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When we told people we were going to spend a few days visiting Andorra, we were met with a lot of blank looks. Andorra isn't on most people's radar. Actually, from our experience, most people don't even know that it's a country.
Travel guru Rick Steves tells his readers to give Andorra a miss because there's not much worth seeing there. We could not disagree with you more, Rick. It IS worth setting aside a few days to see this little postage-stamp of a country. If nothing else, it's worth visiting Andorra la Vella. Translated from Catalan, its name means Andorra the Town and its name is well deserved, being the country's only city.
Shopping in Andorra la Vella
Drive down Andorra la Vella's main street and it might seem as though the entire country is just one big shopping center. Things like perfume, tobacco and electronic items are tax free so the country makes a good income from consumer and luxury goods.
But we hadn’t come to Andorra to shop. We wanted to see what the country had to offer, beginning with its capital.
Tip: Thanks to its tax free status, gas is cheap in Andorra. Andorra is not part of the EU but they do use the euro. So fill up before you leave the country. We did.
Visiting Andorra la Vella's barri antic
We're suckers for old cities, the older the better, so we set aside an afternoon to walk around Andorra la Vella because we heard it began in the 1200s. Any time we hear words like “Gothic section,” “old town,” or “walled city,” we get excited. So it's a mystery to us why a city like Andorra la Vella would need walls in the first place. After all, it has the Pyrenees to protect it.
The oldest part of Andorra la Vella is the Barri Antic, which means “old town” in Catalan. It has been the heart of the city since the principality was little more than a village and it still has the ancient winding layout, cobbled streets and attractive stone houses that were typical in the middle ages.
Some of the streets are so narrow they're little more than a walkway fit for people on foot. They may have been wide enough to permit a cart to pass through back in the day … but modern-day drivers will have a hard time squeezing through. (Minim's restaurant offers traditional Andorran cuisine.)
Eating our way around Andorra la Vella
Having lost a combined 170 pounds between the two of us, we are careful of what we eat at home. However, when we travel we take advantage of sampling the local specialties. We enjoyed a bakery and a birrería while in the old town and don’t regret a bite.
Casa de la Vall
I don't know if it's the oldest building in town but Casa de la Vall (Town Hall) is certainly the best known. Built as a stately home in the early 1500s, it was purchased and became the parliamentary house in 1702. The Parliament no longer meets here, however; they recently moved to a modern glass structure across the piazza. I think this is a beautiful example of how Andorra has managed to honor its history while staying with the times.
A view of Andorra la Vella from above
As we left Casa de la Vall we discovered another piazza whose stairs drew us like moths to a flame. They led us up to a walkway that gave us a beautiful place to overlook and photograph the city in all directions. I started with a view south, toward Spain, from whence we'd come. OK, maybe not south, exactly. I kind of lost my way as we drove through those twisting roads. But you get the idea.
A shot west, across the street toward the mountains. Hey, there's grass over there! It looks like a sports field.
And finally, in the other direction, toward France. You can see how close Casa de Vall is. What you can't clearly see in this photo is the massive shopping area beyond. But I promise: It's there.
Impressions of Andorra la Vella
Now, whenever anyone asks us what we thought of Andorra la Vella, we tell them that the capital is like Gatlinburg on steroids: all rustic stone and wood buildings in a wooded mountain setting.
Come to think of it, the whole country looks like that.
We drove all over the country and took advantage of the perfect outdoor weather with a bit of hiking. We even reminisce about the food at a fabulous little restaurant in the country called L'Hort de Casa. Andorra and Andorra la Vella are worth it.
Rick Steves really needs to take a second look.