Ever Heard of This Extremely Tiny European Country?

Andorra is a high-profile country, but one that many average Americans know next to nothing about. A population of only 77,000 people cuddled up high in the Pyrenees mountains, it’s a tiny country sandwiched between France and Spain. The official language is Catalan and most people are trilingual and many quadrilingual. And, luckily for Anglophones, English is spoken more and more today. Getting to the tiny country means driving through the mountains because Andorra has no airports, seaports, or train stations–the closest airports are Toulouse-Blagnac in France and Barcelona-El Prat in Spain.

Sant Esteve church in Andorra la Vella, AndorraDigital signal/Shutterstock

Andorra is not part of the European Union, yet it uses the euro. It’s only 468 sq km, yet plays host to an estimated 10 million visitors each year, attracted by its winter sports, warm summers, and duty-free shopping.

Interestingly, Andorrans have found an ingenious way to package and showcase their country and culture in a way that offers visitors myriad hands-on cultural immersion activities and experiences. It also has incredible natural landscapes. A green country, Andorrans have a respect for nature that’s part and parcel of their national identity. The clean, high mountain peace and calmness of life can be difficult for hustle-and-bustle lovers to comprehend and equally difficult to articulate–it’s something you just have to experience for yourself.

Skiing

Grandvalira Alexey Oblov/Shutterstock

With an average elevation of 2,000 meters above sea level, skiing is one of the things Andorra does best. Ski season usually starts in December and rounds up in April. One of the top names for skiing in Andorra is Grandvalira, a ski area that’s made up of the Pas de la Casa, Encamp, Canillo, El Tarter, Grau Roig, Soldeu, and Peretol sectors and covers 210 kilometers. Grandvalira is the biggest ski resort in both Southern Europe as well as the Pyrenees mountains. It has ski schools that boast over 600 instructors and offers courses for all ages and stages, including specialist ski courses. Other winter sports activities visitors enjoy are snowmobiling, zip wiring, and snowshoeing.

Hiking, Trails, Nature Parks  

The skiing is great but there’s so much more to Andorra because the Andorran Pyrenees creates a climate that’s ideal for many outdoor activities. When you go hiking here, you get a chance to discover nature and new routes, as well as poke around the nooks and crannies of your mountain host, all on foot. Many die-hard city lovers confess a change of heart after visiting Andorra, myself included.

Hiking in the Pyrenees Mountainsfrantic00/Shutterstock

If hiking and walking speak to you, you’ll want to look out for three of the most popular nature parks, all located in Nature Protected Spaces. The first is Vall del Madriu-Perafita-Claror, Andorra’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site. It runs through Andorra la Vella, Encamp, Escaldes-Engordany, and Sant Julià de Lòria. Vall del Madriu-Perafita-Claror is also home to some of the rarest and most endangered wildlife.

 

 

Next, there’s the Vall del Comapedrosa in La Massana which includes the Pic del Comapedrosa, the highest peak in Andorra at 2,942 meters. Finally, there’s also the Vall de Sorteny in Ordino. Its botanical gardens are also home to plant species only found in the Pyrenees mountains.

Local Cuisine  

Andorran cuisine is mountain food that’s based on the Mediterranean diet. Andorran meals are cooked with plenty of local vegetables and products, including ones that are seasonal, like calçots—a scallion variety typically eaten between January and April that announces the arrival of spring. Meals tend to be plenty and sumptuous, and many are still prepared in the original way using recipes handed down from generations. If you truly want to experience Andorran food, you’ll want to head for the bordas. These are the small rustic farmhouse-looking restaurants that historically were actual farmhouses. Today, the dishes served in these bordas are the best expression of authentic Andorran food. You’ll find many of them scattered throughout the country in sometimes unusual places.

Escudella de Pagés (Rustic Meat Stew)

Escudella is the national dish of Andorra. Served piping hot with a large chunk of bread, this is a thick stew and winter meal made with white beans and different kinds of local meat and vegetables like chicken, sausage, cabbage, pork, pasta, and potatoes.

Caracoles a la Llauna (Oven-Roasted Snails)

nito/Shutterstock

Caracoles a Llauna is another national favorite and a true delicacy. The snails are roasted in an oven and then served with aioli, olive oil, and salt for additional flavor. Don’t even bother trying to get an Andorran to understand how much you hate snails!

Trucha a la Andorrana (Andorran Trout)

Andorra’s clear, untainted lakes and streams are populated by trucha (wholesome fresh-water trout). Fish is widely eaten in Andorra and trucha a la Andorrana one of the staple meat alternatives enjoyed by many. One popular method of preparing this dish is to season the trucha, wrap it in ham, and grill it. An almond sauce accompanies it that’s made from white almonds, cheese, parsley, and extra virgin olive oil.

Pa Amb Tomáquet (Bread With Tomato)

astonphoto/Shutterstock

You’re not likely to sit down without pa amb tomáquet being served at some point during the meal. It’s similar to the Italian bruschetta but a simpler version, and the bread is somewhat softer in texture. It’s made using good quality tomatoes rubbed onto the bread, then topped with garlic.

Crema Andorrana (Andorran Custard Dessert)

Crema Andorrana is basically a crunchy-creamy custard made with a thin crust and caramelized sugar. It’s similar to the French crème brûlée and the Spanish crema Catalana. The meringue on top is an added touch that makes the dessert unique to Andorra.

Soak up the Wellness

The Caldea-Inúu Spa is one of Andorra’s prime tourist attractions.

gurb101088/Shutterstock

Hardly anyone visits Andorra without experiencing this world-class health & wellness spa located in Escaldes-Engordany, close to the capital, Andorra la Vella. Caldea-Inúu combines the concepts of wellness, health, and fun into three main leisure spas: the Thermoludic spa, Inúu spa, and the Likids spa for children aged three to eight years. Caldea is also Southern Europe’s largest spa center, famous for its thermal spring waters.

Quirky Accommodations   

Iglu-Hotel Grandvalira offers elegance and simplicity—Andorran style. Expect to see not just one, but several igloos. Only they’re situated at 2,300 meters up in the Grandvalira mountain ski resort of Grau Roig. One quirky thing about Iglu-Hotel Grandvalira is that it offers you a one-night stay only. As a guest, you’re pampered with a series of treats beginning with a glass of cava when you arrive, and later at night, there’s a guided walk around the hotel area completed in snowshoes. Awaiting your return is a hot, delicious dinner.Round off your igloo experience in a Jacuzzi.

Museums and Culture   

Explore the numerous activities to do in Andorra, including visiting its prized, themed museums and Romanesque legacies.

Nicolai Siadristy Miniatures Museum  

This is a small museum located in the parish of Ordino. It’s the private collection of Nicolai Siadistry, a Ukrainian microminiature expert craftsman reputed to be among the best in the world when it comes to miniature art. The museum also contains the works of other well-known miniature artists.

Carmen Thyssen Museum Andorra

Martin Silva Cosentino/Shutterstock

This museum is a must for art lovers of 19th and 20th-century paintings. It highlights the art movements of this period such as American Hyperrealism, American Impressionism, as well as Fauvism, Catalan Modernism, and many others. Located on the first floor of the old Hotel Varlira, the Carmen Thyssen Museum is home to some of the most famous painting works from the private collection of the Baroness Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza of Spain.

Reig Factory Museum (Tobacco Museum) 

Before tourism, tobacco was Andorra’s leading source of income and still remains an important economic activity. Owned by the prominent Reig family, Reig Factory Museum is located in a four-story building that originally was the family’s tobacco production factory. With the help of a guide, you have the opportunity to witness from start to finish the entire process of tobacco production as it was carried out in the early part of the 20th century—from cultivation to the finished cigarette or cigar product.

Shopping 

For shopping for just about anything, from electronics to perfumes and accessories to sportswear and equipment, it used to be that you would head straight for Avinguda Carlemany which, up until recently, was the main shopping area. Now called Vivand, it’s part of the newest shopping area of Andorra called the Shopping Mile and it runs from Andorra la Vella to Escaldes-Engordany.

trabantos/Shutterstock

In this area, you’ll find over 180 shops and restaurants that include the most well-known international brands. Illa Carlemany, Andorra’s biggest shopping mall, is also located in this area and has over 60 shops and restaurants.

Naturlandia Theme Park 

Located on 800 hectares in the parish of Sant Julià de Lòria, Naturlandia is an adventure theme park on two levels. The first one is 1600 meters above sea level while the second is 2,000 meters above sea level. Here you’ll find innovative activities for all ages, including adults. Naturlandia is most known for its two iconic attractions, the Tobotronic and the Airtrekk. The Tobotronic is the world’s longest Alpine toboggan at 5.3 kilometers long and a 400-meter drop going downhill. It’s an absolutely exhilarating experience that whizzes you through the trees of La Rabassa forest.

Tobotronic in NaturlandiaSergii Nagornyi/Shutterstock

The other major attraction is the Airtrekk. It’s a sky trail and the largest in Europe. With a structure of 10 towers and a height of 13.5 meters, it’s an intense aerial circuit that will challenge you as an adult, as well as your children, as it tests your sense of balance. For an idea of its size, the Airtrekk has a zip-line of 180 meters and 54 obstacles to tackle. Naturlandia also offers pony rides, bouncy castles, and a Nature Classroom specifically for children. The natural surroundings make an excellent showcase of animals only endemic to the Pyrenees, such as the marmots, chamois, lynxes, fallow deer, and the red deer.

Tours  

There’s a special kind of tour that Andorra will play host to in the very near future. Come June 2021, Andorra will host stage 15 of the 2021 Tour de France. The peloton will enter Andorra from France on July 11 via Pas de la Casa and cycle through the country where the stage will come to an end in Andorra la Vella. The peloton will also observe one day of rest while in Andorra.

But as for other tours, Andorrans pride themselves on being able to cater to every type of tourist, and that’s why they offer visitors a variety of guided expeditions. Sometimes adventure-packed and not for the faint-hearted, here are a few of the most popular based on the stats of Andorran Tourism. The following tours are available for tourists to experience for themselves!

Smuggler’s Route Quad Biking Tour   

One of the top tours is the Smuggler’s Route Quad Biking Tour. It takes a route departing from Andorra and crosses into Spain using the same route that for centuries was used to smuggle contraband across the border. This is an adventure ride, so hang tight and expect to navigate a range of hills and valleys en route. You can’t miss the scenery but look out as you bypass the tor topography.

Bony d’Envalira Via Ferrata Tour  

The Bony d’Envalira Via Ferrata, located in Grau Roig, is a mountain-protected climbing route with a minimum altitude of 2,414 meters. This is a part-walk, part mountain climb tour. You’ll begin at the Grau Roig ski station as you walk with your Via Ferrata guide for approximately one and a half hours till you get to the high mountain area. After this point, you’ll begin the climb which lasts roughly three hours. You’ll eventually reach the peak where you get to witness a priceless 360-degree panoramic view of the mountain landscape of the area. It’s breathtaking!

Andorra, France, Spain Day Tour

This one-day guided tour departs from Barcelona and takes you to Baga, Spain, and from there to Ax-les-Thermes in Foix, France, and finally, Andorra. Baga is also part of the same Catalonian region as Andorra. At 785 meters above sea level, you’ll see first-hand what cities in Spain looked like in medieval times. On the French side, Ax-les-Thermes has been a spa tourism town since the 19th century.

Ax-les-Thermes, FranceLeonid Andronov/Shutterstock

It’s renowned for its healing, sulfurous hot water springs, used in those days to treat certain skin and joint conditions. Next, you’ll make your way through the mountains, taking in the landscape and terrain to eventually arrive in Andorra for some fun and shopping in Andorra la Vella. This is a day tour and lasts approximately 12 hours.

La Seu d’Urgell Market   

This is the crème de la crème of treats reserved specially for Andorra’s guests. You absolutely cannot visit Andorra without hopping across the border to La Seu d’Urgell Tuesdays and Thursdays street market. After all, it’s a mere 30-minute bus ride across the Andorran border into La Seu d’Urgell, the closest Spanish town to Andorra.

CG_Photos/Shutterstock

“La Seu,” as it’s fondly called, is an unbeatable place to shop for unusual, inspiring artisan works, food, gifts, and even clothes and accessories are not left out—mostly good quality and very affordable and significantly cheaper than in Andorra.

You may not have heard of Andorra before now, but don’t sleep on this tiny country for big fun!

See more at Fodor's Travel