A travesty, really, as today I spend hours and hours–days upon days–planning and plotting the perfect trip routes to make sure I include as many land grabs as I can, searching for any opportunity to hop across a nearby border to check-off another country. A ferry ride to Gibraltar, an intentional layover in Zagreb, a taxi into Palestine; the concept over the last five years has been to see as much as I can, in short bursts of time, sampling everything in sight like a buffet. And after all, each and every trip to this international buffet is indeed expensive, so why wouldn’t I pile as much on my plate as I could, each trip, especially if another country is “right there!”
But there existed a time in my life, many years ago, before I loved travel. Don’t get me wrong, I liked travel, but certainly wasn’t obsessed with it the way I am today. So naturally, when I was in Barcelona as a 32 year old, I had no desire to take a three-hour bus ride to the micro-nation of Andorra. In fact, I’d never even heard of Andorra then. Nor did I even know the word micro-nation. So inconveniently, today, this leaves me with the task of heading back to a place I’ve been before (Spain), just to tick off the box of a minuscule place like Andorra. Please don’t take this the wrong way: I was excited about heading back to Spain, in order to see Andorra…actually really pumped up about it…but in terms of “economizing” my trips and time, missing a country that close to somewhere I’ve been before is a major amateur move. Andorra has no commercial airport; the only way in or out is through Spain or France. I could be using this time to swoop down on a brand new region, but instead, it’s over to an out-of-my country, via a previous destination (I would enter through Spain) in a sort of “You missed a spot” re-do. Again, not a complaint; happy to do it…I’m just kicking myself for not seeing Andorra while I was there, and oh so close!
So here I was, 2019, 130 countries down, and Andorra just sitting there taunting me; nagging me to visit. But when would I be close again? I’d been to its surrounding countries already (Spain, three times), and I just couldn’t quite figure out the best way to get back in there to “do” Andorra swiftly.
The solution came after my company had booked me for a conference in Chicago. I don’t live near a big international airport “hub,” so just getting out of the USA can sometimes be a day-long ordeal. So whenever I happen to be in a city like Chicago, Dallas or New York–cities with huge international airports–I always check the schedules to see if it’s possible to make a quick overseas run for the weekend. Usually the timetables don’t match up, or the cost is prohibitive, but this time I got lucky. There just happen to be a direct, Chicago to Barcelona flight on Norwegian Air for under $300 each way, and leaving at 6PM on Friday night…timed perfectly! I’d arrive in Barcelona on Saturday morning, head up to Andorra by car, then take the flight home on Norwegian on Monday, right into Los Angeles, then jump on a train down to San Diego, and back in the office on Tuesday morning. Whew! (Monday would be a sick day, cough-cough.) I’d never done a “weekend” European run, and just the thought of it excited (and exhausted me). I’d have to make the most of my short time there, so I spent a good amount of time scouring the net and YouTube, so make sure I didn’t miss anything. I couldn’t afford a misstep, I didn’t have time.
The conference in Chicago was a blast, and it was great to spend a couple days in the windy city. We had great weather and I was even able to catch up with friends and family in the area. But I couldn’t hide that nervous and excited feeling that started to creep up on me Thursday: Not just the normal anticipation of an international trip, but the excitement of one that would happen so quick. I found myself doling out early goodbyes and “great to see yous” around 1:30PM that Friday, before ducking out like a magician and heading to the airport.
Even the ride to O’Hare was special: My Uber driver from the night before had agreed to take me to the airport. Yudaisy was from Venezuela and I couldn’t wait to hear her story. I spent the forty-minute ride to the airport learning about Venezuelan history, what Hugo Chavez did to the country, and how the once-big oil attorney, Yudaisy, fled to the United States to be an Uber driver. Her life could be made into a documentary it was so interesting, and her accent was just as electric. What does all this have to do with Andorra? Not much, but I implore you to read my Venezuela story HERE.
It was my first time flying Norwegian and I was so curious how the airline’s “premium” would fare for me. There is no business or first class; premium is as high as you can go and it’s somewhere between premium economy and business. The seats don’t turn into beds, but you get a pretty deep recline, along with meal service and other perks, like lounge entry and boarding/deplaning first. I’d have a big day ahead: landing in the morning and making the long drive to Andorra, so some decent sleep was required. As soon as I was in my seat, I popped two Unisoms, changed into my jammies and it was lights out. I slept okay for a chair, but after a few hours, woke often from a sore booty. It was hard to stay comfortable for long, but all in all I think I squeezed out close to five hours of sleep, which I would have been unable to do in coach. I awoke for the last time, about 50 minutes before landing, and enjoyed the breakfast box thoughtfully placed on my tray: fruits, cheeses and typical Spanish meats. Soon I was in Barcelona and ready for a whirlwind weekend that would take me through three countries and an exclave, as well as check off nation number 131.
Life is a Highway
Not gonna lie, I was pretty happy I pulled off a semi-complicated conversation completely in Spanish with the immigration officer. He asked where I was from and what my plans in Spain were, to which I answered in Spanish with the best accent I could muster. Mrs. Houston would’ve been proud. I made my way down to the rental car counter and picked up the keys to my little Fiat for the weekend. Thank God I checked with the man at the desk first, or I would’ve walked out to a manual transmission and that would’ve done no one any good. When I finally did get to my car–although it was an automatic–I couldn’t quite figure out how to get it out of the manual “option,” and had a crash-course using a five-speed shifter on the highways of Barcelona. What made the experience even more nerve-wracking, was that the highway exit ramps were so close together, I had a hard time telling which one my GPS was directing me to, thus I spent the first 40 minutes driving around in circles, yelling “f*ck” a lot.
We Now Pause for Station Identification
Some solace came when I finally got on the right highway and out of town, and even managed to find this amazing radio program playing on Spain’s Canal Tres; a sort of this 60’s “lounge music” show, with an announcer that sounded like he was hosting Sunday Night Slow Jams, only with a Spanish accent, as he described various cocktails as sound effects of ice cubes being dropped in a glass would play, in front of songs like Besame Mucho and Girl From Ipanema. I can’t remember the last time I got this excited over a radio program, but this show was so good, and really calmed my nerves, taking me from stressed to one of the best moods ever, as the buildings disappeared and I ascended into the Spanish countryside.
Show Description: Mixes, combined, cocktails that not only quench thirst but also enter a world of reserved pleasures. The famous Continental of “New York Girls”: vodka, cointreau, lemon and cranberry juice or the no less famous Hemingway daiquiri: “My mojito in the Bodeguita, my daiquiri in the Floridita”. With healing properties in the case of gin and tonic, invented by British soldiers to combat malaria. Stir, stir, mix the right ingredients in the right proportions with the relevant music, of course. Lounge, maybe? Sergio Mendes, Herb Alpert, Esquivel but why not Pavarotti’s “Brindisi” or “Moon River” in cha cha cha ?. Let the green-eyed monster free, discover your inner glamor. With a lot of ice.
I wanted to make the most of this special weekend and figured it would be a pity if I was actually in Spain and didn’t do or see at least something here. So I decided on a stop at the Monastery of Monserrat. The minor detour took me up into the sky through winding mountains and dizzying curves until I reached the top. The tourists had found this place too; the parking lot was packed. I finally found a little space for my Fiat a quarter-mile down the hill, and worked up a sweat hiking back up to the monastery. Important things first: I stopped into the cliffside café for a small meal with an incredible view, before continuing on to the monastery. It was much more than I imagined: an actual complete little town was nestled in between these hills, including a teleférico (cable car) and two funicular stations. Not gonna lie, I wish I’d parked below and took the funicular or cable car up to the monastery. They both looked so cool, and the funicular station was one of the biggest I’ve seen.
RAMBLIN TIP: Plan ahead! Take the funicular or teleférico up to the monastery for an even neater experience.
Truth is, I didn’t have a lot of time to hang out at the monastery, so I pretty much just poked my head in and left. I wanted to make it to Andorra before sundown and had never made this drive before. I wanted to play it safe, so there would be no dilly-dallying, even though I would’ve preferred slowing down just a bit to enjoy more time at monastery. I bet it would’ve made for a great overnight stop, if you really had some time on your hands. But I didn’t, so it was time to go.
On The Road Again
The good news: I figured out how to put the car into automatic after leaving the monastery, so that took a little stress out of driving in a foreign country. The bad news: I started to become very sleepy. The meal at the monastery, combined with lack of sleep, made for one tired boy. I started to get so drowsy; the kind of drowsy where you start to drift and then jerk yourself awake. As much I wanted to make it to Andorra in good time, I ended up pulling over to take a twenty-minute nap. It was the right thing to do, and I felt much better once I got back behind the wheel.
RAMBLIN’ TIP: You don’t need me to tell you this, but if you become sleepy behind the wheel, please pull over and nap. Making it to your destination in good time is never worth risking yours and other people’s lives.
Now Serving Number 131
Before I knew it, I was driving into Andorra: country #131. I’d made it! Indeed, the entrance was a little unceremonious, as I drove through unmanned immigration lanes without stopping. Since Andorra was part of the European Union, there would be no passport stamps involved. But if there was no wait getting past the border, there would soon be one getting into the capital. I didn’t know what the holdup was, but traffic came to a dead and complete stop, for as long as the eye could see. I was getting a little antsy, and soon realized I’d have to skip check-in at the hotel and head straight to my spa appointment (first world problems, more on that later.)
Many minutes later, and what seemed like an eternity, I finally discovered what the traffic jam was all about, and I was so in awe that I forgave the delay. I’d never seen anything like this before in my life: They’d closed the road for repair and were detouring everyone—you won’t believe this—through the parking garage of a shopping mall! The creativity in that alone was enough for me to forget how frustrated I was sitting in traffic all that time. I didn’t know if I thought this detour through the mall was hysterical or genius, but I’d never seen anything like it. At first I even thought I’d made a mistake, and that maybe I’d made a wrong turn somewhere; maybe all these people were going shopping. But sure enough, once I got up and into the garage, there were cops and cones directing us back out and onto the highway. Incredible!
Rub You The Right Way
I did a healthy amount of research on Andorra before my trip—more research than I usually do—and found what looked like two extremely awesome things to do in a country that my fellow travelers had warned me of being boring. If I hadn’t done the recon, I would’ve missed Europe’s biggest spa: Caldea. The moment I discovered this “Jacuzzi park” on YouTube, I knew I had to visit. Caldea is a multi-level spa featuring dozens of warm and bubbling pools inside and outside and a variety of spa services to choose from. The place is absolutely huge; like a giant waterpark, but without the slides. I’d booked a 5:15PM massage and admission to the adults-only Inúu section. I was a little late, finally reaching the spa desk after 5:30, but there were no problems at check-in and soon I was off to a room with Patricia. What happened next could quite possibly have been the greatest sixty minutes of my entire life.
Caldea has a huge menu of massages and treatments on the menu and I had a difficult time deciding which one I should select. I ended up pre-booking the Geothermal Massage about a week before my trip and let me tell you, I chose correct. As a fan of massages, I can say I have never felt anything in my life like this, and I’m not even certain I can get close to describing it in words, but it was the closest thing to an out-of-body experience I’ve ever had. It was like I was put into a coma, as my brain slowed down, along with my breathing, and I fell into some sort of deep meditative state while Patricia did her magic. Don’t ask me what she did, but I’m convinced she may be a witch (the good kind). The one specific thing I remember is her using cold and hot things on my body, close to one another. What those “things” were, I’m not sure, but if I had to guess, I think it may have been ice, followed by hot stones. At one point I’d fell asleep and only jarred myself awake after a loud snort (that was embarrassing.) The massage was nothing like those of the Chinese ladies in my hometown and Patricia didn’t do anything that pained me or made me wince (Those Chinese ladies kick my ass sometimes!) When it was all said and done, I can say that this was the best massage of my entire life and I’d consider a trip back to Andorra just to get another treatment from Patricia again.
RAMBLIN’ TIP: You must visit Caldea if you go to Andorra and you must try the Geothermal Massage. Pre-order online and request Patricia. You will thank me! More on Caldea’s Geothermal Massage HERE.
After the massage, I was led into some sort of meditation area, where people were laying on loungers that formed a half-circle around a man playing an assortment of some kind of “gong”-like, vibrating metal instruments. He would gently strike these metal objects to create these long, low and medium pitched, boooooooooongs! Literally, sounds you’d picture emanating out a Buddhist’s hillside sanctuary in Bhutan. Was this real life? Not to mention, the building itself—inside and outside—was just out of control; something you’d see in a movie: walls of mirrored tile, giant fish tanks and dimly lit passages. The experience was absolutely out of this world, and I hadn’t even made it to the Jacuzzi part yet.
After I was done relaxing to those magical bings and bongs, I returned to my locker to change into my trunks and then headed for the pools. There were big, giant, steel cauldrons of bubbling water, stacked like stairs. I enjoyed trying them all, but soon realized I was on the only “single” person here. Normally, I love solo travel, until you come to a place like this. Then you’re just the weird guy all by himself in a hot tub full of couples. Awkward. Nonetheless, I enjoyed hopping from pool to pool. There was even one filled with real grapefruits. But it was getting dark, and I still had to check in to my hotel and find dinner. I bid Caldea a farewell with hopes of returning. I even contemplated booking a second geothermal massage for the next morning, but I wouldn’t have the time. I’ll remember it forever!
I reserved a room at the Holiday Inn and I’m pretty sure I got an upgrade. Room 214 was at the end of the hall and was pretty massive for a Holiday Inn. Thanks Susana at the front desk! Susana also helped me with a superb recommendation for dinner. I had just one night in Andorra and wanted something very local and typical. She referred me to a place called La Borda Pairal. And I was in luck; it was only two blocks away.
More info on Andorra’s Holiday Inn HERE.
The restaurant looked like a big tree house: the second floor entrance accessible only by stairs after passing a glowing and somewhat psychedelic-looking garden. It had been a long day and I needed sleep, so I wasted no time getting straight down to business: I ordered the homemade meat croquettes to start, followed by Andorra’s typical botifarra sausage with white beans. Both plates were really good, however, the bread and its accompanying nibbles may have been my favorite part of the meal: French bread, with oil and vinegar, meat and olives. The flavors came alive! After dinner, it was back to the hotel to pass out. My body and brain needed some good, uninterrupted sleep…in a bed, not a plane! Goodnight.
It would be a big day for me. I woke around seven and enjoyed about an hour walk around town. It was Sunday morning, and I had Andorra La Vella all to myself. Really. It was just me; maybe there were two or three other people stirring about, including a street sweeper and couple people walking their dogs, but the rest of the town was still fast asleep behind the old walls of their shuttered homes. I loved being away from the crowds. I passed quaint little fountains, an old church, a set of stone stairs leading up to a vista and countless other charming little highlights that I was able to enjoy all to myself. I finished off my morning stroll by stopping in for a coffee and a fruit tart at one of only two places that were open. Andorra sure was a cool little spot.
Good, Clean Fun
Here’s the part where I brag on Andorra for its cleanliness. The streets were absolutely pristine, and this was one of those rare stops where I struggled to find even one cigarette butt on the street. The small slice of Andorra I was fortunate enough to explore was simply pristine and eerily peaceful. I imagine the scene may be a little different during ski season. Andorra La Vella looked like to me to be the absolute idyllic town. As I looked up to see the occasional early bird opening her shutters to water the window-box flowers, I can only imagine growing up in a place like this is as close to a fairy-tale as one can get.
I was about to experience one of the coolest rides of my life, and thank God I’d stumbled upon that YouTube video of a vlogger showing off Andorra’s amazing toboggan run. Had I not seen this particular video, I would’ve missed this incredible real-life roller coaster all together. The Tobotronc is the star of Andorra’s Naturlandia theme park. High up in the mountains—really high up—is a nature-themed amusement park that features hiking, jeep rides, obstacle courses, animals and those awesome toboggans! I’d bought my ticket for the Tobotronc in advance and made it to the park just after 10AM, for its opening. I had no idea what I was in store for, but what I saw on the videos was cool. I had no idea how much fun I was actually about to have!
RAMBLIN’ TIP: To avoid long lines, arrive at Naturlandia when they open, at 10AM. The place fills up fast!
Keep Your Arms and Legs Inside the Car at All Times.
The toboggan itself was a tiny little plastic cart fashioned to metal rails. I didn’t know exactly how it was attached and I’m not sure I wanted to. All I knew is that I’d better keep my hands inside the cart or risk losing a finger. It was quickly evident that this was a ride one could easily die on, so I kept my hands and arms inside the sled at all times! I think anyone’s biggest complaint about theme park rides, is that they never last long. You can spend 90 minutes waiting in line for a three-minute ride. Not the case here. In fact, the ascent up the mountain alone seemed like it took ten or fifteen minutes. How high were we going?! Not gonna lie, I was a little scared, but the amazing view on all sides around me helped calm my nerves. I was told I’d be given riding instructions when I got to the top, but was wondering if I’d ever get there. And my toboggan was climbing so steep…I think it was being pulled by pulleys, heck, I don’t know! When I finally reached the top, the instructor gave me a simple, one-step instruction on how to ride the toboggan: Push the levers forward to go, and pull them back to slow or stop. Oh, and don’t hit the guy in front of you. Simple, right? But what if the guy behind me hits me??? Before I could worry about it, I was off—racing down the mountains at lightning speed—twisting, turning, rounding corners and flying down steep drops. It was so much fun and lasted for so long! It was exhilarating and definitely the highlight of my entire trip. Well, maybe tied with the geothermal massage. I was so glad I discovered this; a major win!
Places to Go, People to See
Sadly, it was time to leave Andorra. I had just one more night in Europe left and a couple more tricks up my sleeve. And while this blog is filed under “Andorra,” I thought it would only be right to include the stuff I did surrounding Andorra, since you can’t get there without passing through Spain or France (Andorra has no commercial airport). The surrounding countries will inevitably be part of the journey here, unless you own a helicopter.
Today I would drive into France, and then north into Spain. Wait, what? How is that possible when Spain is south of France? Meet the Spanish exclave of Llívia. A Spanish territory, only five square miles in area, Llívia appears as a little circle on the map, inside of France, just north of the Spanish border. I don’t know what I’d find there, but something inside me said I needed to spend a night in this place. So that’s where I headed.
Of course I had to stop for lunch in France, right? I mean, I wouldn’t feel right just driving through. The French border town of Bourg-Madame was all but shut down this Sunday afternoon. There were a couple of vagabonds sleeping near the fountain in a small stone plaza, but other than that, nobody in sight; and just like Andorra on a Sunday morning, all the businesses were shut down except one: a joint called Hors-Piste.
The indoor-outdoor café looked pretty fun and inviting, with a couple tables inside and outside already occupied. I took a seat inside and got to work deciphering the menu, with little luck. My English speaking waiter saved me, and helped me order the Plat du Jour + Dessert option. I started with the regionally popular ham and melon, which was fantastic and refreshing, but sadly, it all went downhill from there, fast, and it was all my fault.
I don’t know why I was so quick to yes to the bowl of muscles, but I did. It was an instant reaction, as if I was being offered something at a friend’s house and I had to say yes to be polite. I don’t know what I was thinking, but soon I was scooping out nasty muscles and trying to get them down my throat as quickly as I could. I guess I wanted to look like a local, a pro.
But the worst was the main course. The pieds de ministre cuit et gratiné was the worst thing that’s ever entered my mouth. The dish, that looked, felt and tasted like raw chicken, with some tomato goop slathered on top, turned out to be pigs’ feet, and I still can’t comprehend why it didn’t seem cooked. My life literally flashed before my eyes and my taste buds, as I did my best to pick apart the boney and fatty mixture of matter on my plate and make it look like I’d eaten more than I’d really had; the old childhood trick. I could only stomach a couple bites. If the muscles didn’t kill me, this raw pork would. What had I done? If I would’ve only ordered the l’hamburger, but noooo…Mister travelling big-shot insisted on eating the local dish. Pigs’ feet: 1, Ramblin’ Randy: 0.
Back in my Fiat, no more than five minutes up the road I’d entered Llívia, Spain, and without warning. I actually turned around twice and drove back into France and then back into Llívia again, in an attempt to find some sign of a Spanish border, but there wasn’t so much as a stripe across the road; the border to this enclave was pretty much invisible.
An special note: It’s important to know that residents of this area of Spain refer to this land at Catalonia, an autonomous community, designated as a nationality by its Statute of Autonomy.
Llívia was a tiny town, with one main drag consisting of a gas station, a takeaway pizza stand and some small cafés and apartments. I hung a left and drove up a small side street to reach my lodging for the night: Hotel Fonda Mercé. I dropped my bags and then it was off to explore. It was already past 3PM so I didn’t have much time. Not surprisingly, a bakery stopped me in my tracks not but 500 feet away. This was no ordinary bakery. Pastisseria Gil was the kind of bakery that dreams are made of. I stared lovingly through the glass at homemade bon-bons, donuts, strudel, cookies, cakes, croissants and a million other creations. I could almost smell them. Wait, I could smell them…was this place actually open on a Sunday? Why yes. Yes it was. While every single business on this street was tightly shut down for Sunday, rolling shutters and all, Pastisseria Gil was indeed open for business. I had to go in. This had to be the most beautiful bakery I’d ever stepped foot in. The details on each item made them all into separate works of art. Five minutes later, I was leaving with two boxes of the prettiest cookies I’d ever seen. Congratulations Randy: You couldn’t manage to get 500 feet from your hotel room before succumbing to a bakery.
More info on Hotel Fonda Mercé HERE.
I spent the next hour romping around the streets of old Llívia. I enjoyed walking down its narrow and almost completely empty streets, in between the shuttered businesses and old stone houses. I soon reached The Church of Our Lady of the Angels and its accompanying Bernat de So Tower. There were only a couple other tourists milling about. I felt I had Llívia pretty much to myself and for that I was grateful.
According to my GPS, there were two other towns in this Spanish exclave. Besides the main town of Llívia, I saw two other names on the map: Gorguja and Cereja. And of course I wanted to see them both. So I did!
Gorguja was tiny; basically just a little cluster of old stone buildings, that quite frankly, looked abandoned. I was really curious what, if anything, happens in this little grouping of old houses. I was actually hoping to have dinner in this tiny town, but there weren’t any commercial buildings whatsoever. Not even a little market.
Cereja was about four or five times the size of Goruja, and up in the hills; but no businesses there either, except a couple big structures that looked like some kind of lodge or ski resort. There were definitely more signs of life in this community and a few really cool houses. I thought how neat it would be to live way up here in the hills, in a stone house, with views of the fields below…views of both Spain and France. It’s the kind of place I’d escape to and hide out if I was ever trying to run from the law. Who would find me here?!
Tomorrow morning I’d drive back to Barcelona for my Monday afternoon flight home, so I opted to turn in early. After my encounter with the raw pigs’ feet earlier, I decided to play it safe for dinner with a takeaway pizza from a stand on the main drag. It looked like a popular place, and as I approached I could smell the fresh baked pies. I’d walked a ton this weekend; I figured I’d treat myself to a pizza in bed. I carefully selected my favorite ingredients, waited the ten minutes, paid the cashier, and took my pizza directly back to my room. I was so excited I could barely contain myself. Until I opened up the box and discovered they had slathered my pie in tuna fish. It was ruined. I’m going to bed.
RAMBLIN’ TIP: Always, always, open up the box and check your pizza before you leave the premises!
Like It Never Happened
I had a nice drive back to Barcelona the next day, overall uneventful, but with great views and luckily no traffic or car problems, although once I got into the city, I did drive in more circles once again. Besides arriving at the wrong terminal, the journey home on the direct flight to Los Angeles was pleasant. I’d seen three countries, including one new one, an exclave, I practiced my Spanish, learned a little Catalan, tried some new (and weird) food, sped down the Pyrenees mountains in a toboggan and enjoyed the best massage of my life. I’d say it was a pretty productive weekend. What made me most satisfied, is that I’d finally fulfilled my long time dream/goal of making it to Europe and back home in a weekend. It can happen. It did happen. And it was wonderful!
RAMBLIN’ TIP: Some airports’ terminals are miles away…like Barecelona’s T1 and T2! Always check to see which terminal your flight will leave from, before arriving to the airport.
The Movie…This entry was posted in Europe