintains a sense of peacefulness as it engulfs you.
Set against the backdrop of craggy and ancient mountains, the church is a modern delight to the senses, a sanctuary for timeless architecture and the more you walk around, the more it becomes apparent that the planning of this structure was felt in every stone, every window and every atom.
And while Meritxell is a striking example of what the country finds sensible in a place of worship, in Andorra it always seems to come down to modesty in architecture and life. Small businesses abound and the pace of life seems more akin to the Carribean than it does a major tourist and banking destination. The national library is 4 stories and housed in a back-alley around the corner from Casa de la Vall, the kind of place you stumble into instead of finding on a map.
While much of Europe may see this micro-nation as a place to buy cheap booze and cigarettes, that reputation is only a recent thought in the public consciousness, hopefully that is as long as it will stay. This nation has lived for centuries in austerity and is only physical, literal steps away from the mountains that have kept them removed from the centuries of influence that have impacted nations that have come and gone, empires that have risen and fallen.
This is a country unlike any other and as the world turns it seems to do so slower here, the place where the past meets the future between two nations whose history should have engulfed this tiny territory ages ago. You won’t find the answer to life in Andorra but you will find yourself turning corners and raising your eyebrow at what shouldn’t be but for the last 7 centuries has remained. Visit before you can’t, your short life will thank you.