Year of Geography: Andorra

Posted on January 15th, 2011 by Laura Byrne Paquet in Year of Geo

No, Andorra was not Darrin’s eccentric mother-in-law on Bewitched. (That was Endora, for all of you under 40.) Andorra is a tiny country wedged into the Pyrenees between France and Spain. How small? Check out the map. See that little green area just northwest of Barcelona? That’s Andorra. Its capital is Andorra la Vella, often shortened to simply Andorra.

So, how did 468 sq. km–a patch of land less than a fifth the size of Rhode Island–become a country? Here’s the scoop.

From Charlemagne to the UN

Archaeologists have found evidence of human habitation in the mountains and valleys of Andorra dating back thousands of years. But things seem to have taken a turn for the dramatic around 800AD, when Christians apparently fled Moorish Spain and settled here. Records are murky (read: almost non-existent), but legend holds that Charlemagne successfully fought off the Moors here in 803AD and granted the locals a charter.

That charter eventually went to Spain’s Count of Urgel, who then gave it to the Bishop of Urgel in 1133. About 150 years later, the French heirs of the count got into a dispute with the Spanish bishops about who actually owned the place, so in 1278, the Andorrans made a unique compromise: they said, in essence, “Hey, you both win.” Ever since, it has been ruled by French and Spanish “co-princes.”

Over the years, various non-princely people such as the French head of state have taken on the “prince” role. (Yes, Nicolas Sarkozy is literally a prince among men. Who knew?) In 1993, the Andorrans set up a parliamentary democracy, so the princes are now pretty much ceremonial, but the place is still called a principality. It joined the UN in 1993.


While the rest of the world celebrated the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, ending the First World War, things in Andorra must have been a bit glum among those in the know. Whether by mistake or on purpose–sources vary on this point–Andorra was omitted from the treaty. No one got around to fixing the glitch until 1958, meaning that Andorra was officially at war with Germany for over four decades.

Who needs a navy?

Not surprisingly, for a landlocked country, Andorra has no navy. It also has no airports, no personal income taxes and no private television stations. It does, however, have lots of duty-free shopping.


In this video, TV travel journalist Rick Steves calls Andorra la Vella “a mostly modern town with the charm of a giant shopping mall.” Ouch. He does find some pretty places elsewhere in the principality, though.

Find out more

Photos: Can Stock Photo.


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