Ed Hardy vodka in Andorra
Ed Hardy vodka at E. Leclerc, Andorra

Andorra, Unbeatable Duty-Free Shopping

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Have you ever been traveling and pulled into a hotel or campground late at night with no idea what you would wake up to find in the light of day?  It’s always such a fun and exciting moment when you roll out in the morning and find that the flat, dark vastness next to the road the night before is actually a lake, or that you’re on top of a mountain in the jungle with a smoldering volcano immediately adjacent to where you were just sleeping, completely oblivious.

During a trip to Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, I remember pulling onto a national forest road near the park to find a free spot for a night of rough camping.  It was late, pitch black.  Trav and I were both exhausted, and after dodging potholes on dirt roads for what seemed like forever, we found a nice little spot just big enough for our tent off in the tulies.  We thought we were in the Dixie National Forest boondocks.  We woke up in the morning to open range cows grazing around our tent and a boisterous neighboring family camped along a nearby ravine.  We were hardly in the wilderness, but one of the best things about travelling is that you just never know what you’re gonna get!

Highway C-14 passes through a tunnel in northern Spain on the way to Andorra.

After leaving Zaragoza, we set a course for Andorra, not knowing if we’d be there by nightfall or where we’d end up sleeping.  Using a map app on Trav’s phone, we found a little tent icon in Ogern, Spain, not far off the main highway just shy of the Andorran border.  We planned to spend the entire next day (day 8) exploring Andorra, so the location was perfect.  About 5 km off the main highway, we turned up a rough dirt road simply marked “camping”.  Navigating around rutted switchbacks, we wound our way to the top of a small rise above town.

Pulling into the parking area for Camping La Ribera Salada just before 10 pm, we looked at each other in dismay.  A few dim lights reflected off strange shiny metal structures and far too many man-made objects for our liking.  It hardly fit our idea of a campground; for us, the ideal campsite has more trees + wildlife than humans, but we were tired and curious so we plodded up the stairs to the registration building to inquire about tent camping.

I immediately liked the elderly gentleman who greeted us in Spanish.  He indicated it wasn’t good to still be traveling so late at night and seemed quite concerned about making sure we had a safe place to stay.  Grateful that we could communicate in Spanish, I asked if he had anything cheaper than the tent space that was merely a small square of rocks and grass but still cost 18 euros.  He showed us to a cute wooden cabin, warning us that it really wasn’t ready for occupants yet since it was being “remodeled”.  Though it was actually a couple bucks more, we nabbed it on the spot, confident he was giving us a bargain compared to the prices of the completed cabins.  With full bathroom amenities nearby and a cozy double bed, we crashed hard for the night.

In the light of day, I realized the campground was rather charming.  A creative mixture of wooden cabins and renovated RVs lined the gravel roads.  Though it was a bit cramped and the accommodations were simple, I felt the love and effort of the owners to make it as nice as possible, perhaps with limited resources.

Our cabin at Camping La Ribera Salada in Ogern, Spain

It was clear that it didn’t really cater to tent campers looking for solitude, but it seemed like a fun place for families and friends to get together for socializing and to enjoy the amenities (playground for kids, pool, etc).

Cabins at Camping La Ribera in Spain
Cabins line the road that loops through Camping La Ribera.

It’s a shame that the pool wasn’t yet open for the season and that we passed up showers and coffee at the little café in favor of getting back on the road, but we still enjoyed our brief stay.

Pool at Camping La Ribera in Spain
It’s too early in the year for the pool to be open, but the surroundings are pretty.

After checking out of Camping La Ribera, we were within sight of the Spanish/Andorran border in less than an hour.  Despite a long line of cars and tourist buses, we didn’t have long to wait before we rolled up to a Customs official.  He didn’t ask us about our nationality, reason for our border crossing, or whether we were carrying contraband, guns, or cash in excess of $10,000 – questions we came to expect at the US/Canadian border.  Does anyone ever answer yes to those questions?!  Instead, he asked us if we were in a rental car.  Rather surprised at the odd question, we told him we owned it.  He looked equally surprised, but then smiled, thanked us, and waved us on into Andorra.  I still have no idea what the dealio was with that exchange, but we were IN!

Spanish-Andorran border
Spanish-Andorran border crossing

I’m rather embarrassed to admit it but up until recently, I couldn’t have pointed to Andorra on a map.  Before we moved to Europe, I didn’t even know that it’s a country.  If I had somehow miraculously appeared on Jeopardy and been posed this question, I would have guessed that it’s a region in Spain, like Basque Country.  It doesn’t help that a town in Italy also is called “Andora”, that there is an Angora rabbit (probably the cutest bunny rabbit in the world), an Angora goat (the famous source of mohair), and that the latter two take their name from a city in Turkey (now more commonly called Ankara).

Even if I had known that Andorra is a country, its diminutive land mass smushed between Spain and France would have proven challenging to locate.  But when an American friend from our study abroad days in Costa Rica said it was a place he’s always wanted to visit, we realized we should definitely include it in our flexible travel plans.

No sooner had we crossed the border than we saw a multi-story shopping center, E.Leclerc, swarming with cars and shoppers. Thinking it was bound to be cheaper than Switzerland, we figured we’d just pop in for a few non-perishables to stock up our pantry.  Instead, we ended up spending close to two hours shopping for groceries, gifts for friends, and at times just staring at the prices!

Even for Two Small Potatoes who grew up with working class parents and who are fairly thrifty, Andorra still blew us away.  Little did we know that it’s famous for duty-free shopping and low taxes. Airport shops always claim that as well, yet charge ridiculous prices – this was the real deal.  Shopping there after living in Switzerland for 9 months was like stumbling upon a desert oasis for thirsty travelers, and I don’t just mean because of the cheap alcohol.

E Leclerc in Andorra
Not only are the prices crazy low, but they have so much variety. This entire room is just oil – any kind of cooking oil you could possibly need.

We did, of course, spend a fair amount of time browsing their extensive liquor selection.  It wasn’t easy choosing just a few from the hundreds of fancy bottles with exotic labeling.  Who knew that Ed Hardy markets vodka?  A huge bottle of Smirnoff for 6 euros? We’ll take it!

Ed Hardy vodka in Andorra
Ed Hardy vodka at E. Leclerc, Andorra

With our shopping cart full, I threw in one last impulse buy from the bakery section before checking out.  After trying a sample of the coca mini crema (mini cream cake), I couldn’t pass it up.  More like a soft, sweet bread than a cake, it was striped with a delicious cream cheese filling and reminded me of pan de crema, a similar bread pastry I used to buy several times a week from a little shop near the Universidad de Costa Rica.  Imagine the filling of a New York Cheesecake meets a fresh loaf of sweet bread and you wouldn’t have passed it up either.  Travis wasn’t as taken with it, but I knew he’d appreciate it more the next morning with coffee.

The coca mini crema from E.Leclerc is similar to pan de crema in Costa Rica. Scrumptuous!

Our next stop in Andorra was the capital city of Andorra la Vella where we promptly hit up a McDonald’s.  As unglamorous and cliché as it may be, we needed WiFi to message our friends who were caring for our dog, and we were jonesin’ for coffee (and french fries).  At least in our neck of the woods in the US, McDonald’s serves Seattle’s Best coffee, which we both love, and we were hoping they’d have something at least equally good.  Turns out, they did – and it was only one euro!  We were so stoked, we each bought two, guzzling the first and savoring the second.  We shot off our message and headed for the Church of Santa Coloma, the oldest church in Andorra that dates from as far back as the 9th century.

Santa Coloma Church in Andorra la Vella
Santa Coloma Church in Andorra la Vella, Andorra

I’m not a particularly religious person, but it’s impossible to live in Europe and not find it interesting to visit the impressive variety of churches of all shapes and sizes, each with its own unique architecture and history.  We found little information about the Church of Santa Coloma, but still found it quite charming.  The circular belfry is unusual and the only one like it in Andorra.  Its setting, a deep valley in the midst of the Pyrenees, didn’t hurt.

Santa Coloma Church, Andorra
The church is so close to Andorra’s northwestern border that Spain is just a few kilometers up the ravine in the center of the photo.

A single headstone at the church marks the passing of Antonia Casal Molné who died 24.11.1944 at the age of 70.  Who was this woman? Why was she buried on the church grounds?  Why is hers the only headstone there??

Tombstone at Santa Coloma Church, Andorra
Solitary headstone at the Santa Coloma Church, Andorra

As we were leaving Andorra la Vella, we pulled over for one last glimpse down the valley and saw a charming scene below us; a man in a field watched over his sheep and goats as the babies frolicked in the spring grass.  With smiles on our faces, we headed for the high mountain pass where we would cross into France near the resort town of El Pas de la Casa.

Sheep in Andorra la Vella
A man herds his sheep with his dogs on the outskirts of Andorra la Vella.

The stunning Pyrenees Mountains surrounded us on all sides as we climbed toward El Pas de la Casa.

Pyrenees from the CG-2 in Andorra
Pyrenees from the CG-2 in Andorra

We were hoping to hike to a lake above El Pas de la Casa, but when we arrived in town, it was already after 6 pm, the weather was quite dismal, and we couldn’t even locate the trail head with several inches of snow still on the ground, swirling clouds that hid the peaks, and a steady patter of rain.

Pas de la Casa, Andorra
The fence to the left roughly parallels a ski lift and ski route, not the trail to the lake we wanted to hike.

The wooden map near our trailhead was so poor, we could only laugh.  We located ourselves on the left of the overly enthusiastic blue lines (sou aqui), but couldn’t discern much beyond that.  Maybe one day we’ll return to Andorra and do some hiking, but this day was not our day for it.

Sign at trailhead in Pas de la Casa, Andorra
Poor signage at the trailhead in Pas de la Casa, Andorra

Without fanfare, circumstance, or pomp, we crossed back over into France and drove down through the scenic Pyrenees on the French side.  The steep mountains gradually gave way to painfully lush, green fields, tiny villages with old cobblestone streets, and classic stone homes graced with window-box flowers, fluffy white sheep (the cartoon kind you usually only see in dreams), and arched entryways draped in wisteria.  It was so pretty it was almost unreal.

We soon left that, too, behind and joined a motorway toward the city of Carcassonne.  A French co-worker in Trav’s lab had recommended we visit the town’s medieval city and famous castle there – since it was only a couple of hours away between us and home, we decided to check it out the next day.  Again with no place to sleep, we drove to Carcassonne intent on finding a campground or place just to pitch our tent.  Rolling into town, we saw a sign for “municipal campground”.  We didn’t know what that might mean in Carcassonne, France, but a campground’s a campground, right?  We just needed to sleep for a few hours.

Camping de la Cite in Carcassonne, France
Camping de la Cite in Carcassonne, France

The gated entryway to Camping De La Cite tipped us off right away that this place was a pretty swanky campground (by our standards), so we didn’t mind shelling out 20 bucks for it.  We drove past mostly vacant sites to our spot, threw up our tent, and then wandered over to a picnic table in a large empty field.  That night, we enjoyed our cold camp dinner with the lights of Carcassonne Castle twinkling in the distance.

Know Before You Go
Spain Road Trip Map

The medium blue pins mark our travel for day eight, from Ogern, Spain through Andorra to our camp site in Carcassonne, France.  The blue line roughly follows our entire 10-day travel path.

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