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Stage One: Andorra is an interesting country that is situated in the Pyrenees, in between France and Spain. Actually it isn’t a country but a principality, something like Monaco, with the princes of Andorra being whoever happens to be the head of France at the time, and the Bishop of Urgell in Spain. It is the sixth smallest nation in Europe, having an area of 500 km2 and a population of only 85,000. The capital, Andorra la Vella, is the highest capital city in Europe at an elevation of 1,023 meters. And that’s the low point of the country; this is a country of mountains and valleys, and very few plateaus. The official language is Catalan, although Spanish, Portuguese, and French are also commonly spoken. Tourism is huge with over 10 million people arriving each year, many for the skiing but many also for the bargains available as taxes are low. In the capital the shopping streets are lined with gadget stores, clothing design, jewelry and watch stores and alcohol and wine. All available at prices less than you’d fine in France or Spain. The big one is gas; we found prices to be a third less than what we were paying in France.

Andorra is a tax haven with no income taxes levied up into 2013. But then, pressured from the European Union, they began to implement a tax on incomes that works out to less than 10%. What is quite remarkable is what this nation has managed to do with only 85,000 people inside a land mass of 500 km2. To put it in perspective, Mexico City is three times the size and has more than 100 times the number of people. After being in Andorra for awhile you realize the system they have in place works. The infrastructure of the country, towns and city (just one city!) is excellent. Unemployment is very low and the tourism numbers are outstanding. And yet you hardly hear anything about this place. They are flying and operating under the radar.

We were there in the third week of April and there was still some skiing going on. The whole country seems to be one big ski area with two primary mountains and then a number of gondolas that connect a number of small villages to the main mountains. They seem to be able to handle a lot of people. We went up to one of the peaks and not only found snow on the hills but that it was snowing. Coming back down through one of the valleys, a half-hour later, we were back in sunny spring weather.

We stayed right downtown in Andorra la Vella and used it as our base to drive around the countryside, and I think over the two-day period we covered most of it. Our hotel was the Hesperia Andorra la Vella and its location couldn’t have been better and the rooms, breakfast, staff were wonderful. Highly recommend it. While in town we walked most of the downtown area, which as mentions is all about shopping; I’ve never seen so many watch and gadget stores before.

We got up early and started exploring by car. We had good weather, so we started first heading to Massana and then Ordino. Ordino is very cute, probably the cutest village in Andorra. Afterwards we went right up to the ski area of Vallnord. It started snowing, actually a bit of a blizzard. We headed back and headed east to Canilloa and then back down to Encamp. We visited Anyos and had a wonderful lunch at Borda Casa Vella Pales IMG_1668with charcuterie local and a bottle of Catanluya red. And then a plate with prawns in the shell, and some other stuff. Plus coffee, it totaled only $30 euros; highly recommended. We returned back down through Encamp and Escaldes and headed over to Massana again and this time visited Pal, Xixeralia and Arinsal. Flo very much enjoyed Arinsal. A long day, we made it back to the hotel at just after 4PM. The hotel recommended that night at La Borda Pairal 1630, a short walk away, and it was excellent. We decided to just to order a few appetizer plates and a good bottle of wine. The appetizers are actually quite large and it ended up being more than we could finish, but it was sure good. The cod balls are especially tasty.

The next day we got up early and headed for Zaragoza, Spain, in search of great riojas! (Click on any photo below to see a slideshow)