24-hours in the Totally Real Nation of Andorra

Words by Sam McPheeters

When I recently announced I’d be visiting Andorra, friends expressed concern. The planet from Avatar? The other planet, with the Ewoks? Samantha’s overbearing mother on Bewitched? And or A? Two conjunctions and an indefinite article?

I reassured them: Andorra is a real country, with people and trees and cars and everything. Smooshed between the behemoths of Spain and France, nestled deep in the Pyrenees, Andorra is something of a question mark. Being the 16th smallest country hasn’t helped matters. Less than half the size of Los Angeles, Andorra is too tiny for its own airport, money, leader, or common awareness of its own existence.

On a recent trip to Barcelona, my wife and I took a quick excursion to the tiny mountain nation. Although this is normally a three hours trip, we got lost, found ourselves in France, and entered the tiny landlocked nation from the east. Andorra is not an EU state, so I’d braced myself for a hard border. But it took the rental car’s GPS to welcome us to this strange, secret garden of a land.

Andorra la Vella, the nation’s capital and only city, has a bad rep as a bore. Operating outside the EU (although the Euro is official currency), Andorra offers a nation of duty-free stores that fall somewhere between huge versions of airport shops and correctly-proportioned versions of American outlet malls. Downtown Andorra la Vella seems designed to feel vaguely ‘European’. But is it Wes Anderson’s Europe, or James Bond’s?  Standing on the main drag, Meritxell Avenue, it is completely possible to surround oneself with enough multi-story shopping blocks to obliterate the mountainous, photography-defying grandeur surrounding the city on all sides.

We had but 24-hours, and it was raining. In Ordino—a distinct ‘town’ only in the way that Santa Monica is technically a separate city from LA—we found the miniatures museum, Museu de la Miniatura, a mini-nation must-see. A gallery crammed with tourists offered a world-class collection of Matruschka dolls, each smaller than the last. Several feet away, one could peer into microscopes at artworks carved into apple pips and poppy seeds. What is an apple pip? Not something you’d want to carve into. One microscope revealed a procession of gold leaf camels marching through the cavernous eye of a needle. The Horton Hears A Who implication spooked me. Who peered down at us, in our own teensy land?

The rain slowed to a drizzle. We caught the air gondola in nearby La Massana. Out of ski season, this 15-minute, one-mile diagonal ride was all ours, besides a few muddy, intrepid bicyclists willing to risk it all through the steep mountain trails below. We passed low enough to catch the jangle of cowbells, then high enough to peek into the next valley over, where the sun was out. I felt like I was in a butter commercial.


At dusk, I dropped off my wife at Caldea, a spa disguised as an indoor water-park. I took a long stroll through downtown Andorra la Vella, the only downtown in the nation. On the main drag, I passed what appeared to be a uniformed cop with a shock of neon pink hair. Popping into a sweets shop, I found same-sex cake toppers and licorice gummies shaped like racist caricatures of African men. Huh? Where was I?

This snub to civilised norms seemed to highlight what I wasn’t seeing. Andorra had none of the yellow ribbons and huge graffiti manifestos of Spanish Catalonia. Even in France’s neighbouring Occitanie region, shops were awash with sympathetic Catalonian merchandise. Andorra’s official language is Catalan; they’d already won the cultural battle still simmering over the Spanish border.



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Les muntanyes d’Andorra, tenen un encís especial. #andorra #palarinsalvallnord #estiualacerdanya #bonacompanyia

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Won the battle but lost a war. In the barrage of western imagery—an endless procession of Hermes bags and Taylor Swift and vape juice and poop emojis—I hadn’t seen anything that could actually be called Andorran. Souvenir shops hawked postcards of horses and gophers, and little ceramic statuettes of dreadlock guys smoking joints on the non-existent beaches of Andorra. In the condo blocks and hotels we passed, I’d seen ample nods to Bavarian and Swiss culture—a muted mix of baroque, gothic and Grimm’s Fairy tale—but no soaring examples of great Andorran architecture. The capital’s Plaça de la Rotonda Dali holds a monument to Salvador Dali, favorite son of Spain.



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Racons bonics d’Andorra #andorra #andorralavella #holidays #vacances #sensefiltres #raconsambencant

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I’ve never been anywhere that didn’t have its own thing. The ‘thing’ doesn’t have to be an Eiffel Tower or Empire State Building. Every nation and state makes do with what it has. Kansas City celebrates Oz. Kentucky gas stations sell ‘hillbilly’-themed key chains. The last time I was in the Albuquerque airport, I resisted buying blue rock candy, meant to depict the meth sold on Breaking Bad, a show now six years gone.

I hadn’t seen anything that sad in Andorra, although there was a certain wistfulness in our departure. We passed another herd of cows, another series of gas stations. Then the car’s GPS informed us that we’d already entered Spain, and one more mountain twist removed Andorra from even the rearview mirror.


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