In the latest of his guest blog posts, guidebook author Charles Davis goes walking in the Pyrenean principality of Andorra.
There are two Andorras. One, regrettable and forgettable, is a place of packaged Winter breaks, hypermarkets, shopping trips, crowded towns and traffic jams. The other is the traditional, timeless, romantic, landlocked principality high in the Pyrenees, the Andorra of independent character and a cheerful contempt for other people's frontiers, of smugglers' paths and high mountain passes, of medieval villages and remote refuges, the Andorra of a thousand lakes, of tumbling torrents, towering peaks, splendid vistas, meadows full of wildflowers, and some of the finest paths in the Pyrenees. No prizes for guessing which of the two we chose to explore in Walk! Andorra.
Andorra is a topsy-turvy sort of place, nowhere more so than in the nature of its seasons. Hectic with skiers during nature's months of hibernation, the slopes go to sleep during the Summer, making it the perfect place to escape the crowds that reduce some sections of the Pyrenees to trekking motorways. This relative neglect has nothing to do with the quality of the walks, which are superb, but is the result, ironically enough for Europe's highest country (the lowest point is 840 metres above sea level), of it's comparatively modest altitude. The fact that its highest peak is 'only' 2,942 metres means the sort of people for whom mountains are an adult version of standing on top of the slide and chanting "I'm the king of the castle!" tend to be a bit sniffy about Andorra as a hiking destination, gravitating instead toward the major summits of western Catalonia and Aragon. Which is all to the good for the rest of us.
Once the canard of bigger-is-better biggest-is-best is dismissed, the attractions of Andorra for a walking holiday soon become apparent. Tucked between the warm air rising from the Costa Brava and the 3000-metre peaks to the West, its southern orientation means it escapes the worst of the summer storms conjured by the clashing Atlantic and Mediterranean fronts (you'll often see a storm circling the frontier without spilling over the border), yet still enjoys the classic, dramatic landscape of the high Pyrenees. With sixty-five major peaks, spectacular moraines, stunning lakes, expansive alpine pastures, and forests of pine, beech, birch, and poplar, Andorra is the Pyrenees encapsulated.
Apart from the weather, there are three other reasons for choosing Andorra for a walking holiday. First, the paths. This may seem a blindingly obvious claim for a book about walking, but the range and quality of Andorran paths really are exceptional. Trailblazed by herdsmen, smugglers, horses and cows, these paths are now clearly signposted and well waymarked (if you see a signposted itinerary not featured in Walk! Andorra, you can set off confident that it won't simply disappear in the mountains), and are maintained not by the vagaries of passing hikers, but systematically by teams of school-children and students working under the supervision of a mountain guide during the holidays. Even more impressive, waymarks on routes subsequently considered too dangerous for the average leisure walker are effaced with grey paint, rather than simply left to fade of their own accord.
The second reason for walking in Andorra is water. The principality has between 59 and 80 lakes depending on who's counting and how they define a lake ('the land of a thousand lakes' boast is poetic licence, though the degree of licence is very marginal since it's virtually impossible to walk in Andorra for more than an hour or two without stumbling across a lake), fourteen of which we visit in Walk! Andorra.
The third outstanding feature of walking in Andorra is the system of unmanned refuges, which like the paths are of quite exceptional quality. Anybody who has done a bit of walking in the Pyrenees, especially on the Spanish side of the range, will be familiar with the disheartening experience of reaching your destination at the end of the day, only to find it heaped with litter, occasionally vandalized, and sometimes with half the roof missing, obliging the weary walker to embark upon a spring clean and a little light building programme before settling down to sleep with the mice. By contrast, the 27 refuges in Andorra are equipped with steel bunks, tables and benches, a fireplace, basic medical kit, an outside spring and a supply of firewood. More importantly, they are regularly cleaned and have a helicopter rubbish collection. In most cases, there is a section reserved for shepherds, which is locked in their absence, but the public part is open all year round. There's nothing quite like the pervasive sense of well being felt as you sit on the stoop of your refuge, a good fire blazing away within, a glass of whatever you require to hand, watching the darkness descend and knowing the mountain is yours for the night.
I don't know about you, but I've persuaded myself. If things go a bit quiet on the blogging front, you'll know where to find me.
Explore Andorra for yourself - the Walk! Andorra trails are available to download in ViewRanger.