Andorra is one of those tiny countries, the ones that aren’t large enough to merit a block of colour on large-scale maps and are instead identified by a line pointing at their location. The ones you forget about, basically. It’s sandwiched between Spain and France in the heights of the Pyrenees. The local language is Catalan, same as Barcelona. It uses the Euro as currency even though it isn’t part of the EU, and both the Spanish and French postal systems are in place, everywhere there is a post box for one there is a post box for the other alongside. (Which reminds me of the three parallel postal services we had at one time in New Zealand, each with their own stamps and letter boxes, and once again I shake my head at the folly of
There are two things to understand about Andorra:
- it is high in the mountains
- it levies no import duties
The first is important because mountains mean slopes with snow, and slopes with snow means ski. All of the towns in Andorra are basically ski resort hotels and the homes and shops of those serving the skiers. So while the high Pyrenees are incredibly scenic, anything resembling a local culture is pretty thin on the ground.
The second is important because of what it means for the central town, Andorra la Vella (which I believe just means ‘Andorra Town’. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.) and more specifically its main street. Well, it really is just a main street. And all along the main street are exactly the same shops you find in the duty-free sections of airports. Cheap consumer electronics, copious amounts of alcohol and tobacco, and all the rest. It’s a giant mall in the mountains.
A weekend trip was in the offing. The posse were Julian and myself, and three of Julian’s fellow language assistants, Lucas and Julia whose car it was and who were organising the whole thing, and Leanne. Lucas is from Argentina and would serve as chief translator for the trip, while Julia and Leanne are both from the UK, London and Leeds respectively. I’d met all three on my first day in Auch, joining them and Andrew for an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet lunch mere hours after stepping off the train and surprising Julian with a phone call saying ‘Viv, I’m at Auch train station.’
It is appropriate now to give due respect to Julian for coping with my unexpected arrival with such good grace and charm and, indeed, enthusiasm. Cheers.
Anyway, Lucas, Julia, Leanne (and also Andrew, who was not along for this mission) had made a previous expedition to Andorra a few weekends before, and they had lucked onto a nice three-star hotel with Jacuzzi, kitchenette and enough room for six, all for 60 euros a night for the room. The deal ran out at the start of December when the ski season kicked off, so they were keen to go again and I was in the right place at the right time.
Friday morning, mere hours post-Tip-Top, we set off. Lucas drove with great consideration and Julian held tightly to the doorhandle for most of the journey. There were no accidents, and Julian was a bright light for us all, enough that he managed to inspire me to overcome my own hungover state. I was a third of a bottle of whisky down on Julian, after all, and if he could rise to the occasion then damn it, so could I! The car was small and Leanne was jammed in between us, doing the best she could to be happy about it, and the journey was full of corners, and when you touched your skin to the windows it was clear exactly how cold it was getting outside.
As we rose into the mountains I was more easily able to put aside my queasiness. The views really were stunning, and when we hit the snowline I was sold. I’ve done lots of describing of mountains lately, seeing as I’m currently in Switzerland, so I’m not going to make the effort here, but they were massive, impressive, and very different to the Alps in ways I can’t quite put into words.
We got settled into the hotel, which was everything that had been promised, and sallied forth to Andorra La Vella for a shopping expedition (I managed to resist temptation). Not fond of malls, I was quite ready to return to the room for a nice meal and a relaxing evening of conversation, ‘Jaws’ in German, and a very pleasant Jacuzzi.
Saturday morning and we jumped back in the car and explored the country a little. The highlight for me was leaping out of the car into snow a foot deep or more, and the impromptu battle that instantly developed. I threw my first snowball, badly, achieving spiritual communion with Charlie Brown after all these years. The highlight of course was Lucas leaping headfirst into the snow in a pratfall so spectacular he either planned it or is truly one of the world’s great stumblers.
All too soon the cold had eaten into our fingers and we were back in the car. We ended up back at Andorra La Vella, in a small bar/restaurant just off the main strip where we shared a half-dozen plates of tapas. These included spiced fish, potato wedges and slices of chorizo and other sausages. All in all, very filling and very tasty. Then we returned to the hotel room to relax for a bit before heading out again after nightfall for the main event of the evening: Caldea.
Caldea is a health spa complex right in the heart of Andorra La Vella, its glass-walled central tower rising high above the surroundings in a narrow pyramid. Inside it’s a multi-leveled arcade of subdued lighting and bubbling fountains, expensive tourist shops making way for a large reception area for the various areas of the club. It didn’t seem like a real environment, and after a few minutes I realised I was being reminded of the kind of set you’d see in an episode of Star Trek.
We paid about 20 euros each for entry to the complex for three hours, from 9pm to the closing time of midnight. After hurried changing and much faffing about with the lockers, trying to convince the keys to work, the five of us strode forth into the heart of the complex. Oh, lord. If the reception area had the garish shiny futurism of a Star Trek television episode, the main space was like a big-budget Trek movie where the crew go to the pleasure planet, crossed over with the barmy 70s sci-fi décor of, say, Logan’s Run. (Note, however, that I found no evidence of sinister goings on behind the scenes.) The main pool was huge, roughly oval in shape, all about waist deep or slightly deeper and a very pleasant temperature. The ceiling was very high above, and a few storeys up on the walls were full-length windows into the on-site restaurants, where diners ate while gazing over the whole interior. More important, however, were the other pools above the main one.
From within the water there were staircases rising up to five enormous basins, set at varying heights above the pool, each large enough for a dozen or so people to settle within. From below they looked like shallow half-spheres with water spilling over the edges and cascading down to the main pool. They were at a variety of temperatures and included different kinds of designer turbulence, the piece de resistance being the highest pool where you could sit against jets of water designed to massage the back. There were six sets of jets evenly spaced around edge of this pool, and you started at the weakest and proceeded around them until you came the last, which pummelled the tensions in your back into a most pleasurable submission.
As impressive as all this was, it was only the beginning. One arm of the main pool went outside, waist-deep all the way, where the city lights played against the mountainside and steam poured upwards off the water. Here there was a circular channel with a strong current and a number of other nooks and
corners. Also outside, but set apart from the main pool, was a large Jacuzzi in a particularly dark corner of the courtyard. To find this one you had to brave the icy cold exterior while soaked to the skin, and when
you found it, it was a great pleasure to jump in. The real problem was working up the nerve to get up and out again.
There was a very cold dunking bath alongside the hottest of the pools, where Julian took particular pleasure in testing his resilience (greater than mine, I promise you), there were numerous alcoves where you could settle and rest, there were dark rooms and steam baths and stunningly hot saunas. I can make that last description with authority, as I spent some amount of time that I cannot remotely estimate in one of the hot rooms, and when I emerged I was indeed quite stunned. I wandered in a state of utter
relaxation to the side of the main pool and settled on to a deck chair, one of about thirty set out in this dark corner, although I was the only person to make use of them all night that I could see.
From this spot I had a spectacular view of the next stage of the evening’s dramas – the sound and light show. All through the evening there had been soothing music thrumming through the sound system, music that actually enhanced the atmosphere rather than polluting it. Now the lights dimmed and changed colour and the music changed tenor, becoming a medley of classical and semi-classical themes that were vigorous, rousing and sometimes sinister (including that particularly ominous piece that gets wheeled out in every second Hollywood film, the piece of music that all by itself makes me put Young Sherlock Holmes in the scary movie category, you know the one, dum dum dum dum, dum dum dum dum, dum dum dum duuum duuum dum dum…). While that was going on water spouts were rising and spinning in the middle of the raised pools, arcing water into the air to rain down on the main pool, sprays
rising and receding in time with the ebb and climax of the music, all building to a glorious purple finale where ice-cold water leaped from unexpected jets to fall on to the exposed parts of a delighted, squealing crowd in the pool. Magical.
The same show came again about an hour later, but the time went very fast. I drifted from pool to pool, and couldn’t quite believe it when midnight came and we were all ushered out of the water – I can hardly think of a time when three hours has passed so quickly.
One other part of the Caldea experience you should note to really get a good impression of what it was like: the sheer amount of affection on public display. There were a lot of couples making out all over the place. I’ve been in Europe for a couple of months now but it still rings bemused ‘get a room’ bells in my prudish NZ-cultured brain.
So ended our Andorran expedition. The following morning, after what were universally agreed to be very restful post-spa sleeps, we piled into the car and set off on a roundabout return route that took us through Spain. We stopped for lunch in a small town called Sort, and again enjoyed a healthy spread of tapas. Of particular note this time were the snails that Lucas and Julian ordered. Now, I’ve heard it said that eating snails aren’t the same as common garden snails, but I couldn’t spot any difference. Imagine a cast-iron tray, about the right size to bake cookies, and cover it with a layer of snails from the garden, and you have a precise image of what was delivered to the table. Of course, the snails weren’t moving. To eat them you pick them up by the shell and jab at the little beggar inside with a wooden pick, dragging him out and into your mouth. The consistency: chewy and juicy. The taste: they were coated in a rich buttery flavour, and some of them were particularly spicy. I had four in all, enough that I can now say with confidence that yes, I have eaten snails.
And Hoa spells his name Hoa, not Hao. Thanks Jon Ball for the correction. Sorry Hoa! I did know, I was just stupid!
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