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Valira Torrent - bulletin of the Andorran Philatelic Study Circle. Issue 14, pp10-13 (October 1981)
"Andorra?" said my local travel agent. "Well, only Thomson's seem to go there. I've not been myself, but it's getting popular for winter sports. Tell me if you like it, and I might give it a try next year."
"Andorra?" said more than one of my office colleagues. "Isn't that one of the Greek Islands?". (They've all got a thing about Greek Islands this year.)
Thomsons' brochure showed two ways of going there: as a three-night stopover as part of a Pyrenean coach tour, or eleven nights in the Hotel de Franca in the town of Encamp. "Right in the middle of the country," I thought, "that'll do me fine." And the price? £186 for half-board - just about half the cost of the holiday in the Channel Islands that I had originally planned.
So Sunday, July 5th found me at Luton Airport, clutching my French and Spanish phrasebooks, Alec's "Andorra-Andorre" and the only map I could find in Stanford's shop in Long Acre - a mountain walks map that turned out to be inaccurate (don't buy it, as there are excellent 1:50,000 and 1:10,000 maps available in Andorra). There are 19 of us going to Encamp, rather more heading towards coastal resorts, and a quintet of intrepid cyclists who were intending to head up through the mountains and hopefully reach Andorra in about a week. The plane was half empty, so we all selected good window seats, ate the obligatory in-flight salad (I've had worse) and after an hour and a half made rather a bumpy landing at Tarbes. "Sorry about that," said the pilot. "There are a lot of hawks about and we didn't want a collision". We peered out. Visibility not very good - but loads of hawks.
Met at the coach by our courier for the holiday, a young lady called Diana, fluent in Spanish, pretty good at French, and with more than a smattering of Catalan. She seemed surprised that none of us had been to Andorra before, and on the coach trip gave us a lot of background detail on the country, history, customs, postal services, "don't drink the water", "do buy a sunhat", "don't try to do too much the first few days - it's quite high up and air's just that bit thinner..." and so on.
The coach trip - with a superb Spanish driver - lasts about six hours, but this turned out to be not nearly as forbidding as I imagined. The weather cleared and the run through to the base of the Pyrenees was very pleasant. We went through Foix, and stopped for refreshments at Ax-les-Thermes. I regarded this as a good omen. Having read Derek Tanner's fascinating account of the early postal services in Andorra, Ax and L'Hospitalet were key points in the French service, and it was nice to be able to start the holiday in a sense "in the right place". By the time we had got up to L'Hospitalet the clouds had come down and the rain started. By Pas de la Casa we were in the midst of a violent thunderstorm. "Er... is it always like this?" a querulous voice came from behind me. Diana was honest - you can have brilliant Julys, you can have days of rain. Faces fell, and I envisaged wandering around Andorra sopping wet and wearing my yellow kagoul (my "walking banana" outfit). By the time we got to the top of the Envalira Pass the rain had stopped and we had a clear run down to Encamp. I looked with interest at the route from Soldeu down the valley: I had made up my mind, in a rash and nostalgic moment, to do the walk that the French postmen had done, and the road seemed pretty busy even though the scenery was spectacular with the East Valira river "torrenting" nicely. St. Jean de Caselles got us all "ooh-ing", we caught a glimpse of the new church at Meritxell, and there we were.
The Hotel de Franca is in the main street, and we had a very friendly welcome. My travel agent had said that in the single rooms there was only washbasin facility available, so I was highly delighted to find shower, loo and bidet as well. My room was at the front, and the first night I found rather noisy - I always take a little time to settle in a new place. Those at the back had the river running under their windows. The food at the hotel proved to be uniformly excellent throught the holiday, well cooked and presented, and with plenty of variety. The Spanish wines were excellent and good value, and the few who suffered a little from the local equivalent of "Spanish tum" I suspect were mostly over-indulging.
Monday. Bright and sunny, and I started the day with a quick look around the town, despatching the first postcards home (I arrived back before they did!). Thomson's had arranged for us to have a briefing session at 11 in the hotel lounge, with a free glass of Spanish champagne. Diana told us about the various optional tours that were available, and I booked for four of these. Then out to buy myself a picnic, and up to the old church of St. Roma at Les Bons to sample the local ham and the fresh air - both delightful. The whole atmosphere was relaxed, and I started to shed "work" and "commuting" and all the problems I normally seem to carry around in my head. I then took the Telecabin up to Lake Engolasters, which was pretty full. As it is a reservoir feeding the big hydroelectric plant between Encamp and Les Escaldes, its level varies quite a bit. Numerous fishermen were on the shores, catching quite reasonable trout. I wandered down to the end of the lake, and then cut down through the trees to the church of St. Miquel d'Engolasters, and the spectacular view down the valley towards the "urban sprawl" of Les Escaldes-Engordany-Andorra la Vella. It was by now very hot, and my route back up to the lake - slowly, slowly - passed by an enormous flock of shorn sheep, all with bells around their necks, jangling away surprisingly harmoniously. The air is thinner up here.
In the late afternoon I decided to locate the post offices in Encamp, buy some stamps, and set up the various postal experiments I wanted to do. The French office was completely closed and empty. No notice on the door to say why. Alec has told me that he has a recent cover with the Encamp canceller, I've no idea where it might have been used. Certainly the internal and external cards I sent either received no cancel, or were sent on to Andorra la Vella. note
|Internal:||Posted 9a.m. July 9; arrived at hotel 13th (no cancel)|
|External:||Posted 7p.m. July 7; arrived 17th having gone via Andorra la Vella (datestamp 8.7 with the "Hiver/Eté" slogan)|
|Posted 9a.m. July 9; arrived 17th, with no cancel.|
|The Spanish box is a few yards away, near one of the old churches.|
|Internal:||Posted 9a.m. July 9; arrived at hotel a.m. on the 10th (they won!) but with no cancel.|
|External:||Posted 7p.m. July 7; arrived 17th, with Encamp cancel dated 8.7.|
Editors Note: Both Ted Jewell and Karel Schildmeijer (our resident member in Encamp) confirm that this office was not closed during this period,and I suspect that John was yet another victim of the strange hours of business, peculiar to Andorran Post Offices!
Tuesday was again very fine and quite hot, and I decided after breakfast to do part of the "postman's walk", from Encamp down to Andorra-la-Vella. Not very pleasant - too much traffic, and I started to have second thoughts about the longer stretch between Soldeu and Encamp. I reached Les Escaldes in about 45 minutes, and started to look around. Almost the first sight was the stamp shop of Mr. Abad. English is not spoken, and French seemed a problem to both of us. Prices in general were on the high side, but for some modern material not nearly as high as some other shops. Later in the day I went into the big Pyrenees department store in Andorra. The "three bishops" Spanish P O FDC, which was 60ptas at Abad's, was priced at 300ptas! I found Escaldes and Andorra reminiscent of Oxford Street gone wild. I have never seen so many digital watches, hi-fi sets, bottles, etc. I hurried on to find the Casa de la Vall. This was curiously difficult: it simply isn't signposted from the main streets, and as it is now surrounded by so many buildings, tends to look a little lost, though still impressive. They were in the process of re-tiling the roof, and unfortunately the building was not open on that day, as a meeting was in progress. Nearby I discovered another stamp shop, run by a zealous lady who spoke no English, French, very little Spanish, but decided to communicate with me in Italian. I quickly resorted to my great standby - sign language, extricated myself from the overpriced modern material she was showing me, and headed, exhausted, for lunch, before getting the bus back to Encamp for my siesta, when I caught up on my missing sleep.
Wednesday was the first of the optional coach trips (they worked out at about £5 for the whole day) which took us down to Andorra, and then up to St. Anthony's Bridge and the little village of Anyos, famed for the non-existent "teleski" in the meadows - I sorted through every packet I could find with that stamp, but didn't find the variety, alas! Lovely views towards Sispony and La Massana. We reached Ordino at 11, and I did a bit of quick posting:
|French -||internal:||posted July 8, received datestamp 11a.m. 9th - I must have just missed the post - and arrived hotel the 10th.|
|external:||posted July 8, same date stamp; arrived 17th.|
|Spanish -||internal:||posted July 8, smudged datestamp, but might be 10th, arrived at hotel on the 11th.|
The coach then took us up to El Serrat. We passed the very old house, now partly derelict, "Cal Pal de la Cortinada". I understand that they are hoping to convert it into a Museum. It looks nicer on the stamp than in real life. Finally up to the Tristaina lakes, up the very windy road that will eventually connect up with France, for the ski station that is being built in the valley. It is very difficult to judge whether this will "spoil" the valley or not - it may all depend on the architecture. Some of us clambered up to the lower of the three lakes (2249m) for our picnics. It was a glorious spot, with plenty of snow still lying, and feeding the waterfalls. We had about two hours there, and then went back via La Massana out on the Arinsal road to Erts and the nice little village of Pal, with a welcome beer at a bar just up the road called "Super Pal". We moved on up to a spectacular viewpoint called the Coll de la Botella (2069m) overlooking both Andorra and Spain. The road goes on round the mountainside and over the border - except that there is nothing to show you the border exists. Back to La Massana again. I'm starting to get anxious about my postcards. We spy the French box -
|Internal:||posted 6p.m. July 8, received datestamp l0.30a.m. on the 9th, and arrived at hotel on the 10th.|
|External:||as for the other card; arrived on the 17th.|
Now, where's the Spanish box? The coach driver is impatient, and Diana, who by this time has got quite enthusiastic about my philatelic excursions - promises to post the cards on a later trip. I hope she remembers! Later in the evening I show her Alec's book, which she prompty borrows and reads from cover to cover. No doubt later tourists will be showered with quotes from the "big red book"!
This first "day trip" was very well organised, and I would strongly recommend it. Tristaina is very isolated, and apart from a very, very long walk, there is no other way of getting there. A number of us came to the conclusion that we hadn't seen more impressive scenery in the Alps - and it was all so green.
Thursday. The stamp bug has got me, and I head back into Escaldes and Andorra (by bus this time), and call at the French post office. They have quite a good range of stamps available for collectors, and were helpful. I posted a few cards en route:
|Les Escaldes, Spanish -||internal:||posted 9a.m. July 9; arrived at hotel on the 13th without cancel.|
|External:||as above; arrived on the 17th. A canceller has been used but is indecipherable as to place and date.|
|Andorra la Vella, French -||internal:||posted 9.30a.m. July 9; arrived at the hotel on the 10th, with 9.7 datestamp and "Hiver/Eté" slogan.|
|External:||as above, arrived 17th.|
|Andorra la Vella, Spanish -||internal:||posted 10a.m. on the 9th arrived at the hotel on the 11th. No cancel.|
|External:||as above, no cancel, arrived on the 20th|
On my way through the town I looked in all the souvenir shops, and discovered that amongst the packet material were several containing the Semi-Official Airs of 1931-2, including overprints. These were going for about 10 francs a packet of 5 stamps (slightly less than £1 at the then rate of exchange). Many shops had them, and it looked as if they had been recently launched onto the market. The packets all were dated "1928". In this way I found 10 out of the 12 values of the ordinary set, and 7 of the overprints. But these were really the only interesting things in the packets.
Having walked right through Andorra la Vella, I caught a bus south to the town of St. Julia de Loria - a rather disappointing place, I thought, with something of the air of a frontier town living off passing trade. I subsequently saw the nicer side of St. Julia - very attractive houses up the hillside, obviously enjoying the climate, as it is generally hotter here than in other parts of Andorra, and tobacco thrives in the fields.
|Spanish -||internal:||posted 11.30a.m. July 9; arrived at hotel on the 11th, with an unclear cancel.|
|External:||as above; arrived on the 17th, datestamp 10.7.|
|French -||internal:||as above; arrived at hotel on the 10th, with canceller dated 10.7 (this was the quickest of all mail services).|
|External:||as above; arrived on the 17th without cancel.|
I then decided to take the bus back to Santa Coloma. This village proved to be even more disappointing than St. Julia, the lovely church now being almost totally surrounded and obscured by modern constructions, including a rubbish tip. I tried to remember what it looked like on the French P.O. issue of 1955-58 instead. The rest of the village seems to consist of garages. No French cancel exists for Santa Coloma, so I posted my Spanish cards -
|Internal:||posted 12p.m. on the 9th; arrived at hotel on 11th, with canceller dated 10.7.|
|External:||as above; arrived 15.7 (the earliest of all the cards sent home), with canceller dated 10.7.|
Having just missed a bus, I walked back into Andorra la Vella, caught the bus back to Encamp, and had a late lunch at the hotel. In the evening the locals took over the square outside the hotel and danced the "Sardane" to records. Some of the children were quite superb, light on their feet, and very graceful; but all ages joined in, and it made a pleasant close to a rather hot day.
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