01 October 2011

Going out In Andorra La Vella

Andorra's capital and largest city, Andorra la Vella is a cluttered nest of tax-free shopping emporiums and bulk-tobacco stores. The old town isn't all that impressive, the thump of clothing-store music fills the air, the steep valley sides prompt claustrophobia. Sure, people visit. They might even spend the night. But they probably won't stay for long.
And that's why going out in Andorra la Vella is so much fun. Outside the main tourist center, away from the bright lights and fistfulls of shopping bags, there are enough interesting, local bars to make anyone forget about the main drag.
Crossing from France into Andorra, the culture changes dramatically. The border signals a tipping point between Gallic and Iberian; the shift is reflected in the look of the people, in the food, in the language, in the hour that people eat. In Andorra, tapas are often just called snacks. Food is taken late, but bars are busy early. The French separation between food and barstools is gone, replaced by a casual relationship between the two which extends from the bakery to the serious watering hole. Food is everywhere, liquor is everywhere.
Where the electronics stores end, the small canteens begin - Andorra la Vella's two best stretches for bar hopping are at both ends of the center. Avinguda del Doctor Mitjavila, to the east, has a number of relaxed local spots - our two favorites are Snack Bar Diva, pictured above, and BO, a small gourmet store with a few tables. At BO, we ate delicate anchovies and cured pernil with wine. The owner poured everyone free glasses of cava and gave us a pair of delicious oysters before we left. At Diva, the same regulars seem to occupy their spaces along the bar all day, smoking constantly and eating bocadillos for sustenance.
On the other side of the valley town, a loop of low-key bars is created by Carrer de la Ciutat de Valls and Avinguda del Princep Benlloch. Few of the establishments could be described as simply as "bar" - most of them serve food and some even have rooms to let. Each has its cadre of patrons, most of whom eat a little and talk a lot. Children sit sleeping next to their parents, heads down on the table. Something small is served with each drink: hazlenuts at one place; croquetas at another; tiny, hard olives at a third. Picking a place to drink on this side of town is like window shopping; just stroll along until the atmosphere seems right.
Andorra la Vella has a way of feeling both frenetic and sleepy. It's been slightly sleazy for a long time, fueled by a sense that the land is hidden away from the strict eyes of Europe. Tourists have always come looking for theft-level bargains, and they've never stayed too long. It's why life on the outskirts feels so undisturbed, and why wandering into a tavern off the primary strip can still prompt more curiosity than rolled eyes.
These tabernas were the perfect place to land, amongst the colors and voices, and they have us excited about the next stretch of our journey. Cresting the Pyrenees, tasting new flavors, sipping new types of wine, losing track of the rapid language, it seems that the whole of the Iberian peninsula is spread out below us. It's hard not to take in too much of it at once.


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