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Valira Torrent - bulletin of the Andorran Philatelic Study Circle. Issue 48, pp7-9 (Oct 1998).
I always approach Andorra with some trepidation. One expects to see change. The frantic growth of the country continues relentlessly. All too often the reaction it evokes is "Oh, dear!". After nine years away, I was expecting a shock.
Approaching from France the change grabs you gently. Changes there have been but Soldeu and Canillo are still recognisable. Given that the Andorra I first saw in 1961 has long ago vanished beneath the tide of commercial development, further building does not greatly intensify the visual impact.
In Canillo, I noticed that the Hotel Oller where I once stayed but which went downhill when the son took over management is now closed. Pauline would raise a cheer remembering three wretched, shivering days we spent there before venturing out into the relentless pouring rain to find a more comfortable refuge from the weather at Encamp. A sad end for a place where once I was remembered from visit to visit and greeted like a long lost friend.
The scale of change hits you full in the face when you reach Encamp. The car park I once used is long gone, as is its replacement, swallowed up by building. Finding somewhere to park or even stop is not easy. Blue "P" signs which may catch the eye generally indicate not that parking is available but that it reserved for some hotel or business. The traffic is non-stop. It has some things in common with the Toulouse peripheral motorway. It helps to know where you are going and have a strong nerve. There is no room for uncertainty. If you hesitate or dawdle the locals may hoot you. There is not the same tolerance you find in France. Andorrans want to get on with the serious business of making money. On the Toulouse motorway a slight misjudgment could mean sudden death but I think I prefer it to the Andorran traffic. In Andorra one wants to look at more than just where to find a non-existent gap in the traffic when a change of lane becomes essential.
At Les Escaldes I decided to get out of the rush and head for the hills so I turned towards La Massana and Ordino. La Massana is almost as busy as Encamp. Ordino, though almost unrecognisable as the village I once knew, is quieter and has free car parks. At last a chance to stop and get my bearings and to assimilate what I had seen.
Ordino could be a good base for a holiday in Andorra for those who do not want to brave the traffic. It gives easy access to the best scenery Andorra has to offer. Get a bus into town for the shopping. Surprisingly, they run only once in two hours so some planning may be needed. (See Updates) The little Clippol minibusses which used to ply the main valleys had no obvious timetable but one could usually rely on one coming along without having to wait too long. There are hotels at Ordino and in the valley towards El Serrat where parking is not a problem. Though I now base myself on the coast and make day trips into Andorra, I might consider staying there again on another visit.
Ordino is directly accessible from Canillo over the Coll d'Ordino. The hairpin bends rising from Canillo look more intimidating than they are. It is a good, wide road but I do not envy the Tour de France cyclists toiling up there on the way to the end of stage at Arcalis! (Note 1)
As I had no particular shopping or philatelic objectives, I spent the day exploring the extremities of the North Valira. Skiing is now a bigger earner for the Andorrans than the summer trade. One spin off is that there are good roads high into the mountains and in summer they are well nigh deserted. One cannot say that the mountains are untouched by man. Wherever one looks there are ski runs and ski lifts but the grandeur of the mountains is too great to be seriously disfigured by them. The giant ring of Arcalis is not such an affront to the eye as it appears in pictures. Its lesson for me is that the most pretentious creations of man are dwarfed by those of Nature. If the ring fell over, it would not be missed.
Another benefit of the mountain roads is that the high mountain paths have been brought within the reach of moderate walkers such as myself. The recognised paths are generally well marked and easy to follow. Some indeed are becoming eroded by the passage of too many feet. (Note 2) The little nameless summit which I climbed in 1961 and claimed as my first Andorran mountain now has a ski lift nearly to the top and a radio mast on the summit. I climbed it by accident having missed the indistinct path to the Tristaina lakes. The lakes are now a stroll - or would be were not the path so damaged by over use.
The signs of prosperity are everywhere. Not only in the rash of new building but in the restoration of the old. Few of the traditional buildings are untouched. They have been refurbished in keeping with the traditional style but the signs of newness are inescapable. The more recent developments are also more in harmony with the character of the country than the high rise, low cost developments of the 1970s. Andorra is looking smarter - or would be if the building were ever to pause for breath. Overall I was heartened by my return visit. The thought of "Oh, dear!" was avoided this time.
I returned a week later and once more climbed the Pic de Casamanya. It is easier now you can start from the Coll d'Ordino but a worthwhile climb with superb views. Eagle-like birds still soar and hover over the inaccessible crags and there is a profusion of alpine flowers. It was as I remember it though, where once I met just a lone shepherd who tried to carry on a conversation in Catalan at a distance of 100 metres, you may now meet 30-40 people. English spoken. Oh, dear? No, it is still a magnificent experience.
Mission accomplished, I drove down to Ordino to get a beer and a few postcards. It was Festa Mayor. Tot tancat! I could not even buy a postcard. I did manage to get the beer. Instead of cards, I wrote a short note to Alec. I had to walk all round the village to post it as the way into the square - now pedestrianised, paving in progress - was completely blocked by a bouncy castle. Oh, dear! This is not what I came for. I suppose Festa Mayor comes to life in the evening though there's not much room for Sardanas. The bandstand was taking up a substantial part of the square. Whatever was planned could have been no more than a travesty of the magnificent open air dancing I had seen in Argelès sur Mer the previous evening. The French really do know how to let their hair down! I was sufficiently moved by what I saw to write a little note in a mix of Catalan and French and stuff it under the door of the Tourist Office (closed, of course).
I conclude on a note of optimism. In the centre of Encamp there is a tobacco field. In such a prime position the land must be worth a fortune for development. Though in recent years he has had to surround it with a chain-link fence, some brave soul has chosen to cling to the traditional way of life rather than take the money and run. For me the field symbolises the Andorra I grew to know and love. Every time I return I expect to see that the bulldozers have moved in. Joy of joys the tobacco field is still there! Long may it remain.
1. The Tour de France visited Andorra in 1997. The nearest they came this year was Tarascon sur Ariège.
2. Although there is now a much better chance of being found if any mishap were to befall you, it is still prudent to observe the basic precautions of mountain walking. Wear sensible footwear with a good grip. Travel light - in a hot climate too much weight can be exhausting - but always carry: a bottle of water, a concentrated energy source (glucose tablets or Kendal Mint Cake - chocolate melts too readily) lightweight protection from wind and rain (regardless of the weather at the outset) and a torch with fresh batteries. These are emergency supplies - additional to proper clothing and provisioning for the intended excursion. Allow plenty of time and always have enough time in hand to return by your outward route. If you reach half time before reaching your objective, turn back. Leave word of your intended route and time of return, especially if walking alone. At very least leave a note under the windscreen of your car.
Andorra at the End of the Century
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