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Andorra 75 years ago – 1923 – Freya Stark

By Peter Parkinson

A few years ago I invested 50 pence in the purchase of a French language “Blue Guide to Pyrenees”, published in 1925. In fact it covers the part of France from the Spanish frontier as far north as a line Narbonne – Toulouse – Bordeaux, together with five pages of text and a two-page map of Andorra.

A glance at the map will show how difficult communication within Andorra was in those days. The road from France over the Port d’ Envalira went as far as Soldeu, and that from La Seu d’ Urgell reached Andorra la Vella; there was another road from near Meritxell to Escaldes. The gaps in the central valley road were filled by mule tracks, which was also the means of access to the villages of the northern valley, La Massana, Ordino, El Serrat and the others.

The population of the country is recorded as 5210 inhabitants, of whom 500 lived in Andorra la Vella, Canillo being stated as the second most populated village, but Sant Julia de Loria is recorded as having 500 inhabitants, and Ordino with 300.

There were hotels or inns (one each) in Soldeu, Canillo, Ordino, two each in Andorra la Vella and Sant Julia de Loria, no less than four in Escaldes, at most of which guides and mules for excursions could be hired. From Soldeu to Escaldes took 4 hours by mule, while from Andorra la Vella to Ordino took 2 hours. One could get from Aston near Les Cabanas on the N20 in France to Ordino via El Serrat in 12 hours, or from Auzat (17km south-west of Tarascon) over the Port de Rat to Ordino in 12 hours – but this had to be done on foot, the track was not suitable for mules.

Freya Stark, who later went on to explore Persia and Arabia as described in her books “The Valleys of the Assassins” and “The Southern Gates of Arabia”, made a brief visit to Andorra in September 1923.

This is described in a series of letters to her mother, printed in the first volume of her autobiography, “Traveller’s Prelude”.

She and a companion visited Carcassonne and Foix and went to Les Cabanas, between Tarascon and Ax-les-Thermes. From there they hired a guide who took them up the valleys of the river Aston and Quioi, entering Andorra over the Port de Bagnels: 2527 metres above sea level and 4km north-east of El Serrat, In those days there were chamois, bear and wild boar in much greater numbers than now. She described the tiny turf-covered cabins used by shepherds. They had been promised an auberge at El Serrat, but found themselves sleeping on hay in the grange. The couple who kept it had no candles, but lit up their supper with Shreds of pine wood. Electricity – what was that?

From there it was an easy walk down a mule path close the Valira del Nord until they reached Andorra la Vella, staying at the Fonda de Jean Torra and visiting the Casa de la Valls. Finally, on to Seo d’Urgell by motorbus , on a real road.

Published in the Inter-Comm by Peter Parkinson July 2001