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Andorra & Catalonia From Sea to Mountains. And back again.

There's several ways to react to being made redundant. The clever one is to go through your contacts list, sending your CV out to anyone who is too polite to tell you to go away, desperately trying to get straight back into working life. The tempting one is to sit at home, feeling sorry for yourself, spending days watching bad movies and eating Quavers.

I chose a third option. Packing a suitcase, I headed to Andorra for the week. The presence of my mate Dave and mountains on the trip did not make this a re-enactment of Brokeback Mountain. There were less sheep for a start.

Catalonian pride was never far away

The drive up through Catalonia was uneventful. However a brief stop in Berga to stretch legs left us in no doubt that Catalonians were unhappy at the Spanish response to the recent Catalonian independence referendum. It felt like every balcony had either a Catalonian flag or a banner demanding the release of those arrested for organising the referendum.

Bellver de Cerdanya

Catalonia hilltop villages passed and it wasn't long before we hit the Andorran border. Coming in from the south doesn't show this little principality at its best. But it certainly wasn't as bad as the horror stories suggested it was going to be. And neither was our destination for the next three nights, the capital, Andorra la Vella.

OK, the architecture isn't going to win many prizes for subtlety. It is more ski resort than medieval citadel. But the mountains present a permanent backdrop that went from awe inspiring to sinister and brooding as the sun dropped.

Andorra La Vella, Andorra
Andorra la Vella, where mountains and unsympathetic architecture collide

Andorra isn't big. In fact, its lack of bigness is one of its most defining features. There are essentially just three roads, all using Andorra La Vella as a hub; south, north and east. Since we'd already done south on our drive into the country, we chose north for our first full Andorran day the following morning.

Immediately, Andorra changed. Those who have dismissed it as ugly have clearly not explored far. Not that you can explore far before you find yourself in a different country, anyway. The drive up through Ordino to Arcalis was spectacular. A lush, green valley that turned into a barren, white col as soon as we passed the snow line.

Valira de Nord, Andorra
Valira del Nord
Arcalis, Andorra
Arcalis, Andorra
Arcalis ski resort

On the way back, we parked the car halfway down the valley in Llorts. Welshman Dave feeling at home in a town beginning with a double-l. We had a pleasant walk through a green valley, interspersed by unusual sculptures and over-ambitious dogs. So pleasant, we decided to extend our walk all the way to Ordino. It was on this extended phase that we were reminded that the only reason the valley is so green is because of its plentiful supply of water from the sky.

Valira de Nord, Andorra
Ruta del Ferro and Ordino

After lunch, we headed to the Col d'Ordino. Slightly lower than Arcalis, it meant we were below the clouds to get better views and, more crucially, below the snow line to avoid hypothermia. Dave and myself may have more than our fair share of natural insulation, but still it was still nice to be back into T-shirt weather. Had stopped raining, too.

Apparently some cyclists made it here before us
Coll d'Ordino, Andorra
Col d'Ordino

Having now done north and south, our final day in Andorra would be spent in the east. And this is where the "ugly Andorra" criticisms do have merit. El Pas de la Casa is ski resort hell. I'll protect your eyes by not including any photos. But, again, the drive through Andorra to get there was a smorgasbord of beautiful mountain scenery.

French border with El Pas de la Casa most definitely not pictured

On the drive up, we had noticed a valley going off the main road and made the decision to explore it on the way back. As decisions go, this was a good one.

The Vall d'Incles was stunning. We walked along a high trail on the valley's southern side with views over pasture land and medieval stone buildings. Water cascaded down the mountainsides, most spectacularly at the valley's end. And all while enjoying some late spring sun.

Vall d'Incles, Andorra
Vall d'Incles, Andorra
The stunning mountain scenery of Vall d'Incles
Dave. On a bridge.

The Andorran leg of the trip over, it was now time to slowly head back through Catalonia to our overnight stop in Girona. On our route was the Collada de Toses. The good news is that the Collada de Toses had been described as one of Jeremy Clarkson's favourite roads. The worrying news was that we discovered this fact reading the road's entry on dangerousroads.com.

Dangerous road!

Not sure what the fuss was about, to be honest. The main risk was being rear-ended when suddenly breaking for another photo opportunity. Even then, the complete lack of traffic made that unlikely. Great vistas north towards Andorra and the Pyrenees became deep valleys with fast flowing rivers. And all under blue skies.

Collada de Toses

Then came one of the highlights of the trip. Acting on a whim, I decided to travel down a quieter valley than the main road to Girona went down. Had I not decided to do that, I'd never have discovered Vallfogona de Ripolles. This was the most perfect Catalonian village.

Vallfogona de Ripolles

We wandered through its lanes, with a barely a soul to be found. Perfectly preserved and yet off the tourist trail. I immediately checked the local estate agent's website...

Vallfogona de Ripolles

We carried on towards Girona with a stop at Castellfollit de la Roca (disappointing) and Besalu (much better, if only for the ice creams).

Castellfollit de la Roca, Catalonia, Spain

And then Girona for a final night. Probably would have been better not to have arrived during rush hour, particularly given the hotel car park was on a different road to the hotel. So, initial perception of the city wasn't great. But, walking around the old part of the city changed that.

Girona, Spain
Girona

We celebrated our last evening with cheap Argentinian steaks and Valencian gin. A last look around Girona and it was time for a slow drive down the Costa Brava to Barcelona. A stop for sardines in Blanes, looking at early holidaymakers sunbathing on the beach, it was strange to think we'd been above the snowline just two days earlier.

Sun, sea, sand and sardines. Sardines not pictured.

Rush hour traffic through central Barcelona with a fuel gauge needle pointing way beyond empty, I could probably have planned a less stressful end to the trip. Still, at least I didn't have work to go back to.

Created By
Graham Goodman
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All photography © Flyfifer Photography

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