Nestled in the eastern Pyrenees, the tiny principality of Andorra was founded during the reign of Charlemagne. Bordered by France and Spain, it has never been subsumed into either, but is interlinked to both. Its national anthem is bilingual, Spanish and French postal services collect and distribute its mail, and although not part of the EU, it uses the euro as its currency and lacks its own central bank. Much of its terrain is inaccessible, with 70 peaks topping 2,000 metres crammed into 468 square kilometres. Andorra’s geography has allowed it to avoid war within its territory for more than a millennium. Today, its picturesque mountains lure skiers in winter and hikers during the rest of the year.
A comfortable bed
The Mercure (www.accorhotels.com) is near the centre of the capital, Andorra la Vella, and offers free spa access to all guests. Select a double room with a view, and avoid cheaper rooms with obstructed views. Doubles cost from €156 (Dh643), including taxes.
The charming Hotel Termes Carlemany (www.hotelcarlemany.ad/en) in Escaldes-Engordany has double river-view rooms for €70 (Dh289), including taxes and breakfast.
Acta Arthotel (www.hotel-arthotelandorra.com/en) offers stylish, outward-facing doubles and a spa from €115 (Dh474), including taxes and breakfast.
Find your feet
Andorra la Vella, the highest capital city in Europe, and the adjacent village of Escaldes-Engordany have spread to form one conurbation. Access the old part of Andorra la Vella from Avinguda Princep Benlloch. Dating from the 11th or 12th century, the Church of Sant Esteve was restored in 1940 by the leading Catalan modernist architect Josep Puig I Cadafalch, a contemporary of Gaudí.
The nearby Plaça del Poble — People’s Square — rests atop a government office building, and provides a marvellous panorama of Andorra la Vella’s environs. Built in 1580 by the Busquets family, Casa de la Vall (www.casadelavall.ad/en) was the seat of Andorra’s parliament from 1702 until 2011. It’s necessary to pre-book a guided tour.
Stroll down Avinguda Meritxell until it crosses the Gran Valira River, and continue hugging the riverbank until you reach glass buildings and a glass tower. This thermal-spa complex, the largest in Europe, has two sections. The Caldea Thermal Spa (www.caldea.com) allows children, and its atmosphere is often that of a cacophonous water park rather than a serene spa. Those who seek relaxation should opt for the child-free Inúu (www.inuu.com/en).
Meet the locals
The Sola Irrigation Canal Trail encircles the city, and is an excellent place to enjoy lovely vistas and meet locals. Although the trail itself is flat, reaching it requires a bit of a climb from various city approaches. Dog walkers abound, so watch your step.
Book a table
The popular Don Denis (www.restaurantdondenis.com/en) has been in business for more than 40 years. Try the sublime foie gras (€28 [Dh115]) or roast meats, especially the kid (€24 [Dh99]). Real Madrid fans, beware: photos of FC Barcelona stars, including the frequent patron Lionel Messi, cover the restaurant’s walls.
The welcoming family who own Eximi (Carrer la Llacuna) delight in helping diners navigate a menu heavy on Catalan and Andorran specialities. Savour the trinxat de bolets, a rustic melange of potato, ceps and cabbage, topped with slices of duck carpaccio (€12 [Dh49]).
Andorra heavily touts its duty-free shopping. Pyrénées (www.pyrenees.ad) and Illa Carlemany Shoppinh Centre (www.illa.ad) are the two leading malls, with international brands. The commercial thoroughfares connecting the two complexes contain scores of other shopping temptations.
The Andorran native Júlia Bonet founded Júlia (www.julia.ad/eng), which is now a chain with 22 perfumeries in Andorra and dozens in Spain. The Júlia Bonet Foundation also maintains the Perfume Museum (www.museudelperfum.net/en), which is well worth a visit.
What to avoid
Parking is scarce in Andorra la Vella. Consider taking a frequent Directbus (www.andorradirectbus.es/en) from Barcelona airport to Andorra la Vella (€57.50 [Dh237] for a return ticket), which is a scenic three-and-a-half hour journey, then rely on public buses or local car-rental services to explore Andorra’s seven parishes.
Andorra Turisme (www.visitandorra.com/en) supplies a comprehensive set of maps and detailed descriptions of the extensive network of 54 hiking trails that criss-cross the principality for €5 (Dh21), including the Madriu-Perafita-Claror Valley Unesco World Heritage Site. Spring is also a fantastic time for wild-flower lovers to visit.
Andorra lacks an international airport. Visitors can fly in to the Spanish or French sides of the border, but the road connections from the Spanish side are better. Return flights with Emirates (www.emirates.com) from Dubai to Barcelona cost from Dh2,600, including taxes.
Source: art & life