“If size mattered then the elephant would be king of the jungle”
Good things come in small packages my mother always used to tell me growing up, and although she was more than likely saying it to make me feel better about my shorter stature she may have had a point. Sometimes the little things in life can offer you the most. Is it not on occasions nicer to have a romantic homecooked meal and a night in front of the fire with a loved one, rather than an elaborate meal out on the town? Or how about an engagement ring, one of the smallest gifts you can find, which can bring unbridled joy to so many people. Once again like with most destination reviews there’s about to be a tedious link.
If we’re talking small, then as countries go you’re unlikely to find too many countries smaller than Andorra… A miniscule landlocked principality sandwiched in between two European powerhouses, France and Spain.
Situated in the Pyrenes with France to the North and Spain to the South, Andorra has both countries cultural influences bursting out of its seams. Although the national language is Catalan both French and Spanish are widely spoken here, which is not much of a surprise, especially as many French and Spanish nationals have made it their home over the past century. To put it into perspective of how small a country Andorra actually is though, nearby is the neighbouring city of Barcelona home to the illustrious Nou Camp. If the entire population of Andorra were to seat themselves inside this stadium, you would still be left with a staggering 22,000 spare seats (there or there abouts). A ridiculous notion if you think about it. It’s no surprise then that Andorra is the eleventh smallest country in the world in relation to population. However, in actual size it increases, mainly due to the magnificent mountainous range on which it resides.
Basically, Andorra is a country sat at the top of a mountain.
Driving in from the north through the South of France is an experience on its own. Endless vineyards line a road which arrows towards the Pyrenees, providing stunning scenery in every direction. The closer you get, the bigger that mountain range becomes. A journey which feels like you’re Frodo Baggins heading to Mt Doom (excuse the Lord of the Rings reference). I say this because from below, these mountains are both magnificent and ominous in appearance. Unlike Andorra (and myself) huge in stature, and as you get to the foot of these peaks they stand tall overlooking everything in the vicinity…
Rather like that giant kid at school who was always friendly to you, but you knew if you got on his bad side you’d probably end up head first in a dustbin.
From the bottom begins the journey to the summit along narrow winding roads, which creep up the side of these monstrous freaks of nature. If you can stomach the dangerous paths, then the views are rather special.
With clear skies, travelling up at the end of the day can provide an unforgettable experience. The sunsets which appear whilst slowly making your way up the mountain are one thing, but as the sun disappears and darkness descends there is a sight many will rarely encounter. With nothing but vast areas of land and no one else on the roads, the closer you get to the top deep white snow starts to appear around you, thousands of stars engulf the sky, and a huge gleaming moon illuminates the world. Soon you realise that with the phenomenon of no unnatural light around, and the combination of moon and snow you can see miles into the distance with light as bright as day. With a midnight blue airspace, star filled skies, a huge luminous moon, and of course the surrounding terrain covered in white stuff it’s hard not to imagine that you’ve landed on another planet.
Another planet it is not… Just one of earths great natural wonders, and with mountains come only one thing… Skiing!
Hand-in-hand with an expansive resort tourism always follows… Perfectly set, Andorra is a paradise for those in love with winter snow sports. Vallnord, Naturlandia, and Grandvalira provide three top-class areas to ski, however it is the latter which really attracts those from around the globe. Situated in the east, with 200km of splendid slopes Grandvalira is widely renowned as the largest if not the greatest ski resort in the Pyrenees. Numerous slopes ranging from steady greens, to ballsy blacks provide those of all abilities an opportunity to ski and explore a huge mountain area without concern. Challenging for those who want it, whilst extremely enjoyable for those preferring a more chilled ride.
One of the best aspects of Grandvalira is the ability to ski from area to area… Pas de la Casa, Grau Roig, El Tarter, Canillo, Encamp and of course Soldeu. Individually fantastic ski areas, and the size of many decent resorts across the world. The fact that they all join to form one massive range enables something which only certain mountains across Europe are capable of. For those who love to explore it’s perfect and lends to hours and hours of ski time and adventure.
Boredom will not occur here, that’s a guarantee. Not only are there endless amounts of slopes to ski on, there is variety for the more advanced snow sports enthusiasts amongst us. From mogle runs to snowparks, from off-piste to slalom runs the resort is your oyster.
If however you are not of the required level to partake in these variations, then all is not lost. Grandvalira is home to a number of high profile events to tickle your entertainment taste buds, and if you’re a fan of the Winter Olympics then you have a chance of watching some of your favourite competitions live in the flesh.
March holds host to some of the best freestyle snowboarders and skiers around with Total Flight: Masters of Freestyle, a truly stunning spectacle of acrobatics and skill. Whereas in the same month for those more into speed and on snow precision there is the FIS European Alpine Ski Championship Finals. These finals are also a pre-cursor to the World Championship Finals, which will be held on the same slopes in 2019.
For those wanting a bit more than just skiing then the place can be a little limited. There are shops, museums, and quaint towns to visit, but in winter if your travelling to Andorra you’ve pretty much just got the mountains. So, if you’re after a place with a bit more sightseeing then it’s advisable to look elsewhere. However, if you do fancy a change from the daily ski there are some alternatives on offer. For adrenaline sport junkies ice karting, 4×4 snow driving, ice skating and snow-mobiling are available, and will more than likely maintain the required fix. Whereas if you’d prefer to sooth those aching muscles instead of getting your heart pumping, then a spa day in a warmer environment is just for you. Luxurious relaxation right on your doorstep. For adults and children alike, there is more than enough to keep you entertained for a winter vacation.
Grandvalira is also an ideal location for those wanting to learn. The ski school based at the resort has its own English, Spanish, and French sections, plus many more nationalitities which are represented. If you’re from one of the major European countries then you are unlikely to come here and find an instructor which doesn’t speak your native language, which is a huge bonus. It is also worth mentioning that the standards set by the Instructors are incredibly high. With the world renowned Canadian Ski Instructors Alliance (CSIA) and Canadian Association of Snowboard Instructors (CASI) holding their European base here, many of their instructors opt to stay put and work for the ski school. It is widely appreciated that these instructors are some of the most reputable around, not just with their riding abilities but more importantly how they teach. This also provides a terrific location for those interested in doing a winter season, and the CSIA and CASI constantly put on courses for those wishing to improve their skiing and snowboarding. With exams regularly taking place throughout the winter, it is also an ample opportunity for those wanting to become the next generation of qualified Canadian Instructors. Either that or you can just bum it for the winter, and enjoy some fun in the sun.
Sun you say? Yes, due to its Southern European location, you have the best of both worlds. Mid-winter you get some of the best snow conditions across Europe, and in a good season you’ll see dumps of powder landing on the resort, whilst also getting a better share of the sunshine. This is ideal for those keen skiers and boarders who love the cold and the amazing conditions which come with it, mixed in with plenty of bluebird days. However not everyone is into freezing conditions and challenging terrain. So, by the time the end of the season arrives there is a great chance for those wanting to ski in a warmer climate. Younger children may also find this more enjoyable I hasten to add. Imagine being able to ski on a big resort, with minimal crowds, in temperatures where you could quite easily just wear a t-shirt. The snow conditions are still surprisingly decent apart from going slightly slushy towards the end of the day, and the season itself usually runs from the start of December to the end of April, thus giving interested parties plenty of time to decide on the period which suits them best for their trip. Andorra with its cold winters, and warmer summers has a perfectly variable climate to suit those of all needs.
Accommodation across Grandvalira also suits the needs of the many arriving to tear up the mountain. The most popular area being Soldeu with its lush hotels, apartments, bars, and of course a bit of après waiting for worn out bodies at the bottom of its slopes. It is both vibrant in character and full of life, but if that’s not your cup of tea and you prefer some peaceful seclusion then Grandvalira’s other areas can offer wonderful traditional bricklayed homestays away from all the buzz. This doesn’t mean you are further away from the chairlifts either. Each subsection has its own way to the top of the mountain, although again many like to stay in Soldeu where the main gondola is based. It really is the base for Grandvalira with the majority of things centred around it, and the après lifestyle is no different.
Drinking culture and skiing somehow go together like pineapple on a pizza (I know that’s a contentious subject, but you get my point). Whether you’re a holiday maker, an instructor, a seasonaire, or even a professional competitor everyone gets involved with the après life, from a few chilled beers to out and out parties. Admittedly after a tough old day on the slopes there’s nothing better than to grab a few beers in a relaxed environment. The thing with après skiing which differs from just popping down your local pub, is that you have a variety of people from different walks of life in the same place, all with one similar passion. The social aspect of this is like no other. Everyone socialises together, whereas back in reality they probably wouldn’t converse. Skiing brings people together and Andorra is great for this, especially because of the taxation laws meaning beer is on the cheap side.
Soldeu’s après scene is not huge, but with less places to go its allows for close knit social groups to be formed. Après bars here offer such a friendly and open atmosphere it’s hard not to fall for them. Live music, DJ’s, pool tables, events, table football, and even towards the end of the season outdoor BBQs… You name it they put on everything, resulting in a fantastic social scene. Two places which will kick start your social inauguration here are The Aspen and Fat Alberts, and the rest I’ll let you work out for yourselves!
So small it may be, but Andorra isn’t at all what it seems. With Grandvalira you have one of the largest and best ski areas across Europe, rivalling most other resorts. Yes, there’s not much else here apart from mountains, but what more do you need for a skiing holiday. Excellent quality accommodation, restaurants, bars and spas with a variety of choice to meet differing needs, along with a ski area which is hard to find fault with and you’re onto a winner.
The only downside about Andorra is its ease of access, with either having to fly into Barcelona or drive via car… but then again find me any big ski area with an airport sat on its doorstep. Prices (apart from beer) aren’t extremely cheap, but they are far cheaper than what you’ll find knocking about in France for example. Why is it then that when everyone thinks of a winter break to a big ski area in Europe, the same places always come to mind – France, Austria, Switzerland, Italy?
They are of course fantastic ski areas, and offer probably slightly more than what Andorra can, but you pay a hefty price for that, especially mid-season.
Personally I think it’s because Andorra as a country is small and unheard of. Not many people think that in such a tiny destination there could be something so elaborate and large… But there is.
Inside this small package is a magnificent mountain range, big in size and big in heart. Maybe it’s time to stop judging places from the outside, and look a bit deeper underneath the surface. Honestly, I’ve not got a bad word to say about Grandvalira or Andorra, I really haven’t. My advice to those who love to ride the white lines – take a break from routine, mix it up and try somewhere new, starting with this little gem hidden away in a land amongst giants.