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November 13, 2010

Argeles-Gazost to Sort and on to Andorra

Filed under: Europe 2010, France, France, Road Bike Travel, Spain, The List, Travel, UNESCO World Heritage — anotherheader @ 6:50 pm

We passed this mystery hill town in the Spanish countryside on our way to Sort

Sometimes, as we plan trips, themes emerge spontaneously.  Once a theme emerges, we slavishly follow it.  Seriously, who are we to tempt fate?

The theme that emerged during our road trip planning was the alpine spines of Europe.  With a car, we’d be able to visit the mountain regions that we had never touched.  The car was critical to get into these remote areas.

With the theme fixed in place, we left Argeles-Gazost and headed into the Pyrenees.  Our driving route covered many of the roads and passes transited in Stage 16 of the 2010 version of the Tour de France.  We marked reconnaissance for future bicycle ascents of Col d’Aspin and Col du Peyresourde on the way to Spain.  The cols turned to pase as we traveled past the now defunct border installations into Spain.

A border marker on the French-Spanish border

Lower down in Spain we encountered a roadblock.  Most of the cars were being waved directly through.  When we reached the smartly uniformed police officer, we figured that we would get the same treatment but it didn’t happen that way.  We were ordered to stop and were questioned, sort of.

First the officer tried Catalan.

I replied in English, “These are not the droids you’re looking for.”

Well, I could have said that.  It would have made little difference what I said in English.  I might as well have been speaking Swahili.

Approaching Spain through the old border installation

Next the officer tried Spanish.  Our faces may have shown a dim glimmer, but Spanish was hopeless also.  Between the stops in Basque, Spanish, French, and now Catalan speaking areas, we were so totally screwed up with the languages that even English seemed an effort.  Hand signals were getting confusing.  And though we were just across the border and had French plates on the car, the officer didn’t bother trying French.  Not that it would have helped.  We gave up and just handed him our passports and car registration.  It was a good guess.  After an extended discussion over the police radio and subtle wave of Becky’s hand we were told to move along.  Apparently we could go about our business.

A Romanesque church in the UNESCO World Heritage designated Vall de Boi

We stopped briefly the UNESCO World Heritage designated Vall de Boi noted for its Romanesque art and architecture.  Early in the season, after heavy rains, few people were in the remote Pyrenean valley.  We didn’t dare stay long as we were due into Sort Spain for the evening.

It's a steep climb in Spain

As I usually do, I had sorted the timing of the road route from Vall de Boi to Sort using Google maps.  Google’s route looked reasonable and the timing was right so I thought little more of it.  In Vall de Boi, we plugged in our Sort hotel’s address into Homer, our GPS.  We’d let Homer do the route planning.  That was our first mistake.  Soon we were on an abandoned lane and a half wide strip of tarmac heading deep into the Spanish countryside, up and down through remote valleys and past forgotten, mostly empty hill towns.  Needless to say we were off the tourist track.  Indeed, we saw few people on the road.  Though we had no idea of where we were it was clear that this was not the route we planned to take.  And now the second mistake was apparent; we had brought no map of Spain.  Without a map reprogramming Homer would be extremely difficult.  We had no choice but to trust the GPS and hope the road went through.

We watched the hours tick off the clock as we made slow progress through the rugged hills.  Finally we descended one last grade and found the main road on Google’s route to Sort.  It took a couple of extra hours, but we made it to Sort while the hotel’s front desk was still open.  We had survived Homer’s odyssey.  Our route was scenic and interesting enough to recommend but we can’t.  Even with the maps at home, we still can’t figure out the route we traveled.  It seems that the route is Homer’s little secret.

Whitewater gates and high water in Sort, Spain

Reaching Sort we found ourselves in the midst of Wildwater World Championship. Paddlers were in town waiting out the high river waters for the competition to resume.  The Rio Noguera Pallaresa passes through Sort and paddling gates are set over the river midtown.  It would be a great place to watch a whitewater event but the river was still high when it was time to get out of Sort.

From Sort we headed to France.  Our route took us through the border country of Andorra, the sixth smallest nation in Europe.  Ever since I spotted Andorra on the map during grade school, I wanted to visit.  In my mind I imagined a remote and rural country studded with castles.  In reality Andorra is remote; there’s not much civilization on either the Spanish or French sides of the border.  But Andorra is definitely not rural.  It’s studded more with high-rise apartment buildings than with castles.  Instantly when you cross the border from Spain you are in a dense packed metropolis of stores and multistory buildings.

Dense packed buildings in Andorra

Andorra’s urban density was a surprise.  A population around 84,000 people and 181 square miles of land does not seem like a formula for congestion.  But the Andorran geography dictates the tight packed living arrangements.  Andorra is situated in a defensible high valley.  Rugged Pyrenean peaks reach 9,652 feet in a country that has an average elevation of 6,549 feet.  Most of Andorra’s buildable land is confined to narrow strips of land at the base of the valleys.

Details on Sant Miguel d'Engolasters in Andorra

As with all of the small European countries, Andorra is dependent on its neighbor countries.  In its arrangement, the President of France serves as the Prince of Andorra, giving Andorra an elected reigning monarch that was not voted in by the Andorran people.  If that isn’t confusing enough, toss in the language.  Catalan is the official language of Andorra though French, Spanish, and Portuguese are commonly spoken.  To us this meant that hand signals would be the primary mode of communication.  I suspect that a few of the residents used the same approach.  They’d have plenty of time to practice.  The people of Andorra have the second highest life expectancy in the world.

For the Europeans, Andorra’s prime attraction is the duty free shopping.  The shopping may not have appealed to us, but we were sure to top up the tank with by far the cheapest diesel fuel we found in Europe.  Otherwise, Andorra offers alpine sports, including skiing, and has a somewhat uninteresting UNESCO World Heritage site.  For us and I’m sure others, the main appeal is to just visit the country itself.  Now we can say that we’ve been to that impossibly small country on the border of France and Spain.

More pictures of Sant Miguel d’Engolasters:


  1. […] seemed to take us close enough to justify a visit. This year we’d get our chance. When we left Andorra we entered France’s Department of Languedoc-Roussillon, Carcassonne and the Canal du Midi were […]

    Pingback by France: Canal du Midi and Carcassonne « Another Header — November 27, 2010 @ 10:41 pm

  2. […] Madriu-Perafita-Claror Valley (Andorra, 2010) […]

    Pingback by The List « Another Header — December 15, 2010 @ 5:28 pm

  3. I think the picture of the mystery hillside in Spain is absolutely fantasic, where abouts in Spain was this took exactly, we are touring around Spain this summer and would love to visit.

    Comment by Travel Denmark — June 6, 2011 @ 8:19 pm

    • We really don’t know exactly. It was somewhere north of N-260 and to the north and east of Sort. I’m not sure we could find it again.

      Comment by anotherheader — June 6, 2011 @ 9:02 pm

  4. I have to agree the mystery hill is one of the most beautiful, picturesque scenes imaginable. I have travelled all over Spain and have come up with some fab pictures, but not quite as good as this one… certainly does have an air of mystery about it.

    Comment by Denmark — June 15, 2011 @ 4:21 pm

  5. The dense packed buildings of Andorra don’t really look as if they are home to 84,000 people. I wonder why the life expectancy is so high out there, is it something to do with the food they eat or simply the lifestyle they are living. The picture of Andorra really does not look as if it can fit 84,000 people within it.

    Comment by photos of Denmark — July 7, 2011 @ 5:33 am

  6. It is amazing to learn that Andorra is home to around 84,000 people. I think that the life expectancy of any country is usually down to the lifestyle which is lead. For instance in America, where there is loads of fast food and little in the way of exercise the life expectancy will be dramatically low, it all comes down to the diet and the lifestyle choice. So usually in places like Andorra, they will eat good home cooked food and have a totally different lifestyle to other people who reside in the Weston World.

    Comment by Berlin Photography — July 20, 2011 @ 6:12 am

  7. Love the photo of the dense packed buildings of Andorra, I bet it would be far better if the photo had been taken when the sun was shining. It does look stunning now, but I would imagine that the sun would truly bring this picture to life.

    Comment by Oliver — August 4, 2011 @ 9:46 am

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