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Andorra La Vella

Andorra la Vella autumn view to the mountains Andorra is one of Europe's smallest countries, located in the high Pyrenees between Spain and France and known for cheap skiing and duty free shopping. From Barcelona, Andorra can be reached in about 2-3 hours, but it's a little further from the Costa Brava as the most direct route along the foothills of the Pyrenees is relatively slow and windy.

Andorra has a certain novelty value because of its size and there is a steady stream of traffic that passes through just to see what it is like - from both France and from Spain. We've driven through about three or four times, but not really stopped - so it can seem like just one road with few shopping centres at one end and a few ski resorts at the other. However, the last weekend my son had a handball match against an Andorran team with a bus to take us, so we took the chance to explore a little more.

Andorra main shopping street The journey up to Andorra from the Costa Brava is relatively long as the best route goes via Vic, then connects with the main road from Barcelona to Berga, the Tunnel of Cadi to La Seu d'Urgell. Our journey by bus took four and a half hours including a brief stop at a service station outside Vic. The landscape on the journey is quite varied. The plain of Vic up to Berga is quite a harsh dry type of terrain, then from Berga north it becomes more vertical and mountainous past the spectacular lake at Cercs before going through the Tunel de Cadi (this has a relatively expensive toll). On the other side of the Sierra de Cadi the landscape is transformed to soft fields and pasture to La Seu d'Urgell before  climbing up to the frontier.

As we arrived, it was a great surprise to run into traffic jams on the road up to the border. Partly this were some spot checks by the local police, but there was also quite a lot of traffic. Andorra, being a duty free zone, attracts many visitors and shoppers who travel up from Barcelona. The bus dropped us in the centre of Andorra la Vella so that we had a couple of hours to explore before the match.

Andora la Vella river to the mountains Andorra la Vella is the capital city of Andorra and has become wealthy as a tax haven for Spain and as a location for tax-free shopping. Most of the city is therefore modern and commercial with many private banks, jewelry and electronics stores, fashions and of course, tobacco and spirits outlets. The city sits in quite a vertical narrow valley with mountains all around and though there were some lovely autumnal colours on the mountain-sides, the setting is not particularly picturesque.

There is a river and older parts of the city that can seem a little lost among all the new buildings and villas clinging to the sides of the hills. The northern part of the city is Les Escaldes with an ancient bridge and a handful of older buildings by the river. Then following the river downstream you pass a large glass and steel centre before coming back into the main commercial axis.

The commercial areas of the city are mostly pedestrianised with a number of large malls and shopping centres. If you are shopping, it's important to realise that this is a genuine old-school duty-free area. That is there are restrictions on how much you can take back out into Spain (or France) and customs and police regularly do spot-checks as you cross the border.

Andorra la Vella historic quarter The heart of the old part of the city is further towards the frontier above the river area with a small church, a small castle and a handful of older buildings. Almost like a Catalan village surrounded by modern apartment blocks and buildings. This is also the only country (currently) where Catalan is the national language and you do see signs in Catalan around the town. There is also a strong French influence and because of the skiing, a number of English bars around town which gives Andorra more of an international feel.

Our overall impression is that there's a novelty in visiting once but that, unless you're into skiing, with the long journey it's not a place we're drawn back to.

Also in France close to the Costa Brava

White water rafting in Quillan (France) - Collioure (France) - Villefranche-de-Conflent and Mont-Louis (France)  - Perpignan - Elne (France) - Ceret (France)

For the mountains

Ribes de Freser and skiing at Vall de Nuria - Mollo (Camprodon) - Pyrenees to France - Visit to Setcases

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