Andorra | Ruggedly beautiful or concrete ugliness?

One question that comes to mind when travelling in Andorra. Is it ruggedly beautiful or concrete ugliness? High in the Pyrenees is the nation of Andorra. Sandwiched between France to the West and Spain to the East, this mountain kingdom is one of Europe’s coveted vacation and skiing destinations and is well known for pristine powder-snow slopes and snowy peaks. Due to the mountainous nature of Andorra, there is only one road entering Andorra from France, and only one widely-used road entering Andorra from Spain. Entering on the main road from the Spanish side is a relatively straightforward drive; however entering from France (Perpignan) which we did, was a more stressful affair involving many hairpin bends. The road was twisty and steep and not for anyone who has motion sickness. On the sun-scorched Spanish side, the Pyrenees are barren, red and brown compared to the one flanking France. The mountainous terrain was broken by sparkling streams and gentle coniferous forest with more waterfalls here than in the Alps.

The drive from Perpignan to Andorra took about 3 hours with a distance of 154 km only. Many would wonder what would the kids be doing on these extensive road trips. Sleep! Games, chatting, laughing, fighting, eating and most of all singing! Teaching each other new songs that they have learnt. It was a wonderful experience for working parents like ourselves to listen to them banter with one another, learn their rhyming songs that they so eagerly want to teach us. Here are two particular songs that have been repeated over a 100 times almost like a broken recorder and these are the words to the songs.

“Down by the bay, where the watermelon grow. Back to my home I dare not go. For if I do, my mother will say, have you ever seen a pig wearing a wig, down by the bay….The song gets repeated many times with the last part as a rhyme .. have you ever seen a cat kissing a bat, down by the bay..” I think you get the idea.

At other times, it will be something similar to scissors, paper, stone but with a twist, where interesting sentences are being recited:

“Thousand a monkey men, sitting on a rubber band, hopscotch the rubber band, what colour is his underwear?” Then we would hear a shoutout of a colour: example TURQUOISE, and the word gets spelt, followed by another series of sentences, then finally the scissors paper stone. We had fun learning these games at meal times too. They do want the iphone and we do cave in at times especially when I have to prepare the meals and they were really getting very bored and would request to play some of their favourite games. It is inevitable and I think it is about managing the time spent.

One very interesting thing, Andorra is a curious and distinctive pocket of European life with an identity of its own, operating as a tax haven and banking enclave. It is like a Dr. Jekyll and Hyde, a country coexisting within two realms, nature and modern concreteness. It is ruggedly beautiful, right smack in the heart of the Pyrenees with green mountains, with chamois, trout streams and wildflowers;  but at the same time, it is totally devoted to building shopping malls, hyper marts, rows of duty free shops selling liquor, cigarettes and perfumes as well as shops selling tax free items from high end carbon bicycles to Nespresso machines, to luxury watches and high street fashion. Being a ski town, I can really understand why this is so. There will be nothing much to do when night falls hence shopping would be perfect to tempt tourists to part with their money.  Almost all the local population works in the retail, services and travel industries.

Andorra

Andorra: Mountains, blue skies and sunshine occupied one realm of Andorra. A co-principality since the 13th century, mountainous Andorra has two princes as heads of state: France’s president and Spain’s Bishop of La Seu d’Urgell (a historic town just south of Andorra). The country adopted a democratic constitution in 1993, creating a parliament and limiting the power of the co-princes. The economy is based on tax-free shopping, tourism, and international banking.  Andorra has traditionally looked south to the Iberian peninsula and it is the only country to use Catalan as its official language.

Andorra

Andorra: A country blessed by prosperity. Although 98% of Andorra is not suitable for agriculture, they have managed to find a niche, a tourist hub with great outdoor activities during the day and good shopping too. In the capital city of Andorra la Vella, the landscape juxtapose with concrete slabs, faux cobblestone and neon lighting. Billboards and name brands scream at travelers from every direction. It attracts many Barcelonians on the weekends. It is a shopping haven as tourists look for good deals.

Andorra

Andorra: On a Sunday at Andorra La Vella. A musical festival showcasing different talents. Each gig gets to perform about 1/2 hour.  Andorra La Vella, is the highest capital city in Europe, tipping the scales at 1023 metres. There is  a fair amount of buzz (and traffic) to its narrow streets, busy restaurants and duty-free shops. It gets really crowded from Fridays to Sundays when weekenders from Barcelona flock into town seeking to swap sea breezes for crisp mountain air.

Andorra

Andorra: Ski resorts aplenty. Every year, thousands of amateur and professional skiers visit the ski resort areas of Vallnord and Grandvalira. The slopes of the Pyrenees are not for the faint hearted. In summer, hiking and biking are popular activities. There are a few beginners’ trails but the mountainous terrain are of medium to difficult.

Andorra

Andorra: Anyos Park Mountain and Wellness Resort, where we stayed. It has tennis courts, swimming pool and a kids playground. In summer months, the rates are a lot cheaper. We rented our service apartment for a very reasonable rate. With a service apartment with full kitchen facilities, I spent the night cooking and experimenting for the souperinspirations. It was also possible to cook some homecooked meals inspired by the tapas we had in Barcelona. With such beautiful weather outside and a balcony to relax, it brought a sense of calmness and I was able to work on the soups for the #TssTakeMeToSpain campaign.

Inspired by the crepes we ate at Perpignan, kids wanted to have them for breakfast. I did not have milk so we changed the recipe for one-cup ingredient pancakes  to use 1 cup water, I made it into a crepe instead of a thick fluffy pancakes. And the recipe worked wonderfully for savoury and sweet crepes! We had ham and cheese rolled up crepes and sweet pancakes with homemade strawberry jam and yoghurt. What a treat for the kiddos! This has to be the most versatile recipe I have in my repertoire.

Ham and cheese crepe

Ham and cheese crepe inspired by the crepes we had in Perpignan using the one cup ingredient pancake recipe.

Crepes with homemade strawberry jam

Sweet crepes using one cup ingredient pancake recipe with yoghurt and homemade strawberry jam.

Inspired by the soupy casserole we had at Can Roca, I made an attempt to make a vegan version, Vegan Arroz Samfaina La Cassola made with rice, peppers and vegetables cooked down like how I would do a french ratatouille. The best of both worlds, a spanish paella marrying the french ratatouille to create a new hearty rice soup. Must be the fresh mountain air that helped me with coming up with a great soup! Sourcing for the rice and saffron would prove to be the most challenging of all. Plenty of Italian rice but not many stock the spanish rice variety and saffron was insanely expensive in Singapore.

Ingredients

Ingredients used for Vegan Arroz Samfaina La Cassola

Vegan Arroz soup

Vegan Arroz Samfaina La Cassola

The Sopa de Pescado we tried at Bilboa inspired the next soup made. I could still vividly remember the taste of the Basquaise stew and with a well equipped kitchen, I set out to create my version. Here, I actually used the frozen mixed seafood, readily available in the frozen section of the supermarket. It was not the best choice but it provided me a good avenue to do a quick testing how the soup would taste like and whether I was able to recreate that wow experience. I would say it was a good attempt taste wise. The challenge would be to recreate the soup in Singapore, to get hold of the right Spanish spices and ingredients that would create magic.

Sopa de pescado

Ingredients for sopa de pescado

Inspired by the pintxos/tapas we had at San Sebastian and at Barcelona, we made a series of tapas to be brought along for our picnic during our hike. To think about it, we did not have a single meal in any restaurants or fast food places in Andorra.

Tortilla Española or Tortilla de patatas(recipe), referred to as Spanish Omelette, is the most common gastronomic speciality found throughout Spain. It is essentially an egg omelette made with added potatoes and fried, similar to the frittata. This was inspired by the pintxo version we had at Bar La Vina in San Sebastian. Only difference, this was filled with potatoes and frozen mixed vegetables I had bought earlier for the vegan rice soup.  I had it topped with goat’s cheese and blistered cherry tomatoes and lots of freshly chopped parsley. Great eaten with a squeeze of lemon juice.

Tortilla espanyol

Tortilla espanola: The tortilla may be eaten hot or cold; it is commonly served as a tapa or picnic dish throughout Spain. As a tapa, it may be cut into bite-size pieces and served on cocktail sticks, or cut into pie style (triangle) portions (pincho de tortilla).

Being adventurous, I made another 3 pintxos, my healthy versions of the Spanish dishes I have tried and most would have heard of.

1. La Pepita with its modern take on tapas, had me crave for the hummus topped with beetroot and finely chopped mint leaves and a drizzle of olive oil.

2. Bar Pinotxo squid with haricot beans inspired a vegan version using chickpeas cooked with lots of parsley and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar reduction.(recipe link)

3.Patata Bravas, a common pintxos and tapas found in every tapas bar. I have made it with sweet potato for a change. Surprisingly good when eaten with hummus.

4. My favourite: chopped avocado cherry tomato salsa. (marinated with olive oil, coriander and freshly squeezed lemon juice)

Trio of tapas

Trio of tapas: 1. Tapaleta: hummus with beetroot and mint. 2. Chickpeas with parsley and balsamic reduction. 3. Sweet potato version of patata bravas.

How many ways can we eat tapas? Let thee count the ways! Kids were crazy about corn thins and rightfully so. Great way to replace the baguette pieces typically used as base for tapas. Rice crisps or thins would make a choice for a gluten free option. What about French style in freshly baked vol-au-vent shells?

Tapas on corn crisps

Tapas on corn crisps.

Tapas french style

Tapas french style with 4. marinated chopped avo with cherry tomatoes, coriander and goat’s cheese.

We tried  sopa de ajo (Garlic soup) when we were in Zaragoza but it was not to our taste. I was determined to make a version that was healthier. Using good chicken stock, adding fried garlic crisps and a whole poached egg. To up the healthy quotient, I added some freshly chopped vegetables. (recipe to follow)

Sopa de ajo

Sopa de ajo, a healthy version

Yes, I got carried away! So much food for just 4 of us. LOL! With the containers that we had, we packed our freshly prepared food, all ready and excited for our picnic lunch.

Our lunch in Andorra

Our prepacked lunch for our picnic.

The excursion to the Tristaina lakes is one of the most popular in Andorra. We were pretty nervous, as this would be the first time that we brought the kids on a real hiking trail. Previously, when they were younger, we would carry them on baby carriers on hikes. The kids were really excited as we just bought them both new sports shoes. This is good for a first time excursion, as there were many paths around the lakes that we could walk until we feel tired and cut back early if we so wish. This variety of options make the Tristaina lakes an excellent choice to see high altitude mountain lakes without having to climb for hours.

Andorra

Andorra: The Tristaina lakes is one the most popular hikes in Andorra, as they were easily accessible from the road. This hike is recommended for the wide range of fauna and flora and most importantly the well-marked and tended paths.

Andorra

Andorra: Our chosen lunch spot was located right off the main road and allowed us to have our picnic while enjoying stunning views of the valley below. After a yummy lunch, we proceeded with our hike. Isabella especially loved the vegan arroz soup.

Andorra

Andorra: If you love hiking or trail running, Andorra, in the heart of the Pyrenees is the perfect place. Look at this! Breathtakingly beautiful! The best way to discover Andorra’s beauty is on foot, step by step, immersing ourselves in the picturesque landscape and admiring how through the course of time, the mountains and streams were moulded bit by bit .

Andorra

The kiddos did great. Singing as they walked. Some parts were pretty steep but they did well. So proud of them!

Andorra

Andorra: The spectacular view when we reached the first of three lakes, which is just 45 minutes from the start. Primer lake, at 2,250 metres above sea level, is the smallest has the bluest waters.  The last snow was melting as the days got warmer. The kids were ecstatic as it was their first time seeing snow and walking on it. It was very slippery as we all very quickly found out as we attempted to make our way across. There were many funny moments, when we would slip. Isabella and Eli had snowfights and the valley was filled with their laughter.

Do you wanna build a snowman?

Do you wanna build a snowman? Isabella’s work of art. She has always been the more creative one. Very patiently, she put her snowman together, finding little twigs to make their its little arms.

Andorra

Andorra: Isabella was going to handcarry her snowman back. She attempted to do so but it very quickly melted in her hands. There was a tinge of disappointment and sadness when she had to abandon it along the trail.

The kiddos went for an hour of pony ride led by us around one of Andorra’s village of La Massana. This was also a great way to discover Andorra in summer, seeing the stone architecture against the backdrop of the mountains.

Horseriding

Andorra: Horseriding in the village. This was one of the highlights for Isabella.

My conclusion is that Andorra has a lot to offer with its  picturesque Alpine like villages with stone houses, slate rooftops to its beautiful mountain snow covered peaks and duty free shopping. In my opinion, Andorra made the right move to incorporate the shopping into its offers. It is a necessary evil that has paid off for Andorra and her citizens.

We spent 3 days in Andorra. We drove back to Barcelona from Andorra to catch our flight home. This marked the end of our Spain holidays and my souperinspiration trip. Thank you for the wonderful memories. I loved hearing the different stories about what people believe and their traditions. For me, this is an enriching way to know a culture; by their stomachs!I have been inspired tremendously and have learnt a lot. As a working mama, I have learnt a little more of my little ones on our trip and it is a memory we cherish. Indeed, we are very blessed to be able to spend quality family time together and immersing them to be global citizens. May our travels and road trips inspire you and your family to do something different too!

Signing off! Muchos gracias.

Pyrenees

Andorra: A final shot for the family album in the picturesque Estanys De Tristaina

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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