Switzerland? Austria? French Alps? Sure, those are all great places to ski — but they’re also some of the most tourist-clogged skiing destinations in the world. If you want slick slopes and no crowds — alongside a healthy helping of history, art, and gastronomic adventure — we highly recommend a trip to Europe’s hidden winter wonderland, nestled between France and Spain: Andorra.
A brief history of Andorra
Given that Andorra is largely an unknown to Western travelers, a primer on the country’s history is in order. Like most European countries, Andorra has a long and layered past. It was first established as a principality in 805 (thank you, Charlemagne) as a grateful nod to the locals who helped the emperor fight off the Saracens.
Subsequent centuries saw a battle for control over the principality, however. Local counts and church leaders vied for absolute power, though neither one managed to secure it. To this day, the country is led by two heads of state: the president of France (Emmanuel Macron) and the Archbishop of Urgell. Despite the prominent French role in the country’s governance, the national language is Catalan. English-speaking travelers need not fear communicating and transacting with locals, however; Andorrans are notoriously friendly, mostly conversant in English, and accept the Euro.
Clocking in at only 181 square-miles, Andorra doesn’t have its own international airport. Instead, you’ll have to fly into Spain or France — probably Barcelona or Toulouse. If you’re already on the ground in Europe, you can take a train (the French SNCF or the Spanish RENFE) to the outskirts of the mountainous principality, then hop on a bus that will take you to your destination. It’s advisable, however, that you opt for a rental car instead; it will serve you well as you poke around the various sights in Andorra.
Where to stay
Andorra La Vella is the capital of Andorra — and the biggest town — so you might be tempted to make this your home base, but don’t limit yourself. The truth is, the country is small enough to traverse quickly wherever you land. Our recommendation for accommodations: four-star Hotel Bringué in El Serrat. Nestled up against a slope, the hotel features views straight out of “The Sound of Music”: Sweeps of white (or verdant green, depending on the season), punctuated by dots of trees and threaded withurried streams. Inside, the design is definitely modern European with touches of opulence typical of yesteryear: multi-tier chandeliers, glossy black bars, and plush loungers are notable throughout. Plus, modern amenities are all accounted for, including WiFi, an onsite restaurant and spa, parking, and ski storage.
Speaking of skiing, you’ll probably want to hit the slopes sooner rather than later. If you want downhill fun, we recommend either Grandvalira or Vallnord-Pal Arinsal. Single-day ski passes run about 50-60 Euros for adults — a much cheaper option than those offered at big-name ski resorts. You’ll also find that there’s plenty of nearby dining, music/entertainment, and kids’ circuits so everyone can find something to enjoy — including those who’d rather sit by a fire and sip a hot cocoa. For reference, Grandvalira has 112 slopes while Vallnord-Pal Arinsal has 75 slopes. There are generally four difficulty tiers: green, blue, red, and black (green being the easiest and black being the hardest).
If you’re more of a horizontal skier, check out Naturlandia. Here, you can easily rent a pair of skis and shuffle off in the snow at your own pace — often with fewer skiers to contend with. Plus, it’s a lot cheaper than downhill skiing; tickers are only about 14 Euros while ski rental is 12 Euros.
It would be foolish to think a country as storied as Andorra only has fresh powder to offer. Be sure to take some time away from the slopes to relish the country’s rich art scene. There are countless galleries you can visit, but the Espai Columba, designed to preserve the art of the Columba Church, is a beautiful first stop — a rich blend of history and artistic expression. For more avant-garde exhibits, take a peek at Jardin Cosmique, which utilizes technology and vectors to appeal to abstract art lovers. Lastly, we recommend a stop at Art Gallery Pilar Riberaygua — an homage to physical, 3-D art that gets you thinking about the art of our machines and the utility of our sculptures.
Trekking through history
As noted above, Andorra claims a complicated historical landscape. Thanks to its heavy religious influences, churches abound. To get a sense of how religious structures — most built in the Romanesque style — impact the country, visit the Church of Sant Marti de la Cortinada and the Holy Art Museum, both of which showcase the deep influence the Catholic church has on Andorra. For more of a civil staple, we urge you to visit the Casa de la Vall, a capacious building that has served sometimes as a governmental meeting space, sometimes as a haven for clergy and representatives of the Church. Its 16th-century, original form has been miraculously preserved for modern-day visitors to experience first-hand.
All of that skiing, art-snooping, and history-gathering will leave you hungry. While not widely discussed in Europe, the country boasts some very fine restaurants indeed. For a stick-to-your-ribs Russian feast, head first to El Cresper where you can eat like a true Ruski: Borscht (beef and beet soup), followed by Veal Stroganoff and the “Colonel” (i.e. lemon ice cream with — what else? — vodka).
For something a bit closer to Andorra’s roots, sample the eats at Restaurant Borda del Tremat in Encamp. The food isn’t flashy, but is akin to rustic French country fare: beef braises, thick stews, and grilled meats that will appeal to any hungry traveler.
Our last recommendation is a bit of an international culinary mystery. We wouldn’t ordinarily recommend a restaurant so confused about its gustatory direction, but Restaurant Can Pere convinced us that diversity is the staff of life. To wit, you can order up Garlic Bread alongside Samosas, Jamaican Chicken Wings, and Chile con Carne. The world’s your oyster here — truly.
If it’s just a quick drink you’re after, we highly recommend the quaint La Birreria De Andorra. This fun, craft brew hub showcases beers from all over Europe; you can order a Westmalle Double just as easily as you can an Erdinger Hefe. Just be sure you save room for dinner (or whatever meal comes next).
Plan for your next trip
If you really want the full flavor of Andorra, plan to come back during the summer solstice when you can observe the famed Falles I Fallaires festivities. A fire show extraordinaire, this festival will have locals donning fire branches and processing to a central location in each of the country’s main towns on midsummer’s eve. They then converge and light an enormous bonfire. This is followed by a stunning dance, led by those brandishing the igniting fire branches. Dozens of graceful pyro-prancers twirl and swirl their way to dizzying effect — it’s truly a one-of-a-kind experience. While you won’t like to be involved in the fire-making, you can certainly find a nearby perch and watch the electrifying event unfold.
Want more? For additional info about Andorra, its culture, and the many activities available in winter and summer, visit the country’s tourism website.