Tuesday 5th May 2009, Guardiola de Bergueda
Yesterday was rather interesting with visits to two places that by rights shouldn't really exist at all. Strange how events of history can create geographical anomalies that have repercussions centuries later.
Andorra is a tiny, mountain-locked country with one main road leading through it linking Spain and France. A few side roads lead off up to hamlets, churches and monasteries in the hills. Usually they lead on to nowhere. It is a member of the EU but is surrounded by the most rigid customs controls of any country we've yet visited.
The country's existence today results from a dispute between the Spanish bishops of La Seu d'Urgell and the French counts of Foix back in the 13th century. In 1278 they settled their argument by granting Andorra semi-autonomous status under their joint control. The counts of Foix were later replaced by the French kings and, after 1870, by the French President. In 1993 Andorra officially became an independent state with its own constitution, no longer subject to joint French and Spanish control.
There are 66,000 Andorrans squashed into this tiny area, mostly concentrated on the capital, Andorra La Vella. They almost all seem to have cars and must surely need them, though there is insufficient road space and parking for them, without taking account of French and Spanish bargain hunters who descend – or rather ascend – on the town at weekends. Fortunately for the residents diesel is a mere 78 cents a litre, something Modestine eagerly took advantage of, gulping up 40 litres worth before we left.
After several hours of arduous driving up to some of the highest crossing points in the Pyrenees, our sudden arrival at the frontier with tiny Andorra came as something of a surprise. Its snowy mountains had beckoned us from miles away and we'd naively imagined it to be a pretty, fairy-tale land. We'd travelled along empty roads all morning but as we passed through the Spanish and Andorran customs controls we found ourselves swept up with hundreds of vehicles making their way up to the main, indeed the only, town of Andorra La Vella. Just as many were streaming down with long queues at the border with Spain, waiting to leave the principality. Almost all were local vehicles with a few Spanish. The French come up from the other side and presumably leave by the same route. It's steep and twisting but at least the French customs officers don't give you the third degree as you return, as do the Spanish.
It's several kilometres up to the town, the roadside lined by shopping complexes, garages, cafes, alcohol retailers and jewellers. It's the shopping capital of Europe! The country has no income tax and goods are supposedly sold far more cheaply than in the rest of Europe. On the other hand, Andorra seems to make its money from car parking charges! Many stores had private parking for customers but otherwise there were parking metres everywhere and none of them empty. We cruised around the city centre searching either to park or escape. Eventually we chose the second option, turned around and headed back down again. It was all a great disappointment after several days of mountain driving. We'd expected to camp up in the hills but the capital seemed so uninspiring, and having no space for cheap electrical goods, cigarettes and whiskey anyway, we decided to stop on our way down at one of the commercial centres for food shopping and fuel before heading on somewhere less congested.
Andorra makes our 30th European state visited with Modestine since we retired in 2005. It's a pity it was such a disappointment. The tiny states of Monaco and Liechtenstein were far more interesting and hospitable. To cap it all, when we returned to the Spanish border we were asked to open up the back for officials to investigate. We showed them our receipt for a carrier bag of foodstuffs but either they wanted to nose inside Modestine, or they couldn't believe we'd not hidden crates of cigarettes under her benches. She was crammed full of bikes and damp towels spread out to dry but they still insisted on lifting up all the seats so they could rummage through the coffers! I thought we were in an open Europe! Lord, we drove in and out of Russia with far more ease! The only other time we've been subject to such scrutiny was when we were stopped by Hungarian police near the border with Rumania, checking we'd not got a cargo of illegal Rumanian immigrants - this just before Rumania joined the EU.
Shaking the Andorran dust from our heels we headed back into the mountains of Catalonia, stopping by a mountain river for a picnic lunch of spinach empanadas we'd bought in Andorra. If anything could lure us back it would be those! Pastry oozing in olive oil and crammed full of spinach, raisins and pine kernels.
Our second geographical peculiarity of the day was the tiny enclave of Llivia. This is no more than a small town and its immediate vicinity, trapped in France! So for a brief few kilometres we drove out of Spain, through France and back into Spain. The inhabitants of Llivia have to do this whenever they leave their town, no matter which direction they take. The buses run out to Llivia from Spain and the refuse vans drive out there to empty the bins! We found it a far more curious and interesting place than Andorra. It had the air of a ski resort with chalet-style buildings and shops selling mountain sportswear and hiring skis and quad bikes.
Llivia's strange situation results from the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659, under which the region was divided up between France and Spain. Under the terms of the treaty thirty-three villages in the Cerdanya Valley were handed over to France. After the agreement was signed it was pointed out by Spain that Llivia was technically a town rather than a village and therefore exempt from the transfer.
Exploring the narrow streets of the old town, up on the hillside above the main shopping street of the modern one, we discovered it has an interesting history dating back to Roman times with various archaeological remains. Later it was seized by the Visigoths, surrendered to the Moors and later still, was under the control of various feudal lords, one of whom ended up selling the hilltop castle to Louis XI of France in 1479 who promptly knocked it down. Bless him, it was no longer there for Ian to drag me up to see! Altogether Llivia seems to have had a rather curious history and it certainly made-up for the disappointment of the morning.
We'd done a lot during the day and hadn't really thought about where we'd spend the night. Our book of discount campsites listed one just off the route down to Barcelona. To get there we needed to climb steeply up into the mountains again. The road was good and Modestine managed not to overheat for a change. There is a really steep route up over the mountain or an expensive five kilometre tunnel through it. What we saved on the campsite we spent on the tunnel but it was well worth it. Shooting out on the far side we turned off up yet another steep narrow road and eventually found this pretty rural campsite where there is just one other vehicle and us. We had free wifi last night, really useful after several days cut off from the world, and a real perk. Some sites, where they actually provide it, try to charge up to 10 euros a night for it!
Wednesday 6th May 2009, Blanes, Costa Brava
It was mid-morning yesterday before we were ready to leave our mountain retreat. Our fellow campers had long left, leaving us alone on the site where we lingered over breakfast and made endless excuses not to move on. The sun was warm, the air fresh and the mountain scenery amongst the most stunning we have seen. Despite the heat, snow still lingered on the highest peaks while around us birds were singing and lizards sunning themselves on the hot steps. In the end we decided to stay another day and do absolutely nothing. It was one of the nicest days of our travels. We loaded the washing machine while we ate lunch in the shade of a tree, and during the afternoon we set off on foot to follow a mountain trail pointed out to us by the very friendly campsite owner.
Within seconds of leaving the road we were in a world of our own, no buildings, no vehicles, no machinery or cars, and no people. Throughout the afternoon we saw absolutely nobody. The sight of an abandoned church or monastery isolated on craggy peaks or below us in the valley were the only signs of past habitation and the wind, tumbling water, insects and distant cowbells were the only sounds.
Clambering up over boulders around which a foaming azure cascade of melt water made its way down to the valley we reached the top of the sheer, rocky limestone escarpment that overlooked the campsite. A tiny dot below, we made out Modestine sheltering beneath the trees, communing with the campsite's two dogs.
Once on the top of the ridge our walk levelled out, taking us along through woodland and grassy meadows. In every direction there were crags, escarpments and mountains, many still covered with the last of the winter snow. We know nothing of the geology of the Pyrenees but visually it looked rather like that of the Jura with its flat topped escarpments and blind valleys. Here though, it looked as if nature had then given the land a massive heave, tossing the plateaux into an untidy heap and throwing bits of escarpment up in all directions.
The waymarked route eventually lead steeply down through deciduous woodland where the clanking of cowbells became steadily louder. Soon we were amongst the dun coloured cattle as they roamed freely on the high slopes of the valley. Now flowers were more in evidence with anemones and celandine in the woods, buttercups, dandelions and tiny blue hyacinth-type flowers in the fields.
Eventually we reached a tranquil side road that lead us back down the valley to the campsite. On the way we passed the monastery of St. Climent, now used as a hill farm for managing the cattle.
Yesterday morning we overcame all temptations to linger yet another day and set off early down from the mountains towards the Mediterranean coast. Quite suddenly we left the Pyrenees behind and found ourselves in a completely different landscape that seemed flat by comparison. In fact it looked very like much of the landscape we'd seen in Norway with polished granite boulders protruding through the earth. Again, with no knowledge of the geology of the area, we are making the assumption that there were glaciers in the Pyrenees during the ice age that flowed down, grinding the boulders into these classic shapes. It does seem very far south though.
We stopped at Vic for a break and to explore. It turned out to be a very interesting place with a visible history covering two thousand years! We found an almost complete, though largely restored, Roman temple from the second century AD along with the remains of a Romanesque palace. The huge main square is stunning for such a small provincial town, surrounded on all sides by attractive 16 and 17th century arcaded buildings. There are several delightful café terraces and the centre is devoid of traffic. The dark and chilly cathedral is neo-classical and once your eyes accustom to the gloom it is possible to just make out a series of gigantic frescos completely covering the internal walls. Created in the 20th century by the local Catalan painter Josep Maria Sert, they were destroyed during the Civil War after which the artist set about repainting them all! They are regarded in Vic as a monument to Catalan pride and independence. To one side of the main square stands the town hall, an attractive turn-of-the-century building with art-nouveau decoration on the façade and a delightful stone-carved and ornamented staircase within. There were several very attractive early 20th century buildings around the town's narrow streets, several using 19th century sgraffiti decoration similar to Segovia.
As so often happens when we find a place by chance, we could have lingered longer but decided to press on down to the coast. The route was almost exclusively downhill, through a landscape of richly wooded hills – the complete antithesis of Spain's central plain. We stopped for a peaceful, late picnic lunch off a tiny side road deep in this silent countryside far away from the arterial motorway flowing down to Barcelona.
With unpleasant memories of driving in the city on our previous travels along Spain's southern coast, we headed, not for Barcelona but for Blanes, sixty kilometres to the east on the Costa Brava from where we can take the train into Barcelona, leaving Modestine safely waiting on the campsite. We've not returned to the same campsite as the one next door is far cheaper with our discount card. Unfortunately we have to share it, and the swimming pool, with huge groups of very noisy German youngsters here for the Spanish seaside experience. We are becoming old and crusty it seems. We do weird things like wanting to sleep before 2am and even worse, get up before 10! They are okay but very noisy. Maybe we've been spoilt over the last few nights up in the mountains.