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Around Three Countries in Eleven Hours

It's a real challenge to stay up-to-date on writing while traveling. Woe is me, I know, but it's a bigger struggle than I imagined. For that reason, I went the whole week with just one post. But I am back in the States and am now sitting down to reflect and share on the past eleven days. I'll start with last Wednesday.

I set a new record for myself this week: I set foot and spent time in three different countries in one day. Even better? It was all accomplished within a five and a half hour drive. It's no around the world in eighty days record, but not a bad start for the amateur traveler.

Camarasa, the village I stayed in, is situated just over 100 kilometers from the border of Andorra. Roughly another 60k in an easterly direction will get you to the border of France. This offers a premiere tri-corner area through which you can drive a nice loop in a relatively short amount of time. Myself and four other members of the climbing group wanted to capitalize on this opportunity and planned a road-trip. It was the best decision of the week.

The area of Cataluña that Camarasa is in is a generally rugged landscape. Great monoliths of pale red and grey shoot out of the ground at steep and almost near-vertical angles making it a premiere climbing destination (turns out pro climbers Hazel Findlay and Sasha DiGuilian were both in the area working projects while we were there!). I can only assume that it was an immense amount of water flow that whittled down the tons of stone into knife-edge ridges that stand on their own traversing the hilly ground like miniature versions of the Great Wall of China.

As we drove north out of Cubells -- a nearby village that put us onto C-26 heading for the border -- the landscape's theme of intensity became more and more pronounced. Everything north of Oliana feels like you have stepped onto the set of Lord of the Rings. Haven't seen it? Other-worldly will do. The C-14 road follows the winding El Segre much of the way -- a river that seems to have defied all odds by being able to carve its way through such impenetrable landscape. I couldn't think of some creative color to name the water other than the color water should be. The right color. The clearest blue with a hint of turquoise that makes you want to run and jump in with both feet but not because you know it's freezing cold. That kind of blue. The rock walls become so steep that you have to crane your neck at the very bottom of the window to see their tops, and even then only a small break of blue skies were visible at the top. Large nets had been put up over much of the road in a valiant effort to save passersby from the random falling rock dropping from a few hundred feet above. A few head-sized stones had been collected here or there, but I wasn't convinced that net would break the fall of any sizable boulder that came plummeting down.

After passing through this rock haven, the ruggedness transitioned from rock to alpine. Massive, pine covered peaks rise up on either side of the winding road with small villages like Montferrer, La Seu d'Urgell, and Adrall tucked up against the foothills. I've never been to Switzerland or Austria, but the architecture of these towns took a definite turn toward pictures that I have seen. Very sharp, linear shapes with wood-shingled roofs, overhanging upstairs, criss-cross battens and white shuttered windows. Past these villages comes the border of Andorra, snow-capped peaks, and as it turns out an alpine enthusiast's haven.

Before this trip, I'm pretty sure I hadn't even heard of Andorra. Maybe in some reference I had but I sure as hell couldn't find it on a map and knew absolutely nothing about its landscape and the skiing-mecca that it is. For anyone else who is in the dark about the European gem, here are some quick facts:

-Most of the shops are tax/duty free (making it a major tourist plus!)

-The entire population is just under 77,000

-Skiing is the national sport

-Catalan is the national language (which is ironic because Cataluña is its next-door neighbor region in Spain and though it speaks Catalan it is not recognized as the official language) in addition to a large percent that speak French and Spanish. This makes it really tricky to start conversations because you never know what language the local prefers. An exchange ends up going something like:


"¿Hablas español?

"Un poco.."

"Ahh.. how about English?"

"Oh yes, I speak English!"

-84.1% of its inhabitants live in what's considered urban environments

-The average elevation is 6,549 ft

-It takes over 20 years to become a naturalized citizen

-As a part of the process above, you are required to invest 400,000 with a set amount of time into the national economy

^that last fact was a real kicker in my quickly developed plan to pack up and move to Andorra

We drove in to the capitol city of Andorra La Vella, population 22,256 -- both the largest city and the largest parish of the country. I don't know who designed the city, but it is an impressive feat. The fact that any large population of people has managed to secure a foothold in that country is impressive in itself. To do it so neatly and efficiently as La Vella is incredible. Traffic was guided almost exclusively by round-abouts, the streets were the cleanest of any city I have seen, there was a constant police force helping citizens cross busy traffic, and everywhere you looked you were surrounded by mountain tops.

We took our time wandering the streets, bouncing tourist shop to tourist shop, and marveling at just how quickly you can gain elevation. Somehow, just by casually walking main streets and alleys, we went from water level at the base of town to being six stories up and having to take an elevator back down from a viewing platform without ever noticing the climb. All five of us crammed back into the Skoda hatchback after lunch and navigated back onto the CG-2 that would take us out the east side of the country. If you look at the CG-2 on a map, you will see it dotted with a number of names like Les Bons (which is an awesome name for a town: "The Goods"), Meritxell, Canillo, El Vilar, Soldieu, and so on. The map makes it look like there is a good amount of distance between town but in reality the list of names forms one continuous line of road-side apartments and shopping centers that carries you out of the valley and up into the mountains where the daily wear seemed to be nothing but ski boots and winter parkas. If you are looking for a future ski-vacation destination, this just may be your place. They take ski-side living to a whole new level. Countless people seemed to be walking directly from their hotel/apartment to the roadside gondola that took them up into the steep peeks and deep snow. Ski all day and then stop for a glass of local, red wine on your way back. Sounds like a pretty sweet day.

Into the Túnel d'Envalira we went on the east side of Andorra and out we popped into southern France and the northern edge of the Pyrenees. I was so upset that I was driving because all I wanted to do was look around. Knife-edge ridges and spear-head peaks backed by a bright blue canvas extended out all around us still coated in snow. It was spectacular. Around one of the switchback turns of the N-22 that carries you down into the valley I pulled the car as far off the road as I could, turned on the hazard lights, and shut off the engine. The views were too pristine to not get out and enjoy for a moment. An impromptu snow-ball fight also ensued from the Irish lads whom don't get much exposure to snow. Our rest-stop seemed to be a popular spot for locals; fresh tracks were carved into the steep slope in front of us with a line of boot prints trampled into the ground to the right. It looked like lots of hikes had been made up to a starting point where skiers would launch off a large knoll a quarter of the way down and land a good ten-twenty feet beneath it. We celebrated our incredible view with our own group jump off a small ridge before heading back into the car.

The rest of the drive continued the trend of surreal landscapes. We dropped out of the alpine zone and began to meander through a few small, French villages that were in the area like Porté-Puymorens, Porta, and Latour-de-Carol before crossing back over the border into the Spanish town of Puigcerdà. What was interesting about this area was the number of yellow streamers that adorned gates, doors, walls, and even the occasional castle-ruin. We had become used to seeing the yellow streamers in Camarasa and the surrounding villages as they were a sign of protest by the Catalán people to separate from Spain. Conflict between the region and its government goes back centuries (as do most European struggles), and it had been recently reignited in a referendum vote held by the Catalán government to exit from Spanish rule. With overwhelming support, the people ruled in favor of the exit but voting was violently shut down by the Spanish government citing the vote as invalid and not allowed. But to see such support on this side of the border was surprising. Perhaps it was Catalán citizens who had moved across the border and were showing their nationality? Or just a sign of solidarity from their neighbors to the north that showed French support for an independent Cataluña? We were never able to find out the answer.

There was an incredible contrast in terrain types through this part of Spain as we headed back south toward our starting point. Fertile, green farmland with sprawling fields was tucked up right against rocky outcroppings which were backed by 6,000+ foot peaks with snow. The Pyrenees sunk into the horizon as we headed back toward Camarasa and we wrapped up our trip in just under 11 hours. Not too bad for crossing two borders, exploring a city, having a mountain-side snowball fight, and travelling 320 kilometers!

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