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There's No Tequila in Andorra
There's No Tequila in Andorra
: Andorra--the country with the highest life expectancy in the entire world. Before talking about the mountains and the refuges; before talking about the ruins, hidden backroads, and trails; before talking about the insanely cheap duty-free shopping and tax breaks; and even before talking about the almost total absence of crime, laws, and regulation; it's important to talk about something else.
I've got a question and a complaint: Where the FRAKK is the tequila?!? It's actually difficult to come up with complaints here in Andorra, and complaining that my woman isn't here with me isn't anything Andorra can fix, so I'm complaining about the dry spell on tequila... because everything else I could write would be lavish and superfluous praise.
There's no tequila in Andorra.
That's a damned lie... but it ain't far from the truth. My woman, the magical creature that she is, happened to find one hell of an incredible Mexican restaurant in Andorra la Vella... and, yes, with tequila. Did I mention I love the hell outta this woman? She's the one who found Paco's Mexican Restaurant in Andorra.
You see, there's whisky in Andorra, and a LOT of it... 'n there's bourbon and vodka and so much more. In fact, you'll pay less than half the price for a bottle of whisky in Andorra than what you'd pay in France... but no tequila. An espresso con Baileys? It'll run ya a euro and a half... but no tequila. A pack of smokes for half what you'd pay in Spain, or a third what you'd pay in France? Yup! That's Andorra... but, again, no tequila.
You see where I'm going with this?
Can a country without tequila really call itself "civilized"? Or even "modern"?
Questions of civility and modernity aside, Andorra could very well be my favorite part of Europe. What Andorra lacks in tequila it makes up for with orujo. Stay with me here. For those who know, no, orujo's not unique to Andorra... and tequila's not unique to Mexico... and, no, that comparison's NOT logical!
For those who are NOT "in the know", orujo is a digestif alcohol made from the skin of the grape, and much along the same lines as grappa, or brandy, or whisky. You know when an alcohol makes your mouth yell, "WHY? Why are you doing this to me? What did I ever do to you to deserve this?!?" Yeah, that's a digestif. In my opinion, orujo's the best of 'em! I can completely blame Marc at the Alberg la Comella for my introduction and ensuing addiction to orujo, specifically the coffee-infused orujo... so consider him blamed. Besides coffee, orujo's also commonly prepared without infusion, or infused with herbs... but coffee's where it's at.
... but no tequila ..
Have you ever heard a rooster crowing while the sun rises on a Diesel store or a BMW dealership? That's Andorra la Vella. From the commercial outlet chains that fill the center of the combined cities of Andorra la Vella and Escaldes-Engordany, you can walk five minutes into the old part of the city, taking cobblestone sidestreets and stairways... 'n discovering hidden artistic treasures and preserved buildings along the way. Another five minutes, and you'll be at the bottom of the stairs that will take you up and onto one of the two major (and beautiful) trails that surround the city from above. If you find yourself getting lost in the city, then get above it. The view is extraordinary, the trails themselves are well maintained, and there's no better way to see the city.
From either of the two surrounding trails, you can connect with other routes that will take you farther out of the city... or even begin walking to the next city over... or, as with the case of one trail, start walking around Europe. Just how far do you
want to walk? The two major trails surrounding Andorra la Vella are lit at night, including the stairs leading up to the trails. Water runs the length of the northern trail, making for an easy way to cool down under the sun... but it also makes for a water source for other creatures who live in the mountains. Remember
when walking the trail at night if any of the lights are out. To repeat the words found on many signs in Andorra: "Respect the mountain."
There are twenty-seven maintained shelters in the mountains of Andorra, each a refuge against the elements where an adventurous trekker can sleep and relax for free. These relaxed mountain shelters are seriously insulated, with more than twenty centimeters of stone and mortar between the environment outside and the environment inside. Most of these have a water source, beds, first aid, a fire place, and wood... or a saw for cutting wood. On my second day at Els Agols refuge, an Andorran named Josep arrived with a hatchet. While it's been years since I swung a hatchet, it made short work of the pine that's native to the region... and made for one indelibly warm bonfire beneath the stars of the summer solstice.
A'ite, time for nomz!! Because the mountains provide many a tasty treat for those who know where to look. Marc showed me mushrooms bigger than both his hands that put the taste of crimini mushrooms to shame. Shame! Frilo showed me a stalked legume with a less stringy texture than celery, but with a taste similar to (but more subtle than) cauliflower... and Jean-Michel made a rich salad from a small green legume that grows almost everywhere on the mountain. Although I don't like fish, the lakes in the mountains are full of 'em, and many Andorrans venture into the mountains to catch them.
I'm a creature of tides, deserts, mountains, and wind... of fire and jungles. If I don't stop myself from talking about the mountains, this entry would fill a book. To see the pillars of the setting sun from atop the mountains is to mark a memory of Andorra that you'll not soon forget.
For those with a consumerist bent, Andorra's a duty-free shopping extravaganza! I don't even get into the shopping "thang", but the country tempts even me with cameras that are half what you'd pay in Spain... and paying two euros for a full bag of tobacco nearly made my jaw drop. Also, it's the first country I've found in Europe that carries my favorite brand of cigarettes--Djarum Black clove kreteks. For anyone else looking for a quality clove cigarette in Europe, the store you'll find 'em at is called The Cigar Store, and they even have their own smoking room downstairs.
But what the frakk is up with the fascination with watches? Peeps already have the time on their cellphones, and the watches aren't all that cheap... and yet watches fill one shelf after another in the stores of la Vella. Tick-tock arm-leashes aside, the shopping really is legendary, drawing in crowds every weekend from Spain, France, and many other parts of the world. The crowds can look all they want, but they're not going to find any tequila here. Those who don't like the crowds should avoid the hell outta the weekends, or check out the smaller cities, or check into the mountains and above the crowds.
There's something more to be said here about tobacco in Andorra. No, no, not the price. Yes, it's cheap as all hell. Yes, you can smoke inside bars, restaurants, and many other places. In fact, I'm smoking inside the Juventus diner while I write this, drinking coffee 'til they kick me out at closing time. No, what more needs to be said is the problem that Andorra poses to the world, with a population who smokes heavily and yet has the highest life expectancy on the entire planet.
It's a similar problem posed by other high life expectancy, high tobacco consumption countries such as Japan and Iceland. The additional problem that Andorra poses is that only 33% of the population is native Andorran, while the life expectancy statistics include the other 67% of foreign residents. That means the life expectancy is NOT genetic. It's environmental. And smoking is nothing new in Andorra. There's a museum of Tobacco in Sant Julia de Loria that pays homage to how heavily intertwined tobacco is within the weavings of Andorra's heritage... and yet Andorran residents live the longest in the world.
A part of the answer is simple. Lung cancer is genetic, with only 10-15% of smokers dying from lung cancer. The health detriments to the heart can be countered with changes to the environment of the body, to personal life, to the work environment, and to the communal environment of the city. Sure enough, Andorrans have free health care, they are extremely active in sports and the outdoors, there is almost no pollution and no jet fuel from a major airport, and the economy and work environment remain strong while much of Europe falters. Of course, all that aside, it could just be something magic in the water. I actually prefer the water from the fountains on the streets or the rivers to the bottled water in the stores.
In a country where smokes are easily bought from a vending machine, any attempt to enforce a "minimum age" is entirely illusory... not that Andorra really has or enforces many laws. The country's penitentiary is smaller than a hotel, and the entire government is housed in a building not much bigger. Even on a backstreet in the darker hours of the night, crime is almost non-existent. And with armories selling guns in downtown, a criminal could easily arm themselves... and, just as easily, anyone else could easily arm themselves and remove said supposed criminal from the gene-pool. One time, and at about four in the morning, a police truck slowed as if it was interested in me. I nodded my head at them and they drove on past. Another time, some officers woke me up because I was sleeping in the park, then left after I told them I would be moving soon. The police in Andorra are far removed from infamous departments such as the LAPD, the federales of Mexico City, or the police gangs of Paris.
The laws on companies and banks are also relaxed, a fact that shows in the strength of the economy. The private banks run without regulation, attracting big money and investors from around the world, and with the incredibly low taxation that Andorra's known for... and Andorra is a small country for very big business to a lot of people. You'll hear Andorra referred to as "Europe's 'other' tax haven".
So why is there no crime? I have a few guesses: there are plenty of jobs, apartments are cheap, partying and shopping are cheap, outdoor activities abound and at no cost, the cops aren't militarized like in most of the world, and there are less laws to turn peeps into lawbreakers. Tell me if any of that sounds crazy. Again, however, it could just be something in the water. It sure as hell ain't the tequila!
The lack of laws and regulation is one of the reasons that Andorra's refused to join the United States of Schengen. It's a recognized country by the United Nations, but it's not a part of the Schengen Zone and it's not a part of the European Union. For those in the USA, imagine a state in the middle of the country that wasn't a part of America. That's Andorra. Any travelers measuring their days in Schengen should hit up the Duana de Andorra to get a stamp on their passport and stop the clock on their Schengen balance until they've left... not that anyone checks at the borders. I've been in and out of both borders and never once got stopped or asked for papers.
Where was I? Ah, yes... thank you...
Come with me now, Chillie Pie... come with me onto the older streets and into the ruins. No, we won't find any tequila here... because these treasures aren't measured in dollar signs. Many Andorran cities have an "old part", and remnants of the Roman Empire still dot the mountains and mark the interior of the cities. If you want to follow your nose instead of following a map, just find one of these remnants inside a city, then start wandering the sidestreets until the brick turns into cobblestone... until the mortar starts to crack... until the stairs fall away at sharp diagonals down passages that are barely large enough for even one person to descend.
Take your time. Breathe. Wander. Take in the buildings that've been nested into the sides of the mountain... oftentimes
into the sides of the mountain. Explore! The ghosts of the centuries walk with you. Do you notice something about the stairs you're walking on? You know how the stairs in your loft, or even on most streets in other countries, have a little vibration when you walk on them? Almost like they're moving? Yeah, the steps in Andorra don't do that. They're stone. They don't move. Not even a little. None!! Maybe I'm overly sensitive to these things, but it surprised me how the steps in Andorra do not move at all below my feet.
Ok, ok, now that you know I'm crazy, come with me a bit farther. I don't know if this is specific to Andorra la Vella, or if it trends across the country, but the sculptures on the streets of la Vella are not to be missed. The best of these are on sidestreets, so you'll need to "oops" your way onto them... or be damned thorough in how far you explore. The melted clock ala Dali that sits a block down from the Pont de Paris is beautiful, but it's somewhat misrepresentative of most street sculptures in Andorra la Vella. Most of the sculptures are forged from metal and stone, with heavy industrial influences and explicit psycho-emotional symbolism. If you're wandering the sidestreets of the old city, perhaps you'll come face-to-face with a very special creature who you'll find in meditation on a trapeze.
You could say the country's won me over, but I'm biased. I love walking places, and pedestrians own the road in Andorra. If you want to cross, you pretty much just take the road. I love to walk at night, and the mountain trails and city streets are open 24/7. Bars, clubs, and restaurants like the Juventus close at 3am, but I'd love to see a 24-hour cafe-bar here with WiFi... and tequila. I'd frakking rent a room above the place! How's the saying go? Ah, yes.... "You can't have everything." I'll just need to build the place myself.
Cars are well outnumbered and outgunned by the pedestrians in Andorra, but less than half of the wheeled population actually consists of cars and trucks. Most of the wheeledfolk are motorcycles, scooters, four-wheelers, dirt bikes, dune buggies, and other assorted ATVs. One bastard actually got a dirt bike up the side of the mountain and to where I was staying at the top. My surprise at hearing a motorized vehicle scaling the mountain cannot properly be expressed in words. After calling him the bastard that he is, and earning a laugh in return, I offered to trade him my backpack for his dirt bike. I'll let you guess the outcome of that offer.
Another reason I'm biased is that I'm here in summer. Not one city in Andorra is called a "ski town" because of the sunny beaches that it's known for... and those cable cars don't just run because of the beautiful view of the mountains they provide. It snows here... that white sparkly snowcone stuff in the sky that means death to anyone sleeping outside. And it doesn't just snow a little. One snowfall, and the entire country is singing along to the tune of "White Christmas".
FRAKK!!! THAT! SHEIT!! !
One day here in the snow, and this entire entry would read: "Cold... bought smokes and hitched to Spain. Cheers y'all!"
Speaking of hitchhiking, many people here hitchhike to-and-from work every day, hopping cities with ease and making hitchhiking around the country extremely easy for the rest of us. Pas de la Casa on the French border is the most difficult hitch here, with a fellow traveler named Lucie waiting almost an hour for a ride. But an hour? Compared to days waiting in some other parts of the world? I would go so far as to say the hitching's easier than in Mexico. Yeah... I went there. Do something about it! Don't worry, Mexico, I still love you... you AND your dirty rotten tequila... and your mezcal.
One final reason I'm biased is that Andorra's rather well-wired. The Internet's not particularly fast, but WiFi connections abound in the larger cities. The Art Hotel in la Vella broadcasts a signal that's strong enough to reach the bus station from almost two streets away. You'll find free WiFi hotspots in central park, in the Escale shopping center, and in the park outside the Caldea Spa. McDonalds has one of the city's worst signals, but they have multiple power outlets to plug in to. Before Andorra, I had been inside a McDonalds less than twenty times in my entire life. After Andorra, and completely because of their outlets
WiFi, I've been into the la Vella McDonalds more times than all other McDonalds combined. The best WiFi I found was easily the signal in the Salon de Tele at Alberg la Comella. Best!! The worst WiFi is easily the weak connections dotting the city of Pas de la Casa. Worst!
But WHY does the tourist information center not have WiFi? No one knows... but they DO have maps, and you wouldn't believe how important these can be here. I'm normally a "pick a direction and just start walking" type of person, but finding anything specific in Andorra poses a rather unique challenge.
Most streets have two or three names--one name in Catalan, the official language of the country; another name in Spanish, the language most people (including myself) use here; and another name in French, the language especially popular in Pas de la Casa and Soldeu. The same confusion spreads to the names for places. Even GoogleMaps appears confused about Andorra. The local postal system "gets it", and it's actually free to mail something inside of the country, and the Andorran's seem to "get it" also, but consider yourself warned. If you don't mind getting yourself lost like I do, then you'll be in good company. At least Andorra has a good reason for the confusion, whereas places like Austin, Texas will have five names for a street and with no good reason for the confusion. Goddamned dirty hippies!
But Andorra's not for everyone. There are no skyscrapers other than mountains, no subways, and no beaches. There's no major airport, and a bus into the country is at least a three-hour trip from either Toulouse or Barcelona. Anyone with no desire to explore the land, the mountains, and the lakes is going to find Andorra to be a very small country. Anyone uninterested by the shopping, the monuments, and the old towns is going to find the cities to be rather hollow. And anyone without the lung capacity to walk steep streets isn't going to make it far from the shopping centers... or even get out of their car. For everyone else, consider the fact that I've only just scratched the surface of Andorra with these words... and that I'm still discovering more here myself.
Do you know what the punchline is to all of this? Although I'd heard about Andorra's high life expectancy, I'd never really considered visiting here before. Quite simply, no one told me. So, for all of you who knew and didn't tell me:
You Mothafukkaz!!! I will kill every last one of you, cutting out your hearts and throwing your lifeless corpses down the steepest sides of the mountain!!!
Nothing personal. But, for everyone else, listen to your long lost brother Tiki:
Come to Andorra. And, for the love of all that is good and holy, bring some tequila with you!
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• (Pending) Squat -- Prat Primer
• (Pending) Explosions on Saint Joan's Day
• (Pending) SpeakEasy -- Juventus Bar & Restaurant
• (Pending) X -- Paco's Mexican Restaurant
• (Pending) Squats -- Alberg la Comella
• (Pending) SpeakEasy -- The Cigar Shop
• (Pending) Story -- The Hotel Pyrenees & the "Pool on the Roof"
• (Pending) Squats -- Els Agols Refuge
• (Pending) Story -- The Day Out of Time (Pts 1, 2, 3)
• (Pending) Resources -- DirectBus, Andorra by Bus, & 5am
• (Pending) Gear -- WiFi Extender Antenna
• (Pending) Trails -- Lake Engolasters
• (Pending) SpeakEasy -- La Mafia, La Borsa [Closed]
• (Pending) Squats -- Lake Montmalus Refuge
• (Pending) Resources -- P2P Housing
• (Pending) Story -- Pas de la WiFi
• (Pending) Story -- Little Fluffy Clouds
• (Pending) Story -- Closing Time in Pas de la Casa
• Main Site:
Andorra dot AD
Mountain Refuges in Andorra
Living in Andorra
Know Your Exports
(Duana and Customs Allowances)
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Sunday, July 15, 2012