leaving Tarascon-sur-Ariege, particularly our 7 hour epic loop theprevious day, the unexpectedly kind weather finally came to a soggy end on Tuesday when we awoke to the unmistakeable machine gun sound of rain hitting our motorhome roof. Having studied our hiking maps the previous night we knew there were a few shortish hikes nearby that we could try and hope that the drizzle stayed away or at least light for a few hours. However, after some physically demanding days we decided instead to try a change of routine and pay a visit to Andorra, just a few miles up the road.
Although our love of hiking in the mountains can often make the presence of national borders seem incredibly arbitrary since the rocks don't care whether they are French or Spanish, we still had a fascination with visiting a new country even if just for a few hours. Also, we had heard that it was possible to get a bargain on electronics in Andorra and Esther had been keen to pick up a better camera for some months, having developed a passion for photography on this trip but being frustrated at not being able to get even close to capturing the incredible scenery we had visited so far with our little point and shoot. So, after making our way up the steep road from l'Hospitalet-pres-l'Andorre we arrived in el Pas de la Casa at 2085m just across the border in Andorra.
We'd from fellow travellers that Andorra was a little like a shopping centre that filled a valley, but we were not prepared for the sight that met us as we parked up just before lunch in the grey light. The surrounding scenery was beautiful, with high mountains ringed around a glacial valley covered in snow and stretching up into the heavy clouds. However, the contrast with the foreground couldn't have been more stark as row upon row of garishly coloured ski stores mixed with supermarkets crammed with booze, cigarettes, gifts, perfume and junk food cluttered the rocky plateau that made up el Pas de la Casa. For outdoor lovers like ourselves it just felt so out of place.
Setting off in earnest we did manage to track down several electronics stores amongst the mass of cigarettes, alcohol, meat and laundry detergents and were pleasantly surprised to find that the prices of electronics were indeed very low compared to the sterling prices we were used to. On our first attempt we only managed about half an hour of browsing before we had reached our limit and needed a break so returned to the motorhome to pay a visit to a nearby petrol station to take advantage of the much lower diesel prices. What we weren't prepared for was having to drive up to 2400m to fill up! The highest the motorhome has ever been, but at just 83p per litre (50p per litre less than in the UK at the time) it was well worth it.
Heading back into town we spent a little time stood outside of McDonalds to use the free internet to compare prices on some camera models, confirming that the prices in Andorra were indeed much lower, costing less in euros than the cheapest sterling price we could find online. So after some deliberation and much haggling we did also leave Andorra with a very fancy camera as well, although it would be another 2 days before the weather brightened enough to give it a try in the outside world.
Driving downhill, over the Col de Puymorens and back into France towards our planned stopover point in Saillagouse we reflected on what had been a very odd day for us. A visit to el Pas de la Casa has been a big culture shock after almost the entire summer and autumn in the mountains of Switzerland and France. It would have been fascinating to drive through the rest of Andorra which had been described to us as a valley turned into a shopping centre with ski runs heading up into the hills and tower blocks crammed onto the hillside. However, we weren't quite ready to leave France. Also, our foray back into the hustle and bustle of civilisation was a stark reminder that with winter on the way we would soon be leaving the mountains for warmer climes. However, it had also been very interesting and we had a great camera to show for our efforts to capture our next trip up into to the mountains.
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