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Andorra is a wealthy, clean, safe european microstate nestled high up in the Pyrenees mountains between France and Spain.
This over 1000 year old independent state was set up by Charlemagne (Charles the Great) as a one of a series of buffer states to halt the expansion of the Muslim Moors who controlled what is now Spain at the time.
Even though it is only approachable by winding roads (often with hairpins) with the cheapest drinks, petrol and cigarettes available in Europe this mountainous principality is a favourite for europeans heading north or south over the Pyrenees to and from the Costas in Spain. Many day trippers from the neighbouring French and Catalan provinces (including the big cities of Toulouse and Barcelona) come up to enjoy tax free (or low taxes these days) luxury and more day-to-day items.
Reputed to have around 250 days of sunshine a year, the climate benefits from its latitude - around that of Pisa in Italy (much further south than the Alps, for example). This means big blue skies devoid of clouds are the norm. Of course it does rain and snow, but it tends to arrive in clumps, rather than weeks of drawn out drizzle, we get a big dump of snow, then back to the blue skies.
Andorra is an extremely small country with only around 85,000 residents but has become extremely popular over the years not only for its amazing tourist destinations, but also because of its status as a tax haven, a fact which has not slipped by many wealthy tourists and retirees, as well as entrepreneurs. The country is a ski-lover’s paradise, and a shopper’s dream come true, with over 2,000 shops packed into the country. Cafes, restaurants, accommodations…you will be hard-pressed to find yourself drifting far from luxury while visiting Andorra, regardless of the season during which you make your visit.
Tourism is the main source of income for this tiny country, with an estimated 9 million visitors making their way here over each year. The duty-free status is a major draw, especially in these economically challenged times where every penny is scrapped together by most folks, but the banking sector as well pulls in quite a few people because of its tax haven status. There are a variety of summer and winter resorts to choose from, meaning you can either enjoy a summer holiday with plenty of hiking, biking, and driving to explore the mountains, or if you want to make your way here in the winter for a tasty little sky trip.
The place has been known in the past for being one of the most secluded and beautiful places in the Pyrenees Mountains to visit, but that has rapidly been changing over the years. There are a series of nearly uncontrolled development projects springing up all over the side valleys, marring the natural beauty of the land in an attempt to capitalize on market. While there are still some relatively untouched areas, it is rapidly becoming an industrialized area packed with resorts and ski-lifts as far as the eye can see, so be sure to take this into consideration if traveling.
Andorra Telecom the only GSM network. It is horrendously expensive to roam on. Turn off data roaming before you get here. There are lots of free wifi spot available.
Spanish and French car hire firms don't rent cars with winter tires. 4x4s are expensive and still pretty useless without the winter tires. You can buy tyre "socks" from petrol stations on the way up from either France and Spain.
Traffic is sometimes a problem in Andorra. It is usually either really quiet, or very busy. Spanish holidays, as well as Andorran ones result in big queues, particularly at the Spanish border, as do mornings and evenings during the rush getting to and from the pistes. This clogs up the villages - you will see the "circulacio" guys in uniform frantically waving their arms for hours, seemingly with little effect.
La Vella is very busy just on any average day of the week.
Andorra is covered in webcams - great site to remember is http://www.mobilitat.ad/ca/ where you can check if the road is clear before you set off.
There a lots of pedestrian crossings in Andorra. It is customary for cars to stop when someone is waiting at the crossing (must more so than in Spain) - but only mandatory when the crossing is also marked red. Simplest thing is to stop for all pedestrians here.
You will find people park on pedestrian crossing, near by on even on top of them. This is just the way they do it - exercise extreme caution when you cross - if you see a bunch of flowers on the side of the road - yup - it means someone was killed there.
Running out of petrol is illegal in Andorra, although the police aren't so nasty; there are lots of petrol stations and fuel is relatively cheap.
It can easily snow 30 or 40 centimetres in a night. The main roads (CG-prefix) are kept open by the government snow ploughs with ruthless efficiency. Gangs of three at a time will incrementally shave off a track of snow, the last one running closest to the edge of the road. When snow is falling they run 24x7 up and down the valleys.
Side road are the responsibility of the local councils. They are cleared at a slower pace, and if the snow fall is very heavy you might wait 6 hours of more before you bit of road is cleared.
If you are coming up from Spain your car will only have summer tires. Tourists cause havoc every year when trying to climb up without the proper equipment - you need snow chains or the "tyre-socks" in many places off the CG (Main Highighway) roads; and even on these at higher elevations or if its very cold.
The traffic is bad enough in Andorra without countless fools sliding around, and blocking the road. This causes delays for people who have got prepared for the inevitable; so shouldn't have their jounrey delayed or made more hazarous because someone couldn't be bothered to prepare.
1) Make sure you have the equipment ready in the car, or better get a car with snow tires.
2) Practice putting the chains on before you have to do it for real - handy skill to have and a lot easier doing it calmly with access to youtube videos, than trying to do it cold, late at night, in the dark for the first time with your family putting pressure on you because they upset and angry.
3) A normal two wheel drive car with snow tires is MUCH preferable to a 4x4 with summer tires.
As you climb up the mountainside the temperature drop quite quickly - often you get a ice-line where normal tyred cars cannot proceed. Often at this point you get big delays as drivers have to get out and figure out how to put the chains on there and then. Insanely then others try to proceed onwards; what has happened is they have lost the forward momentum and now find they are sliding around too! Compounded further by those who don't have any equipment and are forced to do 15-point turns on narrow mountain passes.
If this happens pull far over to the side and get out and fix your vehicle. I would recommend having both the chains and the "socks" - the socks don't last long but are much easier to put on and off. You can't go into any car parks with chains on, so handy to pull off easily when you get close to your hotel parking place.
There is no airport or heliport or train station.
By Air & Bus
There are 6 airports (In decreasing importance: Barcelona, Toulouse, Girona, Reus, Carcassonne, and Perpignan) all of which are a similar distance from Andorra as the crow flies.
Due to the road infrastructure the main and recommended route if you are flying is to fly to Barcelona - there are 2 bus companies offering services approximately every 2 hrs each during the day from El Prat airport. You can also consider Toulouse and Girona, but there are considerably less buses each day.
If you are going to hire a car (see if you can get winter tires during the season), then you can choose any of the airports - note that Carcassonne and Perpignan the shortest routes roads are very winding and your passengers may feel nauseous if you throwing the hire car around. It is also possible the french entry on the RN22 to be blocked as its route is high altitude (and prone to deep snow fall) and it takes the French snow ploughs sometimes days to clear the routes.
The road from Spain is least problematic and never closed. If driving from Barcelona your Sat Nav will tell you to come via the Cadi Tunnel. Unless you're coming from North Eastern places like Girona this is not our recommended route. For all destinations south and including central Barcelona, including the Airport - set your Sat Nav for "Ponts" in Spain. This route takes you along the free A2 motorway and via a fast and toll-free tunnelled route past a dammed lake. All the buses/coaches and locals use this route to Barcelona. It takes about 15mins longer, but in reality when you factor in the 27 Euro cost and the time it takes to stop at all the tolls and fish your wallet out - it's probably more or less the same - plus you've saved all your money!
You can come from Paris on the overnight train or regular services via Tolouse - the nearest station is "Hospitalet Pres Andorre" - this is not "small hospital", but means "Hospitality", as there is a hotel there for travellers in days gone by. There is a connecting bus for the Paris train (once a day) - otherwise you will have to make your own way to the station from Andorra (maybe you know someone can give you a lift?)
Trains run from Puig Cerda to Barcelona, but you are still stuck with being about 1.5hrs away from La Vella with a change of bus in La Seu Urgell - these services don't run often so check carefully before hand.
Turn off you mobile data when you enter Andorra. It is likely your operator will charge you as if you've landed in some remote country, a bit of shock as EU wide roaming charges are very low these days.
There is talk that roaming charges will be abolished, but at this time (Feb 2017) they are still very much in place. Look out for the SMS that your network operator sends you when it detects you've entered the country.
There is lots of free wifi available, in the towns and on the pistes as well as in restaurants and coffee shops.
Buying a local SIM card is may not be cost effective unless you use a lot of data/make a lot of calls as it is 30 Euro for a 6 month card, or 15 Euro for 3 months; calls and data on top of this.
In years gone by Andorra used to grow tobacco and make fake cigarettes. This practice has stopped, but the low cost of genuine tobaccos continues to draw visitors.
Know for its shopping (alcoholic drinks and tobacco) and perfumes. For exportation purposes you cannot take out more than 1.5 litres of spirits.
Recently (2015), under pressure from France the Andorran authorities have introduced an income tax of 10% for salaries over 40K euro, and 5% between 24K and 40K. In return they have been able to liberalise their economy to permit non-andorra 100% ownership of companies; these can do business anywhere and with corporate tax at 10% the Andorrans are now in a position to undercut French and Spanish operations where the tax burden is much higher.
For shareholders in these companies once the 10% has been paid, there is 0% dividend tax for Andorran residents. Andorra hopes to stimulate knowledge based businesses to set up in Andorra and trade. With French and Spanish spoken widely increasing numbers of companies and entrepreneurs have chosen to base themselves, their companies, and for example, web based custom service operation here.
Being outside the EU Andorra makes up its own rules about who can live and work and get residency. Many South American (mainly Argentian) ski instructors (who would have trouble getting inside-EU work, as in Spain, France or Germany) make a beeline for Andorra.
For english-centric ski resort villages like Arinsal it is possible to get a bar job and not speak any/little Catalan or Spanish. Pas de casa is very French, with lots of french spoken.
Wealthy expats are welcomed if they can invest 400K Euros into either property or managed equities, or just kept in cash in an Andorran bank if desired.
The altitude makes the sunshine a lot "stronger" than in it is even down on the coast nearby - the mountain breeze can be deceptive - put on the sunscreen!
There is very little crime - watch your skis/boards as this sadly is a common crime. Petty theft of lost mobile phones and handbags is know, although it is also likely you will get your property back too.
Chemists in Andorra operate a 24hr service on rotation: they take it in turns to stay open all night. This is known as "Farmacia de Guardia".
The health department maintain a list in PDF on this page:
Andorra's border with France has always been susceptible to snow and it's a mountain ridge rather than a mountain pass or valley. While they do historically speak catalan, and still do to this day to a degree, the connection to catalan-speaking Catalonia and the southern area seems to exert the biggest influence on the country.
Barcelona is the best connected city by public transport, and the majority of immigrants come from this and the surrounding provinces. Most people have 2 surnames like the convention in Spain.
Catalan TV stations from Barcelona, and newspapers are watched and read in the bars and cafes; and we celebrate the christmas caga tió and the caganer from Catalonia.
Andorra has recently embraced the Catalan tradition of Castellers (Human Towers) and whilst the Colla (team) is small it proudly does demonstrations of the sport on important cultural days such as Constitution Day.
Parking is easy in Andorra, but unless your just stopping for a short while you might well have to pay for it. This is particularly the case in the capital Andorra la vella.
Most car parks will let you park for 30min or 1hr for free; after that you will need to pay - and it can get quite pricy.
If you are shopping supermarkets and department stores will let you park for free (usually a minimum spend and still a maximum time limit).
If you need to park for longer and want to park for free; you can drive out of the main urban areas and find uncontrolled streets - but we warned these can be some distance from the centres, and we have lots of steep climbs here in the mountains.
If you are going to be really quick; assimilate really quickly and copy the locals who (similarly to Spain) will just pull up on a roundabout, street corner or just about anywhere - put on the hazard lights and leave the car (see picture below, of a car with hazard lights on a roundabout!)
Andorra is a very safe place. Crime is extremely low: be sensible when leaving ski equipment, and someone might think it's a good idea to pinch your mobile or wallet if left unattended, but generally people will hand in purses and other items.
Mountains can be dangerous places: take the right equipment for the conditions. Pyrenean, like Alpine snow is a lot heavier than the light powder found in North American or Japanese resorts and going off piste is always going to be risky: heed the avalanche warning levels - avalanche airbag are not effective when the snow is heavy.
Whilst away from the city centre you are effectively in a large pine forest, there are surprisingly few bugs; the very occasionally mosquito which don't seem to bite in the same way that they do on the coast in France or Spain.
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From 22nd July 2017 until 30th July 2017 the Hotel Panorama is hosting the 35th Andorra Chess Open.
This event is open to licensed Chess players from anywhere in the world. We expect around 140 players from around the world to attend; including many Grand Masters.
Families and accompanying persons are welcome to come, and will benefit from discounts and laid on activities by the Federation.
For more information please see the tournament site. http://open.escacsandorra.com
The many good reviews received for this Campsite are not wrong. Set halfway up a deep valley on the road to Pal village, it has a backdrop of beautiful pine covered mountainsides, and the constant sound of the nearby stream torrent that runs by the side of the camp.
It has 3 different accommodation zones: A large block with 16 apartments, 8 log cabins and a campsite field for 30 or more caravans, campers and tents.
Running up and down the valley is their 18 hole pitch & putt golf course. You need to have a licence to play.
The owners Mariebelle and her brother and their family are very friendly, she speaks Catalan, Spanish, French and passable English; and is more than willing to help out in any way and are greatly appreciated by visitors.
Visitors to the Park are mainly from Spain and France; but you often encounter other europeans like Brits, Dutch, Swedes and Germans. It is not on the "through road" from France to Spain; so will involve a bit (30mins) detour off the main road if you are passing: it is worth the trip up the North Valley.
The Palarine Hotel/Bamboo Restaurant, is a welcoming place to stay and eat in Andorra. The hotel welcomes skiers, mostly from the UK & Ireland, and the restaurant/bar is hub of expat life.
Graham is the friendly manager/landord and together with his chinese wife Maria they expertly run the Palarine (and the bamboo restaurant).
The chinese food is excellent and unique in this part of the world - other chinese restaurants in the area (of which there are very few anyway) serve nothing like it. Well known and respected, locals come all the way from La Vella and La Massana to enjoy the food.
There is a "english pub" atmosphere to the place (without the cigarette smoke), as many of the local british expats tend to often congregate here. Big screen TVs play important sports games.
The Hotel Montané is a small, family run hotel that has the enviable position of being located directly in front of the lower gondola station for the Arinsal ski resort.
Fiona (originally from Scotland), and her family and friendly staff have operated this hotel for over 10 years. In the kitchen chef Jose, who is originally from the US, serves up good quality food that is known all over Andorra. People specially make the trip up to this end of the north valley to enjoy dining here.
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Andorra made itself rich doing this: In the postwar years when motoring became commonplace, its geographical position between France and Spain has proved to be fortunate.
Until recently there was no tax at all; and even now it is only 4.5% as a sales tax. This means Andorran vendors can undercut French and Spanish stores margins, as for example IVA (VAT in spain) is around 20%. But that doesn't mean you get 14% off - the local stores just make more profit!
That's not to say Andorra really is a shopping mecca: It excels in luxury products such as perfumes, cameras and watches - in many of the smaller stores you'd be making a big mistake to pay the list price anyway; it's all about bargaining and haggling old style in these. Be warned however; there might be many little stores up and down the main shopping streets - but some are owned by the same families, so "walking" and getting a price down the street might not be so useful! All the shopkeepers speak some level of English.
Cigarettes, alcohol and petrol are insanely cheap compared to other countries. If you are driving down from France to Spain, try to time your fuel stop for Andorra; and brim the tank!
This is an interesting and convenient cafe for several reasons: It is parked directly above the main government administration building. ?!
How many countries in the world do you have a playground and cafe like that? Not many I think.
Additionally it has a big playground for kids, and a large area for them to run around and let of steam - all the while you can either sit outside (seasonal) or if they are bit more responsible, you can let the kids play outside, you can clearly keep an eye on them from inside the cafe too - the windows are huge and all the way round.
The building (of which you are on the top of) and playground are often bathed in Andorran sunshine. There is parking directly below in 2 car parks.
Have a wander-around outside; you get a spectaular view of the city to the north and south and the mountains climbing steeply up on each side of the valley.
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