(Tribune Media Services) -- High in the mountains where France and Spain come together, I drove for hours with just one goal -- to stand atop a ridge looking into a rugged mountain-ringed basin where nature cradles an ancient tribe. At one time, these pint-sized kingdoms were commonplace, but today only a few survive. Finally, I reached my destination deep in the rugged Pyrenees, the principality of Andorra.
Andorra's capital, Andorra la Vella, sits high in the Pyrenees.
Europe's midget countries have an undeniable curiosity factor. In Europe's tiny derby, the Vatican is the big little winner. Then comes Monaco, San Marino, Liechtenstein, Malta, which, while an island in the Mediterranean, is considered part of Europe, and finally -- measuring about 13 miles by 13 miles, with a population of 80,000 -- Andorra. All of these countries would fit easily into Europe's next smallest country -- the relatively vast Luxemburg.
While Andorra feels impressively remote (and forget about getting there with the convenience of a plane or train), Andorra is just a couple hours' drive out of your way from Carcassonne in the south of France and Barcelona in the Spanish region of Catalunya.
Andorra has a long history. In their national anthem, Andorrans sing of Charlemagne rescuing their land from the Moors in 803. In the 13th century, Spanish and French nobles married. They agreed that the principality would be neither Spanish nor French. This unique feudal arrangement survives today. And, while they have co-princes from other countries (the president of France and a bishop from a town just over the border in Spain), locals stress that Andorra is 100 percent independent.
Until little more than a generation ago, Andorra was an impoverished and isolated backwater. A short drive from the modern capital into the higher valleys takes you to rugged little towns made entirely of stone; their stout 12th-century churches and stony bell towers stand as strong as the Pyrenees around them.
Recently, Andorrans have become wealthy -- thanks to the same mountains that kept them so isolated and poor for so long. Hiking and skiing are big business, stoking a building boom. Huge Vail-like ski-condos, built of perfectly crafted rustic stone, both contrast and match the historic stone buildings they now dwarf and outnumber. Andorrans have long grilled their trout, beef or snails on open fires, and now the Andorran barbecue is a tourist attraction, and big-spending visitors enjoy the snails, which are fed a diet of thyme to become even tastier.
Andorra employs those special economic weapons so popular among Europe's little states: easygoing banking, duty-free shopping and low, low taxes. The principality has morphed from a rough-and-tumble smugglers' haven to a high-tech, high-altitude shoppers' haven -- famous for its bargain-basement prices. More than 10 million visitors -- mostly Spaniards and French enduring famous traffic jams -- pour in yearly to buy luxury goods, electronics and other goodies, thus avoiding high taxes back home.
Signs are commonly multilingual with French, Spanish and Catalan. While Andorrans speak Catalan -- and have an affinity for the Spanish region of Catalunya and Barcelona -- the commercial environment here is as international as can be.
With the unification of Europe and the rapid growth of shopping on the Internet in Europe, Andorra knows that its allure as a shopping Mecca is threatened. The local tourist board is promoting the place as an outdoor sports destination (both hiking in the summer and skiing in the winter).
The country's capital and dominant city is Andorra la Vella. On my first visit here back in the '70s, I remember it felt like a big Spanish-speaking Radio Shack. Today, while spiffed up, it retains the charm of a giant shopping mall. As I walk down the streets, it seems there's nothing but banks and places to buy electronics, furs, jewelry and luxury goods.
While most know this place for its shops and for what locals claim is the biggest spa in Europe, pockets of Old World charm hide out in the old center.
The Casa de la Vall, built on a rocky outcrop with its flag flying high, is the country's parliament building. A private residence back in the 16th century, today it houses Andorra's claustrophobic parliament chamber. It has 28 seats -- four representatives for each of the seven parishes -- with portraits of the current co-princes on the wall.
The centuries-old kitchen adjacent to the Assembly Room evokes a time when representatives would travel from distant valleys of Andorra. They'd eat and sleep in this building, as they performed their governmental duties.
While a humble reminder of a simple past, Andorrans still look to this building for leadership as their country builds an ever better life for its citizens. E-mail to a friend
Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at email@example.com, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, Wash. 98020.
Copyright 2009 RICK STEVES, DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.