Hosting 10 million visitors annually, the tiny principality of Andorra is almost entirely geared towards tourism. Tax-free shopping and a rapidly expanding selection of ski resorts have clashed with strong Catalan traditions, resulting in a slightly odd collection of towns scattered among the Pyrenees.
The main towns of this tax haven have the feel of huge airport malls, ceaselessly courting foreign income. Even the smallest stores seem to stock crates of duty free perfume, alcohol and cigarettes.
Winding through the traffic clogged streets of the capital Andorra la Vella it is hard to remember you are in a miniscule mountain territory with a resident population of less than 70,000. But if you look beyond the lighting and window displays, you'll see a community stoically holding onto its traditions.
Out-dated farming methods, urban expansion and difficult terrain mean Andorra now has to import the majority of its produce. But the government is determined to maintain Andorra's rural customs, so much so that often you'll see a herd of goats grazing right alongside a building development in the middle of the city. In turn, work on these building shells is often halted, in exchange for government grants, so they can be used dry tobacco leaves, propping up the iconic Andorran industry.
Perhaps it is all part of the country's operation to entice tourism but the Andorrans themselves are incredibly friendly and welcoming. With a strong economy, no crime, the world's second highest life expectancy and the stunning surroundings of the Pyrenees, they really have no excuse not to be.
Much of their culture is influenced by their proximity to France and Spain and most locals speak a little of both languages as well as their native Catalan. However, Andorrans are fiercely proud of their independence. Try not to refer to them as French or Spanish. It is one thing that could strain their sense of hospitality.
With almost no crime, scams or violence to report, getting into Andorra could be one of the most dangerous and frustrating parts or your trip. The only way into the country is through its sheer valleys. Icy conditions during winter mean you need to have appropriate tyres or tyre chains and should have some experience with winter driving.
With locals, tourists and commuters sharing these narrow passes, Andorra's roads are also rather congested. This, combined with impossible parking and disturbingly dedicated parking inspectors, means you might like to leave the car behind.
There are regular buses from the airports at nearby Toulouse, Perpignan, Carcassone, Barcelona and Girona.
Most head to Arinsal but there are plenty of other services taking skiers between the many slopes. The majority of the ski resort accommodation offers transfers from nearby airports direct to your door as well.
Getting out of the country could also be an issue, with Andorra's customs officials taking special care to ensure the country's precious perfume supplies aren't depleted by marauding tourists. The Andorrans are only too keen to sell you their tax-free merchandise but it seems they aren't as willing to let you take it home. There are strict controls on what and how much of it you can take across the border. Much like an airport duty free store, you are limited to 1.5L of spirits, 5L of table wine, 300 cigarettes and 357mL of perfume.
Food and produce are also controlled, so make sure not to overfill your picnic basket. Oddly, it is the Andorran authorities more than the French or Spanish, who tend to firmly enforce these limits. There are often incredibly long queues of cars waiting to pass through customs after a weekend of skiing, so try to time your exit to avoid peak traffic.
There are some great bargains to be found amongst Andorra's mass of storefronts, but because Andorra isn't a member of the European Union, your bargain buys may also be subject to taxes when you leave, which can be a bit of a sting in the tail.
If you do decide to take advantage of the best skiing the Pyrenees has to offer, you will probably want to invest in a Ski Andora Pass. Although a little more expensive than a singular resort pass, this 5-day ticket gives you access to all of Andorra's slopes, totalling over 280km of runs.
This amazing array of different destinations can make it difficult to keep up with closures and potential dangers on the individual slopes, meaning you need to pay special attention to condition reports. You should be able to find compiled reports at the websites of the Vallnord resort, which covers the western mountains, and the larger Grandvalira resort in the east.
The vast skiable area in Andorra can make it easier to get lost as well. Stick to the marked trails and take a good map with you. If you do decide to go off-piste, remember there is no substitute for local knowledge. Take a guide or drag an Andorran friend along.
It is often quite sunny on Andorra's south-facing ski slopes and it's not uncommon to see people skiing in t-shirts, especially at the opening and closing ends of the season. While this may be an enticing prospect, the temperature in these valleys can drop very rapidly. By all means take off your jacket on the slopes but never leave it behind entirely.
Poor quality or ill-fitting gear can make you a danger to yourself or others on the ski fields. Make sure you're measured and fitted correctly if you're renting. Avoid using hand-me-downs or second hand stuff too, no matter how cool those retro wooden planks might look. You may even want to consider buying your equipment duty-free in Andorra. There are some great deals available, especially late in the season.
If you'd prefer to choose a particular resort to suit your style, the Vallnord slopes of Arcalis and Pal-Arinsal are a little more relaxed and remote, along with the smaller slopes at Grau Roig and Ordino.
Pas de la Casa, the flagship of Grandvalira, is at the opposite end of the scale. Considered to be "the Ibiza of the Pyrenees", this town is flooded with young, excitable tourists in the high season. If you do decide to join the party here, try not to go overboard. Andorra's dirt-cheap alcohol, altitude and freezing conditions can be a dangerous combination for drinkers. During the 2009/2010 season two young men, a Spaniard and a Briton, died of hypothermia in separate incidents in Pas de la Casa. Both had become lost and disoriented while drunk.
There are plenty of outdoor activities besides skiing in Andorra. During the warmer months the hills around Andorran towns are heaven for hikers, with the trails and villages above Ordino and Soldeu particularly popular.
Routes are marked but the terrain is still very rugged and potentially dangerous. Make sure you are well prepared with gear, food, water and maps before heading out.
Mountain biking in Andorra is difficult, given the terrain, and only the most skilled and insane launch themselves down the craggy slopes. There are a few less intense tracks for those without a death wish. The ride from Les Pardines to the Engolasters Lake is very flat and great for kids.
If you really want to challenge yourself and the landscape, try out Andorra's vie ferrate or iron roads. A combination of hiking and climbing, these trails incorporate rung ladders scaling sheer cliffs and wire bridges spanning dizzying drops. Although vie ferrate are popular throughout the Pyrenees and the Alps, Andorra is one of only a few places where the use of the paths is free.
But while you can just head out and start climbing, you need to have all the right equipment, including helmets and harnesses. There are plenty of companies that offer equipment rental as well as guides. Climbing experience is not essential but it is recommended. Start with an easy route like Canal de la Mora if you're a beginner.
Once you're up the top of the country, trout fishing in Andorra's high lakes and rivers is a popular pastime. A lack of vehicle access to most fishing spots mean they're unlikely to be crowded and you'll be able to enjoy the stunning backdrop in peace. You can get the required fishing licenses from any tackle shop or tourist information centre. They will also be able to tell you the opening dates for rivers and each of the lakes, which are dependent on the amount of snow.
You may have noticed a disturbing array of heavy weaponry available in even the most unassuming of Andorran shop windows. Bazookas, sniper rifles and submachine guns are often stacked right alongside the souvenir snow globes. This is another symptom of tax-free status, but also of a strong hunting tradition in Andorra. Wild boars, as well as native deer, are the primary targets and shots will often ring out over the valley in the late stages of summer.
Although the official hunting season doesn't start until September, bright coloured clothing is advised if you're heading into the hills, just in case.
Despite this militaristic operation, there are still plenty of wild boars roaming through Andorra's forests, which can be aggressive, especially when protecting their young. Most will disappear when they hear you coming but if you do stumble across a peeved pig while out and about, your best bet is to scoot up the nearest tree.
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