Steve’s Sojourns “Strolling and Cycling along the Pyrenees in Andorra”
Nestling in the Pyrenees and offering superb climbing, walking and cycling opportunities it is surprising that Andorra is not a more sought after destination with British outdoor enthusiasts. Add on to this the unique style of the country with is Catalan heritage and mixture of Spanish and French cuisine and lifestyle, plus that it is one of the biggest tax free havens in the world where you can buy “life’s essentials” at a fraction of the cost you have to pay here and the reasons to visit become even more attractive.
Andorra’s is renowned worldwide as a centre for skiing and the Andorran Government have realised that the potential for spring, summer and autumn outdoor activities is huge. This is mainly because of the large system of ski lifts that operates here allowing walkers and cyclists to access the higher slopes.
What is more these lifts can often be linked by trails allowing a day to be planned on the high hills with various optional routes and method of return to be planned. The Andorran government has produced an impressive guidebook with some 15 walks, ten cycle routes and eleven rock climbing routes which I found extremely useful.
We took a large Gondola up to the activity resort of Vallnord. These Gondolas easily take six people equipped for walking or trekking but in front of us was a group of mountain bikers as well as recreational cyclists who were using the system to access the mountain trails. Vallnord has a wide range of activities such as quad biking, archery and ariel runways for you try out should you so wish and is easily accessed by road. Its main attraction though is its bike park where the routes are coloured according to difficulty and standard.
In fact Andorra, the highest country in Europe, has an extensive system of trails and paths for you to explore. The GRP1, crosses the whole country whilst the GR7 and the GR11 run from the French to the Spanish border and provide spectacular views of the Pyrenees. There is also an extensive system of 27 mountain refuges which are open all year round most will accommodate from five to ten people whilst others will take up to 30 or even 60 depending on the popularity of the route.
Another innovation here is the introduction of Heli-trekking which has to be the way forward. Previously to get to the high Pyrenees it would involve an overnight trek but now you can take a helicopter, which after a twenty-minute flight drops you into some of the most beautiful valleys and you simply walk out. The beauty of this is that the flight takes you over stunning mountain scenery, which would otherwise only be visible from an aircraft, and this in itself makes the whole trip worthwhile. Due to the success of this operation there is also a service known as helibike which does much the same thing.
These high areas offer another superb reason to visit them in terms of their flora and fauna. The high alpine climate produces a superb carpet of colour when the early flowers erupt in Spring. Birds of prey such as griffon vultures and lammergeier are often seen. We also managed to get water pipit as we walked across grassy slopes desperately trying not to tread on the purple orchids that spread out before us as far as we could see.
Andorra also has an amazingly rich cultural heritage with its 40 Romanesque churches, museums and mediaeval bridges. The churches in particular are worth visiting as some have incredible wall paintings still surviving inside. If however you really want to get inside Andorran life try some of the local food.
The traditional “tupi” cheese is made with unpasturised sheep’s milk fermented in clay bowls with anise, cardoon, cabbage, chicory, lettuces and potatoes. There are even routes which you can take to sample the local cuisine, wines and fondues!
In short I found Andorra to be an outdoor enthusiast paradise which had just about everything going for it. We flew into Toulouse with a budget airline but you can also fly to Barcelona. Accommodation is easy to get in the country and the advent of heli trekking and helibike must make this one of the prime spots in the future for British visitors.
We stayed in the capital Andorra la Vella, which is centrally situated and is a good place to use as a base as it has all the amenities you would want from a modern small town. It also boasts Europe’s largest “Well-being” spa and swimming facility in Caldea situated in the middle of the town. The huge pool has thermal water along with Jacuzzis and bubble beds, Turkish baths, sunbeds and a whole other range of activities to ease your muscles after a days walking or biking before hitting the local bars or restaurants. Although Catalan is the everyday language, English is widely spoken as is French and Spanish and the people are extremely friendly and helpful.