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Valira Torrent:   Contents | Subject index

Perforation image from Serif Art Gallery. © Serif Inc, 1996

Valira Torrent - bulletin of the Andorran Philatelic Study Circle. Issue 15, pp4-6 (March 1982)

Copyright notice

A Package to Andorra (Part 2)

By John Wilson Smith

Overnight we had a considerable thunderstorm, and I awoke to a very grey morning. Oh well, this was the day I'd planned to do the Soldeu- Encamp walk. But at least it was cool. As I waited for the bus to Soldeu the rain started to fall. Just time to change my mind but I went on. By the time we got to Canillo it was raining really hard. But at Soldeu, miraculously, it stopped, and the clouds seemed to be lifting. This village is very much a ski resort. I expect it comes to life in the winter, but at this time of year it looks somewhat deserted.

      Spanish - internal:   posted l0.20a.m. on the 10th; arrived at hotel on the 13th, with canceller dated 11.7.
external:  as above, arrived on the 20th, having gone via Bishops Stortford on the 18th
French - internal:   as above; arrived at the hotel on the 13th, with canceller dated 15.15p.m., 11.7, and with the "Soleil & Neige" slogan cancel.
external:   as above; arrived on the 18th with the same cancel.

I then set off down the road, glad of my pullover because it was very cold - my breath steamed, and a drop of only a few degrees would have produced some snow, I am quite sure. The walk down beside the East Valira river was very pleasant, the overnight rainfall making parts of the river look very dramatic. There was surprisingly little traffic and later in the day I found out why. It was St. Christopher's Day (a good day for my walk?) and the Parish priest of Encamp apparently spent several hours stopping the traffic and blessing every vehicle in sight (for a suitable fee, of course), including all eight cars on a transporter heading up towards France.

I arrived in Canillo at ll.45a.m., bought myself some bread and cheese (why is it that 95% of the cheese in Andorra is Dutch? Some obscure trading agreement?), looked around the town - nice, with many parts not spoiled by the developers - and posted my cards.

      Spanish - internal:   posted 10.7; arrived at the hotel the following morning with canceller dated 11.7.
external:   as above; arrived on the 17th with the same cancel.
French - internal:   as above; arrived at hotel on the 13th, with canceller reading l5hrs, 11.7.
external:   as above; arrived on the 18th. The odd thing is that whereas the internal card received the Canillo handstamp, this card was sent on to Andorra la Vella, where it received the usual slogan cancel, dated 11.7.

At this point I left the main road, as the postman would have gone up to the little hamlet of Prats, and over the fields to Meritxell, before descending to the road again to continue to Encamp. Prats is very small, and has a good view of the valley, but now it started to rain again. I found the footpath through the fields, crossed a little stream - the "bridge" was a bedstead! - and sheltered under some trees for my lunch. Then on across the hillside, coming down a path to Meritxell past some stone crosses and shrines, now empty, but obviously once containing statues. I found the modern Sanctuary of Our Lady of Meritxell a most impressive building. It certainly looks rather odd from a distance, but has elegant arches, is light and airy inside, and is beautifully peaceful. I arrived at 1p.m. and stayed for about 20 minutes, relaxing and meditating, before venturing, somewhat reluctantly, into the rain and the final stretch. I was back at the hotel just before dinner (very good paella); the rain stopped, and we all hoped that would be the end of it.

We were right. Saturday was bright and clear, and having posted all the cards I could, (the only place I missed was Pas de la Casa, and Diana promised to do this at some point; at the time of writing the French card has arrived, with the Andorra la Vella cancel) I decided to let the "walking" bug take over. I bought myself a picnic lunch, and headed up the road to Els Cortals, and then on up the valley to see how far I could get.

It was a cool day, with some cloud, and ideal for walking. I got past the point where marked footpaths were to be seen, and finally reached a high point marked on the map at 2440 metres, getting above the snow line. The valley is good pasture, and there were many wild flowers carpeting the meadows, including gentians. On the return journey I took a new "road" which has been carved in the hillside from just below Els Cortals round to Lake Engolasters. This isn't marked on the maps, but is very visible as the trees have been felled in a horizontal strip, and they have had to blast a short tunnel through the rock at one point. This road is more or less level, and I met quite a few folk having a gentle stroll, and enjoying the tremendous views down to Encamp and along the valley. I met up with some of the party, enjoyed a welcome ice-cream, and came down the easy way, by cable car.

Sunday brought a half-day excursion to the attractive little village of Os de Civis, in Spain. Curiously the only proper road is via Andorra, through a rocky gorge where iron deposits used to be worked. Os is almost entirely built of the dark local stone, the few modern buildings being done in the same style. Many of the houses, which link up with each other with arches and tunnels, are now being converted for use as holiday homes and flats - we were able to explore one, and it was certainly highly desirable. Os is well worth seeing but not, I suggest, on a hot Sunday, as there were really too many coachloads of tourists, mostly French, and rather noisy. On this trip, as on the Coll de la Botella, the coach driver stopped at a roadside spring and handed round glasses of Ricard.

We arrived back at about 7p.m. in time to see the start of another "Sardane" in the square,but this time with a live "Cobla" orchestra - a young people's band, who played very confidently. As this was early in the evening, many more children took part. This is obviously how they learn the dance - by simply copying the others, out on the street.

Monday promised to be very hot, with a cloudless sky. Most of us went off for another day trip, this time to the Rabassa Forest down to the south of St. Julia de Loria. The driver made a slight detour so that we could see the little church of St. Cerni de Nagol, perched on the rocks above St. Julia, and then we climbed up the road to the Rabassa refuge hut, through the pine trees. We saw several British cars en route, and Diana said that there was quite a colony of Britons at St. Julia, and some were having houses built up here on the forest road. The refuge is much more civilised than the name suggests. It has a well-stocked bar, provides meals, and sells some souvenirs as well as some of the local "liqueurs"; these turned out to be very sweet, low in alcohol, and very nasty. But the sausages, cooked over a wood fire, were very good indeed - spicy and with more than a hint of tomato (with the inevitable garlic, of course). The coach then left the track and finally parked about a mile from the refuge, in themidst of a large meadow very close to the Spanish border. We then had about four hours to picnic and wander around. It was very hot, with brilliantly clear views into Spain, and after lunch I decided to walk up to the nearest high point, past some patches of snow. It was all rather like hard work until I got onto a high plateau, where I was rewarded by even more spectacular views. The border was marked with periodic small concrete cubes, and just on the Spanish side were some of Franco's gun posts dating from the Civil War period. The one I looked at had quite clearly been kept free of weeds and garbage, which made me wonder if Spain regarded Andorra as a threat! Up here there was a large herd of cattle, and an even larger one of semi-wild horses. Now I had my breath back walking was much easier, and I reached a point marked on the map as "Camp Ramonet" at 2,505 metres. Realising I was running out of time, I decided to get back to the coach (which looked very tiny indeed) the quick way, and did a sort of controlled slide down the shale-covered steep side of the mountain - exhilarating stuff!

Tuesday - this holiday is drawing to a close, and there's still so much to see! I booked a morning trip today, to see the market at Seo de Urgel. The market wasn't very inspiring, but the town is worth seeing, as a lot of it is unspoiled. The Bishop (Co-Prince of Andorra, of course) has a splendid modern "palace", but his cathedral is very old and very dark inside. The museum attached is worth a visit, too. After lunch I decided on an abrupt change of plans. I had originally set my last day aside for necessary shopping, but clearly another major walk was called for. I did a quick trip into Escaldes, bought incredibly cheap digital watches for myself and the family, checked through the stamp packets yet again (just in case!), bought an excellent Andorran cheese, and bussed back to the hotel. Reports came in that the intrepid cyclists had been seen earlier in the day. The French side of the Pyrenees had been generally cloudy and cold, and they had virtually frozen coming up the final stretch to Andorra. I gathered that they were putting their bikes and themselves on a coach back to the Tarbes area, to get the plane on Thursday morning.

Wednesday - my objective was a small lake, high up in the mountains, called simply "Estany Bleu". The route starts on the Cortals road, but then branches off along a long and beautiful valley called Les Agols. At about midday I suddenly came upon a modern building - a refuge hut with sleeping room for five, clearly built in the last year or so. How they did it remains a slight mystery, because there are no roads or even substantial paths to the place. Hundreds of sturdy Andorrans humping breezeblocks? Helicopters? It was a welcome stopping point, cool inside. And some thoughtful person had left a walking stick. I continued up the valley, and found that stick very useful indeed on the last scramble up a very steep slope to the ridge. The path had disappeared, and I simply took the shortest route. And there I was, at over 2,600 metres, looking down at the lovely little lake, fed by the snows, with the impressive range of mountains called "Gargantillar" as the backdrop. I sat on a rock and had the second half of my lunch, before continuing along the ridge towards some still higher points, finally getting up to 2,800 metres, about 9,200 feet, and certainly the highest I have been. The whole of the top of the ridge was covered in gentians, and there was a cluster of smaller lakes below - a breathtaking view. And here I encountered the only person I saw all day, a shepherd with his dog, taking their siesta under a group of rocks.

Time to go back; with great regrets. The whole walk took me eight hours, and the final stretch down from Cortals to Encamp was very hard going. This was by far the hottest day of the holiday, and in the valley there were no cool breezes to make walking a pleasure. I became quite dehydrated, and spent the evening catching up on the liquid intake. Moral: take plenty to drink! And, if you burn up in the sun, as I tend to do, use a high factor sun cream. I used a No. 6 Ambre Solaire throughout the holiday, and had no discomfort at all. One lady,who was annoyed because she wasn't getting a suntan, used no protection for the Rabassa trip, and got badly burnt.

Early to bed - because we have to leave at 5.30 in the morning (ouch!). The coach, with the same excellent Spanish driver, leaves on time, and we reach Envalira just as the first shafts of sunlight are touching the peaks. We stop for breakfast in Foix, and arrive back at Tarbes with about an hour before the flight. The car park was filled with police, officials, expensive limousines, and a large crowd of sightseers. We checked in, and had a grandstand view of the VIPs who then arrived - a cluster of about a dozen cardinals and bishops forming a Papal delegation to Lourdes. The Pope had intended to come, but of course the assassination attempt prevented that.

Would I go again? Certainly. The holiday was very well organised, and I could not fault the hotel. There's so much still to see.... My only fear is that if the numbers going remain as small as they are this year, then Thomson's will stop going there. Now if we all booked up .....

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