Abroad in Andorra

Annabel Crawford

A few weeks ago I had the veritable fortune to travel to Andorra to visit a friend. For those who are unaware (the majority to whom I have spoken), Andorra is a small country of around 85,000 people, nestled snugly in the Pyrenees between France and Spain. Much to my dismay, the official language is Catalan, and so my minimal Spanish was voided for the duration of the weekend. After all, Andorra is situated in the Catalonia region, along with Barcelona in the north of Spain. Due to its proximity to the ski slopes, Andorra is well known for its luxury skiing holidays as well as its ridiculously cheap duty-free tobacco, with torrents of Spaniards and Frenchmen crossing the border purely to capitalise on this. In fact, I am told that tobacco sales in 2014 made up 25% of Andorran GDP.

As flying direct is not an option, the most efficient way to travel is to fly to Barcelona, before making the 3-4 hour drive by car, and soak in the gorgeous scenery along the way. The entirety of my journey was complemented by a fiery political discussion in Catalan, which naturally went completely over my head. The youth are very politicised, not only in Andorra, but Catalonia in general, with independence at the forefront of everyone’s minds. All along the way to Andorra, I noticed Catalonia flags, flying defiantly in the breeze, accompanied with graffiti reading “Adieu Espana” (Goodbye Spain).

Catalonia in Spain has been pursuing independence since the mid 19th century, with the issue escalating in recent years. However, Catalans are unable to take a referendum on the matter, as to do so would be against the Spanish constitution. At risk of oversimplification, the unease has been festering over matters such as the parliament in Madrid using the abundant Catalonian tax revenue for the benefit of other regions in Spain. More fundamentally, Catalonia is clearly a destination with a distinct and vivid culture, history, language and customs and they would like their individuality recognized.

The Catalonia regional elections are to be held in September, and will serve as a quasi-referendum on Catalonian independence.  All of the pro-independence political parties are going to campaign with independence at the forefront of their agendas. This will ensure that the outcome of the election will reflect the regional support for independence and provide Catalonia with a democratic mandate with which to begin negotiations with parliament and neighbouring regions. While any progress would be welcomed in the region, independence will no doubt be a gradual process. Although Scotland has been having a similar dispute for independence, here it seems only a matter of time. But the lengths to which Catalonia must go to even have a legal discussion on the topic was epitomised by one local lamenting “at least Scotland was allowed to vote”.

Independent Andorra is facing a different political landscape from the rest of Catalonia. Andorra is the world’s only co-principality, having two co-princes as the heads of state. One is the current President of France, Francois Hollande, and the other, the Bishop of la Seu d’Urgel. Neither is from Andorra, making for a strange governance arrangement. Andorra was founded in 1278 with a treaty between the Bishop and the French Count of Foix and the arrangement has continued to this day. Both princes must ordinarily co-sign laws in order for them to be valid, however one signature carries legality as well.

From what I managed to gather, the current contentious topics in Andorra are abortion and the potential building of a new casino. A casino would complement Andorra’s tourism centred economy and provide an additional source of income derived from the many luxury skiers who visit. The Bishop co-prince has said he will not co-sign the law concerning the casino, viewing such activities as immoral, although he will not take action if the other co-prince assents.

Conversely, he is taking a more determined stand on the abortion issue. Abortion is currently illegal in Andorra, with women needing to cross the border to either France or Spain to obtain one. Some are pushing for the legality of abortion in Andorra but the Bishop co-prince has stated that not only will he not co-sign the law, but will resign from his role as the co-prince of Andorra. This is a strong threat that could have significant implications for the validity of Andorran law. It will be intriguing to see how these matters develop.

It may come as a surprise, but despite using the euro as currency; Andorra is neither a member of the European Union, the Eurozone, or the Schengen Area. Andorra is treated as an EU trade partner for manufactured goods, but not for agricultural products. This separation should not hinder travel for UK citizens, as since you can only reach Andorra via Spain or France, your passport is not checked when driving through the border.

Andorra appeared to be a country composed of many juxtaposed contemporary and historical elements. The oldest church in the Pyrenees, dated 12th century, is located mere kilometres from one of the most modern shopping centres I have ever seen. The original parliament building, dated 1580, was used from 1702 until about 2012. It is a quaint, square stone building, which sits directly above the new parliament, a massive multistorey glass complex with glowing, coloured sculptures all along the front. Andorra is clearly a country proud of its heritage but not afraid of moving forward.

The anomalies carry through into other areas of Andorran life. I happened to be there on the day of the Andorran national election. My host had been excited about voting for weeks beforehand, as a fellow with a keen political mind, yet when he went to vote on the day he discovered he was not even registered on the list. Furthermore, his parents do not have Andorran passports, despite living in the country for 20 odd years. They are immensely proud of their nationality, but do not even have citizenship, mainly because it is a hindrance to travel in Europe if you are a non-EU citizen. While joining the EU would remove this abnormality, they believe it would be detrimental to their economy to join when they are so prosperous by themselves.

The rest of the weekend was spent in blissful awe at my dramatic surroundings. Andorra is truly a beautiful country, with the capital, Andorra la Vella, burrowed at the foot of a yawning valley. I was lucky enough to spend a glorious day skiing at one of the main ski fields, Vallnord, and despite the stunning weather, barely stood in a line all day.

A well timed weekend to visit, I had the additional benefit of watching Andorra challenge a Spanish league team at basketball. I was surprised at the electric and impassioned atmosphere for such a small stadium. The crowd significantly outperformed the Celtic fans in Glasgow, where at my sojourn to a Celtic football game, more than half the stadium was empty and the fans dead silent. In this country of unpredictability, we continued from the basketball game to a Russian billiards bar, only to be served wasabi shots by the over-friendly barmen Andres and Joseph. It was multiculturalism in a nutshell.

The evening was spent socialising with many new acquaintances, all of which were enthusiastic and welcoming. However, with a determination to make sure no gaps were left in my language they proceeded to teach me only the worst swear words they could think of. Apparently the word for a straw is also the word for an illicit bedroom activity. I will leave you to wonder which one.

While Andorra may be slightly difficult to get to, it is well worth the trip to explore this historic and unique state. It may be small, at only 468km2, but more than makes up for it through diversity and an abundance of activities. Whether you are an adventure junkie, enjoy the natural environment, or would just like to take advantage of the cheap cigarettes, Andorra provides the ideal opportunity to try somewhere new and learn a little something about another vibrant culture.


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