The Pyrenees Mountains rise up from the Mediterranean and form the border between Spain and France. In some of the most mountainous, least arable land, the anachronistic country of Andorra flourishes as it has for hundreds of years. This 180 square mile country with a population of 80,000 is said to have been founded by Charlemagne in 988. The country has 70 of Europe's tallest peaks, but no airport. It is not a member of the European Union and is governed by both France and Spain in some kind of symbiotic partnership. At the border our guide made special arrangements to get our passports stamped to prove we were in Andorra, but these days in the EU borders are a fleeting memory.
So what do you do to make a living when all you have is steep mountains? You become a skiing mecca and a nearly tax-free shopping haven. The only time I hear of Andorra is when they march in at the head of the line of flag bearers at the Winter Olympics with a team of 2 - 3 members. A few folks there still keep milk cows and the sound of their bells ringing took me back to Switzerland, but the real industry here is shopping. It caters to tourists, but not to tourists like us. There wasn't a t-shirt or baseball cap to be seen, but the stores sold all manner of electronics, food stuffs, liquor, clothing, etc. French and Spanish folks pour in to shop and save at least 10% since there is little if any VAT charged here. They were already setting up for Christmas shopping.
The area we traveled today is united by a Catalan history. While we hear about this most in Spain, the language and culture crosses the borders of southern France and Andorra. This trip has helped me to understand what it was all about. When Francisco Franco lead the Spanish Civil War in the 1930's, the conflict began in northwestern Spain and this area was the last to fall. Their rebellion and resistance lead to an astronomical loss of life. Using the Catalan language could cause you to be executed and it is a tribute the to spirit of the people here that so much was preserved during the forty years when Franco was the dictator. In 2017 a referendum for independence from Spain was held in Catalonia. The vote was to secede, but the Spanish government said the referendum was illegal and jailed its leadership.
Our Barcelona guide yesterday laughed yesterday when we told here about today's tour. But they cleverly advertised it as a country that includes three countries. That's something that delights Americans who will happily take "If it's Tuesday it must be Belgium" tours, adding three countries to their visited list. Of course, this was a bit of a cheat. The first country Spain, is where we all started and after driving through Andorra which took an hour, we came out the other side in France. The bus was full of Americans. Nearly all of them have come to Barcelona a few days early before they also will sail back to the US on the Symphony of the Seas. The bus vibrated with excitement.
We left in the dark at 7am and arrived back in Barcelona in the dark at 7:30pm. But the drive was broken up by lots of short, interesting stops in little medieval looking towns. On the French side we stopped in Ax les Thermé, a town the Romans founded after they discovered hot water coming out of the ground. The thermal baths they enjoyed are still steaming today. Hikers are invited to stop by and soak their aching feet. As we drove through the mountains the temperatures dropped and we finally saw fall colors. So far on this trip we've been in a permanent state of summer. The final push into Andorra took us above the tree line. The roads were excellent and are plowed incessantly once the snow starts falling. Our driver worked very hard as we twisted and wound through the mountains.
We had a sort of lunch in Andorra at a restaurant called Viena where the wait staff wore vests decorated with Edelweiss flowers, but there was absolutely nothing on the menu that reminded me of any meals we have ever had in the real Vienna. At every stop we were encouraged to buy something to eat. Often we weren't quite sure what it was and the locals spoke English reluctantly if at all, but it was all a big adventure.