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Things were not going according to plan! Hot, tired and frustrated, we stood with our (fortunately) light luggage, outside the tourist office in Toulouse and considered our options.
It was early June 1991 and we had just arrived in Toulouse, intending to stay two days sightseeing. The previous day, after a flight from Heathrow to Frankfurt, we had boarded the overnight train to Marseilles, where, after an indifferent cup of coffee, slopped in the saucer at the station buffet, we had continued by train to Toulouse, recommended by the guidebooks as well worth a visit.
As we emerged from the station at 11 am, we were certainly favourably impressed. But also we were tired, hungry and very thirsty; all we wanted was a hot shower and a good meal, which we had not had since leaving London.
Being rather ‘choosey’, we appraised the row of hotels opposite the station, and selected one which looked promising. The boy at the desk gave us a room but said we would have to wait “until Madame gets back” before we could register. It was a long wait. When she eventually did appear, it was only to tell us that there was no vacancy in the hotel.
It was the same story at each of the other hotels. Disconsolately we wandered back into the station to find a tourist office. But there did not seem to be an office of any kind open. Eventually, Hugh located one with a helpful official who suggested we take a bus into the centre of Toulouse where the tourist office was located.
To our dismay, we now learnt that because of a conference in the town, every hotel room was fully booked. So after deliberating for a while, we reluctantly decided that we would have to miss seeing Toulouse and continue on to Andorra and Spain a little sooner than we had planned.
Back at the station we bought ham rolls and waited for the 2.25pm train to AX-les Thermes where we would transfer to a bus to take us for the rest of the journey into Andorra.
We knew very little about this small country, high in the Pyrenees sandwiched between France and Spain and, since the sixteenth century, jointly governed by the President of France and the Bishop of Urgell, Spain, with Catalan as the official language.
Although we had first class seats on the train, they were not very comfortable. However, we soon forgot our discomforts as we climbed up into the Pyrenees. The scenery was truly beautiful. We marvelled at the majestic mountain peaks with the streams cascading down, and were intrigued by the many old buildings, several of which, like the 11th-century castle at Foix, seemed untouched by time.
At AX-les Thermes a bus was waiting to take us across the border and into Andorra. The journey was quite an experience, The bus continued to climb along narrow winding mountain roads until we were above the clouds and visibility was almost nil. The Spanish driver just had to be experienced!
There was still snow to be seen on the mountains when we reached the border at Pas De La Casa where a customs official came aboard for a perfunctory inspection and didn’t even look at our passports.
As we entered Andorra we thought we had already reached our destination; it reminded us of a Swiss village – shops, cars and people everywhere! But we still had a long way to go to the capital, Andora La Vella, which is the other side of the country, near the Spanish border.
The bus now was almost empty, As we wound our way down the mountain road we passed many small towns and villages, and gradually lost sight of the snow. We came quite suddenly into Andorra La Vella which is situated in a sort of gully with the Pyrenees towering high above on all sides
It was certainly not what we had expected! The guidebooks had led us to imagine we would find a picturesque mountain village with bucolic surroundings – peaceful and quiet.
Instead, we found we had arrived in a noisy metropolis – a mass of narrow streets just jam-packed with cars and people! We began to wish we had got off the bus at one of the small snow-covered resorts we had passed on the way.
We could, of course, have taken a bus out into the surrounding countryside, but we had had enough travel over the last twenty-four hours. So we decided to spend two days where we were and then go on to Spain.
We had been an hour and a half on the bus, which we now realised, at 40fr each, was better value for money than we had at first thought. At this time the official exchange rate was about US$1 = 5.26fr or 97.40 Spanish pesetas. Andorra operates in both currencies but we felt that there was a better exchange rate in pesetas.
It was now 6 pm, and remembering our experience in Toulouse, we made straight for the nearest hotel, which had also been recommended in the guidebooks as being inexpensive! It was a relief to find we were able to get a large room and breakfast for 5,800ptas a night. The hotel turned out to be very pleasant with friendly staff.
After buying 2ltr of orange juice and drinking almost all of it, we went in search of a good meal. However we had arrived too late to get to a bank to change travellers’ cheques and had only 144fr left. So we were restricted in what we could buy.
We probably went in the wrong direction from the hotel, as although we passed plenty of bars and snack bars as well as more expensive restaurants, we found nothing to suit our present limited budget. The shops were filled with expensive looking jewellery, clothes and perfumes with no price tags on display. The narrow street was crammed with cars bumper to bumper, even at 10pm!
It was warm, and my feet began to ache long before we found a small cafe which advertised “Tourist Specials”. By then I really didn’t care if I ate or not, which was just as well, because the meal certainly was not gourmet fare – soup, haddock and chips, and a desert choice of some custard dish, or peaches floundering in juice. But at least we had refuelled!
After that exhausting day, we slept until 8 am. We got up quickly and went down to breakfast and were rather surprised to find the dining room full of people jabbering away – a tour group. There was a typical cold buffet from which, as was our custom, we took enough to also supply our lunch.
It was cooler and raining as we went in search of the tourist office where we cashed US$500 into 53,300 ptas, which, we reckoned, would be enough to take us through to the south of Spain.
Solvent once more, we walked in the opposite direction from the hotel. It was obviously the area where the “locals” shopped, as we came across two butchers and a small supermarket where we purchased more orange juice and some fruit. We noticed that such products as strawberries and tomatoes were very much larger than those bought at home.
Everything was priced in both francs and pesetas, which could get a little confusing, but was typical of Andorra, which has both French and Spanish postal and school systems, because of its dual rulership.
Again we found the traffic bumper to bumper and as the streets were so narrow, one couldn’t avoid the petrol fumes, either walking along or sitting in a cafe. We reckoned this was the cause of the dry mouth and continued thirst which we both experienced.
After a relaxing afternoon, we ate at a small cafe in the same area, where we had a three-course meal for 750 ptas each. It was an improvement on the meal of the previous night, though somewhat heavy in carbohydrates – some spaghetti tomato dish, paella and ice cream. The little waitress who spoke french, giggled all the time and brought us coffee which we did not order.
The next morning we were the only ones in the dining room as the tour group had left. After breakfast, we settled the bill and left our bags at the hotel while we went out to do more sightseeing before we caught the afternoon bus to Barcelona.
We found very few people speak English in Andorra so we joined a French-speaking escorted tour in the sixteenth century Casa de la Vall, which was the seat of government. We then wondered further into the older area of narrow streets, before ending up at the tourist office area where we sat in the shade near a sort of bandstand.
There we met a Korean girl who had been on the guided tour. She spoke French and told us that she had been travelling in Morocco. I was surprised that she just left her bags on a seat while she walked around, but maybe after Morocco, she felt Andorra was safe enough.
Seats were allocated on the bus to Barcelona which we hadn’t realised. By chance Hugh got into the right seat, but I had spread out in the seat in front and had to move. The bus left at 2:30 pm, Cost us 1805ptcs each for the three and a half hours drive into the centre of Barcelona.
At the Spanish border, things were done a little more thoroughly than on the French side. The customs officers seemed more interested in the luggage hold than anything else and there was a fuss with a boy sitting behind us who had a keyboard. The matter was settled after 15 mins and we were on our way to La Seu D’Urgell, the first town on the Spanish side, which we reached 30 mins later.
We were still in a sort of gully and could see a little snow on the mountains at first. We went through a toll and the road gradually got wider and straighter, there was a heavy build up of traffic and we had reached Barcelona.
It had been an interesting interlude, although my main memory of Andorra is of all the incredible traffic!