Duty free at last?


By Adman Boggon

At 2408m, the Port d’Envalira at the northern entrance to Andorra is a royal pain in the ass to cycle over. Yet as my legs ached in the baking Pyrenean sun, the nomadic wonder for pastures new bore me on. I found myself quite looking forward to discovering what the tiny principality of Andorra held in store for us.

Two long hours later we made it to the top. We sat by the side of the road filthy, tired, but at peace. We gazed around the vast panorama and for once backwards, surveying with a little pride the long steep road we had climbed. Then we began our descent.

Almost nothing can compare with the wild, flying joy of hurling down a mountain on a bicycle. All the colours and marvels of the world flood past you at 70 kilometres an hour -which incidentally feels pretty fast. Especially when you are sitting on an excessively laden, generally shaky old road bike on which you have crashed heavily during the previous day.

We rolled down a vast broad valley. The country slowly began to unfold before us. It quickly became clear that something was not quite right. All around us the mountains were peppered with chairlifts and we passed village after village of characterless grey buildings. It felt rather as if there had been some sort of mangled attempt to build a second Hong Kong in the mountains. It had not gone well.

Then we saw it: Andorra de la Vella, the capital city, sat brooding at the bottom of the valley.

“Have we just cycled into a departure lounge?” my friend mused as we chained up our bikes outside an enormous Marlboro shop. He had a point: the entire town seemed to consist of duty-free liquor stores, cigarette shops and boutique banks.

This, to my mind at least, is a great shame because Andorra does actually possess an individual culture of its own. Trinxat, a potato and cabbage dish, is delicious enough if you can find it. I have no doubt an evening spent dancing the Contrapas, a traditional folk dance, would be great fun if you could hear the music over the din of the traffic which day and night charges on.

It was once a beautiful country too. To walk in the freshness of the mountain air and admire the honey buzzards soaring on the thermals of the morning sun would gladden even the grimmest heart. But the shards of skiing paraphernalia that creep and rust over every ridge and precipice make that nearly impossible.

Even at the very entrance to the country your attention is immediately dragged from the splendour of the winding road toward a brutally gaudy apartment block. Which, to give you some idea, I had initially taken to be an extremely colourful cargo storage depot.

I found very little to smile about in the principality of Andorra. In fact the only source of mirth came as a result of innate recklessness: my friend fell over a crash barrier while trying to wheelie his fully loaded touring bike. This is almost never a good idea.

The unfortunate story of Andorra is not particularly a tale of decadence or destructive greed. It is simply one of a nation so small and fragile that it has had to sell itself out in order to draw foreign capital and keep itself afloat. Perhaps there is a lesson here for my own beloved country.

It may be absurd to assert that an independent Scotland would become like Andorra. But there is perhaps something to be gleaned from the paradox found in Andorra. An independent and you would think thus a freer country has been forced to whore itself out and devastate its landscape. Its national identity and culture has been burned out and drowned in a morass of tower blocks and their entire country has been reduced to an impotent state, little more than a vendor of toxins and carcinogens to the gluttons of Western Europe. I do not envy their fate.


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