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Adventure in Andorra

Adventure in Andorra

Travel
By John Rember
posted: 03/26/2001

Wedged between France and Spain, this tiny tax-free principality in the Pyrenees is a skier's paradise, if you don't mind a few eccentricities.

I'm dancing naked in the shower. No music. Scalding water is coming out of the showerhead. I keep jumping around and making James Brown noises so I won't lose skin. I turn a knob. Icy water shoots down my back. I scream.

Julie pulls back the curtain. "You want me to call the desk?" "NO!" I howl. That would be too much like asking directions.

We're in an Israeli-run hotel in Andorra, a tiny, mountainous principality squeezed between France and Spain. Eight hundred years ago it was the subject of small wars between the French and Spanish, who got tired of trooping up and down the Pyrenees and rolling rocks through each other's tents. They declared a draw, agreed to corule the territory, and went off to fight in places where the terrain wasn't so brutal.

Andorra was forgotten for centuries, which was fine with the Andorrans, who survived in lean years -- and most years were lean years -- by smuggling goods from France into Spain, or from Spain into France. Isolated by the mountains, they continued to speak Catalan, a language a lot like medieval Latin. They built traditional houses of the native stone and raised animals on steep and rocky pastures. They built a distinctive national cuisine around grilled and cured meats. They didn't pay taxes because there wasn't much to tax and you can't tax smuggling, anyway -- if you did, it wouldn't be smuggling. They did not ski.

The desk clerk knows six languages, none of them shower-fixing English. The bar downstairs is full of drunken Russians, who must have plumbed the place.

Outside our window is what looks like an old silver-print postcard: Ordino, a village of slate-roofed stone houses and cobblestoned streets jammed with slate-colored Landcruisers and Mercedes. Above the buildings, dark rock walls, decorated here and there by goats -- yes, goats-- stretch 1,500 feet up to brilliant white peaks.

Those peak tops, I'm thinking, would be worth whole seasons of backcountry skiing. And the cold snow covering them is easy to imagine as I stand in this shower with frigid water running down my neck. Another slight adjustment of knobs, and it's back to boiling.

Twenty-four hours later, thanks to the kind direction of the local touristiquesoffice, I'm riding the bus to Arcalis. Andorra has four other ski resorts, but Arcalis's north-facing slopes, expert terrain, and its new, state-of-the-art facilities make it first among equals. And Arcalis is a full-size resort -- which is significant: If the U.S. had a ski resort that took up as much of its territory as Arcalis takes up of Andorra's, it would be the size of Maine. It's also got a lift capacity of 16,510 skiers per hour. Lift lines are rare.

We're now staying in the Hotel Coma, named not for the condition but for the family that has run it for generations. It's got that pre-deja vu feeling of a place you think you'll return to again.

Upstairs, on the third floor, we've got a big room with floors of warm polished wood, a balcony with a sunset view, a down comforter on the bed, and shower controls I comprehend. The restaurant is outstanding -- skier's portions of pork, beef, and lamb. A library off the bar. A happy bartender who refers to Julie as la belle Americaine.

I'm meeting Mark Crichton, director of the Arcalis ski school and a mountaineering guide. He's Irish, from Africa. He's going to show me around. In English.

And so finally I get to carve turns down a wide glacial cirque in Andorra. I'm not disappointed.

I'm looking at towers of shining black rock, brilliant white snow, sky that's a deep luminous blue, broad runs that are as smooth as an army of groomers can make them, some nice pitches of moguls, and strings of lift towers vanishing into a jagged horizon. It's warm. The Pic D'Arcalis is a big mountain. It's Jaary in the southern Pyrenees, but it feels like eternal spring in Shangri-la.

It's clear that the 9,100-foot Pic attracts massive amounts of snow. Mark tells me a big part of his job is avalanche control. Wet, warm storms come north from the Mediterranean, cold powdery ones south from the Atlantic. This year, however, the big two-meter storms that would blanket the off-piste have stayed away. Now there's half the usual amount of snow, and out there among the hoodoos and rock faces is a brutally hard and unforgiving windpack.

Not to worry. Arcalis advertises over 1,000 acres of inbounds skiing on 2,200 feet of vertical. Two great bowls, the Cercle D'Arcalis and, above it, the Cercle De La Coma, stretch up to the headwalls of the peak. Steep chutes connect them, and exploring their nooks and crannies would take days. After a storm, it would take weeks -- careful weeks, because some of those chutes get steep toward the end and some of the hikeable routes that the eye traces through the cliffs look like first descents.

I'm happy to follow Mark down the piste in playground mode. I slip into that old familiar feeling of springtime warp-speed fall-line cruising. Disco moves are allowed.

That old familiar feeling passes. Mark takes me over to a just-opened area serviced by a new, nondetachablehigh-speed quad. Chairs swing around the bullwheel at ass-whacking speeds. But steps have been taken to keep the initial g-forces nonlethal. You ease up to a starting gate, and when it opens, you lunge through it onto a moving sidewalk, kind of like the ones in airports, only plastic. The contraption gets you going fast enough to load the fast-moving lift. And before you know it, you've flown up 1,300 feet, over steep faces of glittering schist and the high-alpine Llac de Creussans, which Mark says is good fishing when it's thawed out.

The unload at the top is quick enough to catch a tort lawyer's eye. From there, it's only a 50-yard hike up to the ridge -- and the French border. You can look east to France, south, north, and west to Spain. Mark points out smuggling routes that were used pre-European Union; the ridge that hides another resort, Arinsal; and a backcountry trip to die for, a 14-hour summit-hopping trip into France and back. Andorra might be a small country, but it's a backcountry superpower.

Then we take a dive down into Andorra's glacial geology, which looks a bit unpadded this year. Below the lift is a field of giant boulders that will give summer slope maintenance an explosive quality for decades to come. The only way down is a potent super G course -- a bulldozer-wide path through the rocks -- and it's a thrilling counterbanked roller-coaster ride around lethal drop-offs, past the Llac, and up to the ski racks of the Restaurant La Coma.

Waiters move silently through sunlit, linen-covered tables in front of a wall of windows that overlooks a new six-pack lift and a long and gentle piste. At the table next to us, a group of superannuated English expatriates, each with a bottle of wine, discusses the Andorran masters' race season and its toll on aging knees, femurs, and hips:

"Smythe?"

"Didn't even make it to the course. He just fell down and shattered his collarbone."

"Dottie Forster?"

"Old girl's expected to recover. Eventually."

"Dickens?"

"A bad, bad break. Took out the finish gate."

A dream begins to take shape: retiring to Andorra, buying a little stone villa, living on a pension that becomes generous when converted to pesetas, and racing at the master's level every day until the wine, food, old age, and finish gate catch up with you.

Nothing at the Hotel Coma interferes with that dream. One evening we get crazy with the menu and spend $40 for an exquisite meal and a bottle of Marqes de Riscal reserva. Five nights, five breakfasts, and three evening meals there cost us $434. There are even better deals, if you can do without the Little Rascal, as we've come to refer to our new favorite wine.

That small retirement villa is more of a problem. Prices are rising in Andorra, and while they're still low by U.S. resort standards (you can get a well-located two-bedroom condo for $150,000), vacant lots are becoming rare. International finance -- characterized by "efficiency, reserve, discretion, and tact" -- has replaced smuggling as Andorra's main industry. It's meant a huge infusion of cash and people from countries where discretion and tact are not as valued.

Maximum cash is in the process of meeting minimum real estate. The flat ground in Andorra's 188 square miles would maybe equal the Mall of America parking lot. Most of that ground looks up to the sharp horns of peaks, tumbling waterfalls, steep flowering pastures, and cliff-top forests. There isn't a bad view anywhere, unless someone's built condos just outside your picture windows.

If you decide to chuck it all and move to Andorra, however, know this: Becoming a local is impossible. I discover this when Mark and his girlfriend, Anna Babot, meet us at the Coma Bar. Anna is a real Andorran. And she's among the only 4,000 or so Andorrans who have Andorran grandparents. Of the 65,000 people living in Andorra, only 15,000 are passport holders. It takes 25 years of residency to earn a passport. Mark, whose parents brought him here from Zambia at the end of the British colonial era, just got his.

Mark smiles. "The real Andorra is even smaller than it looks," he says. "Everyone in it knows everyone else's pedigree."

"We know who we are," says Anna. She owns a small amount of property in Andorra, which I decide is like being a Kuwaiti who owns a small amount of oil. "We usually give land to the eldest son," she says, "to keep it from being broken up. But my grandmother has given land to me, the eldest daughter." She smiles as someone who has benefited from both tradition and the breakdown of it. Women finally got to vote in Andorra in 1970.

"What does a real Andorran think of Andorra?" I ask. Anna shakes her head. "So many changes," she says. "I'd like to see more skiers. But not so many package tourists. Not so much building. Not so much selling of land. We don't want the whole country to become like Arinsal."

The next day, Julie and I walk five miles to the village of Arinsal, one valley over from Ordino. At its upper end, built on the hillside a few yards above the road, is a beautiful small villa, not new, not luxurious, but well built and comfortable. In the 1960s, at the start of the Andorran building boom, its living room window framed a great white peak.

Now that window frames a 600-room Russian-financed hotel. The road outside is choked with SUVs. Hotels line the other side of the street. A high-speed quad rises out of the center of town. Condos creep up the hillsides. At night the mountains rock to the thumpings of discos. The English are here, too, but they're younger, louder, and seem far more interested in football and beer than in skiing. They're what Anna means by package tourists, and they're taking full advantage of a strong British pound in a country where alcohol is already cheap. Everybody in town seems to be having a very good time. We have spaghetti and a beer in a genuine Italian-English pub, then take the bus back to the peaceful streets of Ordino.

Ordino has been the last of Andorra's regions to be developed, and it's learned from the mistakes of the others. Strict zoning laws have preserved open space, and a brilliant rule requires that 80 percent of the exterior of new buildings be expensive hand-built rockwork. So it only looks medieval. Its narrow streets twist between modern buildings, which are connected to the outside world by optic fibers and satellite dishes. It has a state-of-the-art sports center with pool and exercise rooms, a new national auditorium, and museums. It's full of good restaurants, and you can walk anywhere in town in five minutes.

Ordino is where I'd go to live. But I'd take the bus to Arinsal tne.

That small retirement villa is more of a problem. Prices are rising in Andorra, and while they're still low by U.S. resort standards (you can get a well-located two-bedroom condo for $150,000), vacant lots are becoming rare. International finance -- characterized by "efficiency, reserve, discretion, and tact" -- has replaced smuggling as Andorra's main industry. It's meant a huge infusion of cash and people from countries where discretion and tact are not as valued.

Maximum cash is in the process of meeting minimum real estate. The flat ground in Andorra's 188 square miles would maybe equal the Mall of America parking lot. Most of that ground looks up to the sharp horns of peaks, tumbling waterfalls, steep flowering pastures, and cliff-top forests. There isn't a bad view anywhere, unless someone's built condos just outside your picture windows.

If you decide to chuck it all and move to Andorra, however, know this: Becoming a local is impossible. I discover this when Mark and his girlfriend, Anna Babot, meet us at the Coma Bar. Anna is a real Andorran. And she's among the only 4,000 or so Andorrans who have Andorran grandparents. Of the 65,000 people living in Andorra, only 15,000 are passport holders. It takes 25 years of residency to earn a passport. Mark, whose parents brought him here from Zambia at the end of the British colonial era, just got his.

Mark smiles. "The real Andorra is even smaller than it looks," he says. "Everyone in it knows everyone else's pedigree."

"We know who we are," says Anna. She owns a small amount of property in Andorra, which I decide is like being a Kuwaiti who owns a small amount of oil. "We usually give land to the eldest son," she says, "to keep it from being broken up. But my grandmother has given land to me, the eldest daughter." She smiles as someone who has benefited from both tradition and the breakdown of it. Women finally got to vote in Andorra in 1970.

"What does a real Andorran think of Andorra?" I ask. Anna shakes her head. "So many changes," she says. "I'd like to see more skiers. But not so many package tourists. Not so much building. Not so much selling of land. We don't want the whole country to become like Arinsal."

The next day, Julie and I walk five miles to the village of Arinsal, one valley over from Ordino. At its upper end, built on the hillside a few yards above the road, is a beautiful small villa, not new, not luxurious, but well built and comfortable. In the 1960s, at the start of the Andorran building boom, its living room window framed a great white peak.

Now that window frames a 600-room Russian-financed hotel. The road outside is choked with SUVs. Hotels line the other side of the street. A high-speed quad rises out of the center of town. Condos creep up the hillsides. At night the mountains rock to the thumpings of discos. The English are here, too, but they're younger, louder, and seem far more interested in football and beer than in skiing. They're what Anna means by package tourists, and they're taking full advantage of a strong British pound in a country where alcohol is already cheap. Everybody in town seems to be having a very good time. We have spaghetti and a beer in a genuine Italian-English pub, then take the bus back to the peaceful streets of Ordino.

Ordino has been the last of Andorra's regions to be developed, and it's learned from the mistakes of the others. Strict zoning laws have preserved open space, and a brilliant rule requires that 80 percent of the exterior of new buildings be expensive hand-built rockwork. So it only looks medieval. Its narrow streets twist between modern buildings, which are connected to the outside world by optic fibers and satellite dishes. It has a state-of-the-art sports center with pool and exercise rooms, a new national auditorium, and museums. It's full of good restaurants, and you can walk anywhere in town in five minutes.

Ordino is where I'd go to live. But I'd take the bus to Arinsal to party.

I really, really would like another day at Arcalis to play the pistemeister, but we've already bought tickets back to Spain. Before we go, we visit Caldea Spa, down in the capital city of Andorra la Vella. It's in a 150-foot, mirror-sided rendition of a quartz crystal atop a geo-thermal spring. When we first arrived in town, I thought it was a postmodern cathedral. In a way it is, except it's a church of the body rather than the spirit. It holds a giant lagoonlike pool, replicas of Greco-Roman baths, fountains, slides, Jacuzzis, massage rooms, tanning rooms, saunas, a laser depilation center, three restaurants, a climbing wall, and a minimall. In high season, 3,000 people go through its doors each day, which makes the chlorine in the water a welcome addition. The game quickly becomes to guess the nationalities of people with few clothes on.

The water's cooler than body temperature, but a portal leads from the main pool to a warmer outside lagoon and a view of the city. Julie and I count 13 construction cranes above rising bank towers and condo projects.

Three hours later, having swum, steamed, and soaked in infared light (we've avoided the laser depilation having seen it adequately demonstrated in an old James Bond movie), we wait for the bus back to Ordino.

In one of the museums we visited in Ordino -- it was the restored house of some village nobles -- we saw, next to the smokehouse and root cellar, the downstairs room where cows were kept in winter. Bovine body heat provided central heating for the people upstairs. Chickens were raised in the attic. A suit of armor guarded the small upstairs chapel where they prayed. A wood-stove kitchen, a wine cellar, fireplaces, and walls hung with oxen and donkey harnesses spoke of a reverent life lived close to the land and its seasons.

That life seems like hallucination, as we stand at the bus stop amid a crowd of people muttering into cell phones, listening to the shouts of construction workers, the back-up alarms of cement trucks, and the honking of horns. A cyber cafe sits a half block down the street from us. Shops selling perfume and furs and ski equipment fill the spaces between banks in the center of town. Stop long enough to look and you can see the future coming at you like a tsunami.

Not that I'm complaining. The future is an unbelievable skiing value. On the bus, riding back up to the Hotel Coma, we're plotting to get back as soon as we can. We want to ski Andorra's off-piste in the usual good powder year. It won't be that hard, we decide, to fly our telemark gear into Barcelona, board the bus, and be checked into the Coma 24 hours from the start of a Christmas vacation.




Destination: ANDORRA

Top Elevation: 8,596 feet
Vertical Drop: 2,230 feet
Sunshine: 300 days a year
Skiable Acreage: 1,092 acres
Terrain: 30% beginner; 30% intermediate; 40% advanced/expert
Lifts: 5 chairs, 7 surface lifts
Info: 011-376-73-70-80; 011-376-83-92-25 (fax)
E-mail: ito@andorra.ad
Andorran Embassy: 212-750-8064
Websites: www.andorra.ad/comuns/ordino; www.andorraonline.com

Getting There: There's daily bus service from Barcelona, Spain, to Andorra. The 250-mile drive takes four to five hours. Reservations are recommended (376-803-789; novatel@ andornet.ad). Arcalis is in northwest Andorra, 10 miles from Ordino and 15 miles from the capital city of Andorra la Vella.

Lay of the Land: The fact that the principality of Andorra has remained neutral for a thousand years is due in part to the tiny country's rugged terrain; it has kept would-be rulers at bay. In modern times, the mountainous makeup attracts adventurous skiers. Tucked into the Pyrenees, Andorra covers 188 square miles and features 65 peaks 10,000 feet or higher. There are five ski areas; our author skied at Arcalis, Andorra's newest resort.

Where to Stay: Your best bet is to call the Andorran Embassy (212-750-8064) and get the tourist pamphlet, which lists lodging in Ordino. The author preferred the Hotel Coma (011-376-83-51-16; hotelcoma@andorra.ad).

Random Details: The official language of Andorra is Catalan. The currency used is the Spanish peseta. You can take home just about anything duty-free, including booze and tobacco, items that were smuggled across the border in frontier times.



For more photos from Andorra, click on Adventure in Andorra: Las Fotosin the related links above.arty.

I really, really would like another day at Arcalis to play the pistemeister, but we've already bought tickets back to Spain. Before we go, we visit Caldea Spa, down in the capital city of Andorra la Vella. It's in a 150-foot, mirror-sided rendition of a quartz crystal atop a geo-thermal spring. When we first arrived in town, I thought it was a postmodern cathedral. In a way it is, except it's a church of the body rather than the spirit. It holds a giant lagoonlike pool, replicas of Greco-Roman baths, fountains, slides, Jacuzzis, massage rooms, tanning rooms, saunas, a laser depilation center, three restaurants, a climbing wall, and a minimall. In high season, 3,000 people go through its doors each day, which makes the chlorine in the water a welcome addition. The game quickly becomes to guess the nationalities of people with few clothes on.

The water's cooler than body temperature, but a portal leads from the main pool to a warmer outside lagoon and a view of the city. Julie and I count 13 construction cranes above rising bank towers and condo projects.

Three hours later, having swum, steamed, and soaked in infared light (we've avoided the laser depilation having seen it adequately demonstrated in an old James Bond movie), we wait for the bus back to Ordino.

In one of the museums we visited in Ordino -- it was the restored house of some village nobles -- we saw, next to the smokehouse and root cellar, the downstairs room where cows were kept in winter. Bovine body heat provided central heating for the people upstairs. Chickens were raised in the attic. A suit of armor guarded the small upstairs chapel where they prayed. A wood-stove kitchen, a wine cellar, fireplaces, and walls hung with oxen and donkey harnesses spoke of a reverent life lived close to the land and its seasons.

That life seems like hallucination, as we stand at the bus stop amid a crowd of people muttering into cell phones, listening to the shouts of construction workers, the back-up alarms of cement trucks, and the honking of horns. A cyber cafe sits a half block down the street from us. Shops selling perfume and furs and ski equipment fill the spaces between banks in the center of town. Stop long enough to look and you can see the future coming at you like a tsunami.

Not that I'm complaining. The future is an unbelievable skiing value. On the bus, riding back up to the Hotel Coma, we're plotting to get back as soon as we can. We want to ski Andorra's off-piste in the usual good powder year. It won't be that hard, we decide, to fly our telemark gear into Barcelona, board the bus, and be checked into the Coma 24 hours from the start of a Christmas vacation.




Destination: ANDORRA

Top Elevation: 8,596 feet
Vertical Drop: 2,230 feet
Sunshine: 300 days a year
Skiable Acreage: 1,092 acres
Terrain: 30% beginner; 30% intermediate; 40% advanced/expert
Lifts: 5 chairs, 7 surface lifts
Info: 011-376-73-70-80; 011-376-83-92-25 (fax)
E-mail: ito@andorra.ad
Andorran Embassy: 212-750-8064
Websites: www.andorra.ad/comuns/ordino; www.andorraonline.com

Getting There: There's daily bus service from Barcelona, Spain, to Andorra. The 250-mile drive takes four to five hours. Reservations are recommended (376-803-789; novatel@ andornet.ad). Arcalis is in northwest Andorra, 10 miles from Ordino and 15 miles from the capital city of Andorra la Vella.

Lay of the Land: The fact that the principality of Andorra has remained neutral for a thousand years is due in part to the tiny country's rugged terrain; it has kept would-be rulers at bay. In modern times, the mountainous makeup attracts adventurous skiers. Tucked into the Pyrenees, Andorra covers 188 square miles and features 65 peaks 10,000 feet or higher. There are five ski areas; our author skied at Arcalis, Andorra's newest resort.

Where to Stay: Your best bet is to call the Andorran Embassy (212-750-8064) and get the tourist pamphlet, which lists lodging in Ordino. The author preferred the Hotel Coma (011-376-83-51-16; hotelcoma@andorra.ad).

Random Details: The official language of Andorra is Catalan. The currency used is the Spanish peseta. You can take home just about anything duty-free, including booze and tobacco, items that were smuggled across the border in frontier times.



For more photos from Andorra, click on Adventure in Andorra: Las Fotosin the related links above. bet is to call the Andorran Embassy (212-750-8064) and get the tourist pamphlet, which lists lodging in Ordino. The author preferred the Hotel Coma (011-376-83-51-16; hotelcoma@andorra.ad).

Random Details: The official language of Andorra is Catalan. The currency used is the Spanish peseta. You can take home just about anything duty-free, including booze and tobacco, items that were smuggled across the border in frontier times.



For more photos from Andorra, click on Adventure in Andorra: Las Fotosin the related links above.

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