Nestling in the Pyrenees between France and Spain, this tiny principality claims over 70 peaks, glorious scenery and wandering trails and on the banks of the Gran Valira, the highest capital in Europe, Andorra La Vella, at 1023 metres.
Quick break, summer or autumn?
No Problem: fly to Toulouse then pick up the direct coach to Andorra (Andbus, book in advance), heading south through sunflower fields and wooded hills then up to the Andorran border, Pas de la Casa, at over 2000 metres. Now you’re almost there, the capital is just down valley.
Day 1: Go to Ordino
It’s a steep but short climb to Rec del Sola, the irrigation channel running along the hilltop with panoramic city views. In such a narrow valley, expect high-rise for best use of space but local materials, stone, slate and wood, add a charm all of their own. Up there, the path meanders past awesome rocks and small terraced allotments growing fruit, flowers and veg. There are viewpoints and seats along the way and when you turn north, the Valira del Nord greets you with foaming water and rapids. It’s an easy trail, almost like a gorge at times as the river rushes over rocks and stones.
Here’s an old humpback bridge, there the forlorn chapel of St Antoni and its spring, dwarfed by a towering cliff, then when you reach La Massana, it’s time for a well deserved ice cream before the final stretch (40 minutes or so) to the traditional though popular village of Ordino. Stroll along the river or follow the road with brilliant mountain views, including patches of eternal snow, and lush vineyards which seem like a dream. Ordino is busy on a sunny day, but I loved it, alleyways, cobbled lanes, stone buildings draped in summer blooms, an old farm lost in the greenery, a tiny cottage garden, a colourful string of outdoor taverns serving fresh salads and cool drinks. Andorran flags fluttered in the breeze, blue, yellow and red, locals spoke Catalan (the national language) but don’t worry, there’s plenty of help for visitors.
Day 2: Explore the capital, relax in a spa
Duty-free may be top of the list but beyond the glamour, the historic centre has winding lanes, a footpath here and there or a secret passage, and it almost feels like a village out in the country. Then there are the quiet St Estève and its Romanesque apse and restored bell tower, the old government building, the secluded squares and local inns tucked away in the back lanes.
Yet just steps away, the new town is all about straight roads, shops, public lifts climbing up the lower slopes and sculptures, both traditional and contemporary, which take your breath away. Don’t miss the inspiring ‘7 poets’, beautifully lit after dark, or Salvador Dali’s monumental bronze, the ‘Nobility of Time’, set on a tree trunk. For most visitors however, the true icon is the elegant Paris bridge (2006) spanning the Gran Valira which begins at the confluence of the north and east rivers in Escaldes.
Escaldes is just across the road from Andorra La Vella, more duty-free stores and outdoor restaurants but up the valley is another avant-garde structure, topped by a lofty glass ‘spire’ which makes it the country’s tallest building. This is Caldea, the largest spa resort in Europe, praised for its thermal waters and wide range of activities. In and outdoor lagoons, jacuzzi, sauna, Turkish baths, massage and more, it’s tempting after a city walk. Rich in sulphur and among the warmest in the Pyrenees, the hot springs have been known since Roman times.
Day 3: Trek up the Madriu
This pristine valley is part of a National Park (with Perafita – Claror) and Andorra’s only UNESCO site, listed for its natural and cultural values. Dry stone walls, old farms or huts, remains of pastoral life delight hikers in the know. In the summer months, shepherds still bring their flocks to higher pastures and with no roads anywhere, the park claims 70% of the country’s wildlife from marmots and mountain goats to wild boars and birds.
On the edge of Escaldes, the sign-posted ‘mountain path’ leads to the old bridge above the Madriu rapids, with distant views of the city and mountains festooned in snow. Then you stumble up the rough donkey trail, past barren ridges and fragrant conifers, to the main waterfall, crashing over the rocks in a thunderous roar. It sends shivers down your spine but finally, high above the tree line, you spot the mountain refuge of Fontverd, glistening in flower meadows. Now at nearly 2000 metres, the Madriu is just a gurgling stream, icy cold, where myriad butterflies hover among wild orchids and carnations.
Mountain peaks rise ahead, for experienced climbers, but as you enjoy your picnic on a grassy bank, views and fresh air all around, you are on top of the world. Then it’s a steep way down the stony trail, but Escaldes beckons with tasty local fare and ample wine. Time to raise your glass to Andorra and promise to return. There’s far more to enjoy, summer or winter.
For more information, go to visitandorra.com
*Andorra is not an EU country, but its official currency is the euro.