Faraway Andorra from The Royal Road to Romance by Richard Halliburton (1925)

In 1921, world traveler, adventurer, and writer Richard Halliburton visits the Principality of Andorra, located in the eastern Pyrenees between Spain and France, the sixth smallest European state, with the highest capital city.

“May I see the president?” I asked the kindly faced old man in pantaloons and shawl, who had come to the door of the executive mansion in response to my knocking.

“I am the president, Monsieur,” he replied. “Won’t you come in?”

It took me several moments to regain my composure. Presidents of republics, not arrayed in high hats and frock coats were beyond my comprehension—and here the president of Andorra stood before me in pantaloons! Before I could think of the French phrases to say: “Yes, thanks, I would come in,” followed by appropriate apologies for this unconventional call, he added new fuel to my confusion by seizing my arm, leading me up a flight of steps into the “White House” kitchen (likewise the reception room, since it contained the only fireplace in the building), seating me in a big chair which he himself drew up before the crackling logs, requesting me to remove my wet boots in favor of a pair of his own slippers, and suggesting that I prop my feet up on the stone mantelpiece as he was doing and try one of his clay pipes.

“And now, Monsieur,” he said, when I had meekly accepted all this amazing hospitality, “of what service can I be to you?”

For the first time in ten minutes I found my tongue.

“No—no special service, Monsieur. I simply wanted to have the privilege of meeting you—and—and here I am.”

“How far have you come for this privilege?”

“From New York,” I replied blandly.

“New York! And just to see me?

“Well not altogether. I’ve been in Carcassonne, and am on my way to Spain, and couldn’t resist paying Andorra a visit en route—it’s such a funny, romantic, little country. Of course the trip over the Pyrenees, in all this snow and everything, was a fright, but I didn’t mind. I liked it.”

And I had liked it. The entire journey from Carcassonne had been as full of adventure as a chapter from Dumas. And then, too, the very idea of visiting Andorra, the oldest, the smallest, the highest, the quaintest, the most isolated republic on earth, had delighted me so that even the serious obstacles in my path were met and overcome with a sort of reckless enthusiasm.

For years I had not been sure whether the vaguely familiar word Andorra meant a fish or a fruit, until one day I ran across it by accident on the map, and found it was nothing edible, but an independent republic of six thousand people and one hundred seventy-five square miles, with a chief executive, a capitol building, a White House, and a congress, all lost for ten hundred years in the tops of the Pyrenees. I found that this doll democracy was perhaps the one spot left in Europe uncontaminated by the vacation flood of sightseers, for the reason that, with the exception of the capital city which communicates with the outside world by means of a sixty-mile dirt road, the entire country is inaccessible except to a sure-footed man or mule.

Long before sailing from New York I had resolved that some day, somehow, I was going to visit this little hermit republic. And at last, on reaching Carcassonne, the opportunity was at hand. Leaving the medieval citadel behind, I headed straight into the Pyrenees (having first shipped my bicycle on to Marseilles, where I planned to go after leaving Spain), and had the thrill of realizing that here, as in the case of the Matterhorn, another dream was about to come true.

On arrival at Ax, the nearest point to Andorra reached by rail, I found I had disastrously lost my race with winter begun in Touraine. Snow and ice were two inches deep at this two thousand five hundred foot town. What would they be in the eight thousand five hundred foot pass! The hotel proprietor seemed aghast at my contemplated expedition. “It is never done at this season,” he assured me. “You are a month too late. You will find the mule trail impassable with snow.” He then proceeded to narrate, with all the icy details, tragic stories of men who as far back as 1800 had ignored all warning, been lost in the snow and not heard from yet!

His pessimistic prophecies began to discourage me. Discretion rebelled against the folly of my plans, but as usual met a crushing defeat at the hands of curiosity. Anyway what was a little snow? Hadn’t I climbed the Matterhorn? “Go ahead. Risk it,” said the small voice. “If Hannibal crossed the Pyrenees with an army, you should be able to do it without.” I decided to make the venture—it was too delightfully insane to miss.

Well, if I must go, the automobile that carried the mail sixteen miles to l’Hospitalet—near the border, and the point from which the Andorra foot trail departs—could take me to that point, thus saving thirty kilometers of heavy tramping. Naturally I took advantage of the postal carrier and climbed into the motor to be whisked up another two thousand feet. At l’Hospitalet I began to fumble in my pocket after a tip for the chauffeur when he calmly announced that the charges would be eighty francs (then about seven dollars).

“I came up in a mail-wagon, not a taxicab, Mr. Jesse James, and shall pay accordingly.”

“The mail-wagon is always a taxicab when it carries a passenger, Mr. Gold-Dripping American, and you will pay me eighty francs because you surely have not forgotten that I have your letters.”

It was true. I had given him some important correspondence to mail when he returned to Ax, since in the rush to get away I had been unable to post it myself.

“Let’s do business,” he continued mockingly. “Eighty francs and I mail your letters, else—I’ll hold them till you can afford that amount.”

“An eye for an eye,” said the ancient Hebrews. Inspired by this scripture text, I jerked the spark-plug out of his antiquated machine’s battery-box, and put it in my pocket. As that was the only spark-plug in l’Hospitalet, he thought over his threat and decided that perhaps he was only joking. In the end we exchanged ransoms, supplemented on my side by a fair reward for services rendered.

Having been duly won over in Ax to recognizing the value of a donkey as a companion in the Pyrenees, I now began to look about for one. A dealer was soon found who rented mounts in season to travelers making the trip across Andorra to Seo d’Urgel, the first town in Spain, where his partner received and rerented them back to l’Hospitalet when the chance came. At first the dealer was loath to risk his mule on the difficult and dangerous November trails to one unfamiliar with the nature of the country as well as the nature of the animal. However, my statement that I had been both a horse-doctor and an Alpine guide in my youth put him at ease, and greatly accelerated my acquisition of the beast, which, bedizened with a bridle artistically studded with brass tacks, and a canvas saddle, was rented to me for a week in exchange for sixty-five francs and a sacred promise to keep it well supplied with oil, gas, and water.

“What’s his name?” I asked as I departed with my new traveling companion.

“Josephine, Monsieur.”

“Josephine! See here, mon vieux, I cannot have a traveling companion with a name like that! What would my family say? Think of the gossip! I shall call him ‘Hannibal,’” and “Hannibal” it was.

The donkey and I spent the night at l’Hospitalet, screwing up our courage for the dash next day to Soldeau, the first Andorran outpost, ten hours distant and four thousand feet higher up.

Again the villagers, gathered about the fire, tried to discourage me, but it was too late to withdraw now.

Next morning, Hannibal, having been rescued from the snow drifts that had piled against his stable door, began to lead me up the ice-hidden trail. We left l’Hospitalet at seven, under a leaden and ominous sky. Eight hours later we reached the peak of the pass in such a blizzard of rioting snow and freezing winds as to obliterate everything twenty feet away. In the storm I soon lost all sense of time and direction, and followed the little donkey’s guidance with blind faith.

But just as centuries ago the original Hannibal stood on the crest of the Pyrenees and shook his fist at the Roman camps in Gaul, his unworthy namesake of a mule, following in reverse order the Carthaginian’s example, brayed triumphantly when at last the summit was attained and the valleys of Andorra were seen trickling into the distance.

Once over the top the storm moderated with astonishing suddenness. With fair weather, came houses and a visible trail leading into Soldeau. Here I found a nice animal shed for Hannibal, but if he got no better accommodations there than I did at the inn next door it must have gone hard with him.

Next morning we were off at sun up, and had been descending the steep and jagged path for eight hours or more, when a turn in the trail suddenly disclosed a great rift in the mountain and a broad tree-dotted flat, where the stream ceased to roar and began to babble as it wound quietly to the opposite end. There, on the hillside, was Andorra City, climbing slightly above the verdant floor of this sunlit garden, the most pathetic, the most miserable capital city of any nation in the world. Yet appearances are deceitful, for when, nearly a week later, I bade the place farewell, it was with a heavy heart. This dirty little village houses such simple and such charming people that one is loath to leave them and return again to the world with its complexities, its unhappiness, and its burdensome wisdom.

Hannibal led me on a conducted tour of the city which took nearly ten minutes. From the Grande Place we visited the two hotels. My first object was to see which had the less disagreeable odor; but as there was little choice, I registered at the one with the fewer dogs.

I soon saw that whatever Andorra was, it was not French. Owing to the difficulty of communication with the north it has been the influence of Spain that has molded the character of the country. The language is Spanish dialect, the costumes, money, customs, faces and physiques, are Spanish, though strange to say their preference for France as a nation, and loyalty to their sister republic rather than Spain, is unqualified. During the World War, this midget nation, which of all countries in the world had no irons in the fire, realized that her ancient republican ideals were in danger, and out of her six thousand people, rushed nine men to the French colors. Three returned with decorations, three came home blind or maimed, and three, to the everlasting honor of the littlest ally, fell fighting in defense of the principles held sacred by the republic, the oldest existing republic in the world.

To these three heroes a monument is to be erected in the Place de la Concorde, and on it is to be emblazoned in French:


After dinner on my first evening I inquired from what French-speaking source I might gather more information about Andorra.

“Well, the president might accommodate you, Señor.”

“Does the president receive callers at the executive mansion in the evening?”

Si, Señor, unless he’s spending it at the café.”

And so it was that I came to call on his Excellency, and be hospitably escorted into the White House kitchen and seated in slippered ease with my distinguished host before the hearth.

From the simple appearance of his house it was obvious that the chief dignitary was truly one of the people. The big fire on the floor was not a whit different from the fires in all other houses, nor were the cooking implements less crude than those at Soldeau. A mother cat and her five kittens lay curled close to the glowing coals, and a big dog put a friendly paw into my lap when I had taken a seat in one of the home-made chairs.

The simplicity and gentleness of the old man charmed me at once. Whatever awe I was prepared to hold him in, melted away into sympathy—almost affection—as I saw him lift up one of the kittens and stroke it to sleep against his breast.

He was not only willing, but eager, to talk. In response to my questions concerning the origin of Andorra he chatted away for a half-hour telling me how the son of Charlemagne having expelled the Moors from the Pyrenees in the eleventh century proclaimed the independence of the people of these valleys in return for their valiant assistance. In 1278 the tiny country, for protection, came under the joint guardianship of both France and Spain, and this dual responsibility has continued to exist up to the present time. Thus protected by her two great neighbors, Andorra has drifted along through the centuries, history-less. She has had no wars, no enemies, no social upheavals, no heroes, no dominating figures, no change. She has been protected by her weakness, her isolation, and her poverty. No one would gain anything by gaining Andorra.

“What share do these two guardians take in the government?”

“Really very little, though disapproval of a measure from either is sufficient to block action. But that never happens,” he added with a shrug. “Our government is so simple and so old an injudicious act is most unlikely. We have nothing to legislate, you see. While our twenty-four congressmen are convoked four times a year, they sit for only two days and often there is not enough to do to occupy them that long.”

“Your people seem supremely content.”

“Yes, it is true. It is true because we have nothing with which to contrast what we think is happiness. There was never a greater adherent to tradition than the Andorran.

“A civil war was almost precipitated by the progressive party wishing to introduce the violin and cornet for our fête dancing in the place of the age-old musette and tambourine. We have no art, no industry, no literature. Few of us have ever seen a railroad or a moving picture. But after all, what have we to do with progress? Look at the barren rocks and arid mountains! There is only one life for us—pastoral, and from that we must get what joy we can in loving the melancholy charm of our country and in worshiping the God that speaks so clearly on such a day as this has been.”

“What of your population? Has it increased through the centuries?”

“No, Monsieur, it has fluctuated not two hundred people in six hundred years. We have between fifty-eight hundred and six thousand now, always have had and always will have. There is no hope of industry to attract outsiders. We are destined never to expand. It is a struggle to live even now, compressed as we are between two mountain walls.”

“Have you traveled in Europe much?”

“Yes, a good deal,” he replied, and I had to struggle to suppress a smile when he added naively: “I’ve been to Barcelona once, and into France as far as Toulouse. Of course I do not count Ax and Urgel. Some day, when my term is over, I hope to visit Paris and Madrid.”

Our conversation then turned to America, concerning which he had a few ideas, all grossly mistaken; so that it was midnight when I felt they had all been corrected, and made ready to depart.

“If you will come back tomorrow I will show you the Capitol,” he said, holding a candle to guide me out of the door.

I walked home across the deserted Place de la Concorde, lit by a fading moon half eclipsed by a snowy mountain-top, and thought what a modest and delightful gentleman was the president of the republic of Andorra.

When, after several days I began to make my plans for departure, I felt there was only one thing lacking to the complete success of my visit and that was a picture of the president, on whom I had called several times after our first meeting. So, taking my camera, one sunny morning I set out to hunt him down and photograph him if possible. In fact I was so absorbed in resolving not to be denied this last favor I should have passed him in the street had he not spoken to me. He was dressed in his working-clothes and slippers, so that but for his celluloid collar and untied string cravat which distinguished him above his fellow-countrymen he might have been mistaken for a muleteer—which is exactly what he was before interests of state called him to the capital.

“Good morning, Mr. President; this is a fortunate meeting. I am leaving today, and was looking for you that I might take your picture as a reminder of my pleasant visit in your city.”

Though greatly embarrassed at having so much attention centered on him, he finally agreed, since it was not in his kindly nature to be unaccommodating.

“But not now,” he pleaded. “Come to my house in an hour, and I will have my robe and hat of office ready to put on. I am not the president dressed like this—only a farmer.”

I readily agreed to wait, and on going to his house at the appointed time found a change in his appearance nothing short of miraculous. He was arrayed in his Sunday suit; his leather shoes shone from fresh polish; he had had a haircut, and he made me wait ten minutes longer while his daughter straightened his new tie and brushed his coat. At last, he stood on his sunlit veranda, with the gown of office hanging from his shoulders, and while the daughter with her smiling infant tucked under one arm held the clothes-line out of the way of his face I took the picture—which, thanks to my violent prayers, did not disappoint me.

He was the last person to whom I bade goodbye.

“Adieu, Monsieur,” I said as we shook hands. “Vive Andorra et vive son Président!”

“You are very kind,” he replied, “but we are a simple people unaccustomed to any glory. I hope you have received a courteous reception in our country, and regret that you must go so soon, but if you must, adieu, et bon voyage.

A native son of the mountains, he stood in the doorway as I untied Hannibal from the White House hitching-post, and watched us until we had crossed the square and turned on to the south-bound trail.

My mule and I soon reached the southern gate that leads on to the nearby Spanish town of Seo d’Urgel, and as I turned to look back once more at the magnificent panorama, the sun broke from the clouds and the wind blowing from the north brought the graduated rumble of the distant cataracts. A wave of sadness swept over me as I beheld for the last time the green and happy Valley of Andorra, and there was a sigh in my voice as I gave the mule a prod and cried:

“Spain, Hannibal, Spain!”

From The Royal Road to Romance by Richard Halliburton*

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