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Little Andorra: A Mall Amid Mountains


Tucked between Spain and France, Andorra is like a duty-free shopping mall in the mountains. This thriving commercial center is Catalan-leaning, wealthy, international, and scenic, drawing a mix of shoppers and nature lovers.

Complete Video Script

Our final stop is Andorra — the biggest of these midget countries. If you're keeping track, here's a rundown on Europe's tiny derby showing each of these countries’ relative size.

The Vatican is the big little winner. Then comes Monaco, San Marino, Liechtenstein and finally, Andorra. Luxemburg is Europe's next smallest country. Small as it is, it would easily fit all five microstates within its borders.

Andorra sits high in the craggy Pyrenees Mountains, as if hiding out between Spain and France. With 180 square miles and about 75,000 people, it's the largest of Europe's micro-countries.

The country has a long history. In their national anthem, Andorrans sing of Charlemagne rescuing their land from the Moors back 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: one happens to be the president of France and the other a bishop from Spain — locals stress that their land is 100 percent independent.

Until little more than a generation ago, Andorra was an impoverished and isolated backwater. Churches date back to the 12th and 13th centuries. Their stony Romanesque bell towers stand strong as the surrounding Pyrenees.

That same local stone is used today as a building boom illustrates how, lately, the principality has flourished. Since World War II the population has increased tenfold. Recently Andorrans have become quite wealthy.

The mountains that kept the principality both isolated and poor are now a source of its prosperity. Hiking and skiing are understandably big business here.

And Andorra employs those special economic weapons so popular among Europe's little states: easy-going banking, duty-free shopping, and low, low taxes. It's morphed from a rough and tumble smuggler's haven to a high-tech, high-altitude shopper's haven — famous for its low prices.

While Andorrans speak Catalan — and have an affinity for the Spanish region of Catalunya and Barcelona — the commercial environment here is international as can be.

The country's capital and dominant city, Andorra la Vella, is a mostly modern town with the charm of a giant shopping mall. While most know this place for its shops and for what locals claim is the biggest spa in Europe, pockets of Old World charm do hide out in the old center.

The Casa de la Vall 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 — that's four representatives for each of the seven parishes — with portraits of the current co-princes on the wall.

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.

So, what do Andorra and the rest of Europe's little countries have in common? Most of them are high in the mountains or some other hard-to-reach terrain. Many offer low or no taxes, which encourage businesses and individuals from other countries to come and support the local economy. Each one has survived centuries of warfare, treaties, and reshaped borders — usually thanks to a combination of diplomatic skill and luck. All of them get by on the coattails of larger nations. And they're small and easy to overlook, so they can fall through the cracks without being noticed by the next big tyrant.