Andorra. Up there at the top of Europe.
Many years ago I was working as an impoverished flying instructor at a country airfield. I had negotiated an interesting scheme for my remuneration with the flying club owner. He wasn’t going to make much money from it and neither was I. I got free accommodation and food, five pounds a week guaranteed and two pounds for each flying hour that I sold. I also got a few free flying hours each month for myself that I could use as I wished in the club Cessna aircraft. That really was the best bit. I shared my flying hours with my boss and we visited much of France. I began to love the European continent and have spent the rest of my life working from it and visiting it.
On one of our shared trips, we landed our little aircraft at Toulouse aerodrome in France amongst all the arriving airline traffic. We were allocated an isolated parking stand and secured the aircraft to the ground with rope as protection against the gusty wind. We checked in with the customs officer and set off to get a hire car. My boss paid the bill and he did all the driving on the wrong side of the road.
The journey through south western France in the evening dusk was to be the start of so many adventures for me for the rest of my life. The next morning in the car, we set off for the Pyrenees Mountains and came across the land locked country of Andorra, right up high in the hills. Neither of us had been there before and we wanted to find out all about it.
Andorra is the smallest independent country in Europe at just 181 square miles. It has the highest Capital city, Andorra la Vella, in Europe at 1023 metres above sea level. Andorra also has the seventh highest life expectancy in the world at 82 years. For both of us at the time, and probably many other people in the world, Andorra was little known and understood.
Andorra is difficult to get to. There are no airports or indeed any fixed wing aircraft in the country. The nation is served by Toulouse airport in France and Barcelona in Spain. Both of these are a three hour drive away by car. There is a railway service but it passes short of the national border by about 10 kilometres. The trains are run by SNCF and serve several major French cities. Roads are limited with only two major highways into the centre. Poorer, internal country roads though are serviced by a good private nationwide bus service. If you want to visit Andorra, it is best to use a car.
The politics of Andorra are somewhat untidy and a little disconnected. The country is a sort of duo Principality presided over by two separate Princes. One is the democratically elected President of France. Only the French get to vote for him though. The other is the current Bishop of Barcelona, appointed by the Spanish Church. They both oversee a separate government or council that is internally appointed by the Andorran people.
Andorra is a member of the United Nations but not of the European Union. It does, however, operate under an agreed association with the EU. The national currency, oddly, is the Euro. The country is bounded, high up in the hills, by France and Spain and really shares their joint cultures. The national language is Catalan but French and Spanish are widely used. The local people are very lucky to enjoy their generally tri lingual inheritance and children learn all three languages in school.
Due to the high elevation amongst the Pyrenees, Andorra can be rather cool. It has a sort of Alpine climate with much snow in the winter and lower average temperatures for southern Europe in the summer. Skiing takes place in the winter on a grand scale but Andorran runs are not patronized extensively as elsewhere in Europe. Surface communications are difficult and the general culture and economy lack the glitz and glamour found in the French and Swiss Alps. Roller Hockey is widely played and the Andorran people excel at it. Football is also a national sport but standards are low due to the small internal population of around only 85000 people.
A number of sports actually occupy national attention in Andorra. Strangely, they play cricket but not very well. A few years ago, Andorra played the ‘Dutch Fairly Odd Places Cricket Club’ on a pitch at 1300 metres above sea level. They were all bowled out for 105 by the Dutch!
Andorra is a tax and duty free haven although this is being partly restructured these days. The national economy is largely based on tourism due to this attraction and annually around 10 million people from outside visit the country. Andorra is rather quaint and charming and very much a scaled down version of the faster pace of life in French and Swiss skiing country. The internal architecture is of the classic mountain timber style. There are plenty of very reasonably priced hotels and hostels for tourists to use.
In addition to the Capital City there are nine other towns of reasonable stature to visit. The internal bus service is reported to be very efficient. The view of the mountainous countryside of southern Europe from so high up is quite spectacular. Andorra has not suffered from the eroding effects of commercialism found elsewhere on the continent. The nation provides sound education in three languages for their children. It also has a well regarded University specialising in nursing, computer science and business studies. Health treatment is sophisticated but visitors must check that they have adequate insurance. The European EHIC card will not be accepted.
Andorra is actually well run internally rather like a good tight ship of the Naval variety. The military arm, police and fire service are seemingly combined into a self contained single unit. Whenever the army has been needed, its numbers have been increased by reservists that receive regular updated training. All adult males, apparently, must maintain an approved firearm at their homes.
My boss and I spent almost a day visiting Andorra. We both felt that our respective experiences of Europe had been enhanced by the more restrained and charming manner of life in this country. My boss was a widely travelled man and believed that he could speak French well. To my horror and embarrassment he tried it out on the local people in a restaurant. They replied to him in perfect and restrained English. We left for the car and drove off back to Toulouse.
We spent the night in France, returned to Toulouse airport the next morning and returned the car. Our little aircraft was still safe and sound, roped to the ground. We paid the bills, fired her up and flew her back to the UK.
For me, it was a short but a very memorable trip. I had enjoyed the flying, the driving amongst the Pyrenees Mountains and the brief visit to the almost unheard of Andorra. Europe is actually a wonderful continent to be a part of. It is vast and is home to such a wide range of culture and cosmopolitan living. I loved it then and I love it all the more these days. I look back with much sentiment to the days when I got paid partly in flying hours. Such rewards should be wasted on the young and the experiences not forgotten.