From time immemorial, when winter swirled through the valleys of Andorra, everything shut down. In the 1920s, the hotels of this tiny speck of a country, closed their doors and shuttered their windows. The mountain tracks leading up from France would be blocked meters high by snow till Spring finally came and the strengthening sun thawed the ground.
Then, in 1929, the Consell General, or parliament, struck a deal with FHASA (Forces Hidroelèctriques d’Andorra). In exchange for a 75 year contract giving it permission to harness Andorra’s waters to produce electricity, FHASA agreed to build a network of all-weather roads, sell their electricity at a reduced price to Andorrans and to pay for an Andorran police force!
In 1933 the road from Andorra la Vella to the French frontier at Pas de la Casa was completed. Andorra was open for business all year round. (The pass of Pas de la Casa marks the watershed of the Pyrenees, being the only point in Andorra from where water drains to the Atlantic. At around 2,400 metres, it also remains one of the highest points in Europe’s road network.)
Then, at the start of the 50s, a crazy Catalan Olympic skier, Francesc Viladomat leaped onto the scene. Seven times ski champion of Spain, resident of Andorra since the age of 10, Francesc had a single-mined obsession. He was going to start a ski resort in Pas de la Casa.
There were three things in his favour: 1) the enterprising vision of some Andorran ex-pats, familiar with other successful ski resorts and so able to recognise the possibilities, 2) the willingness of early ski enthusiasts to cross-country ski to the top of the mountain twice each day so that they could ski down again – also twice a day, and 3) the collaboration of the owners of the land, the Comú of Encamp, who offered them an exceptionally favourable deal. Considering this was a pretty risky initiative, the rental price of 10 pts a year for the first two years, rising to 3,000 pts in following years in case of success, seems both perspicacious and more than generous!
But of course it wasn’t all smooth slaloms. There was a land dispute with the neighbouring parish of Canillo. The site of the ski lift had to be moved twice. Locals objected too. At one time armed men had to stand guard over the ski lift towers after threats to blow them up. Finally, in 1956, Francesc Viladomat installed the first ski lift on the peak of Coll Blanc in Pas de la Casa. Powered by a lorry engine, the lift was two kilometres long whilst gaining 480 metres in height. It could carry up to 450 skiers per hour.
Over the years, small ski stations mushroomed both in the east of Andorra: Grau Roig, Soldeu and El Tarter, and at Arinsal, Pal and Arcalis to the north and all catering for cheap and cheerful skiing and lots of duty free shopping. Andorra’s economy had taken off.
Next the shops moved upmarket, indeed when I first came here I had a problem finding gloves that were not Christian Dior. The hotels grew larger and plusher. The glistening Caldea spa centre was built. The prosperity impacted on all aspects of the country’s culture.
Possibly there is no country in the world that has been more transformed by winter sports than Andorra. In October 2003 the four stations to the east amalgamated to form Grandvalira, becoming the largest skiing domain in the Pyrenees. At the time, the new area boasted more high-speed six-seater chairlifts than any other on the planet. Ah and something else has changed since Vilodomat’s day. Those new, high speed chair-lifts can carry 2,400 skiers an hour.
The three stations to the north soon followed suit to form Vallnord. Here Arcalis has become a favourite venue for the Freeride World Tour (10th – 16th February) Last year, for the first time Grandvalira hosted the FIS Women’s Alpine Skiing World Cup. The organisational success of this event has led to Grandvalira being asked to host the prestigious FIS Alpine Ski World Cup finals, 2019. (See below in Pick of the Week for this coming weekend’s ISMF World Cup Ski Mountaineering event.)
So you see a deal with a hydroelectric power company in 1929 which led to the building of an all-weather access road from France, has in turn led to the highly developed Andorra of today hosting World Championship skiing events. And, by the way, in July this year Vallnord will once again be hosting an MTB World Cup mountain bike challenge.
CULTURAL PICK OF THE WEEK
CONCERT: Friday, 20th January at 21.30 in the Centre de Congressos, Andorra la Vella (Free) Chinese New Year Concert.
FOLK DANCE: Saturday, 21st January at 19h in the National Auditorium, Ordino. Aparences a spectacular to commemorate the 5th anniversary of the Esbart de les Valls del Nord by the main folk dance group and the veterans.
FREE LUNCH! Feast of Sant Antoni. Sunday, 22nd January at 13h in the Plaça de l’Església, Pas de la Casa. (Free) Escudella de Sant Antoni Between Encamp and Pas de la Casa, the Encamp Comú distributes 1,500 portions, containing more than 3,000 meat balls, 700 liters of broth made from chicken, pork, rice, chickpeas, vegetables and all prepared by the expert hands of the seniors of the parish.
LA LA LAND: Wednesday 18th to Thursday, 19th January at 20.15 at the Cinemes Illa Carlemany, Escaldes-Engordany. La La Land Directed by Damien Chazelle and Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Rosemarie DeWitt The story of Mia, an aspiring actress, and Sebastian, a dedicated jazz musician, struggling to make ends meet while pursuing their dreams in a city known for destroying hopes and breaking hearts. With modern day Los Angeles as the backdrop, this musical about everyday life explores what is more important: a once-in-a-lifetime love or the spotlight. La La Land won all seven Golden Globe Awards for which it had been nominated: Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy, Best Director & Best Screenplay for Damien Chazelle. Ryan Gosling: Best Actor, Emma Stone: Best Actress, Justin Hurwitz: Best Original Score and Best Original Song: City of Stars, thus becoming the most successful film in the Golden Globe Awards history.
ISMF WORLD CUP: Saturday, 21st January at Arcalis and Sunday, 22nd January at Arinsal ISMF (International Ski Mountaineering Federation) World Cup and Andorra Cup La Font Blanca. (See the program of events on the website fontblanca.ad) The best athletes in the world of Ski Mountaineering will be competing in Arcalis on Saturday in the individual event and in Arinsal on Sunday for the ‘explosive’ Vertical Race (an uphill race on skis). All races will enjoy excellent visibility from the ski slopes offering a great show, both for watching skiers and their companions.
If you want to learn more in depth about Andorra try reading “Andorra Revealed”.