The sound of jaws dropping was audible, as the acrobats plunged from the high tower to the trampolines below, with perfect choreography and accompanied by the sound of Tina Turner’s rousing River Deep Mountain High. Instantaneously, the gymnasts were back at the summit, in a blur of lithe athleticism and ready for the next intricate, mesmerising movement.
Full of surprises
Welcome to Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Diva’, the 6th year that summer visitors to Andorra have been able to see an innovative Cirque performance. It gets better – thousands of standing tickets are free every night, and even those with seats are incredible value (€20 during the week, and €23 at weekends).
This tiny Principality may be one of the smallest countries in Europe, but it punches well above its weight and will constantly surprise and delight Silver Travellers in search of a summer adventure with a difference.
Andorra has only been a self-governing country since 1993, although it remains technically a co-principality with the Spanish Catholic Bishop of Urgell and the President of France, as a result of a local squabble in the 13th century!
It is the only country in the world whose official language is Catalan.
Its currency is the Euro, but Andorra is not in the EU, although it is a member of the United Nations.
There is one prison in the country, with just 50 or so of the country’s 78,000 occupants locked up there. Andorra is a remarkably safe place to visit, there is no sign of graffiti, minimal unemployment and – thanks to its alpine lifestyle and healthy cuisine, with Catalan, French, Spanish and Portuguese influences – has one of the highest life expectancy rankings in the world.
See, I told you Andorra was full of surprises. It is so much more than a tax-free shopping haven and skiing destination!
Walkers will be spoiled for choice in some of the best scenery the whole Pyrenean mountain range can offer. Stay low in verdant valleys, strewn with wild flowers and edible plants, hearing just birdsong and fast-running rivers. Or head for the high peaks, up to 2,900m and still snow-streaked in July, following well-marked long-distance routes, including the GR7 and GR11.
But for a real Andorran hiking challenge, adventurous Silver Travellers can follow the Coronallacs Trail, a 92km circuit over a suggested 5 days, spending 4 nights in manned mountain refuges and with significant ascents and descents. We sampled this scintillating new route, walking Stage 1 through the UNESCO World Heritage site the Madriu-Perafita-Claror Valley to the recently rebuilt Illa Refuge at 2,488m. And also part of Stage 2, climbing ever higher to the Collada de Pessons at 2,810m, from where you have far-reaching views across the Pyrenean peaks to France and Spain, and below to the dazzling series of Pessons Lakes.
Silver Travellers in search of a less energetic and lower altitude stroll are equally well served. Just check out the Visit Andorra site to download the Active Tourism app, or pick up the print version at one of the Tourist Offices. “In this hiking guide you’ll find routes for every taste: varying difficulty levels, distances and durations.”
Andorra is an outdoor adventure playground, and offers a huge variety of activities in the summer.
Cyclists are particularly spoiled. Don your lycra and bicycle clips to explore the valleys and mountains of the Principality by road, with the increasingly popular e-bikes a good option to level the playing field, or steep road, for us ageing Silver Travellers. Or for an adrenaline-fuelled high-octane speed-fest, hire a top-of-the-range mountain bike, with Darth Vader helmet and body armour, jump on the gondola at La Massana to Vall Nord (€12 return) and hurtle down the same routes as they did in the recent Mountain Bike World Cup.
You prefer something else? How about horse-riding? Or canyoning, via ferrata, zip-lining, go-karting or technical climbing? All these and much, much more are available in Andorra’s beautiful natural surroundings. Take a look at this web page and video for any inspiration you might need.
Phew, that all sounds exhausting! What do I do when I want so slow down in Andorra?
Go to Andorra la Vella, the bustling heart of the Principality and the highest capital city in Europe, for some tax-free retail therapy. But take time to explore its fascinating old town – ‘barri antic’ – with narrow, cobbled streets and stone houses dating back to medieval times. There are plenty of charming bars and restaurants here to enjoy traditional Andorran mountain food, local ales and Pyrenean wines.
And if you’re not lucky enough to catch the Cirque du Soleil, make sure you see what other cultural events are available, publicised by the energetic and enlightened tourism team at Visit Andorra.
Andorra comprises 7 separate parishes. Jump on a bus – or probably better to hire a car if you’re exploring the wider Pyrenees – escape from the city, and meander through the medieval streets of quaint villages, like Ordino, Encamp and Canillo.
For adventurous Silver Travellers, a night in one of the manned mountain refuges must be experienced. Sure, you’ll probably have to share a small dormitory, but jaw-dropping views across the Pyrenees, energy-replacing wine and hearty food will more than compensate for any sleep deprivation. At the Illa Refuge, chef Philippe conjured up a warming clear escudella soup (with black sausage – buttifara negra – and noodles), bacalao (cod) with Catalan-style ratatouille, and a traditional flan (crème caramel). An amazing, rarefied culinary experience at 2,488m.
Those in search of a more romantic – and less crowded – place to rest their heads could look at staying in a Borda, authentic stone houses where the animals would live on the lower floor, and the shepherd and his family above, warmed by the natural heat of the livestock and straw. But fear not, Epic Andorra have transformed several of these Bordas into charming and unique places to stay. They will also provide full catering and luggage transfers. Highly recommended for a piece of the real Andorran mountain experience, with a touch of luxury.
Down in the valleys, stay in one of the Magic group of hotels. We were in the excellent Hotel Magic la Massana, providing spa facilities, great access to the city, the mountains and daily activities, including free hikes.
Andorra is too mountainous to have its own airport. But fly to Barcelona and you can be in the Principality within less than 3 hours, on a frequent, comfortable and cheap direct bus service (€34 one way, €34 for 60+ Silver Travellers).
Alternatively, fly to Toulouse or Carcassone in France, or Girona in Spain, all within 125 miles from Andorra.
Trains are also a good option, the nearest station being l’Hospitalet in France, just 7 miles from the border.
And of course you can hire a car if you plan to explore further afield.
Don’t you hate it when a travel experience is disappointing, hopes dashed and optimism confounded? Well, a summer holiday in Andorra is the opposite, exceeding expectations as gloriously as an outsider winning a stage of the Tour de France or the Vuelta, both of which are wise enough to include Andorra on their routes every few years.
“When we allow ourselves to explore, we discover destinations that were never on our map.” (Amie Kaufman)