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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 50, pp9-13 (Oct 1999).

Copyright notice

Andorra at the End of the Century

by E. J. Jewell

I had intended this to be a fairly brief update on the current status of the Andorran post offices. Instead, I am now planning a more ambitious illustrated "Post Offices Past and Present" article for a future Torrent. If any members have photographs of Andorran post offices, whatever the era, or of what has become of the buildings since they ceased to be post offices, I would appreciate loan of them, also any information you may have on when each of them re-located. In the meantime, if you should need information on the current status, please get in touch ( e-mail apsc@free.fr). Instead, I give you now a rough account, based on my recent visit, of my impressions of Andorra as we approach the end of the twentieth century, a century in which the country has changed almost beyond recognition, particularly in the latter half.

I was a little later starting than last year but got to Folkestone in time for the 10:14 Shuttle train, getting me to Calais late morning French time. I headed for the Train-Auto station where I found a wonderfully helpful Elaine Jacques lookalike called Veronique. Although it was past the time her guichet should have closed, she was delighted to sell me a ticket to Brive and to explain it to me in every detail. Unfortunately, the service from Narbonne to Calais on Saturday 25th was fully booked so the holiday would have to be truncated by a few days. If, like me, you prefer to travel on a go-as-you-please basis such setbacks are to be taken in your stride.

Calais to Brive is one of the shorter motorail links so you arrive early in the morning, almost before dawn at this time of year. Nevertheless, I envisaged splitting the drive to Andorra over two days as I did not want to arrive late in the day without accomodation pre-booked.

Parts of the A20 autoroute are still under construction. Others, which last year were newly opened and free are now toll roads. There is no need to take them. Unlike parts of it further north, the N20 in this region is still easy to follow and it is not busy. Montauban and Toulouse can be by-passed without paying and will probably remain so to keep the traffic out of the cities. The Toulouse section was negotiated without peril or delay and I was in Ordino by 2pm so the extra day was not needed.

Having made day trips to Andorra last year, the changes I saw did not come as such a shock as they would after a longer absence. The cranes and cement mixers are hard at work and "terreny en venda" signs are plentiful but, in those parts which I had seen last year, I did not notice any striking changes.

Ansalonga, when I first saw it in 1961, was just a small cluster of houses and a tiny chapel on the dirt road to El Serrat. A few adventurous Frenchmen drove the road (and, in 1964, one mad Englishman - myself!). Now a broad highway sweeps through and a modern hotel stands cheek by jowl with the chapel. The accomodation justifies its 3-star rating. The food is somewhat less inspiring. All right, I suppose, if you are a fan of "charcoal broiled" (I think they mean grilled) meat. I have been known to undercook a chicken but I didn't realise that the blood was quite so purple! The breakfast coffee - from a self-service machine - was foul.

Before I go any further, I should correct some information I gave last year. I mentioned that buses from Ordino run only every two hours. It would seem that the timetable I saw was for a parish service from Ordino to El Serrat. The Interurbana service to Andorra la Vella runs half-hourly. Getting a timetable seems to be a no-no. The best advice seems still to be to wait for one to come along. Given Andorra's traffic situation it may be unrealistic to expect them to run to preordained times.1 I was also inaccurate in stating that the main street of Ordino was being pedestrianised. The paving which was in progress is now complete and there is limited access one way, east to west. In the afternoon and evening a traffic policeman places a barrier across the entry and lets through only vehicles with good reason to need access.

1 I eventually got a timetable from the central Tourist Office. Most other tourist offices will usually just tell you the frequency of the service of interest.

The good news is that the Tourist Office is now open 7 days a week including holidays and has no lunch break. This compares favourably with others, most of which have a siesta. The bad news - it was closed! The reason for this was soon to become apparent.

My next thought was to head for Andorra la Vella to buy a few odds and ends and stock up with stamps for my post office visits. By the way, the main Spanish post office apparently has no stamps on sale. All counter transactions are handled with the self-adhesive machine labels. The agencies have a motley collection of the labels and a few stamps. Some arithmetical agility may be needed to find a combination to fit the tariff. If you want stamps rather than labels on your covers, get them from Alec before you go. For all practical purposes, the labels are stamps and deserve to be collected as such. By contrast the legitimacy of the actual stamps must be somewhat questionable, given their patchy availability in the country. At the French offices stamps are, as always, freely available in any reasonable quantity although at the main office machine labels are used for counter transactions unless stamps are requested. The Casa Plandolit PAP, although displayed, is sold out.

There was less traffic in Andorra la Vella than I expected with no difficulty parking. There is, in fact, a lot of parking space in Andorra la Vella and in the villages if you know where to look for it.2 I found almost everything closed and the truth suddenly dawned. I had arrived a day earlier than planned and it was Meritxell Day. One can forgive the Tourist Office for closing on Meritxell Day. Almost everything closes on Meritxell Day! I abandoned the quest for a disposable razor and a toothbrush (I had mislaid my toilet bag!) and headed for Meritxell.

2 Blue lines on the road indicate parking allowed - normally paying - almost always full. The nearby ticket machines take pesetas or francs. Most drivers seem to take the risk of parking without paying. The traffic police reap a rich harvest with their penalty tickets. Vehicles parked illegally may be towed away. You may find a red sticker on the kerb telling you how to recover it. These also seem quite plentiful! For those not familiar with the complexities of the traffic system, Prat del Creu is a good car park to head for. Access is easy from both directions and it is signposted from the eastern bypass road. A system of payment before you drive up to the exit barrier is in operation and is being introduced to some other car parks. There is also a large surface car park adjoining the French post office. In most car parks the first hour is free and you are much more likely to find space than on the street.

Lots of parked cars but the main road is now so wide that one lane each side can be set aside for parking and still leave ample space for the traffic. In the narrower part, close to the Meritxell turn, the traffic slowed to a crawl, controlled by two policemen. They seemed to be letting a few cars go up the road so I indicated to turn, but then saw a barrier across it so cancelled my indicator and carried on. The policemen whistled at me.

I found space to park a few hundred metres further on. I scrambled up a steep and somewhat hazardous path - loose stones and dry grass polished by the passage of many feet, not to mention the corpse of a small sheep in the middle of the path. Or it might have been a dog - it was in a rather advanced state of decay. There were many cars in the car park below the chapel and anywhere where space could be found. Two more policemen were in control with a radio. Maybe they were in touch with those below, allowing a few more cars in when spaces appeared. All around the chapel were throngs of people, the women and particularly the girls in their "Sunday best" but no sign of traditional costume. In the main chapel a choir of men and boys was singing rather tuneless chants. The seats were all full and many more were standing. Four cameras of Andorran Television were covering the event. I saw the choir again in the evening on television which gave the event extensive coverage (it seems to be the only time they watch their own TV. All the rest of the time the set in the hotel was tuned to TVE).

Seen at close quarters, the new Meritxell is an impressive building, well worth a visit. The old fire-destroyed chapel has been restored and houses reproductions of the original murals. Clearly, many Andorrans still make the annual pilgrimage to Meritxell. For many more, it is a day for a picnic in the countryside beside a font or a stream. Driving over the Coll d'Ordino it was noticeable that every parking space was taken and the cars were mainly Andorran whereas, usually, most would be visitors.

Compared with most of Andorra, Ordino is a quiet, peaceful place, whether or not it is a public holiday - as maybe befits the cultural centre of Andorra. You can sit at a table in the sun and watch the world go by.3 It may be half an hour before a waiter comes to take your order (those in the know go to the bar to order). It may be another 10-15 minutes before your drink comes; same again for the bill and then for your change. If time is of no consequence it is a delightfully laid-back lifestyle. If you have plans for the day, forget them or go some place else.

3 Quite a lot of it - Ordino seems to be a popular stopping place for coach tours. Mainly French, Spanish, Portuguese and English but I saw one from Warsaw.

As reported in "Andorra in the News", the Estany de Creussans has been the focus of environmental protest against a proposal to build yet another ski lift. I decided to take a look for myself. Arriving at the Coma del Forat, the first thing that I noticed was that the path to the Tristaina lakes, which last year I described as rather eroded, is now breached near its start by a small landslip. A new route has been made, starting midway between the Arcalis ring and the Coma del Forat and heading towards the lower lake, Estany Primer.

The area around the service building of Coma del Forat has been cordoned off as a works area so it seems that the ski lift project is under way. There were piles of steel sections which could be components for pylons. A helicopter buzzed around performing aerobatics to pick materials and equipment and ferry them up into the mountains. I saw a compressor picked up and carried over the horizon in the direction of the lake. I spotted an excavator perched on the edge of a crag high up the mountainside. By skirting around the Coma del Forat, I could have got to the path to the Estany de Creussans though, from a distance, the path looked much disturbed. Then I saw the helicopter hover over the path, throwing up clouds of dust, to pick up a steel girder and carry it away. I decided to defer the Estany de Creussans for another visit. I had seen this walk as a relatively easy half day excursion before attempting something more challenging from the "30 Mountain Paths" book.4

4 "30 Interesting Itineraries on the Paths of the Parishes of Ordino and La Massana", published by the Comus of Ordino and La Massana. Available in Catalan, Spanish, French and English from the Tourist Offices of the two parishes. A few pages of the Catalan version are available on the Internet but, as they have simply scanned the pages of the book, it is a heavy download (average 80K per page) - an example of how not create a web site. I found the site thanks to Jordi Robert-Ribes's ever useful Andorraweb site. As only 8 of the walks are covered and some of the links are broken it would appear that the attempt to put it on the Internet may have been abandoned. It would be a pity if this were so. Before I discovered that it was available in English, I attempted to translate a few pages from the Catalan with some help from Jordi (thanks!). My own tentative efforts were enough to show it can be done in a more Intenet friendly way. It would be a job worth finishing.

Philatelically, there was a lot to catch up on. Not having attempted the circuit of the post offices for well over 20 years, I did not even have a complete collection of the current postmarks never mind registration markings.

Finding the agencies, particularly the Spanish ones, is always a challenge, perhaps more so as the villages have become larger. The most recent information I had was supplied to David Lamb by Gilbert Goudard in 1990. Shortly before my visit Jordi, who was visiting his homeland, kindly telephoned the main post offices on my behalf to get some up to date information for me. The French named the villages where agencies could be found but did not give precise locations. Opening times are now standardised as 9h to 12h with the exception of Pas de la Casa (10h to 13h). The exception may be temporary as the agency is currently without a home, service being provided from a Portakabin possibly with staff brought in from elsewhere.

The Spanish replied simply that the agencies are to be found in the centres of the villages and are well signposted. The latter part of this I received with more than a little incredulity, given my previous experience! To be fair, some of them are now signposted and display the "Correos" sign. But there were some I failed to find. Either they have closed or re-located. To understand such a situation one has to know something of the way the rural postal service in Spain developed. In a tiny, remote community the local postman would, as well as delivering what few letters there were, offer a range of basic post office services. These activities would be a sideline, just as the original Andorran postmaster, Tomàs Rossell i Moles, combined his postal activity with his main livelihood as a cobbler. In such a close-knit community the postman was one of that community. One would know when and where to find him. It was not something anyone would expect to to have to ask. Such a situation obtained in Andorra up to the middle of the present century. Before I first visited Andorra, Derek Tanner advised me not to ask for the receipt for registered mail as it could cause offence. Although the postal service as a whole was not highly reputed for reliabilty and registration, being cheap, was widely used, you trusted your local postman. If you should need the receipt he would have it. By 1961 the Andorran post offices generally did give the receipts without asking but, when I took my covers into the tailor's shop in La Massana, he just tucked them behind his sewing machine and carried on sewing.

A visit to the Museu Postal was, of course, de rigeur. A little negotiation was needed to get into it. Fluency in Catalan might have been an advantage. Once you can convince the lady that the mad Englishman really does want to see the museum, she will take your money (over 60s rate for me - I must be showing my age!), unlock the door and take you inside.5 She took me into the upper gallery and, pointing to the projection surface, there was some more Catalan of which all I comprehended was "cinc minuts" and I was left to my own devices. Maybe I was going to get to see the video but nothing happened.

5 Guided tours are available by prior booking - maybe that was what she was trying to tell me. For this and much more useful information, get the Cultural Itineraries booklet from the Tourist Office.

The displays are well worth the visit if you can talk your way in. Explantions are in Catalan only. I get the feeling that the museum is seen primarily as an educational resource rather than as a tourist attraction. I did not see any sign of the APSC leaflets which we provided. Some more expensive books were on display in glass cases in the reception office which doubles as the box office for the National Auditorium. To buy one would have required another negotiation in Catalan. While coach parties thronged outside I had the museum all to myself. Don't, however, harbour any thoughts of walking out with the exhibits, however tempting they may be! A complex video surveillance system keeps tabs on you. In the office when I arrived a control unit below the video screens was beeping wildly and a man punching equally wildly at a key pad to try to silence the thing. The state-of-the-art technology seems to have them somewhat flummoxed.

I referred earlier to wanting to determine when the various post offices re-located. There is one we can pinpoint exactly. One of the exhibits is an official letter authorising the agent for Encamp (French) to change premises. This would presumably refer to the move from the Les Bons side road where Derek Tanner found it to the main road position where it was when I visited in 1961. What a pity we don't have access to more such archives.

I enjoyed my return to Andorra. I headed for the coast still with very mixed feelings about Andorra as it is at the end of the twentieth century. It is a country of extreme contrasts, still experiencing some of the growing pains of rapid emergence into the modern world. In a perpetual hurry yet, in some ways, very laid-back; the centuries old side by side with the ultra modern; building at a frantic pace while some speculative developments of the 1960s and 70s fall into decay. Whilst some buildings in Andorra have been demolished and rebuilt two or three times since I have known it, others are timeless. The bar next door to the bus office in St Julià is just as I remember it from 1961 after toiling up to Canolic and back. I shall be back again. There are philatelic errands still to be done; many mountains still to climb. On the whole I was relieved to be leaving - for a meal that isn't "charcoal broiled" and for the freedom of being able to book into an hotel without having to surrender my passport. Anyway, the weather broke the day before I left. The timing was about right.

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Updated 7th October 1999