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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 4, pp8-10 (Oct 1976).

Copyright notice

My first Visit to Andorra (1929) - Part 1

By J. Mashiter

Andorra, the smallest Principality in the world, lies in the eastern Pyrennes just where the range attains its maximum width from north to south. It has an area of only 175 square miles, almost all mountains, and in altitude varies from 3,000 feet above sea level at the southern entrance at Farga de Moles to 10,000 feet on the northern crest.

We found it very difficult to get any information about the little country and finally took a chance on using Ax les Thermes in Ariege as a base camp and April 30th found us arriving in Toulouse at 4a.m. A courier of Cooks had put us at the wrong end of the very long train and we had an exciting time before we found and forced our way into a small train which climbed steadily up the Ariêge valley to Ax. It is some way up to the town and humping our baggage we were sore and weary as we reached the Hotel de France to find it all shut up and leaves thick on the doormat.

We tried the Bicre but fled before the dirty and uninviting interior and finally took refuge at the Hotel Moderne, fairly new and run by a young couple fresh from Paris. For three days we wandered up in the hills round Ax trying to find our way over to Andorra, mainly on the slopes of a mountain called the Tête d'Ours. Finally our activities attracted the attention of frontier guards, and after peacefully allowing ourselves to be captured, we placated them with cigarettes and learned in return that snow was thick on the tops. Our only chance of success was to get two Andorrans with mules to come over for us at 2a.m. and get back over the crest before sunrise. As we had no money or inclination for such capers they advised us strongly to enter Andorra from Seo de Urgel on the Spanish side.

In Ax the local butcher had a huge wild boar hanging up from a hook outside his shop and the chemist had nearly completed the setting up of a mother bear and two cubs shot just before our arrival. Hot water welled up in the main square and, flowing into stone troughs, was put to good use by the local washerwomen.

Our hotel people, though kind and efficient, knew nothing of Andorra and cared less so, in desperation, we wired to M. Charles Barrau of Château de la Forge Montgaillard, Nr. Foix and then returned down the line to Foix where he met as with his car. He and his wife were delightful people and to make up their diminished income took in English school teachers to improve their French. The latter were highly learned in the language but curiously inarticulate and it caused them much pain when I had to translate their adventures into basic and quite ungrammatical but quite easily understood French for the benefit of Madame, simply because they themselves spent so much time polishing up the correct phrases in their mind that they never got anything said.

M. Barrau knew Andorra and its possibilities and, on his advice, we hired in Foix two aged bicycles with little or no braking power, and with pin valves which allowed the very thin tyres to deflate slowly but steadily. The old rascal who hired them to us spoke only Provençal but he understood my French and for a high fee we got the machines. At 5a.m. next morning, we crawled out into a cold misty morning and caught the 6a.m. express for Spain at Foix. At Ax we were switched to an electric tractor, the first trip under the new electrification, and by wide curves climbed high up the Col de Puymorens, finally by amazing spiral tunnels, coming to Mérens and L'Hospitalet and then under the mountains by one long tunnel to Porta. It was raining dismally here and great masses of snow and rubble added to the desolation as we slid swiftly to La Tour de Carol and over the frontier to Puigcerda. The French frontier in this part comes right over the crest of the Pyrenees into the Spanish Cerdagne.

The Spaniards refused to alter their clocks to Summer time so it was still barely 8a.m. by their time. Our passports and baggage were soon dealt with but the bicycles were lethal weapons. Castilian and French were of no avail and I had no Catalan and we seemed for a time to be in trouble but a strange ape like and villainous looking porter appeared and took our part. Moreover, he spoke very broken French and we learned that at l0.30a.m. a high man would come to assess duty on our machines.

Very miserable we wandered out in the rain and up the steep track to Puigcerda town on top of its rock. In the empty Plaza, with wonderful views over the Cerdagne, two Guardia Civil took pity on us and brought us to their barracks for a cup of coffee. By this time shops were opening and at a bank we exchanged money into Pesetas at a rate incredibly favourable to us. The sun appeared and we felt better and at 10.30 appeared at the Customs Office, sponsored by our uncouth but invaluable porter. At 11a.m. the great man arrived to begin his day. I had expected a General at least but he was only a small worried man in a dust coat. He took 14 pesetas duty off us and, to our great annoyance, 104 pesetas as a recoverable deposit.

Finally at noon we escaped and set off across the wide fertile plain of the Cerdagne looking at the wonderful backdrop of the Sierra del Cadi. For ten miles we met no-one. Troops of bell mares with mule foals were in the fields by the road side, and hoopoes and magpie fluttered out of dust on to the wall tops as we went along. The former were new to us and exciting, even the magpies seemed bigger and more glossy than our English skulkers.

Finally we came to the river Segre where it plunged into a long gorge, and for the rest of the way to Seo de Urgel it was always with us. Just here we caught up with a ragged couple pushing a decrepit pram piled with their worldly goods. The man shouted after us and when we did not reply, he hurled a great rock after us down the road. We left him screaming abuse! Somewhere near Pont de Bar we met a horseman on a fine horse with sombrero, silver spurs and all the rest. We greeted him but he went on his proud way, ignoring us as the dust on the road. After the greeness of Gerona, the land here in Lerida was arid and dusty on the sides of the gorge, terraced in wonderful fashion to the snow line.

The hamlets we passed were shuttered and empty and the lack of people was quite striking. Near Alas, in a narrow part, we met a great flock of sheep attended by men with blankets slung over their shoulders and great staves. They were accompanied by strange dogs of great size and white, like polar bears. They looked a wild lot but shouted at us cheerfully as we stood to let the flood pass us by.

Their passing brought us trouble, for the tiny hooves of the sheep making imprints into soft mud on the road, later hardened to concrete under the hot sun. These hit our poor tyres very roughly and our jerky progress was, as a result, most trying.

In the end we came to a small town set in greenery on a moraine drumlin above the river and realised with thankful hearts that we had reached Urgel. Two urchins, playing in the dust of the main square, seized upon us at once and we saw that one was labelled "Gran Hotel Mundial", the other "Hotel Andria". On name only, the former seemed preferable, so we allowed the boy to take us there. The choice was good, for the proprietress spoke French where-as we were told the people at the "Andria" only Catalan.

Although it was now 3.30p.m. we found we were not a bit late for lunch. This comprised eight courses and was not as oily as expected. The red wine thrown in free was very rough.

Our arrival had not passed un-noticed and whilst still at the soup stage a pleasant young artisan came in to invite us to go in his lorry with a load of Spanish roadmakers at 6p.m., at a price of course, to Andorra. He was followed by a thin and rather spotty young man who spoke English, a very rare bird indeed! His card said he was Ximenes Xerxes Pla and he urged us to stay at the Post Office in Las Escaldas with his mother. Refreshed and strengthened we wandered out into the main Plaza and a young man in uniform pursued us anxious to visé our passports for Andorra. Several citizens were only prevented from establishing a bond of friendship by the language barrier.

The Gran Hotel had clearly been modernised and built in Moorish style around a central open well. The rooms were all in the thick walls and the corner rooms were quite palatial suites. Nevertheless, under the whitewash on one wall the old name of Fonda Bartolò still lingered.

Seo seemed to be mainly peopled by trainee soldiers and trainee priests for there is a huge seminary and several barracks there. At 6p.m. we found quite a little fleet of vehicles heading for Andorra. We picked the best lorry and found a driver who spoke French and off we went with the driver's dog scrabbling about on the roof and barking wildly, threatening to fall off at every lurch of which there were plenty. Our fellow travellers, who smelled of cheap tobacco and sweat, sang a strange wild rythm as we lurched along but at Farga de Moles the customs men went through the van like a whirlwind and the singing soon stopped. They ignored us but they seemed to know who had tobacco and all packets were ripped open and the contents tipped out into breast pockets which were held open ready.

Our first Andorran village, Sant Julia de Loria, in the gathering dusk did little to cheer us. Streets ankle deep in muddy filth, houses run up from stones out of the roaring torrent of the Valira, wood work rough and unpainted, and all round were black crags towering to the sky. The few natives on view in dress, and appearance, looked like victorian inmates of the workhouse.

Andorra la Vella, the capital, was no more inviting. True, there was a church and the large parliament house, the Casa de Vall, besides some more imposing houses with balconies; but the main plaza where we stopped was a sea of mud with stepping stones across to keep the pedestrians feet clean. Two donkeys and half a dozen stirks were standing disconsolately in the mire.

We waited as the village goats and a herd of bell mares wandered up out of the gloom and dispersed up various alleyways. Then all was bustle as the rest of our cavalcade arrived.

The road ended here and only a sort of jeep could tackle the rough track for those going further, so we piled into the smaller vehicles and the remaining two miles to Las Escaldas were rough and exciting. We crashed along over great boulders. In one place the near side wheels climbed one giant until we were leaning over sideways and a touch would have turned us over.

By the time we crawled out at Las Escaldas we were sick and dizzy. It was freezing and dark except for the brilliant stars. All was wet and shuttered as we shivered and wished we had not come.

A door opened and a little girl shot out to run across the street. I laid hold of her and, like Jacob with the angel, I would not let go till she told us where the Pla's lived. Not very hopeful we climbed rough steps and hammered on the door indicated. To our amazement we were greeted with a blaze of light and warmth and made most welcome. Our modern bedroom made us feel ashamed of the tin of Keatings Powder in my rucksack.

In a moment of expansion I opened the french windows and was just about to step out on the little balcony over the Valira which foamed and roared far below, when the old lady pulled me back. The balcony floor had gone sometime previously the way I nearly went!

After a good meal we browsed for a little on American magazines produced for us and found that, apart from Ximenes on his way to Barcelona, the family consisted of mother, a daughter about 20 and a young boy in his teens. The girl spoke some French but the others only Catalan, and when I tried Castilian the mother recognised it, but could not or would not speak it. We bought postcards and stamps and the girl offered me a set of the first Spanish issue which were just being superseded, so I took them.

Next morning the sun was out and the prospect was truly amazing. Towering crags on all sides went up so high that the sun was almost cut off, only the snow crests were displaying its full power.

Part 2 | Part 3
"Andorra Revisited 1958"

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