See a Country in a Day: Our Daytrip to Andorra
The tiny country of Andorra sits about a three hour drive from Barcelona, landlocked between France in the north and Spain in the south. The “microstate” is one of the smallest countries in the world by both population (fewer than 80,000 people) and landmass (180 square miles). It is mainly known for its low tax shopping, skiing, and hiking that attract 10 million visitors each year. (Yes, you read that right – 10 million visitors each year in a tiny country with only 80,000 citizens.)
Frankly, not the kind of place where we’d normally want to hang out long-term, but as a day trip, why not? We had already booked several commitments in Barcelona (Sagrada Familia, the Picasso Museum, etc.) that required us to be in Barcelona all but one day of our time there, which happened to be the last full day of our trip.
I had heard about a tour group offering that left Barcelona by 7:00 am, stopped in a town in France for lunch, spent the afternoon in Andorra, and was back in Barcelona by 7:00 pm. I was torn by the thought of spending most of the day in a minibus, but ultimately decided to take the easy way out and sign up for the day trip. That’s when reality kicked in – throughout our trip, we’ve routinely had times where we hired guides, booked lodging and even plane and train tickets just a day or two in advance. But this time, it looked like our luck had run out – the tour was full.
That’s when Keith kicked into gear and decided that rather than inevitably napping on a minibus and spending the last full day of our trip being shuttled about, we might as well just rent a car and go on our own. (Trains aren’t an option, and taking the public bus would cost about 50 Euros each, or $115 US for two. Still cheaper than the bus tour, which was $160 US each, but it would limit our flexibility to go outside the capital city of Andorra la Vella, known for mainly catering to shoppers.) We had dutifully gotten our International Driver’s Permits in Chicago before we departed, even though at that point we didn’t think we would need them. You actually don’t need to show them to rent a car in Spain, but do need them if you get stopped by the police, and we’ve had to show them in other countries before we could pick up a car. They’re easy to get at a local AAA location before you depart. (link: https://www.aaa.com/vacation/idp.html)
Keith rented a car online from a Sixt location about a mile from our Airbnb and, because he’s able and willing to drive a manual transmission/stick shift, the cost for a small car for 24 hours was just 41 Euros, or $47 US. We’ve rented from Sixt in Bosnia, the Czech Republic, Germany, and Italy before, and always had good experiences. This time was no different. We arrived at the Sixt location at about 8:30 a.m. (another advantage of going on our own – more sleep!) with a bag of snacks we’d accumulated during our time in Barcelona and throughout our trip, and within just a few minutes, we were on our way. No pressure-filled talk about insurance or nonsensical walk around the rental car – just the keys and guidance to walk around a couple of floors of the (tiny – 10 spots per floor!) parking ramp to locate the car.
Then we actually had to drive the Peugeot out of the ramp, which was an adventure of its own, and into Barcelona traffic. If you’ve seen a Star Wars movie lately, you can imagine Barcelona traffic. You have your cars, all of which are going at a much faster pace than you’d expect in residential streets – more like 90 kilometers an hour (55 miles per hour) than the much slower speeds we’re used to in the US. That’s all well and good, but then you add in the ubiquitous scooters, which dart in and out of the cars and pull up ahead of all of them at traffic lights. It was actually fascinating and fun as a passenger – like being in a virtual reality game. As a driver, I don’t know how Barcelona drivers don’t all just have nervous breakdowns on a daily basis. One of our Uber drivers told us he is exhausted every night from concentrating while driving in Barcelona, but we only saw one accident during our time there.
The roads to Andorra were excellent, and the toll booths were much easier to navigate than we expected. The tolls totaled about 20 Euros each way, and are easy as long as you have cash ready and look for the manual lanes or lanes advertising big yellow machines that give change – just before the far right lane for bigger vehicles. There are gas stations with reasonably clean bathrooms, snacks, etc. as you travel, and there are no extra tolls to get off at a gas station and get back on the tollway.
At the border, our quest to get an Andorra passport stamp began, with me proudly and passionately explaining in Spanish to the border agent that we needed our passports stamped. That’s when he pointed out that I was at the Spanish border and needed to keep going to the Andorra one. Oops. (Unlike other land crossings we’ve done, you don’t have to get stamped out or do anything else at the Spanish border unless your car is stopped. And in any event, the Spanish border wasn’t going to give me an Andorra stamp!)
We then pulled forward to the Andorra checkpoints and were stopped, unlike the cars in front of us. The Andorra agent checked our passports and motioned us along, but we asked for the passport stamp. (We went with English this time.) She explained they only had a “touristic” stamp. We said we didn’t mind, and she smiled and motioned for us to follow her to another booth, where an agent stamped our passports with an Andorra stamp. There was no entry fee or visa required, and within minutes we were on our way into Andorra. (In Oman, the process out of the United Arab Emirates and into Oman took more like 45 minutes on a day when virtually no one else was in the offices. And the process of crossing from Georgia to Armenia involved lines and yelling and shoving, so the Spain to Andorra process was a dream by comparison.)
Just a few minutes later we were driving past the first of several McDonald’s we saw in Andorra, and into the sprawl of the capital city, Andorra la Vella. After driving on the very narrow and crowded road through the valley created by the looming buildings of shops, we quickly parked the car in a central and public outdoor lot, and set off on foot.
After wandering through Andorra la Vella with stops at (of course) a Leica dealer, the post office, Starbucks, and another camera shop, it was time for lunch. We ate at K L’Irina, which has a three course lunch menu with a bottle of wine and bottle of water for two for just 11.70€ each. (Although Andorra is not a member of the European Union, it uses the Euro.) The food and service were not amazing, but the restaurant seemed to be full of locals who all greeted each other, and the price was so reasonable (about $13.50 US) that we didn’t mind not receiving our wine or second bottle of water. And the chocolate panna cotta was good – my first of what would turn out to be four desserts on the last full day of our trip. . . .
After lunch, we collected our car, paid the parking fee (about 6€ ($7 US) for about four hours), left the city, and drove into the mountains. Although we weren’t able to take the cable cars up the mountains as they were closed for maintenance, we had a great time just driving through the area and taking in the amazing views. I was very glad it wasn’t me driving as there were areas where the very windy road was down to one lane due to construction and the views down made it a little more harrowing than I would have enjoyed if I were driving.
When it was time to return to Barcelona, we drove right through the borders without being stopped, paid our tolls as we went, and returned our rental car by about 7:30 p.m. Though we had seen bumper-to-bumper traffic entering Barcelona that morning, traffic was lighter on the way in that evening. Getting the car into Sixt’s parking ramp’s tiny parking spots between cars clearly parked by tourists unaccustomed to the set-up was another adventure. I apologized to the Sixt agent when we went to turn in the keys, explaining that the parking job wasn’t “perfect.” His response: “Of course not! You’re on vacation. Have a great night!”
It was a fitting end to our Andorra day trip, which ended up costing about 110 Euros ($125 US) for the car rental, tolls, parking, and lunch. Or less than the cost of one of us doing the group day trip, and about the same price as spending six hours on a bus. Getting to relax with fresh air, see another country in a day, and end our first round-the-world trip with a great memory: Priceless.
Have you been to Andorra? Have you heard of Andorra before today? Let us know in the comments.