Andorra from the Ground Up

Andorra is a special place. It’s not Spain. It’s not France. It is 100% Catalan. It is also 100% Pyrenean. At just over 1,000 meters high, Andorra la Vella is the highest capital in Europe and the country enjoys an average elevation elsewhere of about 2,000 meters. For these reasons, Andorra welcomes 10 million tourists who seek out the high mountains year-round. In winter, its ten ski resorts offer unparalleled slopes. But it’s in the summer when trekkers can experience the best of the Andorran culture by foot, not to mention the perfect way to spend the first rest day of the 2016 Tour de France.

Andorra’s heritage is complicated, going back to the Carolingian Empire of the ninth century. Charlemagne unified Europe like no one before. Such expansive borders established frontiers that needed defending. For this reason, Charlemagne and his heirs created buffer states to provide defenses against rising groups, in exchange for a certain amount of autonomy. This was especially crucial with the rise of threatening groups like the Moors in the Iberian, Avars and Slavs to the north and east, and even Bretons to the northwest. This was feudalism at its best. The emperor granted each buffer state to a ruling lord who in turn owed his own allegiance. In the case of Andorra, title was granted to the Count of Urgell (Spain). Over the next four hundred years, however, the state was either gifted, placed under protection, or inherited by other parties. Ultimately, the Count of Foix (France) claimed ownership by marriage but without an heir, the Bishop of Urgell once again claimed rights over the principality, resulting in a nasty dispute. The solution was joint sovereignty in 1278. But with both rulers absent, daily governing was assumed by the Consul General de les Valls. With equal representation by the seven parishes of Andorra naturally divided by the rugged mountains, each parish was able to maintain its own identity.

Thanks to this intimate political situation, remote setting, and strong sense of Carolingian heritage, Andorra is now home to one of the largest concentrations of Romanesque churches anywhere in Europe. It boasts no fewer than eleven standing churches that date to this period. As such, Andorra is a great place to see and learn about this era in both architectural and social terms, much of which can be done in the backcountry. So let’s leave the congested and developed streets of la Vella and Les Escaldes and venture into the mountains.

Pal, 12 kilometers uphill from Andorra la Vella, is one of the most well-preserved Romanesque towns in Andorra. It is situated at the bottom of a bowl, surrounded by the high mountains – the massive Pic de la Capa rises to 2572 meters (12,000 feet) to the north and the Pic del Cubil rises 2358 meters to the southwest. On these slopes are the upper reaches of the famed Vallnord Pal Arinsal ski area. Surely this is an amazing place in winter, but the full breadth of the area is showcased in the refreshing mountain air of summer when history, art, architecture, and nature’s beauty are in full bloom.

Driving into Pal on the Aveida de la Fontanella, wonderful lamps line the two lane road around slight bends and past newer ski chalets before getting a quick glimpse of the town’s Romanesque church straight ahead. Soon the old town with its dozen or so buildings can be seen above the main road, built right into the hillside. On a sunny day, their uniform stone and slate tile material provides a wonderful glistening glow as the distinctive colors of each stone reflects like a pebbly river. Here the streets are narrow, steep, and almost exclusively devoid of cars. It’s a brilliant experience that is topped by the magnificent but subdued Eglise Sant Climent. Constructed in the late 11th century, the church is quintessentially Romanesque and even more specifically Lombard, or First Romanesque. Imported from northern Italy, the style is exemplified by its square, tall bell tower capped with a gentle sloped hipped roof and twin windows. This specimen is unique, however, thanks to its top level of double twin windows. The church porch also provides an excellent vantage point to look out over the town below.

This jewel of the Romanesque period is accompanied by the Centre d’Interpretació del Romànic a Andorra a few meters away. The museum provides an audio-visual context and value to Romanesque art that is so prevalent throughout Andorra. The centre brings together different elements of the principality’s period examples as a way to truly decipher what it all means, for one thousand years ago, this was a much different landscape and the architecture was a means to an end, both functionally and spiritually.

Leaving the Centre and Pal itself, our visit here is far from over. After having a bite to eat, it’s time to view Pal from above and get into the Andorran countryside. Heading 800 meters further up the mountain on the main road (CG-4), we come to the trailhead of El Cardemeller. At just under two kilometers in length and only rising 400 meters in elevation, this hike to the Font de Bisbe on the Coll de la Botella is a relatively relaxing trek that the whole family can do. The trail starts in a tall and thick forest of Scots pines before coming to the ridge 60 meters above the valley below. Traversing the ridge presents great views of the Vallnord ski area and the Pic del Cubil. A little further up, coming out of the pines and into a small meadow, are the Cardemeller huts. Such refuges are emblematic of Andorra as places for hikers to rest and seek shelter. Some are more equipped and larger than others. Overall, there are some twenty-six huts throughout the county that offer more official stays for cross-country trekkers. We’ll keep going though and enter the small meadow before heading back into the trees. Not quite one kilometer past the huts, a clearing opens to reveal the CG-4 which has slogged up the mountain and wound onto the Coll. There is such a great view from the top here that one can easily forget to explore – be sure to cross the road into a small park that features the Font de Bisbe. Be sure to rest here and drink some of the fountain’s fresh mountain water.

The Cardemeller Trail is about a two and a half roundtrip adventure. While the Bisbe fountain is the end of the trail, the CG-4 offers one more prize if energy and time permit. A little more than one kilometer from the fountain is one of Andorra’s famed pieces of Land Art (ALA). The ALA program was instituted in the 1980s to “enhance the value of the vast natural and cultural heritage of Andorra, based on the principle of building a contemporary landscape, a different way to interpret a place.” These permanent artistic installations, nine in all, have reinforced Andorra’s commitment to culture and art while emphasizing the importance of nature and create a new sense of tourism. The exhibit here in La Massana is entitled “Tempesta en una Tassa de Te” (Storm in a Tea Cup) and was completed by American Dennis Oppenheim. Along with the iconic “Arcalis 91” which will be seen at the end of Stage 9, this landscape art is impressive and offers a human touch to the gorgeous landscape it oversees.

What a day in and around Pal. Andorra is too often only seen from the shops and overcrowded streets of the capital. A place like Pal, however, allows a traveler to delve deeper into the heritage and meaning of this small nation. In just a day, we spanned a millennia from the Romanesque to the modern, and all within the same landscape. We saw tourism from the cultural, the natural, and the artistic. More importantly, we saw that this small nation is perhaps richer off the beaten path. In fact, like most places, its wealth only increases the closer one gets to the heritage and natural beauty of a place.

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