A short weekend in Andorra!
“Si, señor, I know it is March and that it is low season” repeated the receptionist, switching to Spanish from her native Catalan, “but no, we don’t have a room of any description.” Even as she replaced the receiver the telephone shrilled again. “Tout fait complet,” the litany continued in a fourth language in as many minutes. “There is really nothing I can suggest. Every hotel partout – everywhere – is full.” Across the spacious lobby, a slick Manhattan lawyer, his coiffured wife and a pyramid of Louis Vuitton luggage were waiting for the lift. At the circular bar, two upwardly mobile young couples were earnestly discussing soaring house prices in Surrey, while working their way through a gallon jug of sangria. This is Andorra, for 30 years the spiritual home of budget skiing – the duty-free destination traditionally claimed at Christmas, Easter and half-term by families who can find no financially acceptable alternative. Here, they don their anoraks, reverse their baseball caps, give the art of snowploughing a cursory try, and cry ” ‘ere we go, ‘ere we go” long into the alcohol-sodden night. Or do they?
In the Alps, gales as strong as 80mph have been a significant feature of this strange ski season. In Andorra, the winds have been equally significant, but they have been winds of change. Suddenly, for reasons that are not easily discernible, the Cinderella of European skiing has been awarded the ad man’s ultimate accolade: Andorra is “sexy”.
Andorrans listened to what their guests had to say, saw the demand for quality hotels and improved skiing facilities – and also saw that there was money to be made out of both. Andorra has also been lucky with the snow in the past few years and this season has avoided the serious storms that caused so much chaos in the Alps. At the same time, a blossoming sense of national identity has led to a cultural renaissance. The concrete apartment blocks of the Sixties have given way to attractive new buildings of natural stone that are in keeping with the beauty of their mountain surroundings. Catalan, once banned by Franco, is taught in schools along with Spanish and French and has emerged once again as the national language. It is spoken with considerable pride by the small indigenous population, which pays no tax in what is one of the unblemished bastions of capitalism. The school has an enduring reputation as one of the best in Europe and is a contributory reason for Andorra’s new-found success, based on sound technique and language – 110 of its 170 instructors are English speakers. Andorra, where the population is outnumbered six to one by seasonal guest workers, is one of the few skiing countries to welcome foreign ski teachers. One past criticism has been the limited size of the ski area. While it is big by Andorran standards, it fails to offer enough terrain for stronger intermediates. But last week saw the re-opening of a short but highly controversial drag-lift linking Soldeu/El Tarter with the rival resorts of Grau Roig/Pas de la Casa.
Together, they offer a substantial and still expanding ski area of 150km of piste served by more than 50 lifts. However, relations between the two communities – they fell out over common land grazing rights in the 18th century – remain volatile. The situation is further complicated by Pas de la Casa’s decision to build a jumbo gondola linking the top of Grau Roig with the valley town of Encamp. Visitors from Spain and those who choose to stay in either Encamp or the more attractive and cosmopolitan capital of Andorra La Vella can now bypass the winding and usually congested arterial road to reach the heart of the best skiing in the country without going to El Tarter and Soldeu.
The latter villages have promptly responded by co-financing another giant gondola from the neighbouring community of Canillo to the top of their territory. This should effectively create a whole new Andorran resort for next season.
Whatever their differences, Soldeu and Pas de la Casa offer by far the best skiing in the country. Prices are similar, but Soldeu is actively creating the smarter image and is where I would choose to stay.
While it is a suitable resort for families with ski-age children, nightlife thrives at seething discos such as Fat Albert’s and the Irish Pub, while Aspen’s features live music with a band called The Dog’s Bollocks. But it does not try to compete with the strip clubs and other flesh pots of seedy Pas, where the all-night organised pub crawl has been raised – or possibly lowered – to an art form. The new Andorra is anxious to portray an image that goes beyond wall-to-wall perfume shops, supermarkets, and boutiques selling cosmetics, booze, clothing, and ski equipment at knock-down prices. It is right to do so. Away from the more cosmopolitan shopping opportunities of Andorra la Vella, the choice of duty-free goods is as repetitive as it is limited. Anyone looking for ski bargains should consider the fact that resort shops are apparently used as dumping grounds by manufacturers for last year’s products. On display are whole ranges of models in a profusion of colourful but confusing graphics that never find their way to the Alps.
A search of 10 shops revealed only one pair for either sale or rental out of the three top-selling all-terrain skis produced this season by Salomon, Rossignol and Atomic. More worrying still, most shop assistants had no knowledge of their existence. Holiday bargains as well as low in-resort prices for essentials such as mountain lunches and après-ski entertainment also help to explain Andorra’s current crest of success.