Wednesday, May 17, 2000

TR Andorra

France, Andorra, Spain, Andorra, France
5/12 –5/17/00

As I sit here looking out the window of my office at a violent rain burst accompanied by a cool wind I remember why I told Nicole that we needed to travel away from England as much as possible in these last few weeks. She had hoped/expected to make some business trips into Europe but when they didn’t materialize we decided to take off on our own.
Nicole wanted to visit Marseilles and since I had only spent a few hours there on a previous trip I figured why not? Besides I wanted to experience the real bouillabaisse which Marseilles is renowned for.

We caught a direct flight to Marseilles and stayed in a hotel right on the Vieux Port. Marseilles is the 2nd largest and oldest city in France. It was founded in 600 BC by Phoceans (Greeks from Asia Minor). The Vieux Port (Old Port) is a natural inlet (calanque) and is the heart of the city. Most of the old city was destroyed during WWII but some old buildings remain and have been restored. The Forts of St Jean and St Nicholas were built in the 16th century to guard the entrance to the harbor. St Victor Basilica was built in the 3rd century and the Notre Dame De La Garde Cathedral, built in the 15th century on the highest hill, overlooks and protects the city and Vieux Port. Vieux Port and the old historical part of the city are the only sections worth seeing as far as I am concerned and that can be accomplished easily in two days. We also took a boat trip out into the Mediterranean to visit two islands – the Ile d’If and Ile de Frioul. Ile d’If has a large fort called Chateau d’If that was built to protect the entrance to the harbor and was turned into a state prison in the 17th century. The fame of Chateau D’If owes much to the French writer Alexandre Dumas, who made it the place where his hero, Edmond Dantes, was imprisoned, in The Count of Monte Cristo.
We stopped for a late snack on Ile de Frioul where I had some of the best tasting moulieres aux cremes (mussels in a cream sauce) that I have ever eaten.

If you enjoy seafood then you will like Marseilles – there are hundreds of great restaurants. As I mentioned before Bouillabaisse is the most renowned local dish. What we did not know is that there are several kinds of bouillabaisse. They are categorized (and priced) by the quantity and types of fish and shellfish that are included. The most expensive contain 6 types of fish and 3 types of shellfish. The soup or stew is a thick stock containing many secret spices. And then if you are still not confused enough they offer a ‘marmite’ that is bouillabaisse in which they remove all the bones from the fish (and charge more). And finally for those still not confused enough you can try ‘bourride’ which is bouillabaisse with a creamy garlic stock? Of course all these varieties also come in different prices and names just like the bouillabaisse.
We tried a top-of –the-line marmite (didn’t want to pick the bones) and we were both disappointed. We did not like the secret stew stock – maybe because we are used to the tomato based stock we normally get in the US. I was very disappointed because I was expecting/hoping for a true gourmet experience like the Bolognese sauce in Bologna? Oh well! Another surprising aspect of Marseilles was the language. They speak a dialect of French that contains many local or slang words that my interpreter did not understand. So we once got a double order of food for lunch and another time she received a local delicacy for an appetizer that was squid boiled in its own ink – and she is not a seafood lover like me!

After a few days in Marseilles it was time to move on to Andorra. We had reserved a car with the intention of driving but when the Budget clerk advised us that it was an 8 to 9 hour drive we changed our minds and took a train to Toulouse. We later learned that it was only a 4 to 5 hour drive and we would have had much more flexibility in our travels. As it was we had to rent a car in Toulouse and drive 200 km (3 hours) south to Andorra.
Andorra is located in the heart of the Pyrenees mountains between France and Spain. It covers approximately 180 square miles and the average altitude is 3000 feet. There are 65 mountain peaks ranging from 7500 to 9000 feet. The only way into the country is by road that runs from the French border in the northeast to the Spanish border in the southwest. The road through Andorra is 30km long. The entry from France is a challenging route as it rises from about 500 feet in France to the Andorran border at 7500 feet. There is a ski resort situated right at the border. Then you have to continue up another 1000 feet over the top of a mountain and drop rapidly on the other side. I now understand why the cyclists train in the Pyrenees for the Tour De France! I also realized how much I miss my cars in the US that have real motors instead of rubber bands like European cars. Several times I thought that I might have to get out and push my brand new rental Renault up the damn mountain!

Andorra is very beautiful. It reminds me very much of Colorado and British Columbia. Three rivers cross the country in a Y shape. The Valira d’Orient and Valira del Nord originate in the snowcaps along the French border and flow south to merge into the Gran Valira in the capital city of Andorra La Vella. Andorra has a population of 65,000 of which 60% live in the capital city and the rest are spread among small villages in the mountains. The official language is Catalan, a Spanish dialect. About 50% of the locals also speak French and only about 5% speak English. After the first day we gave up on English and tried French first and Spanish last. Money was also a difficulty. Most shops and restaurants posted prices in both French Francs and Spanish Pesetas but government offices such as the post office would only accept FF so you had to carry both currencies.

The country was first established in the 13th century with a ‘Pariatage’ or joint sovereignty shared by the Bishop of Urgell (Spain) and the Count de Foix (France). This pariatage still exists today even though a constitution was approved in 1993. One thing I noticed is the lack of an identity or nationalism that is so fervent throughout the rest of Europe – or maybe they just don’t display it (or flaunt it) as much?

Nicole and I stayed in Andorra del Vella but we explored every major road in the country (there aren’t that many). I was looking for a possible marathon route but the prospects were not very appealing. The best route would have been a start in Andorra del Vella and run 26 miles into Spain. The Spanish border was only 10 km south- all downhill and continuing downhill well into Spain. We actually checked out that route as we made a trip into Spain and visited the nearest town –a village called La Seu D’Urgell. We had a pleasant lunch there and discovered that the white-water kayaking events for the 92 Olympics were held there on the Gran Valira.
I decided against that route because there was too much crap to go through to get across the Spanish border. So we explored an alternative route that followed the Valira del Nord out of Andorra del Vella as it climbed up to the snowcaps along the French border. Yes, that meant that the road went uphill all the way! By starting in La Massana at 4,000 feet and climbing 1,000 feet to El Serrat the distance was 11km. Unfortunately there were also many, many, many hills of 200 to 300 feet elevation in between! But that was my route! So Tuesday became M-day for another Maddog special marathon. I rose at 5am while my trusty sports manager slept in and made my way to La Massana. I started the run by 6am and watched the sun come up as I ran the first leg uphill. I had the roads to myself, it was quiet, it was postcard pretty and I thoroughly enjoyed the whole run! It was so quiet and peaceful and the scenery so beautiful. The road followed and passed over the Valira del Nord which was rushing down the mountain full of spring run-off. The mountains were covered with forests and the tops still had snowcaps – it was so beautiful and inspiring that I didn’t even notice the hills along the route. But I was thankful that the last 10 km were downhill! I was pleasantly surprised to finish the marathon under 4 hours (3:58) considering the route I had chosen.

After the run we had to pack and head back to Toulouse to catch a train back to Marseilles. I was wishing at that point that we had driven from Marseilles so that we could drive part way back, stop and finish the next day. But we had to catch the last train that day because the early train on Wednesday would not get us to Marseilles in time to catch our flight home. So it was a very long day! But we finally made it, grabbed a late dinner in Marseilles and went to bed and crashed!

Now we are back in rainy England for one whole day – enough time for Nicole to show up at the office, then repack and head off on our last adventure in Europe. We have made all our moving arrangements and leave England on Saturday, May 27th!

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