Back in March, a new airline called Level launched service. They are a low-cost airline owned by the holding company IAG, which also owns British Airways and Iberia. At the time, they only flew from Barcelona to Punta Cana, Oakland, and Los Angeles on brand new A330 planes. The flights to/from Los Angeles were on Thursdays and Sundays. As a promotional fare, they were offering $160 one-way flights between the two cities in April and October for a grand total of $320 roundtrip for the weekend. Norweigan Air, another budget European airline, also flies this route so I forsee cheap prices on this route for the near future.
With my April already booked, I decided to book the flight over the Columbus Day weekend since I had a day off from work. My flight was scheduled leave Los Angeles on the Thursday at 9:20 pm, arriving 5:30pm Friday and would leave Barcelona on Sunday at 3:30pm, arriving 8:00 pm.
Having already been to Barcelona, I decided to rent a car with the intent of exploring Andorra, an independent principality 3 hours from the airport. There were direct buses but the car ended up being similar in price, but more reliable.
The weekend before my flight, Catalonia (the region of Spain containing Barcelona) had a vote for independence from Spain. The people voted 90% for independence, although turnout was low due to a number of factors including a boycott from the main opposition party and the intervention by the Spanish government.
The Catalan government then had to meet to discuss the results of the referendum, which could have resulted in a declaration of independence from Spain. While I did not have an opinion of independence, I did not want to travel to the region and have independence declared while I was there, which could have resulted in the airport shutting down in a tricky political situation. All week I voraciously followed the news to make sure I could go.
Luckily, the day before I was scheduled to leave, the Catalan parliament said they would meet to discuss independence on Monday, the day after I was scheduled to leave. The trip was on!
October 5, 2017: The Flight There
With my flight, first night hotel, and car booked, I boarded the 9:20 pm flight to Barcelona. The all-economy aircraft was nice- the only catch was that food was not included and had to be purchased a-la-carte. Despite being a budget airline, the entertainment system was good and I was able to watch a few movies and sleep on the 11-hour flight.
October 6, 2017: The Drive to Andorra and Dinner
At 5:30 pm, we landed in Barcelona. I quickly got into my rental car- a tiny manual Fiat Panda and hit the road.
The drive to Andorra took 3 hours. The first half of the drive took me through the Spanish plains and rolling hills. The second half of the drive went up through the Pyrenees. Spanish roads were quite different from US roads. The biggest differences were the lack of shoulders, the use of roundabouts instead of traffic lights (I hit zero traffic lights) and the use of tunnels (I went through at least 25 tunnels on my drive). Elegant would be the word I would use to describe these roads.
At the 2 hour 45 minute mark, I took a roundabout in the town of Seu de Urgell and reached the Andorran border. Andorra is neither part of the EU or the Shengen Area, so I had to pass through border control. However, since Andorra only borders the Shengen countries of France and Spain, the border patrol is incredibly lax. Most cars breezed through the border without even stopping. However, having heard that Andorra offers border stamps on request, I asked the border guard for a stamp. He accepted, but instead of a the rare Andorran stamp, gave me a Spanish exit stamp. Past that I didn’t see any opportunity to get an Andorran stamp. This border is so chill the entire crossing can be viewed on Google Street View.
The roadside scenery was quite different in Andorra. Large shopping malls appeared out of nowhere and the road had an unbelievable number of roundabouts with beautifully maintained flower displays as I drove to the capitol city Andorra La Vella 15 minutes past the border.
I parked my car in one of the city lots and strolled through town. Because Andorra is a popular duty free shopping destination, the town was incredibly clean and full of shops. It felt similar to the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica but without the street performers.
I wandered over to the famed Marisqueria Don Denis, a Spanish restaurant with ceiling covered with pictures of celebrities who dined there. I ordered a 3-course meal for $22 euros that also included a glass of champagne. It was a great deal.
It was now nearly midnight so I checked into my budget hotel and fell asleep.
October 7, 2017: My Full Day in Europe
I woke up at 5am. It was pitch black, as the sun didn’t rise until 8am this time of year. Since this was my only full day in Europe, I had to make the most of it. While I still didn’t have concrete plans, I had decided I wanted to do at least one hike in the morning. My mind was torn the whole way, but I decided to drive up to the ski town of Arinsal, a mere 15 minutes away from La Vella. There, I stopped at a gas station and purchased food and water and parked outside a ski lodge. Since it was early October, the mountains did not have any snow and the temperature was around 45 degrees.
Just past Arinsal is the Comapedrosa National Park, home of… the Coma Pedrosa, Andorra’s highest peak. Websites listed the hike as a 9-12 hours roundtrip hike.
As I set off from the parking lot, I noticed two people walking ahead of me with headlamps. I pointed ahead and asked in my broken Spanish “Ruta Coma Pedrosa?”
“Si” one of the men responded.
I cautiously followed 30 feet behind them, not to close as to to infringe on their time together in nature, but not too far so I could follow them to the top of the mountain since all the directional signs were in Catalan.
About 30 minutes into the hike, it was obvious that we were all going to hike together whether they liked it or not.
“Mi llamo Bryce” My name is Bryce
“Rafa y Jave”
While I spoke very little Spanish and they very little English, we were able to learn a bit about each other. They were from Valencia. Jave was Rafa’s wife’s father. 4 years ago they tried to climb the peak, but accidentally climbed the wrong peak. Now they are back for redemption.
The trail crossed a few streams and steeply climbed up a valley. About 2 hours in, we reached a large plateau. Here the trail veered off to the left and headed towards a “refugio” or hut that serves as a backpacker’s shelter. We haven’t stopped for water once.
But here, Rafa and Jave stopped. After a long pause, Rafa pointed to the mountain and said “Nosotros … ayee”. We are going there.
What he implied is that even though the trail wound its way around the valley, my amigos wanted to go off trail straight up the mountain in order to climb faster.
“Vamanos” Let’s go! I replied.
The slope got considerably steeper as we now trod our way through tough sharp grass. Ice crystals formed around the edges of the tiny streams forming.
5 minutes in, they were breathing deeply. “Nosotros hombres viejo” We’re old men.
Because the mountain was so steep, we were able to ascend the ridge in only 65 minutes, which included a few breaks. 10 minutes later, we were standing at the summit of Coma Pedrosa 9,656 feet high in the Pyrenees.
The view was incredible. Mountains spread as far as the eye could see in all directions. Practically all of tiny Andorra was visible from here. 5,000 feet below we could see tiny Arinsal. Just one mile to our north was France and 800 feet to the west was Spain.
After scoping out the view, Rafa and Jave, much to my surprise, took out a bottle of wine and began to picnic on the summit. I added some of the wine to my water bottle to celebrate with them.
We spent 30 minutes on the summit before heading down. The way down was different from the way up but was equally as steep. It wasn’t quite rock climbing down, but we were holding onto rocks with our hands as we tried not to slide down the mountain. Scrambling is the mountaineering term used to describe this situation.
We scrambled down 3,000 feet of piles of rocks. Right at the end, I took a tumble and cut my hand. Luckily there were no nerves there so I could’t feel anything.
Eventually, we reached another refugio and a trail! From this spot, it was another 90 minutes of hiking to reach the car at around 1:30 pm. We were exhausted, but also invigorated for having climbed to the highest point in the country 2 hours faster than any guide book said we could.
Mountaineering protocol dictates that one has to drink a celebratory beer after climbing a mountain. Rafa and Jave were familiar with the protocol but thought that this climb was epic enough that we needed to drink 2 beers! Luckily there was an Argentinian restaurant nearby where we downed the beers and a huge platter of grilled meat.
Now full, I drove back into town for some sightseeing. Andorra La Vella has a very compact “old town” with cobblestone streets and historic buildings. Of particular note was the Casa de la Vall, the capitol building of Andorra. I took a 30 minute guided tour of what must be the world’s smallest capitol building.
Andorra was created in the year 988 by an unusual agreement. The Bishop of Urgell (in present day Spain) knew that a local count wanted to claim the valleys of Andorra as his own. The bishop sought out the Lord of Caboet (in present day France). The two leaders agreed to jointly rule Andorra as co-princes. Through the passage of time, various marriages and the Hugenot rebellion, the French co-prince’s title eventually went to the King of France. After the abolition of the French monarchy, Napoleon took the title. Today, the President of France is the Co-Prince, which is quite strange as he is elected by the people of France but rules Andorra.
Since the co-princes do not actually live in Andorra, the government’s affairs were run by a legislative council of twenty-eight council. In the 1970’s a Head of Government position was created, essentially rendering the co-princes as figureheads. The tiny council meets in an incredibly elaborate room on the second floor of the Casa de la Vall while the Head of Government now has offices in the building next door. The judicial system named the Tribunal, meets in a very cool wood paneled room on the first floor of the Casa de la Vall.
It was now 4:30 and I was exhausted and sore from the day’s activities. Luckily, Andorra is home to the 18-story Caldea, Europe’s largest spa complex that is the country’s tallest building. Andorra definitely has the right priorities.
Entering the futuristic building, I walked downstairs to the desk of the main spa. The entrance was 38 euros for 3 hours in the spa- steep but when else would I be back?
It turned out to be the best 38 euros I’ve ever spent- this place was basically a spa amusement park. It took me about 90 minutes to fully explore everything. Rather than describe my experiences, here is a list of everything I remember seeing:
Hot puddle room that sprays you.
Gigantic indoor pool with Harry Potter-esque music playing
Multi-level hot tubs with jets
Hot marble to lay on
A roaming photographer that take souvenir pictures
Outdoor pool with multiple places to lounge and stare at the mountains
Pool with a lot of jets where every couple would make out
Random hallway with cactus and air jets
Egyptian-themed hot/cold pool
Iclandic bath: hot pond, cold freezing pond, place to sit on stones as ice cubes fall down on you
Water massage- like a charcot douche, but done by machine jets and clothed
Turkish steam room
7pm light and music show
3 hours later I was relaxed and in awe of the place. I headed out and drove 90 minutes back into Spain to the town of Berga where I got dinner and found a youth hostel.
A family was having some sort of party and everyone was jamming out to Despacito. The children were popping balloons and banging on walls like madmen.
The reception desk technically closed an hour before I arrived, but after asking around, I found the hostel manager who was nice enough to give me a bed. I was the only person actually staying in the hostel so I had a giant 12 bed dorm room to myself.
October 8, 2017: Berga, Montserrat, and the Flight Home
With only a few more hours in Europe, I woke up at 6am. Since the sun didn’t rise until 8 here, it was pitch black and the streets were empty.
I decided to wander around the town of Berga, which was founded sometime before 218 BC. Most of the town’s 16,000 people are concentrated in the old city, perched on a hillside. For 30 minutes, I wandered the dark and narrow streets and for 30 minutes I failed to see a single person. I did see a lot of anarchist, communist, and pro-Catalonian secession graffiti.
As the sky got light, it was time to go, so I got back in my car and drove an hour south. Eventually, I reached the imposing mountain of Montserrat. For a reason I do not know, Montserrat is far taller and rockier than all the surrounding hills.
Montserrat’s most famous attraction is the abbey complex, but it is also a popular rock climbing and hiking destination- making it a rare cultural and natural site. Because the abbey is so popular, there are a few ways to reach it. One way is to drive. Since I was there early in the day, I was able to find space in the parking lot, but apparently there can be 3-4 hour long waits to find spots later in the day. There is also a funicular and a train that can take people to the monastery from the bottom.
The Abbey of Montserrat, officially Santa Maria de Montserrat, has been a pilgrimage site since the 10th century. According to legend, St. Luke carved a statue of the Black Madonna in the year 50 and St. Peter brought it to Spain. The statue then was lost until the year 880, when a group of children playing on Montserrat discovered strange lights coming from a cave on the mountain (I don’t understand how/why kids were playing on there because the cave is located on top of an absurdly steep and narrow cliff). The kids showed their parents who showed their local priest who discovered the statue inside. On the bottom of the statue-since washed away- were the words “Negra Sum Sed Formosa” I am Black, but I am Beautiful.
The priest decided to build a church to house the statue. It has since grown into one of the most popular religious pilgrimage sites in all of Spain, as the statue reportedly has the power to grant miracles. In 1881, the statue was proclaimed patron saint of Catalonia. Needless to say for these reasons, Montserrat is an incredibly popular site especially since it is only 45 minutes from Barcelona.
I did not do my research and was unaware of all this as I parked my car in the lot up top. I then wandered my way over to the monastery complex.
Originally, I was going to walk into the church, but noticed a big crowd gathering around what appeared to be an obscure side entrance to the church. I followed the crowd into a line and 30 minutes later, was face to face with the Black Madonna herself! The statue is now covered in glass with the exception of the orb that she holds in her hand. I touched the orb and stared deeply into her eyes for about 10 seconds not really knowing what to think.
After meeting the Black Madonna, the pathway wound into an ornate side chapel and finally a candle-grotto.
Then I walked into the main part of the church-easily the most ornate church I have ever seen (no I have not been to Italy). High above the altar, I could see the Black Madonna staring right down at me.
It was now 9:30 and the first train had arrived with about 300 tourists in tow. I was very lucky to have arrived earlier. Just outside the church, I saw a sign for an art museum. This museum turned out to be the hidden gem of Montserrat. Casually, there were hundreds of world famous works by artists such as Caravaggio, El Greco, Picasso, and more! My favorite room had paintings of the Black Madonna.
With little time to spare, I decided to see the famous Santa Cova, the cave where the statue was originally found. I ran it, so the journey took about 15 minutes and was very pretty. The cave/church itself was sort of disappointing. After visiting the church, I stood outside sat down and realized that this was the end of my journey. It was time to head home.
I walked back to the parking lot, drove back to the Barcelona Airport and boarded the flight.
The flight back took 13 1/2 hours but flew by since I watched 4 movies including one called “The Trip To Spain”. I landed in LA at 8pm and got home a 9:30, just in time to go to work tomorrow.
It was a lot of travel time, but the scenery was awesome. I also loved the novelty of being in Europe for such a short period. It was an incredible trip and I would certainly do it again!