‘Shopping or Skiing?’ This is the typical question they ask you when you say you are going to Andorra, this little principality tucked in the Pyrenees between Spain and France. We went for two entirely different reasons: culture and nature. Here is the story of our trip in this country founded by Charlemagne (or so they say).
I. The Romanesque Route
Over forty Romanesque churches (10th to 12th century) make for a wonderful itinerary across Andorra. One is given the chance to examine a genuine and special representation of the first ‘continental’ style in Europe since the Roman times.
If I think of one word that best describes the Andorran Romanesque, it would be ‘discrete’. The churches are all small and simple, which appeals to my spiritual side that rejects Baroque’s proselytizing spirit and exuberance. The walls are thick and the structures are austere, with very little ornamentation on the outside and no need for buttresses. This can be attributed –in part- to the poverty of the Pyrenees villages and their remoteness from important centers of Romanesque art. This remoteness and isolation explain why the Gothic style that appeared later did not sweep across Andorra the way it did in other parts of Europe (and one must be glad it did not, otherwise they would have remodeled many –if not all- of the Romanesque churches here!).
The one thing that does stand out is the church tower. In many of the Andorran churches, the tower features a clear Lombard influence, thanks to the abundance of Lombard stonemasons in the Catalan lands (Andorra was not yet a separate, independent country). Soaring towers (like in the case of Santa Coloma and Sant Miquel d’Engolasters) or short ones (like in Sant Joan de Caselles), they all follow a theme in which three-storey bell towers lend the structure a sense of elevation and verticality. Lombard bands of blind arcades above the towers’ mullioned windows are the only elements of external decoration (together with few remains of polychromatic fragments in some windows)
On the inside, the most precious art is no more there. It was moved decades ago to the MNAC (National Museum of Catalan Art) in Barcelona. I had the pleasure of admiring it firsthand there, and the sadness of contemplating it away from its original context, like a fossil of a dead animal.
We visited some fifteen churches and some Romanesque bridges (like the Margineda), but I have every reason (aesthetically and historically) to claim that the most impressive ones are:
– Santa Coloma (with the only cylindrical bell tower in Andorra);
– Sant Miquel d’Engolasters (a beautiful bell tower);
– Les Bons (wonderful landscape makes for a perfect background);
II. In the footstep of Verdaguer
During the second half of the 19th century, the Catalan culture experienced a golden age referred to as the ‘Renaixença’ (Reniassance), pioneered by the likes of Jacint Verdaguer, Catalonia’s most celebrated poet (probably, of all times).
It was here in Andorra (and other parts of the Pyrenees) that Verdaguer seeked inspiration for his epic poem ‘Canigó’, which tells the story of the Catalan Pyrenees through the epic efforts of the Christians to gather forces and fight the invading Saracens (a culturally incorrect synonym for Muslims). Following his itinerary took us to the Iron Route, a beautiful countryside that extends from Ordino to the north. But the real spectacle is elsewhere…and nature at its best is further to the east.
The Engolasters Lake was partially frozen by the time we arrived there following a hike through the woods. The scene was just breathtaking under the sun, as the heat started to melt yesterday’s snow off the pine trees. There must have been hundreds of thousands of them, entire mountains covered with pine trees, which –in turn, were covered with snow…an ephemeral landscape that changes every second as the snow retreated and the woods restored their greenery. A multitude of snapshots every second.
Andorra is a small country with big natural heritage, even though only Madriu-Claror Valley is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I heard a lot of stories by the elders of the Andorran village about the witches that used to roam the valleys and the spirits of the woods (called ‘fades’ in Catalan, which is the official language here). As I took a quick nap by the lake, I had a dream…dreamed of my Ophelia.
III. The trees, my Ophelia
On the map, my Ophelia, they have named every mountain, every valley, and every river. But when I asked about the name of the tree under which I slept, no one gave me an answer…only a strange look. Why is it that Man has named everything except for trees and flowers? Is it because trees and flowers do no help Man in drawing borders and setting frontiers?
A man told me that the trees here are countless, that any effort to name them is futile…but didn’t we catalogue and name even the faintest of stars in the night sky?
I wanted to tell them that each and every one of these countless trees has a name, but no one wanted to listen, and you were not here to remind me of the names, and the dream came to an end.
Camel – Andorra, Mar’ 2012