Andorra

The Pyrenees Mountains between France & Spain

The Pyrenees Mountains between France & Spain

April 14, 1967
Dear Zerky,

We have begun our climb into the Pyrenees, the mountains separating France from Spain. Along their crest we bumped into tiny Andorra, a postage-stamp-sized country equivalent in area to a square eleven miles long by eleven miles wide. In Texas we have farms bigger than that. We have taken a room here because it is so cold outside (below freezing at night) and we cannot have our little heater on all the time. Besides, it is very cramped in the bus, what with all our gear, which is why we have decided to rent a room here in a rustic little lodge near the tiny Andorran town of Arinsal, a room that was made out of stone and with doors and window frames of rough varnished wood. Our little lodge is located at the bottom of a narrow green valley with snow chutes containing the avalanches that come rumbling down from the glaciers above. Outside our window is a mountain stream from which this morning I began filling our water tank with delicious water so cold that my hands started freezing before I could get the tank in our VW bus half full.

Andorra is a vestige of the middle Ages that has somehow managed to survive on into the Twentieth Century, a living remnant of feudalism that is also the personal fife of two co-princes, the Bishop of Urgel in Spain, and the count of Foix in France. In ancient times, Andorra’s strategic location on the crest of the Pyrenees made for a great deal of trouble between Spain and France. So in order to eliminate strife, in 1278 AD an agreement was worked out between the Count and the Bishop whereby the two of them would act as the co-sovereigns of Andorra. The rights and obligations of the Bishop of Urgel have been passed on down through the centuries all the way to today, while the rights and obligations of the Count of Foix defaulted to the President of France when the French Revolution abolished all feudal holdings. The Andorrans are very fond of their two sovereigns, however.

After the French Revolution, the citizen’s of Andorra successfully petitioned Napoleon for reinstatement as loyal subjects. Today they still pay tribute every other year when a government representative dressed in a traditional cloak and Napoleonic hat sets off down the Envalira River on foot to the village of Urgel in Spain, where he bestows upon the Bishop of Urgel a tribute consisting of nine hundred pesetas, about $13.00 US on today’s market.

In addition, every Christmas, under the terms of the agreement, the Bishop also receives six hams, twelve chickens and twenty-four cheeses of goat’s milk. With characteristic French disdain for food not French, President de Gaulle forgoes his similar larder. The great man does accept a little hard currency, however, in return for which the Andorrans receive the protection of the French Army, which is in token presence here for the purpose of holding the Spanish army in check. A token detachment of Spanish soldiers is also present in order to keep the French army in check. For some nine hundred years now, this civilized arrangement has worked out well for all concerned. Andorra is a prosperous and beautiful little country in which your mother and I are talking about retiring someday.

Andorra has no army of its own; the country has not seen war for many centuries. Law and order is maintained among Andorra’s twelve thousand citizens by a police force of twelve and a traffic cop. Andorra mints no currency, having designated both the peseta and the franc to be the currency of the realm. Similarly, the Andorran Post Office uses both French and Spanish stamps for mail outside the country. For mail inside the country, delivery is free. Andorra has no customs service; smuggling is the traditional enterprise of Andorrans. The expense of policing its borders is left to the French and to the Spanish. Car registration is free, as is use of the roads, most of which were built by the French and by the Spanish. Telephone service is also free; you pay for installation only. Electricity is next to free and Andorrans pay no taxes. What little government as does exist is supported by a two percent duty on imports and by a tax on gasoline.

If Andorra is utopia socially, so is it paradise scenically, with its endless green meadows and mountain streams coursing down from the snowy peaks above. Outside of Andorra’s dozen or so villages, life goes on peacefully, much as it probably did in the Middle Ages. A Roman style architecture—large rocks fitted together with un-mortared stones—completes the pastoral medieval illusion. Stone construction makes the buildings here cool in the summer and warm in the winter when the farm animals occupy the bottom floors of the houses, thereby making their contribution of body heat to the general welfare of the household.

We find it relatively easy to communicate with most of the people here. Andorra is trilingual; nearly everyone speaks Catalan, Spanish and French. Your mother’s French sees us through the day with only an occasional problem and I have been playing around with my pathetic Spanish. Soon it shall get a workout, once we pry ourselves loose from this fairy tale land. All the roads are closed now because of a storm, but they should reopen in a day or two, at which point we shall be heading for the warm beaches of Andalucia where I promised to take you swimming in the warm waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Your mother wants to take you skiing, too, but I keep telling her that first you need to learn how to walk.

—Excerpted From Letters to Zerky


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