Escape to the Pyrenees

Saturday marked a milestone for us. It marked the one-month anniversary of our move to France. It’s hard to believe we’ve already been here that long, but we are loving every minute of it.

To celebrate, we booked a trip to Andorra–a small country located in the Pyrenees Mountains in between France and Spain. If you haven’t heard of it before or can’t place quite where it is located, don’t worry–it’s the sixth-smallest nation in Europe. Unless you are an avid skier or plan your vacations around duty-free shopping, it may not be on your radar. It certainly wasn’t on ours until a friend mentioned it was on her bucket list and we realized just how close it is to us.

The capital city, Andora la Vella (which is the highest capital city in Europe), is about two and a half hours from Toulouse. So, Saturday morning we threw some clothes in a suitcase and headed off on our adventure. We planned our route along N20, taking us through Foix so we could detour at one of France’s old castles.

Château de Foix
Château de Foix

This castle, located on a rocky hill above the town of Foix, dates back to the early tenth century. It is exceptionally well-preserved, making it easy to slip into daydreams of the medieval times and the royalty who spent their days sweeping through the castle in gorgeous dresses and robes (or, if you favor my husband’s imagery, perhaps you envision sieges and knights). Inside the castle are artifacts supporting either preference.

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Some of those artifacts gave a very real picture of medieval life.

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Either way, the views from the windows and towers are dreamy.

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After exploring the castle, we headed into the town of Foix below and grabbed lunch before continuing our journey up to Andorra.

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The clouds and fog that followed us out of Toulouse and down into the mountains in southern France continued until we got close to Ax-Les-Thermes, a small commune (French communes are similar to a township in the U.S.) known for its skiing and sulphurous hot springs spas.

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From Ax-les-Thermes, we began to ascend from the valley up into the mountains. The narrow, two-lane road took us around a series of hairpin turns as we climbed higher and higher. I tried to focus on the breathtaking scenery around us rather than stare at the steep drops at the edge of the road we were following. IMG_9210 IMG_9215 IMG_9216

The Pyrenees are stunning and grand. These pictures I took in no way do them justice. Each crest seems to tower above the rest and, even though it was about 90 degrees Fahrenheit that day, the highest elevations still had pockets of snow. The grass was lush and green and beautiful mountain flowers sprouted everywhere.

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As far as the animals go, free-range has a whole different meaning in this part of the world.

A mountain traffic jam.
A mountain traffic jam.

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Since Andorra is part of the EU, we didn’t have to stop and get a stamp when crossing the border (though I was really, really hoping for another stamp in my passport). Traveling from country to country within the EU is pretty easy. Even on the way back to France, the border guards simply asked what we purchased in Andorra and then waved us through.

The country of Andorra is dotted with ski towns and historic landmarks, such as Sant Joan de Caselles, a beautiful 12th century church on the hillside just north of Canillo.

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We eventually made it to Andorra la Vella and began the search for our hotel, the Hisperia Andorra la Vella. Though it sounds as if it can get pretty pricy during ski season, we were able to reserve a superior room for about 100 € for the night. The superior room included a walkout balcony with a great view of the city and surrounding mountains. We could scope out the shops we wanted to go to even before going out!

After dropping our bags, we went out to explore the town and make our way to old town. The streets in Andorra la Vella are packed with perfume, tobacco, alcohol, electronics and clothing shops. Some of the deals are good (we bought my favorite brand of perfume for less than we can get it on Amazon), while others you should do your homework on before you go (we paid a bit more for a camera lens than we would have in the U.S., but c’est la vie).

Saturday was a really warm day in Andorra, so after walking around for a little bit, we were in desperate need of a beverage. While we obviously slacked on researching our electronics prices, we did make sure to scope out the local bar scene and knew we wanted to visit La Birreria, a beer bar and shop with brews from all around the world (including a delicious porter made by the owner of the shop). We ended up finding the shop while looking for the old town, so of course had to stop in. Matt was like a kid in a candy shop.

For dinner, we tried out a traditional Catalan restaurant recommended by the hotel manager called Ca La Conxita. The restaurant is tucked at the back of a side street, so you would have to know what to look for to find it. We went just after 8:00 thinking that was an appropriate time for dinner (in France, the earliest restaurants open for dinner is 7:00), but when we arrived, we were the only two there. The restaurant owner seemed surprised to see us that early and had to turn the lights and music on to seat us. Awkward!

Side note: In Andorra and Spain, dinner is very late. Most people don’t go out until 9 or 10:00, so if you like to eat early don’t be surprised if you’re the only one in the restaurant.

There was a definite language barrier between the restaurant owner and us (she spoke Catalan/Spanish and a bit of French. We are getting better at French, but my Spanish is very rough), so we ended up letting her just choose what to make us. She prepared a series of tapas, all of which had a seafood element to them.

Now, as much as I love good food, I’m still working on eating seafood. If it’s not too fishy, I can typically handle it and may even like it. The seafood at this restaurant is very well-prepared (Matt, who loves seafood, said it was excellent), but it was a lot for me to handle in one night. I managed to get through it with the help of my friend here.

After dinner, we took a stroll up to a little square in the center of town where we’d seen people setting up for an event earlier in the day. We passed the beautiful Sante Esteve church along the way.

It turns out there was live music and dancing in the square–almost like a battle of the traditional music bands. It was pretty amazing to see random groups of people get up and start performing traditional folk dances with each other and refreshing to know that, even with the hustle and bustle of the tourism and shopping industries, culture is still alive and well here. I’ll leave you know with a short clip of the highlight of our evening.

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3 thoughts on “Escape to the Pyrenees”

  1. It’s amazing how many beautiful places, filled with such rich history and culture, are out there! I love your spontaneity and mindset–“let’s just grab our suitcases and go.” You’re truly living your life and I’m enjoying reading all about it!

    Like

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