Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Country #104: Touring Lucky in Andorra.

T-Mobile recently up'ed their roaming game. Already my favorite for providing free 2G data and text messages in over 140 countries, they declared that all summer long, their users could access high speed data all over Europe. For someone with a very close relationship to Google maps, this was huge. As with most corporate absolutes, the announcement was then followed by an asterisk which led to a disclaimer that said "** Except Andorra. Apologies to the proud people of Andorra!"

Why the tiny 180 square mile country was singled out, while its French and Spanish neighbors were free to roam willy nilly is a mystery to me. I learned about this slight on my 2.5 hr road trip from Barcelona to Andorra la Vielle. I was using the BlaBlaCar app (think carpooling meets uber for long distance trips) and my driver, Marco, was a Spaniard who worked in a resort in Andorra but returned home every other week to see his girlfriend.

He gave me advice on what to do during this day trip, that honestly speaking, I was doing only because officially- and despite all reason- Andorra is its own country.

In the winter,  it is a bustling ski resort but absent any snow, the chief draw among visitors is its duty-free status.  This means that the entirety of the principal city, Andorra la Vella is one big shopping mall. I'm not a shopper.  I'm not a skier, either but that is neither here nor there. So I had to find something else to fill my day.

There is a daily tour that the official tourism office offers, which would allow me to visit the outskirts without having to struggle with limited public transportation but the start time was way early and the website showed that it was sold out.

Speeding into Country #104
It was Sergio, another commuter from Barcelona, that studied the tour schedule, did some calculations and determined that if we sped up enough, I could make it to the second stop of the tour, missing only about the first fifteen minutes.  This did nothing to resolve the sold out status but it provided the semblance of a plan, so we were now flying past some really lovely scenery.

At 9:25 am, five minutes prior to the scheduled stop, we squealed into the bus station parking lot.  I ran inside, asked about the tour and was told-surprise- that it was sold out. BUT I could stick around and ask the driver.  At this point, I was willing to sit on the floor, the luggage rack or his lap...anything to get me out of wandering through a giant outdoor mall.

The bus pulled in five minutes behind schedule and promptly began offloading what was indeed a very full bus. I had nothing to lose so I ran up to the guide with my saddest lost tourist face and asked him to kindly do the impossible and get me on this tour. "Sure" he said. The bus they'd been using was having audio difficulties so they were swapping everyone to a bigger bus, one that had both a working mike and more seats to fill. In my excitement, I think I may have hugged the guide.

We drove north through mountain roads to the parish of Encamp. Here the group was divided into two and my half began with a visit to the Cal Cristo (or Cristo House) Museum.

The humble 19th century stone house gave us a glimpse into what life was like for the working families of rural Andorra.

I recently did a totally unrelated tour of the first US settlement in Jamestown where our guide, an archeologist, talked about how museums often skew our perception of the past by showing us the best of everything, be it the finest palaces, the shiniest gold artifacts or the most extravagant gowns.  In a sense, it mythologizes people to the point where we don't fully relate to them. As he put it, he has fine China that has been handed down through the generations, that he keeps in the cupboard and brings out maybe once a year. If  someone in the future were to study this, they would not be seeing the full person.  For that, they would need to look at the backseat of his car at the McDonald's wrappers, at the person he is on the day to day.

This museum did a good job at capturing just that, the mundane that relates to the daily life of a family that inhabited this home and the hardships they dealt with, particularly during the harsh winters.

When our guide came to retrieve us from the museum, I noticed that he was handed a key. It opened the doors to the Church of Sant Miguel de la Mosquera. The fact that the key to one of the city's main sites was just kind of handed from one person to the next added to the charm of Encamp for me.

Our tour continued northward to the parish of Canillo for a visit to the overly-titled Basilica Sanctuary of Nostra Senyora de Meritxell.  Here we find a modern Romanesque building occupying the site of a 17th century church that burned down in 1972. Google tells me that Pope Francis has named it a Minor Basilica. I don't know what this is but it sounds like some subtle shade to me.

A replica of a 12th century statue of Our Lady of Meritxell, the patron saint of Andorra. 

For our third stop, we were given two options. We could either visit an 11th century church or a motorcycle museum. This was a tough one. On one hand, I'm an atheist and had just been in two churches already. On the other hand, I was living in Amsterdam where two wheeled contraptions were my chief archenemy.

So, I'm at Sant Joan de Caselles....

It was tiny but had some surprisingly well preserved 12th century frescos. I'm guessing that the motorcycle museum had no frescos.

Our final stop was at the recently built Mirador del Quer, a scenic overlook soaring above the Valira d’Orient. Our guide presented us with a new set of options which boiled down to take a short walk and be rewarded with a fantastic view or if you are afraid of heights, cower in fear on the bus.

Most of the group chose option A although some were a bit apprehensive about the glass panels that allowed you to look straight down at the valley below.

I personally was more concerned with why they had a statue of a nonchalant naked Sears & Roebuck catalogue model posed out on the scaffolding.

Once the tour ended, I was faced with the inevitable, the land of the duty free.  It turned out to be smaller than expected yet still seemed like an endless stretch of retail hell.

Outside of the pedestrian malls, there was a small old town that had some pole sitting sculptures I was hoping to find.  I wandered all over the five streets (give or take) and could not find what was pictured on the cover of the tourism brochure Marco had given me on the ride over.

Note: the dude on the left is not a pole sitter.

Andorra: the land of options

Without the benefit of free data roaming, I could not look it up.  Both Marco and Sergio had given me their numbers in case I had any questions or ran into any problems but "Where are the pole sitters? Um, well, no I really can't explain to you where I am right now." didn't seem like a productive solution.

I had all but given up and was heading back to the station to catch a bus home when I happened to glance down at the area that sits beneath the old town and there they were, hidden by a series of office buildings!

The Seven Poets, representing the seven parishes of Andorra, are the work of the Catalan artist Jaume Plensa, whose work can be seen in public spaces all over the world.  At night, they light up in different colors...or so I hear. The sun wasn't setting until 9:30pm and I had plans back in Barcelona.

But the day had been an unequivocal success. I had gotten onto a tour that I had no business being on, seen a good chunk of beautiful Andorra and now had stumbled across the pole sitting poets, all while adding country #104 to my list.

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