Hospitality and the cuisine have a flavour all their own in the tiny principality in the Pyrenees region between France and Spain
In a post-Brexit world, tiny Andorra may become a great escape for British skiers. The Pyrenean principality, formed in 1278, is run by the President of France and the Spanish Bishop of Urgell, but it is not a member of the EU. The currency is the euro, but the language is Catalan, potentially a key to a change of focus if Catalonia were to become independent. Currently Andorra’s 77,250 citizens welcome over ten million tourists a year. Once the UK is the outcast of Europe, its allure for Brits will be ever more compelling.
My voyage of rediscovery began with a pre-dawn flight to the little known airport of Lleida for the three-hour transfer to the Hotel del Clos, an old-style chalet hotel on the hillside in El Tarter. It is run by Neilson on a cosy ticket, 50 rooms with long bathtubs, a terrace bar with views of the Lindsey Vonn crash corner – the great American broke her leg last year – on the Aliga Women’s giant slalom piste across the valley, and a games room with table tennis and darts.
This sounds yesteryear, but it plays to a trend in winter sports holidays. In a more accountable world, many younger snow users aim to make the most of expensive lift passes by rising early rather than partying late. If your body is as much of a temple as current mores dictate, it’s better to après during the adrenaline wind-down after the lifts close, then dine and chill until bedtime. With a Monday mix’n’mingle wine tasting and a Tuesday quiz night with prizes, the del Clos makes sure no-one is left out.
Come the morning, we clumped over to the El Tarter access point to the Grandvalira ski zone – 67 lifts serving 210km of groomed piste, plus accessible powder galore when the right snow falls. The area stretches from Encamp above the capital, Andorra La Vella, to buzzy Pas de la Casa on the French border. The main lifts in El Tarter and neighbouring Soldeu provide the most effective ski-in, ski-out routes into the heart of the largest linked area in the Pyrenees.
If you prefer to stay in town, with its duty free shopping malls and Caldera hot tubs suspended in space in the shadow of the cathedral that inspired the Shard, it’s easy to park at Encamp or Canilo, then upload into the network. The return is by gondola as there are no runs back to base. The Vallnord area, about half the size of Grandvalira, comprises Arinsal and Pal, linked by cable car, and standalone Ordino-Arcalis.
Andorra’s slopes have always prized themselves on being user-friendly. Investment in state-of-the-art lifts is high and the pistes well marked. The on-piste appeal is largely for beginners who benefit from ski schools offering instruction by native English-speakers from Scotland and the Antipodes and red runners who can cut great swathes of fast tracks through Grandvalira during a full-on day.
In Andorra, as in France, mountain hosts are banned, so Neilson employs guides to show graded groups round the slopes on their Mountain Experts programme (NME). Tuesday is Rolling Reds, while experts get Tips and Tactics, freely offered if required, but really an excuse to hit Mach 2 on immaculately groomed pistes. They can also have an introduction to off-piste free ride sessions and sterner free ride tests, plus touring on skins or cross-country skis. Given a favourable balance of piste users to powderhounds, fresh snow is less rapidly plundered than elsewhere: get up early and grab it quick.
In the right conditions, First Tracks (€15), starting at 8.15am at the Arrosseria restaurant, is a great opportunity; on lesser days, it is trial by boilerplate, so take note before signing up. For a change of scene, brave the zip wire across the lake above Canilo (€15) and the drive-yourself dog sledding in the forests above El Tarter-Soldeu (€35 for half an hour).
If clubbing is on hold until you get home, eating takes on a new importance and Andorra has an enticing list of locavore treats. In many of them, pig rules. In the land of the finest pata negra cured ham, top animals spend time on a treadmill to reduce fat and improve flavour. Hopefully they enjoy the exercise as much as their diet of prime acorns. Lesser beasts supply the fuet market, selling dried sausages made on “waste not” principles by adding glands, cheeks, jowls and organs to the mix.
Hearty lunch specials are headed by trinxat, a peasant mountain dish made with cabbage, potato and pork, and escudella, a garlic meatball stew “eaten every day by Catalan people” according to 14th century scribe Francesc Eiximenis. Such good fortune sounds unlikely in remote medieval mountains, but you can enjoy a 21st century version in the Pla de la Cot above Pal in the Arinsal sector.
Perhaps the quirkiest offering is calçots – long, thin onions grown on the Catalan coast round Tarragona. Happily their January to March harvest coincides with the winter season so Andorra imports them in bulk and offers them as a national speciality. In view of their foreign provenance, it’s appropriate that the most colourful place to eat them is El Moli, owned by Giles Boyce, born in Portsmouth, resident in Andorra for 16 years.
In the evening, he fired up a wood-burning brazier on the terrace in Arinsal village and cooked the ragged plants until they were black. They emerged scalding and unappetising, but once we’d mastered the twist and pull technique to release the white snake within, we dipped them into romesco tomato and almond sauce – and gasped with joy. With grilled artichokes and beef ribs from Galician herds washed down with rich red Rioja, it was an unforgettable feast.
Dining in the El Tarter catchment area offers two outstanding opportunities. Super posh means one of six restaurants in the five-star Hermitage Hotel in Soldeu, owned by Andorra’s entrepreneurial Calbo family and regularly favoured for R & R by the Barca football team. As executive chef, Nandu Jubany, celebrated for his Michelin-starred Can Jubany farmhouse outside Barcelona, masterminds the cornucopia. Arrels is succulently Catalan; cannelloni filled with oven-roasted beef, trinxat upgraded with asparagus and black pudding. Origen is strictly for degustation; as in loosen your belt for amuse bouche, nine courses and two desserts, each with meticulously matched wines. Koy Hermitage goes off piste with a Japanese Michelin-starred executive chef, Hideki Matsuhisa, whose mission – highly successful – is to reinvent local ingredients in sushi, sashimi and other national staples.
So far, so tasty, but the really intriguing option is La Llar de L’Artesa Borda Popaire on the road beyond Soldeu. Owner Joan Font explained that his two-storey farmhouse has records dating back to 1850 but parts of it are much older. This is appropriate because he sees it as a lifestyle museum, its contents continually renewed as he finds space on already crowded walls for any antique donation on offer. Farming equipment, sledges, backpacks and skis compete with the stuffed heads of deer and wild boar shot during his dedicated career as a hunter. In his dreams, he’d convert the restaurant into a museum but that would be a shame. No worries about five a day: giant ribs of beef grilled to order on an open fire served among mangers and hayracks are carnivore magic.
Neilson Holidays (0330 838 1567, neilson.co.uk). Seven nights half board in Hotel del Clos, El Tartar, from £499 (two sharing) including afternoon tea, basic guiding with Neilson Mountain Experts, transfers and return flights Manchester-Lleida with Thomas Cook.