“I’m headed to Andorra!” I told my friends in Europe. “Oh, you’re going skiing,” they would respond. Well, no, I wasn’t. (I have, in fact, never been skiing – though it’s on my bucket list at some point so please don’t yell at me.) “Then you must be going for the duty-free shopping,” they would reply. While Andorra does have a thriving duty-free sector (more on that later), it has never been a calling for me.

For most Europeans traveling to Andorra, these are the two reasons to do so. Perhaps – only perhaps – you could substitute hiking for skiing in the summer, but that is the only exception. (Most Americans have never even heard of Andorra.)

So why was I going to Andorra?

A cute art display in Andorra la Vella with the ever-present mountains behind.

Well, I am fascinated by the tiny state in the Pyrenees between France and Spain. It has been independent since the year 805 despite being surrounded by nations significantly larger and more powerful, and has a governmental system with some truly awesome quirks!

Andorra was founded by Charlemagne himself, one of a number of buffer states between the Holy Roman Empire and Moorish Spain. Today, it is the only survivor, partially due to its own governmental ingenuity.

Casa de la Vall (House of the Valley in Catalan) is the former seat of the Andorran parliament (the Consell General). While the council has outgrown the building and moved into new quarters next door in 2011, Casa de la Vall is still used for ceremonial meetings, in the same council room that has been utilized for this purpose since 1701. Half-hour guided tours of the building are available (without photos), and guides explain the history of the country.

Casa de la Vall is the one must-see in Andorra for history lovers.

In 1278, a treaty was signed preserving Andorra’s independence by designating two hereditary princes for the tiny nation: the French Count of Foix and the Spanish Bishop of Urgell in Catalonia. When the Count of Foix ascended to the French throne as Henry IV in 1589, an edict was passed (in 1607) designating the French head of state as the French co-prince of Andorra. This system remains largely unchanged to this day. Of course, there are no French kings, so the elected head of state, the President, is the French co-prince along with the Bishop of Urgell. (In fact, every French President since Charles de Gaulle has visited at least once in his term to act in this role. The Bishops visit more often as they also oversee Church activities in the Principality.) In this manner, with powerful figures in both France and Spain acting as co-princes and protectors of Andorra, the country has maintained its independence throughout the centuries.

One of the highlights of the Casa de la Vall is a simple cabinet with seven locks. Today empty, this cabinet once contained the archives for the entire Principality. Rulers of each of the country’s six (later seven) parishes were given a key, and it took all of them to open it. Those keys today are kept by the Consell of 28 members, four elected from each parish.

A 1993 constitution officially turned the Principality into a parliamentary democracy. Until this point, the co-princes held nearly absolute power, though they largely acted in modern times with the wishes of the Consell. But even today, laws passed must be signed by at least one of the co-princes. (It will be interesting if it ever comes to pass that both refuse, and what recourses are taken.)

Andorra has always been relatively isolated. Home to roughly 75,000 people, only half of whom are citizens, it is only accessible via road from France or Spain. For tourists, that means driving in or taking the bus from either Barcelona or Toulouse. While the country is not part of the EU, it does operate on the euro and has a pretty soft border with both France and Spain.

Most tourists come for the skiing – Andorra operates some of the best in Europe – and duty-free shopping. A stroll down the pedestrian Av. Meritxell reveals massive stores dedicated to those items most revered by duty-free connoisseurs, like liquor and perfume.

Duty-free shopping has never looked so beautiful!

But what of those deep-thinking travelers who are looking for something more? Well, Andorra has a few things that make it worth a day or two. In addition to the aforementioned Casa de la Vall and the ever-present spectacular natural scenery (seriously, maybe I’d enjoy duty-free shopping if duty-free stores all looked like this), the capital of Andorra la Vella has a cute old town, good restaurants – though like in Spain dinner is at 8pm or later for most of them – and some really great public art.

Salvador Dali’s “The Nobility of Time” is a highlight.

If the cold and altitude and physical exertion make you feel in need of some pampering, the Caldea Spa is apparently pretty great, although expensive (hence I didn’t go in). It is one parish over from Andorra la Vella, though an easy and pretty walk. It is also an extraordinarily beautiful building!

The Caldea Spa is one of the most photographed and visited attractions in Andorra.

The bottom line is this: if you like skiing and duty-free shopping, add Andorra to your itinerary! If not, it can still be worth a small portion of time as either a way of crossing the country off your list or to learn about a truly remarkable history.

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