The ancient principality of Andorra has more than its fair share of quirks and customs
At a few minutes before one o'clock, red-hatted chefs with wooden paddles are stirring five steaming vats. In the middle of the square, the organisers have set out trestle tables for a stand-up lunch. In the next couple of hours, a thousand people will file past, collecting hunks of crusty bread and filling their bowls with a stew made of beef, chicken and sausage. Many will come back for 'seconds'. With free wine and dessert as well, this is not a good day for the neighbourhood restaurants.
Of all Andorra's dozens of festivals, the annual Escudella (literally 'stew') is my favourite - and not simply because the food is free. Held in Sant Julià on St. Sebastian's Day, January 20th (and in the six other parishes on St Anthony's Day, the 17th), it brings out people of all ages - even the very elderly, muffled-up against the cold in scarves, boots and heavy coats - in a communal celebration quite unimaginable in an Anglo-Saxon country.
Before I came to Andorra, I'd lived for many years in North America. When I told friends where I was going, you could almost hear the hum of memory banks switching into overdrive. The results were sometimes bizarre. "Ah yes! Andorra," said one. "Nice place. But I thought you didn't like the Caribbean."
I must admit it was an unusual choice, but I'd always been a pushover for an exotic association or the unusual name. In south-east Australia once, I detoured hundreds of miles to Wagga Wagga. On another continent, Kicking Horse Pass and Moosejaw were as irresistible as Asia's Mandalay and Kathmandu.
Long ago, when I first heard of the thousand-year old European 'Principality of Andorra', I imagined guards in beefeater-style costume, armed with halberds and quarterstaffs, manning the borders. Actually, the only beefeater I saw was on the label of a gin bottle. No matter. After a couple of weeks, I was hooked. I've been here seven years.
The earliest reference to Andorra was in 839AD. At the time, a clairvoyant might have announced to its people, "There's some good news and some bad. The good news is that your independence is guaranteed. No-one is ever going to invade your country or take your land. The bad news is that for the next thousand years and more, you're all going to be dirt-poor peasants."
In 1278, after disputes over feudal rights, the Spanish Bishop of Seu d'Urgell and the French Count of Foix agreed to recognise each other as Co-Princes of the Valleys of Andorra. As a local historian said, "We couldn't have bought better insurance." The rights and titles of the Co-Princes descended, on the Spanish side, to the Bishop's successors; on the French side, to the French Kings and - after the Revolution - to the Presidents of the Republic. For centuries, while the borders of Europe's states were being drawn and redrawn, Andorra was personally owned by a pair of heavyweights, each jealously determined that neither the other nor anyone else was going to move in on their protégé.
Isolated in their Pyrenean hideaway, meanwhile, the Andorrans never managed to be more than subsistence farmers, scratching a precarious living from the soil. A little smuggling income on the side barely supported a population which never exceeded six thousand. The poverty of the times shows in a total lack of those large-scale buildings and monuments that dot the landscape of its neighbouring countries.
Finally, though, like those fortunate owners of coastal property in Hawaii, or paddy fields on the perimeter of Tokyo, Andorrans found themselves in the right place at the right time. When international tourism took off in the 1950s it transformed their country. Now it's a mountain resort with 64,000 residents and one of the highest per capita incomes in the world. Along the way, escalating land prices, construction and the business of retailing to the visitors has made a lot of people immensely wealthy. "We went from rags to riches in a generation," says an engineer, newly qualified from the University of Barcelona. "We're still trying to catch up with ourselves."
'Catching-up' includes a new constitution. Andorra has had democratic government for 130 years, with its seven comuns or parishes each electing four representatives to form the parliament. The Co-Princes, though, usually had the last word on external relations or sensitive social, moral and family issues. In modern international law, Andorra's status was unique. The lawyers didn't quite know what it was, but they knew what it wasn't - an independent country.
With the 1993 constitution, Andorra declared its independence. Now it has a seat at the UN, representation within European organizations and ambassadors to major countries. Endearingly, it preserved the historic ties; the new constitution retained the name Principat d'Andorra and designated the Co-Princes and their successors, jointly and indivisibly, as Heads-of-State.
Considering that you can drive around the Principality in a morning – and still have time for drinks before lunch - it's surprising that Andorrans should have devoted so much of their new-found wealth to supporting the automobile industry. They're car-struck. In a country with a population no greater than a minor-league town elsewhere, there are showrooms for almost every known make of vehicle, including Ferrari and Rolls Royce. Entire streets are devoted to dealers selling tyres and spare parts.
There are also twenty-three bodywork repairers, a nugget of information which won't surprise anyone who has spent more than a couple of hours in the country. On the mountain hairpins, even drivers with beat-up old jalopies make like Michael Schumacher. In the valleys, driving in nose-to-tail traffic, I'm often carved up by a queue-jumping, hot-rodder only to see him - or her - swing into a filling station or restaurant a few metres ahead.
Not that I'm complaining, mind you. The automobile still has privileges in Andorra not extended elsewhere and a certain realism prevails about its requirements. In other countries I can be ticketed, clamped and towed away in the time it takes me to think about stopping in a no-parking zone. Here, when I want to pick up my mail I double-park, smile at the police-woman watching from across the road and point one finger at the post office. She raises her wrist, taps her watch. We understand each other perfectly.
Discovering a new neighbourhood is easy if you're a runner. The legs move, the mind drifts, the eyes rove, taking in even such trivia as the names by the sides of doors. After I'd pounded around Sant Julià a few times, I told an Andorran acquaintance I was surprised to see how many people had the name Bustia. Perhaps it was the Catalan equivalent of Smith? "No," he laughed, "Bustia means letter-box."
When you run, you notice a lot of things - like strangers making eye contact with you in the street, for example, or wishing you "Bon dia" at the slightest provocation. On the streets of North America, almost no-one makes eye contact any more and a stranger's "Good morning" is often the opening gambit either of a hopeful mendicant or a polite mugger. Here, the eye contact and the bon dia date from a period when the population was so small that everyone in the local community knew each other.
As late as 1980, a village 'crier' with a handbell walked the streets of Sant Julià to announce, for example, the death and funeral arrangements of a citizen. The announcements are still made, but mechanisation has overtaken the crier; a loudspeaker van now does the job.
Andorra has the highest capital in Europe - Andorra la Vella - and apart from countless also-rans, there are 57 classified peaks, including 43 over 2,500m. The highest is 2,946m. I often wonder how disappointed the first surveyors must have been when they realised they weren't going to come up with anything over the magic figure of 3000m. Unlike the 'three-thousanders' of the central Pyrenees, though, all Andorra's peaks are accessible and when the snow and skiers are gone the walkers and trekkers move in.
From May through June, before the tourist season gets into gear, and afterwards in September and October, you can have entire mountains to yourself, foothills included. One day in June last year, I climbed to the 2,500m Prat Primer, headed east, rising again and crossing the Collada de la Maiana before descending into the valley of the Madriu river over hillsides covered with mountain rhododendron. In six hours, I saw only horses and a few goats.
The Madriu valley has been a test case for the conservationist lobby. It's perhaps the most beautiful, 'wild' valley in the country, completely undeveloped. Higher up, there's some private land, used now - as it has been for the last thousand years - as pasture. The owners, scenting a development opportunity, managed to persuade the local government to approve a publicly-funded access road through the valley. After the newspapers printed the story, the outcry forced the government to put the venture on hold while environmental studies were completed. The court finally gave the thumbs-down. As developers often pop up wearing another hat as legislators, though, no-one is betting yet that the project is permanently and seriously dead.
Although it's not really a foodies' destination, I never go hungry when I eat out in the Principality. Most restaurants gear the portions to mountain appetites and to diners who like to see their main courses fork-lifted to the table.
The cuisine, which used to belong to the 'leave-it-on-the-fire-until-it-chars' school of cookery, is more sophisticated than it used to be, without sacrificing its peasant origins. Even in many up-market restaurants, pa amb tomaquet is still a complimentary starter. Formerly the working man's breakfast, it consists of well-done toast which you scrape with a garlic clove, drizzle with olive oil, then rub with half a tomato. The garlic can be breath-taking and if planning a dalliance later, make sure your partner has a slice as well.
For many of the country's annual ten million visitors, it's the shopping that's the big draw. By 9am, coaches and cars line up outside the supermarkets near the French and Spanish borders. In Andorra la Vella, tourists crowd the designer-label stores, buying bargain-priced clothes, cameras and electronic gadgets. This is how the country earns its living.
Seventy per cent of the government's revenue is derived from a small tax on goods which importers purchase for sale to the tourists. Wine, spirits, perfumes - all are sold at prices far below those in stores at airports or on ferries, known, laughingly, as "duty-free." The national coat-of-arms is quartered with each section having an historical reference. It's been remarked that a pair of shopping carts, rampant on a supermarket parking-lot, would be more appropriate. In the past, the system allowed Andorra's residents to live in freedom from those taxes that afflict people elsewhere in the world.
Thousands of foreigners, myself included, have found the mountain climate good not only for their physical but their financial health as well. The future is less certain. Government expenditure has been rising and with it an annual deficit. Recently, two small taxes were introduced for new foreign residents, but this is probably the start of an escalating process in which the Andorrans themselves will eventually be ensnared.
In the meantime, though, taxes or no taxes, I plan to continue enjoying all the things that first brought me to this land seven years ago: its mountains, forests, valleys and lakes, its climate and easy-paced lifestyle. And, of course, those free lunches.