Andorra is a dichotomy, a microcosmos shaped by immemorial stone and glittering glass, where ferric red rivers rush under a marine blue sky. Sandwiched between France and Spain, it is central, yet out of reach. With no airport or train station of its own, this tiny landlocked nation high in the Pyrenees Mountains can only be entered by car or bus via one of two roads linking it to the outside world.
It is quintessentially European, and yet neither a member of the European Union nor the Schengen Area. It is one of the continent’s last remaining principalities—a tiny oddity of a territory once commonplace during the Middle Ages—and the only one governed by two co-princes, one of whom is the president of France. Notwithstanding Emmanuel Macron as its current Co-Prince, Andorra has traditionally had a stronger cultural affinity with the Spanish region of Catalonia: it is the only country in the world where Catalan is the sole official language. All this, of course, only adds to the intrigue of Europe’s sixth smallest state. So, what is Andorra actually like?
A Guide to Andorra
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Arrival in Andorra
Andorra la Vella · Escaldes-Engordany
At over a thousand meters, Andorra la Vella is the highest capital in Europe. The appendage la Vella is a derivative of the Latin villa, meaning city, and was added to distinguish “Andorra the town” from the homonymous territory. In contrast to many other European towns, the old quarter, or Barri Antic, takes the backseat as a tourist attraction. Most visitors make a beeline for the Shopping Mile, a long pedestrian downtown strip that feels like one big open-air mall. Characterized by swanky architecture and sparkling vitrines lined with duty-free fragrances, dangling parures, and the latest outdoor apparel, it’s nearly impossible not to dispense some coin. The retail extravaganza stretches all the way to neighboring Les Escaldes, with which La Vella forms a large, contiguous urban zone.
The name Les Escaldes originates from the presence of numerous hot springs in the area which were already known during Roman times for their healing qualities. The water, enriched by sulfur, silica, and thermal plankton, is said to have alleviating and decongestant effects on the body. Today, Escaldes is home to the largest spa in Iberia and Andorra’s tallest building, Caldea. Channeling thermal waters bubbling up from the source at temperatures of 70ºC, Caldea’s complex of Pamukkale-inspired lagoons, Himalayan salt saunas, chromatic pools, and hydraulic massage beds offer bathers an encounter with water in all its forms.
How to get to Andorra la Vella
If you don’t have a car, Andbus has daily connections to Andorra from Barcelona and Toulouse. (Another option would be to drop in by helicopter.) The drive from either city takes roughly three and a half hours, but there are more connections to and from Barcelona. A round trip from Barcelona with Andbus costs €56, while a round trip from Toulouse costs €64.
Where to stay in Andorra la Vella or Escaldes-Engordany
The Alberg Els Andes in Les Escaldes is the most wallet-friendly option in town. A bed in a six-person dormitory costs approximately €25 per night. Ask the friendly manager, Pablo, for his favorite hiking spots. On the opposite end of the city, in Andorra la Vella’s Barri Antic, the Hotel Pyrénées has single rooms for approximately €70 per night. Built in 1940, it is one of the capital’s first hotels. Local lore has it that Neil Young once lodged here in the 1960s, as the hotel sticker can be seen on his guitar case on the cover of his album, Decade.
Head north along the Iron Route
La Massana · Ordino · Sornàs · La Cortinada · Arans · Llorts · El Serrat · Sorteny Valley
Apart from its duty-free appeal and rejuvenating thermal waters, Andorra is an outdoors wonderland. In the winter, the snow-covered slopes make for some of the best skiing in all of the Pyrenees, while in summer, adventurers of any age will find a plenitude of hiking and biking options.
One of the most popular walks is the Ruta del Ferro, or Iron Route, a facile two-hour trail that begins in the village of La Cortinada leading up to the iron mine in Llorts. Along its four kilometers, modern sculptures narrate the history and process of one of Andorra’s most important commodities prior to the advent of tourism: the iron ore. The imprint of iron is evident even in the surrounding nature: around the area of Arans and Llorts, the riverbed of the Valira River is notably rust-colored due to the oxidization of the mineral-rich groundwater.
Form a fuller itinerary by starting at the cable car station in festive La Massana, home of the ironwork forges, and then continue along to Ordino, christened Andorra’s most picturesque village. Its medieval core of stone and slate manors dressed in blooming geranium stand in stark contrast to the intense modernity of Andorra la Vella. At the end of the extended walk, in the Sorteny Valley Natural Park, five towering estripagecs by the Andorran visual artist Pere Moles Sans pay homage to a Pyrenean peculiarity. These iron bars with protruding crescents were installed in the windows of houses and cottages to deter thieves from trying to pass between them, hence the name estripagecs, or “jacket rippers.” Today, they are a symbol of an old Andorra that existed for centuries, practically in isolation.
How to get to there
From Andorra la Vella or Escaldes-Engordany, national bus lines L5 and L6 depart on average every 20 to 30 minutes and will take you to La Massana, with the L6 continuing onwards to Ordino. A one-way ticket costs €1.90. From Ordino, a communal shuttle traverses the length of the valley all the way to the entrance of the Sorteny Nature Park. A one-way ticket is €0.20.
Where to stay along the Ruta del Ferro
The Font Andorra Hostel located next to La Massana’s bus stop and cable car station has both shared and private rooms. A bed in a four-person dormitory is approximately €33 and includes a free ticket for the La Massana cable car.
Venture into the natural parks
Refugi de Sorteny · Pleta del Llomar · Estany de l’Estanyó · Pic de l’Estanyó
The end of the Iron Route lies at the porch of the Sorteny Valley, one of three protected spaces in the country. (The other two are the Comapedrosa Nature Park and Andorra’s lone UNESCO World Heritage, the Madriu-Perafita-Claror Valley.) Although the Sorteny Valley is the smallest of the three natural parks, it is the richest in terms of biodiversity. On the elevated plains of Pleta del Llomar, one can catch a glimpse of local fauna such as the chamois, roe deer, or wild boar.
High above civilization, the water that flows through here in the form of the Riu de l’Estanyó is arguably the most delicious in all of Europe—sparkling sweet in taste and smooth in texture. The jewel of the valley is without a doubt the Estany de l’Estanyó, which literally translates to “lake of the little lake.” A quick splash into its unforgivingly icy emerald depths makes this mountain pond a perfect place to recharge under the Pyrenean sun before scaling the Pic de l’Estanyó—a 2,900-meter massif that guards over the entire Sorteny Valley.
How to get to the Sorteny Valley Nature Park
From Andorra la Vella or Escaldes-Engordany, bus line L6 departs on average every 20 or 30 minutes for Ordino. A one-way ticket costs €1.90. Once you arrive in Ordino, walk towards the local sports center (Centre Esportiu d’Ordino) to find the bus stop where a communal shuttle will take you to the entrance of Sorteny Nature Park for €0.20. From the entrance of the natural park, it takes roughly two hours to reach the Estany de l’Estanyó and an additional two hours to summit the Pic de l’Estanyó.
Where to stay in Sorteny Valley Nature Park
The Refugi Borda de Sorteny is one of four staffed mountain refuges in Andorra. Located 30 minutes away from the entrance of the Sorteny Nature Park at an altitude of just under 2,000 meters, it offers romantic views of the mountain peaks of Estanyó and Serrera. Traditionally, a borda is a small building used for housing farm animals, but the refuge has been renovated to include all modern comforts, including hot showers. It has five dormitories with eight beds each. Half board—a bed, evening meal, and breakfast the following day—costs €66.40.
Climb Andorra’s tallest peak
Arinsal · Refugi del Comapedrosa · Estany Negre · Alt del Comapedrosa
Forming the northwestern portion of the country is the Valls del Comapedrosa Nature Park. Its name, made up of two Latin components—cumba and petra—means “stone valley.” Within its domains is the Pic del Comapedrosa, Andorra’s highest point at 2,942 meters. Apart from an unparalleled panorama of the Andorran, French, and Spanish Pyrenees, the natural park contains several glacial lakes which are typical of the landscapes of western Andorra. Among them, the Estany Negre, situated at the basin of a glacial cirque, is one of the highest ponds in the country.
How to get to the Valls del Comapedrosa Nature Park
From Andorra la Vella or Escaldes-Engordany, bus line L5 departs every 30 minutes for Arinsal. A one-way ticket costs €3.45. Once in Arinsal, exit through the nearby tunnel and make a right to cross the small Pollós River. Continue along the path to find the trailhead for Camí de l’Alt del Comapedrosa. From this point, it takes roughly two hours to reach the guarded refuge, three hours to Estany Negre, and four and a half hours to the top of Comapedrosa. For a round trip, allot yourself at least eight hours.
Where to stay in the Valls del Comapedrosa Nature Park
The Refugi del Comapedrosa, another one of Andorra’s four staffed mountain shelters, can only be reached on foot from Arinsal. At 2,265 meters, the refuge is made up of three floors and accommodates up to 48 people. Due to its remoteness, its small but hospitable staff work in four-day shifts, and hot water is a precious and limited resource. Despite this, the shelter offers a surprising range of meal options. A sample three-course supper comprises a starter of melon soup with bacon garnishing, estofat de vedella—veal stew, and peaches in syrup for dessert. Half board—a bed, evening meal, and breakfast the following day—costs €41.