By Steve Bergsman
The tiny landmass of Andorra remains an attraction for literary and creative types who probably never visited there and live in places far, far away from this odd European nation.
It all started in 1961, when Swiss dramatist Max Frisch wrote a play called "Andorra," which as near as I can tell has nothing to do with the principality located in the Pyrenees Mountains. A year later, American folk singer Malvina Reynolds, who wrote the sociological "Little Boxes" and "What Have They Done to the Rain" (a hit for The Searchers) recorded an anti-war song called "Andorra" that did refer to the country.
Skip forward many decades to 1997 and we find American writer Peter Cameron publishing a work of fiction called "Andorra." That's a play, song and a novel. It's almost as if Andorra is heading for a literary version of EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony).
What's the attraction? Oddly, not much. The fun thing about Andorra, besides knowing about the country when most people you talk to never heard of the place, is getting there. Once you arrive, well, there's always shopping.
I always wanted to visit the Pyrenees, a mountain range that separates France from Spain, but figured I would never get there as it is not near anywhere I'm usually heading when I'm in Europe. Then my wife and I decided to go to Barcelona midwinter, when the tourist wave has ebbed, and I took another look at the map of Spain. The Pyrenees and the principality of Andorra weren't really that far away. We researched a trip and signed on for a "three-countries-in-a-day" tour that began in Barcelona.
The route is a loop through the mountain village of Berga on the Spanish side to its equivalent, Ax-Les-Thermes, in the French Pyrenees, then on to Andorra and back to Barcelona via rural Catalonia.
The Pyrenees are a surprisingly high and rugged range with Aneto the highest peak at 11,168 feet. The mountains and escarpments are cut by deep river valleys that are verdant in the summer. In winter, when I made the trip, the climate is mountain cold and the snow deep and frequent. That's where the fun begins because this route from Ax-Les-Thermes runs along an elevation that's about 6,000 feet and then zigzags through a serious of switchbacks to a high mountain pass. When we hit the border of Andorra, the weather was white-out, which I'm told happens often.
Remember I said the fun begins here? That's because — while not mandatory — you can ask to get Andorra customs to stamp your passport, and what traveler doesn't want an Andorra stamp?
I would offer a more profound history of why Andorra even exists but it's too complex and involves counts, bishops and remote lands nobody really wanted. Scooting forward to the 20th century, however, Andorra gets interesting because a Russian scalawag named Boris Skossyreff wandered into the principality and smelled opportunity. He promised the poor country riches if it would establish itself as a tax haven, which he would do if they made him a monarch. In 1934 Skossyreff declared himself king, only to be eventually arrested.
During the Depression era of the 1930s, which devolved into the Spanish Civil War and then World War II, it wasn't so great to be a tax haven. Then came a peace that flowed into the late 20th century, and suddenly a tax haven in Europe was a worthwhile concept especially, with the creation of the European Union.
With no taxes, neighborly Europeans and international tourists said, "Hey, why don't we visit Andorra and do some shopping?" So Andorra La Vella, the capital city, has virtually become an outdoor shopping mall set in a beautiful valley and surrounded by the dramatic peaks of Pyrenees. The town is a fun place to stroll, and the urban plazas boast first-class sculptures by such esteemed artists as Salvador Dali and Fernando Botero.
For outdoor enthusiasts Andorra, with its snowy winter weather, is turning itself into a competitive ski location, and in the summer the whole region swarms with outdoor enthusiasts of one type or another. Even a leg of the Tour de France has come through Andorra.
But besides the shopping and the hiking one wonders why the literati are so enthused with the place. Reynolds must have sung, "I want to go to Andorra, Andorra, Andorra; I want to go to Andorra, it's a place I adore," before the shoppers came to town.
WHEN YOU GO
We used Viator for our "Three-Countries-in-One-Day" tour. It was 12 hours long and worth every moment: www.viator.com.
Steve Bergsman is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
The Gran Valira River runs through Andorra la Vella, the capital of Andorra. Photo courtesy of Steve Bergsman.