As I leave Andorra, the ruddy foothills of the Pyrenees assume a molten glow and the setting sun gently warms the hollowed cliffs that comprise the landscape.
Though the foothills only appear to be a smear in the horizon from my seat on the bus, the color is distinct in its richness. It unravels sporadically so that shades of clay, sandstone, granite and moss all compete for my attention.
Andorra is a small country, a principality with a unique governmental structure sandwiched between Spain and France.
Situated about four hours north of Barcelona, it remains a nation of defiant geography that makes for welcoming natural landscape. Though diplomatically dependent on its neighbors for military protection, its alpine economy seems to thrive on staples such as sports, tourism and duty-free goods.
I’ve heard people talk about Andorra with the same mild delight relished on a swap meet or sketchy street vendor. A trip to Andorra, for many, is a chance to buy cheap cigarettes and booze. Family and friends are likely to capitalize on whatever travelers to Andorra don’t bring back to Spain for themselves, even being so blunt as to make specific requests.
Though the commercial center of Andorra isn’t remarkable in terms of architecture or charm, a weekend trip can be a logistically feasible and relatively cheap way to see a bit of the country around northern Spain.
Depending on the season, the trip packages offered by local travel agencies are often for skiing or snowboarding. On a whim, I checked out a local travel agency and found it offered deals around $170. It could have been a bit less, but I opted for extras, such as insurance and a room I wouldn’t have to share with strangers, which cost about $15 a piece.
Considering that the package included departure and return on an air-conditioned bus, two nights at a hotel, transportation to the slopes and meals, I got quite a deal.
I have to admit, though, that the bus ride wasn’t exactly characterized by the quaint camaraderie of a Hemingway novel.
Instead of the whirr of drink squirted from a wineskin passed between the characters of The Sun Also Rises, I heard the chimes of Tetris for four hours each way, as well as grainy feeds from a radio station playing Madonna’s “Material Girl,” The Weather Girls’ “It’s Raining Men” and other American hits from the ’80s.
As unflattering or spartan as group travel or public transportation might be, it would have been silly not to seize the unique opportunity to travel because of prissiness or pickiness when I’ve made it this far around the world.
One suggestion, though: If you venture by train, don’t make the same mistake I did. When I went to see the Salvador Dali Museum in Figeuras, I assumed all train tickets were relatively the same, so I bought the cheapest one, not knowing I had to specify “direct ticket” to avoid stopping at every station.
What should have been a 45-minute train ride proved to be two and a half hours each way and, hence, took a bigger chunk out of my day than expected, so I wasn’t able to visit another town on the way back home.