Sunday, May 17, 2009

But that was in another country, and besides . . .

When a country with pretentions to some sort of independence is actually ‘governed’ by co-princes comprising the head of state of another country and the local bishop of another you realize that expectations must be high when you visit such a surrealistically situated entity.

Expectations, I might add, which had been lowered dramatically by everyone who had been there telling me that it was very ugly.

In the event, however, Andorra was gratifyingly interesting.

It is a long drive from Castelldefels to the obscure corner of the Pyrenees which holds this tourist magnet and tax haven, but you are rewarded with some spectacular scenery along the way. At this time of year the high Pyrenees are still snow capped and form a dramatic and distant backdrop to pleasant driving in temperatures well into the range of a normal English summer.

The customs posts were drive through, though the Spanish side seemed to be far more thorough on the return trip!

The reason we were going to Andorra at all was that I was sharing in one of Toni’s birthday presents: a night’s stay in a central hotel and a visit to ‘caldea’ a thermal spa in the centre of the largest town in the state.

The GPS did its magic and got us to the hotel and, apart from the fact that our room had not been prepared we settled in with minimum fuss – especially as the parking was in an underground car park opposite.

The main town of Andorra la Vella is crammed into the narrow valley floor which is hemmed in by steeply rising Alpine sides. The town itself is made up of blocks of flats and shops etc – nothing much to write home about – but at the end of each short road leading off the main streets there are breathtaking views of almost vertical slops covered with greenery.

In the centre of the town there are houses and flats dotted at various points on the precipitate slopes looking as though someone has placed a habitation on the slope and hammered in a wedge or two to keep them in place. The views must be awe-inspiring but any false step after a drink or two could see you plummet a thousand feet!

There is a river running along the bottom of the valley which has been channeled and given a make-over so that it looks like a rather extravagant water feature. The flow of water is fierce and I wouldn’t give very much for the chances of anyone unlucky enough to fall in! Part of the river has a sort of suspension walkway over it, though which exciting glimpses of the torrent below can be seen!

The grubby truth about Andorra is that it is a tax-haven and its ambiguous national status allows it to sell tobacco (it has a museum devoted to the disgusting stuff) and alcohol at cut prices to visiting Spaniards and other tourists.

Everyone appears to smoke and the entrance to our hotel was made revolting by the café immediately adjoining the reception area reeking of cigarette smoke. It would have been impossible to eat there – but the dining rooms were elsewhere luckily. Otherwise we would have to have forgone the food which already been paid for and eaten out.

Shops are the lifeblood of Andorra and you can find all the major makes at prices lower than you would get in France or Spain – but not startlingly lower. Poor old Toni trudged around shop after shop and the only thing that kept him sane was the idea that he was looking for a little Barça kit for his nephew (what Conrad called the ‘saving lie’ – otherwise he would have to admit to all and sundry that he went shopping, to the everlasting detriment to his character!) The number of perfume shops is extraordinary and reminded me of my visit to Lampeter where I was struck by a similar surprising number of commercial establishment – though there I have to admit that it was pubs and not perfume shops. Unsurprisingly, really.

We had a short siesta until the evening meal (which was very adequate) and then we set off for our visit to the spa.

‘Caldea’ is an extraordinary place. Its appearance is ‘Spiky Plate Glass Modern’ with a central tower of great pointyness!

The inside of this spa is a fantasy of shiny metal and modern design: you really do feel ‘cutting edge’ when you go in with intertwining staircases and mezzanine floors and clever lighting and everything you would expect from a designer who was obviously given his or her head and told to create.

The centre of the spa is basically a thermal pool which is surrounded by a series of saunas, Turkish baths, showers, and other things water related. One little room actually has an ice machine constantly churning out the stuff to make the cold plunge even more heart-stoppingly un-warm!

The central pool has a series of ascending bowls linked by steps which contained a variety of Jacuzzi-linked experiences.

For me the highlight was following one channel of water and finding myself outside in the cool night swimming in warm water. The focus of the outside ‘pool’ was a spiral channel which sucked the unwary swimmer in with an artificial current and deposited him around a gushing fountain. Most satisfactory!

While we were clinging to the tile work to stop ourselves being swept into the already full embraces of courting couples we noticed that light and sound was coming from the central ‘dome.’ We swam our way back and were rewarded with “son et lumiere et eau.” A first in my experience.

With lowered lights and much playing of a vulgar version of extracts from ‘The Planets’ a series of suspended balls were lowered, illuminated and thereby turned into the planets. A central ‘sun’ opened up and smoke and fireworks were used to (I think) tell the story of water. At one point to the accompaniment of thunder and lightning we were treated to a rain storm (talk about home from home!) All in all it was an invigorating experience which left the two of us totally exhausted!

After we left the spa it was getting near to midnight, but this is usually no hindrance to finding somewhere to have a drink. The whole place was dead, but we could hear muted cheers behind closed doors as Real Madrid appeared to be going down to defeat and therefore gifting the league championship to Barça.

We found no bar open and therefore went into a Basque restaurant and had what turned out to be a surprisingly expensive bottle of wine and a few tapas. As we sat and drank we saw and heard the celebrations as Barça won the league. Cars passed hooting their horns and passengers with various degrees of danger leaned out of the cars waving Barça flags. Two flag waving youngsters were actually perched on the roof rack of one car! While this mayhem was making its noisy way along the roads, in the sky rockets and other bangs went off showing that the basic allegiance of the people of Andorra is to Catalonia!

We collapsed into our beds and didn’t so much fall asleep as lapse into coma.

Today has been a day of recuperation and we broke the journey back to Castelldefels with a visit to Terrassa and The Family for lunch.

Toni has explained that the relaxation that is the inevitable bonus from going to the spa will finally reach me tomorrow when the exhaustion will transform itself into relaxation.

I will wait and see.
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