[The last in the “Don’t Go There” series (so far), is my physically sickening October 2003 visit to the capital city of the tiny nation of Andorra.]
Being the typical uninformed American, I hadn’t known that the country of Andorra even existed until I got my hands on a large, detailed map of Europe near the beginning of my tour. Like a caraway seed stuck in the gums of Europe, Andorra is landlocked and sunk deep in the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain. According to the online CIA World Factbook, the entire country is only “2 and ½ times the size of Washington D.C.” My curiosity ran wild. I wanted to unlock the secrets of this obscure country and report on it while pretending like I knew it was there all along. (editor note: oops)
To say that Andorra la Vella, the capital city of Andorra, was a huge let down would be a disservice to all of the other things that I’ve called a “huge letdown.” In fact, it was a monstrous, stunning, flabbergasting letdown of biblical proportions. To the max. That about sums it up.
This scorching downer didn’t start immediately. In fact, my first impression of the city had considerable potential. As you descend into Andorra la Vella, population 32,000 – the entire country has just under 66,000 residents, only a quarter of which are actual Andorran citizens with the remainder comprised mostly of Spanish ex-pats – you can see the entire city in all its claustrophobic glory. The city is nestled in a gorge between two gigantic mountain ranges. From the bottom, picturesque peaks and landscape can be seen from any point in the city simply by looking above the rooftops of the shoulder-to-shoulder apartment buildings. The sprawl of the city has required that new apartment buildings be built up, seemingly hanging off the valley walls with narrow streets separating the buildings, planed crosswise into the mountain. You don’t walk up the streets in this part of town so much as scale them.
After the short, but steep walk from the bus station to my pension, I set out to explore the city and see what mysteries and attractions it held within its sharply rising streets. The short answer was: one ostensibly bottomless ravine of choking, duty-free despair.
I started to become a little disillusioned with the intentions of Andorra la Vella’s tourism-heavy industry as I walked block after block only to see endless strings of shops selling nothing but watches, jewelry, perfume, booze and electronics. I’d been half looking for a grocery store for a mid-afternoon fruit snack, but as I kept walking I saw nothing except more shops selling the exact same items, interrupted occasionally by streets lined with rows of hotels. Based on 15 grueling minutes of eyeball, totally biased research, I’d bet money that Andorra la Vella has more hotel rooms per capita than Las Vegas.
What I initially thought was an insightful, witty observation on Andorra la Vella resembling a city-sized duty-free shop turned out to be a no-brainer fact on the state of things. A little reading in the Andorra Cultural Itinerary pamphlet that I was given at one of the numerous tourism kiosks (they also have a higher tourism kiosk to tourist ratio that I have ever seen) revealed that in order to further their tourist appeal, Andorra had somehow arranged a tax-free, shopping utopia. It was truly a duty-free nation. You can walk into just about any shop on the street and save a whopping 25% on your indispensable bottle of CK1. On the flip side, you have to ask directions and stalk back alleys to find someone who will sell you a fricking apple.
After walking through half the city and seeing endless shops selling the exact same doo-doo at the exact same prices, things changed quite suddenly as I entered the Pimp My Ride district. Now, instead of being surrounded by shops selling the same five items, the streets were lined with automotive related businesses. Car and motorcycle dealerships, garages, parts and accessory stores and post-factory soup-up shops. This trend went on for about seven blocks before the city abruptly ended at a small pasture at the foot of one of the surrounding mountains.
That was it. That was Andorra la Vella. Crappy shops, wall-to-wall hotels and a population that loves its vehicles like wrestlers love lunch. I was starting to get annoyed. I was also starting to feel physically ill.
The dull feeling of my head trying to implode had started on the bus ride into Andorra la Vella during the undulating altitude changes in the Pyrenees, but now the head throbbing was reaching an incapacitating, ice-pick-in-the-eyeball crescendo and it was accompanied by a disquieting upset stomach. Moreover, I found that I was strangely short of breath and there was a nasty burning sensation in my nose. While I stopped to rest and do a bit of audile panting after walking up a small incline, once again admiring the mountains flanking the city, the full explanation of my maladies suddenly hit me like a racquetball to the groin.
To walk the streets of Andorra la Vella is to be constantly assaulted by the exhaust fumes from the non-stop procession of cars and motorcycles that are plainly not regulated by any emissions standards. Though I initially thought that the lung wilting air quality was a temporary condition, due to me walking down a busy street during rush hour, as I walked out of the city center and rush hour ended, the air quality never improved. I now realized that those picturesque mountains were preventing the carbon dioxide fumes from circulating out of the valley and letting fresh air flow in, turning Andorra la Vella into a tiny Mexico City. Those exhaust fumes were going nowhere except into my lungs. Andorra la Vella was slowly killing me!
I looked at my watch. Through the tears welling up in my burning eyes, I could see that it was going on three hours since I’d last gotten down a full gulp of fresh air and the combination of CO2 fumes and slo-mo asphyxiation was quite obviously causing my discomfort.
Being newly and acutely aware of the situation, my condition went downhill fast. The stomachache got worse. The inside of my nose was on fire. I could feel thousands of oxygen-starved brain cells silently expiring every minute and it affected my ability to think clearly. I was a basket case. I started panting more emphatically as I climbed hills and stairs, trying to get enough useable oxygen to my brain, but it was hopeless.
Another thing I noticed was that although the traditional rush hour time had long since expired, the streets were still hopelessly clogged, requiring a supremely brave traffic cop at every decent sized intersection. Andorra was like a tiny Los Angeles. The citizens drove everywhere and there weren’t many streets to choose from, so traffic was bumper-to-bumper all the time.
I couldn’t figure out where all these people were going in their cars. I had just walked the entire length of their largest city in less than 30 minutes. Honestly, who needs a car or even a scooter when you live in a city that small? In fact, from what I had gathered, there was little excuse to have a motor vehicle anywhere in the entire country. One of the first things thrust upon me at the tourist office was a full country map of Andorra. My mouth gaped open as I noticed that the scale-distance ruler in the lower right hand corner was measured in meters! Not miles. Not kilometers. Meters.
Further utilizing my patented eyeball, totally biased research, I “calculated” that at its widest point, Andorra was only about 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) long. After factoring in the twisting and turning of the roads and all the uphill walking you would be faced with, you could still probably walk the entire length of the country in less than seven hours. Maybe nine hours if you walked backwards and stopped for a long lunch. So, even if these people worked in the next town, even if they crawled the whole way, they would still be on the road for less time than the average commuter in the U.S.
Even the laziest American would have to admit that these short distances don’t require motor vehicle transport. Furthermore, when you factor in the constant traffic congestion in Andorra la Vella, the residents could easily walk to wherever they need to go in much less time than it would take to drive. Though come to think of it, with the air quality being what it is, I suppose I would drive everywhere in Andorra la Vella too. After half jogging up a short flight of stairs I nearly lost consciousness.
The air quality in the valley may also explain why so many Andorrans smoke so aggressively. Given the choice between filling my lungs with carbon dioxide and nicotine, I’d probably choose the nicotine too. At least that way I’d be able to get a nice little buzz while I waited for the slow, sweet embrace of death.
I struggled back to my pension as my multiplicity of ailments worsened. As I screwed on the courage to climb the stairs, it occurred to me why my pension was located on the top floor of the building. No Andorran was dumb enough to have an apartment up that many flights of stairs. They’d never make it home at the end of the day. I pictured worried little kids sitting by the door, cute little re-breathers pumping away, wondering why daddy hadn’t come home yet. Eventually the kids would open the door and find daddy passed out between the second and third floors, oxygen tank at zero, puke dribbling out of the side of his mouth. They could call these episodes an “Andorran nap”.
I had pre-paid for two nights at the pension, so I was stuck in Andorra la Vella for a minimum of 40 hours. Thirty-eight hours and 26 minutes too long.
The one and only high point of my internment in Andorra la Vella was the costly, but savory dinner that I managed to track down. Baviera Restaurant was pricier than I would have usually tolerated, but I had chanced upon a 20 euro note that someone had dropped, undoubtedly while in the death throes of emphysema, and it was begging to be spent. I ordered a magnificent meal. I started with a dish that was described something like “marinated, seasoned mushrooms and shrimp,” but it turned out to be a the classiest omelet that I have every eaten, mixed with savory scrambled eggs, piled on a flaky pastry. Then came the main course. Medallions of the most tender duck I have ever seen, in raspberry sauce with sautéed vegetables. I washed it all down with two glasses of white wine and finished with four extravagantly presented chocolate truffles.
While I was eating I couldn’t help but notice that Baviera, indeed none of the restaurants in the fine dining alcove I was in, had outdoor seating. Andorra la Vella, may be the only city in the world where outdoor dining is shunned like the table next to men’s room. I visualized a typical encounter at the hostess’ table:
Hostess: “Well, you’ll have to wait 90 minutes to get a table in the dining room, but we can seat you out on the patio with a stunning view of the mountains, valley and river right away.”
Patron: “Screw that, we’re going to Wendy’s.”
On my second day, I decided to do whatever was necessary to get an inhalation of fresh air into me. Not only was I suffering on the streets, but my pension room had the most dreadful, unidentifiable smell and I couldn’t decide what was worse, having the window open or closed.
I walked to the neighboring community of Escaldes-Engordany, Andorra’s second most populous city – for the record, even while gasping for air, I covered the distance in less than 20 minutes – to take pictures of the only cool building in the area; the savagely promoted and mirthfully overpriced Caldea Spa.
Then I kept moving out of town and up the mountain where there was rumored to be some nature trails. Sure enough, the higher I walked the fresher the air got, though I had to be careful not to over-do the exertion. Getting only a fraction of the usual amount of usable oxygen into my lungs, I didn’t want to pass out on the pavement and get run over by an Andorran screaming by on his motor-cross bike.
Eventually, I could go no further due to the road deteriorating into a narrow mountain pass with no sidewalk and almost no shoulder. By now the air quality was almost as good as one might find in the heart of downtown Minneapolis. I stood there and sucked down the wonderful, invigorating air for a long interval before seeking out the nature trail, which was disappointingly littered with trash and dog shit. With no other options, I reluctantly took the trail back down and into the city.
Though I loathe to do so, to be fair, I should mention that according to the pile of pamphlets that I was enthusiastically burdened with during my visit, the country of Andorra seems to have a fair number of seasonal sporting activities for one to partake in if you are looking for something other than a Rolex or getting a whale fin mounted on the trunk of your vehicle. Andorra has somehow squashed 275 kilometers (179 miles) of ski slopes at five different resorts within its borders as well as numerous nature hikes (though for the sake of your health, you should avoid any that take you below the city skyline), horseback riding tours, kayaking/canoeing, rock climbing, fishing, hunting, mountain biking and a few museums that you will love if you’re a car enthusiast. Zzzzzzz.
Additionally, you can go on numerous self-guided tours of the country, although you need a car to indulge in this diversion (surprise, surprise). The Andorra Tourism Bureau has gone through the seemingly quick task of cataloging each and every item of significance in the country and setting up several themed tours for you to follow (e.g. “The Silent Valleys,” “Unforgettable Scenery,” and “Gateway to Art”). Reading these tours, you get the clear sense that the tourism bureau was trying a little too hard. These tours document each and every building, bridge, church, sculpture, brick, rock and noteworthy blade of grass, no matter how minor, exhausting every possible attraction that the entire country has to offer, all in one little pamphlet. If I hadn’t been choking back dry heaves and wiping away tears from my bloodshot eyes at the time, I would have almost felt sorry for them.
I closed out my mercifully short stay in Andorra la Vella with some over-price, over cooked lasagna and a glass of red wine, before retiring to my stinky room where I breathed through my mouth non-stop until I got on the first bus out of town at 6:30 the next morning.
Don’t go to Andorra la Vella.