Who knew that Andorra was even a proper country, much less one with a definite character of its own – a mix of high quality Swiss-style modernity and sharp Latin flavour. Or that only drivers can get there.
Our first impressions of Andorra were not great. After driving all day we arrive to find the door of the minibar is covered in goat fur. Even in the dark we can see the long view down the valley is blotted by the giant 1700 space Grandvalira ski station car park.
However, within minutes of setting out to explore the next morning our prejudices are completely overturned.
It helps that the main road above the hotel tops out at 2408m. That’s very high by European standards but you wouldn’t know it from the wide, smooth road.
No dizzying manoeuvres are required up here, and there’s a petrol station where we fill up with diesel at 86c per litre.
It was also a great idea to drive into the capital Andorra La Vella for the day. The 15 mile journey – more or less from one end of the country to the other – is entirely downhill along a narrow, high sided valley, through a succession of neat and tidy Alpine-style resort towns.
Quite how Andorra got a reputation for cheap and cheerful skiing holidays is not clear from here. It all looks very slick and solid, every balcony a mass of pot plants, and zero gaudy hoardings.
It is clear why your average discrete tax exile might prefer this to the Swiss alternative.
The ‘problem’ is that Andorra is one of the few countries in the world without an airport. There are plenty of helicopters around, otherwise the only way in and out is via road.
It is a member of the EU through France but not part of the customs union, hence frequent border delays at the two main entrances, one in the east with France, and one in the west with Spain.
Meanwhile, Andorra la Vella old town is mercifully compact, and very well-kept. On the hills above is a walk way for fantastic panoramic views over the city.
We spend the afternoon at l’Arrosseria, a little café in the shadow of the 12th century Sant Esteve church, having one of our all-time great lunches.
It’s tapas-style in the sense we share six dishes but the portions are generous and filling.
Standouts include fluffy potato Croquetas de Cocido, the fat melting off the side of the ham and the (delicious) raw garlic cloves served with every course.
With coffee, four bottles of the local, thick tasty mineral water and a glass of house wine there is enough change from €50 for a healthy tip.
The next day we spend in the mountains around Grau Roig which, in the blazing mid-September sunshine, we have more or less to ourselves.
Up a scrubby off-road track, at 2350m, is the Pessons Lake, overlooked by 2781m Montmalus and the excellent Restaurante Refugi del Llac dels Pessons (signature dish champagne and oysters).
From there the fully-signed track goes ever higher before completing a loop back down to the hotel on the other side of the mountain via another lake. The dog absolutely loved it.
All three nights we ate at the hotel because there was nowhere else within walking distance.
It was a shame only the full service gastronomic restaurant was open though they were happy to serve us in the bar with the dog curled up at our feet.
After days spent tramping around one way or the other, the traditional Andorran mountain food normally served on the terrace would have suited us better.
There were only two local wines on the menu, the cheapest at €75 a bottle. It was very good! Pure and clean.
Despite having a great time we kicked ourselves for having overlooked this place for so long. Back in 2007 we bypassed Andorra on a trip through the Pyrenees without a second thought. It was a big mistake.
The little mountainous principality, with great roads, a tradition of fine food and wine, and a well-developed hospitality industry – not to mention in easy reach of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean – might be Europe’s best kept secret.