Andorra: Europe’s Best Kept Secret

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Andorra is one of Europe’s oldest states, but one of its most unknown and perhaps its best kept secret, writes Royalty’s Anthony Bailey. Tucked away amongst the mountains of the Pyrenees between France and Spain, this small principality of under 200 square miles has only recently opened its doors to the outside world, despite being inhabited for thousands of years. Its history is complicated for the beginner. It was part of the Roman Empire in its heyday and first mentioned in church documents as early as 839. A national charter was written by Charlemagne and it wasn’t until his death that Andorra fell under the rule of the Count of Urgell; one of the powerful aristocratic families of Spain. The transfer of power to the Bishop of Urgell, whose descendants to this day remain a Co-Prince of Andorra, occurred in 1133, although this became the subject of a prolonged battle with the Count of Foix in neighbouring France. It wasn’t until 1278 that the two sides signed a peace treaty forced on them by the King of Aragon. This treaty and another signed eleven years later, established that Andorra would be independent but was required to pay an annual tribute alternated each year between the Count and the Bishop.

This agreement called the Pareage is still today the basis of Andorra’s constitution and political independence. Over the years the title of Co-Prince changed hands on the French side of the border. Henry II of Foix became King Henry IV of France and the title of Co-Prince passed to the French Crown. However in 1793 the French Monarchy was overthrown and for the next fifteen years the Andorrans were without the protection of the French Head of State. This was of great concern to the people as it was feared that the Bishop would take the opportunity to revoke their independence and make them a subordinate territory. When Napoleon became Emperor of France he issued in 1806 an Imperial Decree establishing himself as Co-Prince and joint guarantor of Andorra’s independence and hence a return to the status quo. When France became a Republic, in 1870, the role became part of the duties and powers of the President of the Republic who is currently Jacques Chirac.

Royalty’s Anthony Bailey during his rare meeting with Co-Prince Bishop Joan Marti.

Royalty’s Anthony Bailey during his rare meeting with Co-Prince Bishop Joan Marti.

Today, despite years of isolation from the outside world, Andorra has become a place where millions of visitors have experienced at first hand the treasures of this small nation, including the beauty of its countryside and hospitality of its people. Historically, it is one of the few countries in Europe that has not been invaded, which is surprising given its history and geographical location. Andorra has managed over centuries, despite its tiny population of 64,000 today, to maintain its independence and its own identity and culture alongside those of its dominant neighbours. In part, this has much to do with the unusual nature of its political system. It is a Principality without a Princely or Royal Family. The two Co-Princes – the President of France and the Bishop of Urgell in Spain – rule in a tradition of feudalism that has not changed since the Middle Ages. Not until the political upheavals which resulted in 1993 with the adoption of a constitution did Andorra become a fully independent, democratic, parliamentary co-­principality. I took a trip to the country to find out more.

I had an audience with one of the Co-Princes of Andorra, His Excellency Bishop Joan Marti and interviewed the new and powerful Head of Government or Prime Minister, The Very Illustrious Marc Forne Molne. The capital, Andorra La Vella, is some ten minutes from the border control with Spain. This is a small cosmopolitan city with a mixture of old and new architecture situated at the base of a valley surrounded by snow capped mountains. Andorra is a tax free haven and so many visit for the plentiful shops and department stores. Others visit the capital for the day from the many ski resorts that are dotted throughout the country and enjoy the many museums, night clubs and the world renown Caldea, a leisure thermal water palace. The Prime Minister’s Office is very close to the historic parliament building, the Casa de la Vall. Only three hours before my interview, Mr Forne Molne had been sworn in officially as Cap de Govern or Prime Minister at the Parliament after recent elections gave him an overall majority.

The Church of Saint Andreu d’Arinsal. The principality, lying between France and Spain shares the Roman Catholic tradition with its neighbours.

The Church of Saint Andreu d’Arinsal. The principality, lying between France and Spain shares the Roman Catholic tradition with its neighbours.

The Prime Minister is a man who does not stand on ceremony. He is hardworking, friendly, and a bit of an secret Anglophile, who is clearly delighted at the new role that the Andorrans have entrusted him with. “It is of course a great honour to be entrusted by the people of Andorra with the position of Cap de Govern”, the Prime Minister declared. “Andorra has gone through a radical and dramatic transformation. We are now a fully fledged parliamentary democracy and have our own constitution. We are traditionally a mountain people who have over centuries maintained our own culture and traditions whilst opening ourselves up to those of our neighbours. We speak Catalan as the official language as well as Spanish and French and share so much of our lives with our friends in Spain and France. In a way Andorra is a sort of melting pot of all three. Obviously our political system is unique in so far as we have had for centuries shared sovereignty between the French Head of State and the Roman Catholic Bishop of Urgell. This is very important to our people as this agreement has guaranteed the sovereignty of the Principality. However there was growing frustration that we were still being run in an outdated way. In 1982 the Government of Andorra was formed and this led the movement for more political change. François Mitterand, the former French President and Co-Prince of Andorra, was also keen to develop democracy in our country as was our very democratic Co-Prince, Bishop Joan Marti.” (Extract from Royalty Magazine Vol.14/09)  © Leppi Publications.