Thursday, November 3, 2011

Lost Horizon: Andorra

Our five-day trip up into the Pyrenees was an enjoyable but strange one, filled with little surprises, and couldn’t have been more different from the time we spent in the Carcassonne area. We left Languedoc-Roussillon and headed further south, deep into the bowels of the French Pyrenees towards the Spanish border.

Our scenic four-hour car ride was slowed not only by the hairpin turns Joe negotiated so skillfully, but also by gargantuan trucks and a herd of sheep. In the tiny mountain town of Sainte-Colombe-sur-Guette, we had to pull into an alleyway to avoid a face-off with three eighteen wheelers heading down the mountain. We graciously gave them the right-of-way but questioned whether they could actually make it down the narrow village street. Just where we had backed into the alley, the road took a slight turn, making the passage of each long truck between the village buildings a tricky proposition. The lead truck stopped just before the bend, the driver got out, surveyed the situation, scratched his head and puzzled over whether his ten-pound truck would fit through the five-pound road. The driver of truck number two walked down and joined driver number one, both scratching their heads, gesticulating up and down and back and forth and surveying the situation from a variety of angles. Joe got out of the car to take pictures, engineer-that-he-is, very interested to see how these guys were going to make the geometry work. After some brief discussion, driver number one got back in his truck and driver number two helped guide him through the narrow bend. When truck one was safe, driver number two climbed into his cab and driver number three walked down to help him navigate the turn. This delicate dance was repeated again with truck number three and driver number two. We had a ringside seat for all the backing, filling and eventual liberation of all three vehicles. As I’d mentioned before, Europe makes their trucks big, all well and good for the autoroutes, but it leads to some very real drama on the byways.

Our next obstacle appeared soon after we turned onto what was barely a one-lane road that twisted further into the mountains towards our next destination, Molitg. We hadn’t passed another car for miles (thank goodness because there was no room for anyone but us) and were enjoying the gorgeous scenery (finally some fall color!), when around a sharp bend, we found ourselves blocked by the most astonishing sight: a herd of over 100 sheep, a pack of herding dogs and a shepherd making their way up the road ahead of us. We were amazed and enthralled, our mouths wide open. Slowly following the pack for about a quarter mile, we were spellbound by how the shepherd orchestrated the procession from behind, whistling, clucking and waving his staff, letting his dogs know just what he wanted them to do. The dogs responded immediately and efficiently, following his every order to move the sheep along and rescue those that strayed. Although we had miles ahead of us and needed to pick up our speed, I was sad when at a fork in the road the herd went left up a mountain path and with a wave to the shepherd, we turned right to continue along the road. As we got back on our way, Joe commented incredulously, “I thought this stuff only happened in the movies.”

Two days in the spa town of Molitg-Les-Bains where we stayed in a baroque folly of a hotel, Le Chateau de Riell, was an interesting stop. Not sleeping in yet another medieval building was a welcomed change. At first glance, the chateau appeared to have been from perhaps the 16th century, but was actually built in the 19th in the baroque style as a crenelated tower in the middle of the woods. The little town of Molitg with its warm springs and therapeutic hotels was a precursor to the other worldliness to come. Europeans take their thermal waters seriously as we witnessed at dinner on one of our two evenings in the spa town. We had a delicious gourmet dinner at the chateau the night we arrived but on our second night, we had an equally tasty but much more modest meal at Le Grand Hôtel, a health resort just down the road. The dining room was about a quarter full when we arrived, but soon thereafter, additional patrons started to arrive, most of them singles. Each diner had an assigned table, much like on a cruise ship, and his or her already opened bottle of wine was waiting. No orders were taken, as it appeared that all but we were on a pre-set meal plan, and the food served to the spa quests was of the healthy variety. Dishes included lots of greens and plain proteins and dessert was very light. It was difficult to put our finger on what made the mood and all these people dining by themselves strange, but there was a Stepford quality to it all. The gentleman sitting next to us, perhaps in his fifties and all by his lonesome, was a bit frail, as were many of the others in the dining room. He quietly finished his grassy meal, drank exactly one glass from his bottle of red wine and left for perhaps some additional time in the healing waters. Le Grand Hôtel seemed more sanatorium than spa, with its ethereal inhabitants in search of cures for who knows what ailments.

The following morning we hit the road once again for the tiny principality nestled in a deep valley of the Pyrenees. If ever there were a spot that made me think of James Hilton’s spiritual yet slightly spooky novel, Lost Horizon, it is Andorra. No it is not Tibet – not even close – but there is something otherworldly and from another time about the place. Even some of its architecture reminded me of images of the red and white Potala Palace high in the Himalayas with its symmetrical square windows climbing up the hill. Intrepid travelers that we are, we decided to venture into this tiny country as a quick detour before we finally headed into Spain. How many people can say they’ve been to Andorra, after all? Tucked between the French and Spanish borders, Andorra is a cross between a brightly lit duty-free shopping mall and an outfitter extraordinaire, much like a Pyrenean Moab or Boulder. Its main industry is tourism and clearly the tourists come for inexpensive electronics, watches, perfume and liquor (there are no direct taxes in Andorra), as well as to ski, hike and rock climb. On our drive in, we wound through colossal, brightly colored, futuristic ski compounds sprawled across the valleys with architecture unlike anything we’d ever seen before. We ventured into a few outfitter shops in town and were amazed by the breadth and depth of the sporting goods they carried. One megastore had a huge 20 by 20 space devoted solely to rock-climbing. Who knew this sport required so much hardware? What added to the eerie, neither-here-nor-there aspect of the principality was the official language of Catalan. A romance language related to French, Spanish and Italian but altogether different, it was impossible for me to decipher. Catalan might as well have been Russian. But most people we met at our guesthouse and in shops and restaurants spoke at least some French, albeit with a thick accent. The gentleman who cut Joe’s hair (yes, he decided to get a haircut in Andorra – further to my earlier comment, we’ll certainly never meet anyone who’s had his or her hair cut in Andorra!) spoke Spanish, so we were able to communicate what Joe wanted done (the guy was a pro and actually needed no coaching). We learned that there are three types of schools in Andorra and apparently you go to wherever you are most comfortable culturally: Catalan, French or Spanish. Almost no one spoke English, which was fine with us, but the mixture of the other languages was a unique experience. We would say “Merci,” to someone and they would respond, “De nada,” in Spanish, but if we said, “Gracias,” they often came back with, “Merci à vous,” in French. As our waiter in a Tapas/Pizza restaurant explained in a mixture of Spanish and French, “We’re very international here.” We enjoyed our time in Andorra, even though the rainy weather made for a soggy three days and scuttled our plans for a hike in the Pyrenees, and managed to get a good sense of the country. We now head back down into France for six days in the town of Puylaurens to the east of Toulouse. We’ll have what will be our final taste of France for many months before we return next spring.

Pictures of our adventures:

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