Galicia, Spain, March 15, 2010 --Beware the ides of March, Shakespeare said. Did he know what he was talking about? Probably not. Still, you never know.
First of all, what is the ides of March. If I remember my Latin correctly, the ides of March are the middle days of March, the teen days.
Anyway, I left for Andorra last Wednesday night, March 11, to renew my tourist visa to Spain. Spain is very liberal with their visas. Anyone with a U.S. passport can come to Spain for three months, no questions asked. But every 90 days, you have to leave Spain for a non-European Union country and be gone for three nights before you can come back in for another 90 days before repeating the same process.
Seems simple. Andorra is a non-European Union country. In fact, it’s a principality that was set up in the late 13th century – 1278 to be exact – in the middle of the Pyrenees Mountains of Spain/France border, governed by the Bishop of Urgell and the Count of Foix as co-princes. What is important is that it gave the Andorrans the right to govern their own affairs through the “Consell de la Tierra,” elected directly by the people. It’s still in operation, though the Count of Foix has been replaced by the president of France as the co-prince. They’re there to guarantee the freedom and independence of the tiny principality. I’m not a student of government (though I taught it in Moscow), but still this small (464 square kilometers) principality just may be the most democratic country in the world.
There have been problems, the last of which was a peaceful uprising in 1971 which resulted in the vote being given to all males and females over 21. It managed to remain strictly neutral through the Spanish Civil War and World War II, which may account for the fact that it’s today a rather prosperous little country.
It’s located in, and surrounded by, the Pyrenees Mountains. The city of Andorra, its capital, sits at the bottom of a basin whose sides are formed by the towering, snow-capped mountains. The most common language is Spanish, if you count Catalana as Spanish – and I do; though I heard snippets of French, Russian, and even English during my stay there. Because of its liberal visa policy, it’s a popular vacation/skiing area for middle class Russians. Several of my Russian students had been there, although I had never heard of it and it isn’t even mentioned in my “Rough Guide to Europe” published in 2003.
Because of its remoteness and mountainous terrain, there are no airports or even train tracks. Highways are the only means of mass transport.
And thereby hangs another tale, as the Olde English saying goes. As I said earlier, I left Galicia by “hotel train” Wednesday evening. It seems that Renfre, the Spanish train system, has added “hotel trains” to its repertoire. These are luxury trains, as I discovered, with complete bathooms, including shower, and a plastic kit filled with everything you need, including tooth brush, razor, and a sewing kit with needle, thread, and buttons.
Since I was famished when I boarded the train at nearly 8 p.m., I went immediately to the dining car, where I was presented with a luxury menu, with prices of up to 18 euros for the entrees. What the hell, I figured, I’m hungry, and it’s the first time I’ve ever been on a hotel train to Andorra, so hang the expense. So I ordered a seafood soup, lamb shoulder, and a tray of cheeses, with a half bottle of red wine and a bottle of gas mineral water on the side.
When it came time to pay, I asked the handsome young waiter for the bill. “It costs you nothing,” was the reply! Just part of the 80 euro overnight train ride. So I also had a gourmet breakfast before leaving the train in Lleida on Thursday morning.
Following Josť’s instructions, since he arranged the trip for me on the Internet, I caught a cab to the bus station, which is the only way to get to Andorra, since – as I pointed out earlier – there are no railroads in the principality. However, Josť had said there wasn’t a bus to Andorra till 3 in the afternoon. But when I got to the bus station, I was told that there was a bus to Andorra at 9:30. Since I’d much rather be wandering the streets of Andorra than sitting in a Spanish bus station, I opted for the 9:30 bus.
“Bus” is a bit of a misnomer. Jitney is a more apt description. However, it was designed to get me there. So I plunked down 18 euros, got my receipt, and waited for the driver to leave with me and the two other passengers. It was a beautiful mountain ride. We cruised at the top of the Pyranees for about three hours until we reached the border between Spain and Andorra. I pulled out my passport as we waited in line. Then suddenly the cars and buses started swishing through the checkpoint.
“I have three passengers,” I heard the driver tell the border guard, expecting to show my passport and get it stamped. Instead, the guard said, “vale, vaya,” something to the effect of “okay, go on through,” and we were off.
“But my passport. You haven’t stamped my passport,” I cried to myself. Oh well, nothing to do now but try to explain on my way back. I specifically remembered Josť’s admonition to be sure and have them stamp my passport. I did have all my receipts, I would have to simply explain that the border guard waved us through without checking our passports. But they were doing the same thing to all the other vehicles, so it’s probably a story that they’re used to.
In the meantime, let’s deal with reality. We stopped on a busy main street and debarked. There were no bus stations in Andorra, just places to get on and off. I was ready to take a taxi to my hotel, if I could find one. “What’s your hotel?” asked the bus driver.
“Hotel Cims,” I replied. “Oh, that’s right around the corner and turn left at the next street. It’s just up the street from the shopping mall.” Okay, he can’t be all bad, even if he didn’t get my passport stamped.
So I followed his directions and found the hotel immediately. A five-star hotel, my internet receipt said, for something like $ 90 for three nights. $ 30 a night for a five-star hotel?
I immediately concluded something was amiss. Either their stars are much different from what I’m used to, or this was not a five-star hotel. I’m used to staying in two- and three-star hotels, and this was about what “El Cims” was. There was no chair in the whole room. Only two small, shabby single beds. There was no outside window. There was no toilet paper hanger on the bathroom – or at least it didn’t work. The bathroom notions did not include shampoo. Fortunately, I had brought shampoo from the Spanish “Train Hotel.” The glass shelf in the bathroom was tilted, and things kept falling off it. The toilet seat wouldn’t stand up without being held. In short, the hotel was disgusting. But at $ 30 a night? About what it was worth.
There were signs admonishing “absolutely no alcohol or food in the room.” For the first day, I abided by them. Then the next day I went to the shopping mall and discovered a grocery store with pernod and anise aperitif. So much for no booze in the hotel room. Under doctor’s orders I’m supposed to drink 50-100 grams of 40% alcohol every night. The pernod and anise aperitif qualify.
What was really nice was that they were about half the price of Spain – when I can even find them. I’m used to paying about 12 euros for pernod, but here it was less than 8 – probably due to the fact that it’s a French product and Andorra shares a border with France, so transportation is much cheaper. The anise peratif, I haven’t even seen in Spain, and it was less than 4 euros.
But everything else was very expensive. Eggplants, which I can get in Spain for 2 euros a kilogram, were 4.50 – more than twice as much. Ditto everything else. Everything has to be imported. They probably grow stuff here but not in the middle of March. There was still ice and snow on the streets! I had to be careful where I walked, especially at night, to keep from slipping and breaking my neck on sidewalk ice.
Actually, that morning I had awakened at 4 o’clock, worrying about my unstamped passport. Had I just spent $ 300 for nothing? Would I have to spend another three nights in this dingy hotel because I hadn’t had my passport stamped, despite Josť’s explicit instructions? I fretted and stewed and did my Spanish homework and fretted and stewed some more, and tried in vain to go back to sleep until 8 a.m. time to get up for my free breakfast.
The breakfast was about what you’d expect. No muesli, no eggs, lots of boring pastries, a coffee machine that made capachino, some lunch meat and cheese, non-muesli cereals, and that was about it. And no cute boys as hotel guests, and certainly not as breakfast attendants. All in all, not much to recommend it.
Actually, I didn’t see many cute boys in Andorra at all. Are they really all in Russia?
If there are no bus stations in Andorra, where do I catch my bus back on Sunday afternoon? I spent the first afternoon finding out: asking bus drivers, bus passengers, hotel receptionist, etc., with no conclusive answer. I finally asked a middle-aged policewoman. She led me to a big barn which housed buses, and to a handsome young lad who was mopping the floor. When we put the question to him, he motioned to an office and made some phone calls. Somewhere in the middle of this he asked, “English?” “Yes,” I replied in relief.
Okay. 3:30 p.m. Sunday, and he gave me a number to make a reservation. The policewoman then led me to a nearby bus stop and said, “here, 3:30 Sunday afternoon.”
Okay. I can remember that. But when I called the number to make a reservation, I was told that I should catch the bus around the corner from the hotel at 3:30 Sunday. Okay. That’s easier, anyway.
The next three days I killed time, ate, slept, watched BBC and CNN on TV, remembered why I never watch TV, and window shopped.
Andorra must be an incestuous place! 66,000 souls packed into 464 square km., only a fraction of which is habitable. And no place to break beyond the confines of the mountain walls! What do young people do? Where do they go? Where do they fuck? What do gay guys do? I shudder to contemplate.
Came Sunday! Showdown time! I ate a big breakfast, watched boring rehashes of news on TV, including an interview with Kevin Spacey that was rather interesting, and at noon went out for more window shopping and to get a bite to eat to strengthen me for the showdown ahead.
At 2:30 I checked out of the hotel, went around the corner, and waited for my bus. I didn’t want to take any chances. Several came along, but no, they weren’t going to Lleida. A little after 3:30 a sleek bus pulled up with a handsome driver. Yes, he was going to Lleida. Yes, I was on his reservation list. I paid my 18 euros and took a seat to await the showdown. In about half an hour I realized we were approaching the border station. Get ready! I pulled out my passport ready for the interview. He called out to a border guard, and the border guard waved us through!
Oh shit! Now what do I do? At least I’m back in Spain. Nothing to do now until I face Customs again –- probably on my trip to the States in June. I will have all my receipts, and can only explain what happened. In the meantime, I’m not going to lose any more sleep. The worst they can do is kick me out of Spain, but I’ll be leaving anyway.
Beware the Ides of March!