Monday, March 2, 2020


Who: The artist Van Stein and me.

What: A road trip commencing from the Principality of Monaco.

Where: To Andorra, a micro-state deep within the Pyrenees—Basque territory—in between France and Spain.  

When: July 2005.

Why: A prelude to looking up Salvador Dali's spirit in Figueres, Spain.

How:  a brand spanking new VW Gti, six-speed, six-litre, sixteen-cylinder engine, which, on windy days, can actually take flight.  

We let it rip on the autoroute behind the Cote dAzur—160 kilometres an hour, whizzing past St-Remy and Arles in Provence, stopping once for salami sandwiches and apple juice before sailing past Nimes and Montpelier. 

At Perpignan, a right turn westward into the mountains. 

We wind upward and downward, upward and downward, again and again—a hundred hairpin turns, ideal terrain for a Gti.

It is mid-afternoon when we pull into Andorra le Vella, in a valley surrounded by mountains. 

Amoeba-shaped Andorra is larger and more bustling than we expect.  At first glance, it looks like theres much going on as I steer into the courtyard of The Andorra Park Hotel.  

An expansive lobby within, but no people—aside from a solitary receptionist who unsmilingly assigns rooms.

The accommodation is excellent: contemporary, sleek, and equipped with a shower featuring seven nozzles, including a pair at thigh height which, one assumes, is designed for do-it-yourself colonics.

A Caucasian of no discernible origin joins us in the elevator and mumbles about us being American, about visiting Texas recently, seeing rodeos, watching people get thrown, a bunch of pussies compared to him.  When the elevator door opens, he snorts twice and trots off.

Van Stein and I exchange glances.

The Bull Man.

“I see his kind everywhere,” says Van Stein.  “They want to suck my energy.”

A male has replaced the female on duty earlier:  Manuel from Fawlty Towers. 

I ask directions to the hotel business center; he directs me out a back door, across the garden, into a multilevel car park, an elevator down to the street, and around the corner to what is probably an Internet café.

“You mean I cant access the Internet in this hotel?”


“The Internet.  Online.”


“I want to check my emails.”


“Okay, lets try this:  Whats the best restaurant in Andorra?”


“Food.  Mange?”

“This hotel restaurant.”

Van Stein and I stroll to the hotel dining room, consult the menu, glance around.  There are no people.  Where there should be a bar (specified on the website) sits a large empty cloakroom.  No cloakroom attendant; no coats, just a lot of lonely hangers. 

“Where is everyone?” I ask Van Stein.

The artist shakes his head.  “Must be out of season.  This place is about skiing.”

“In other words, the one time it makes sense for us to be somewhere in January were here in July?”

We follow Manuel’s directions through the garden, into a parking garage, an elevator, which releases us into the middle of a department store.  We exit the store and find ourselves on a main street chock-a-block with shops selling stuff at duty free prices.

Andorra, it transpires, is one large open-air shopping malla consumers paradise—and that is all that is going on:  heavy-duty (or rather no duty) shopping.  No charm.  Even less character.  And an ugly in-bred people caught in a time warp.      

Van Stein sets off to scout inspiration and vantage points (scarce on both counts); I return to the hotel.

The soul-less lobby features a flat-screen TV playing to no one.  I search in earnest for a hotel bar.  Manuel explains that I should take a seat in the large, empty lobby and someone should, in theory, manifest to take my order for a drink.  I look around.  Sobriety is my preference. 

When Van Stein descends, we follow Manuels directions to a bar“beer only”but his recommendation offers less ambience than the hotel, so we continue our search, settling on a tapas bar called Mama Marias, a high-table with a bottle of Marquis di Rascal rioja. 

“This is a very odd town,” I say to Van Stein.  “The people dont smile, and its just as well because they have worse teeth than Brits.”

Mama Marias fills up around us, a social hub of sorts.  The natives are misshapen.  Andorras young women are cursed with lopsided faces beneath dark hair parted in the middle and worn in a bun, all of them sporting the same black rectangular spectacles, off-kilter across crooked noses. 

“Can you imagine living here?”  I shake my head.  “Thank God for this rioja.”

We consult the menu.  “Id avoid calamari and shrimp,” says Van Stein, noting the long trek wed taken from the sea.  “Must be frozen.  And if it wasnt, wed be in worse trouble.”

“So, whats indigenous?”


I take my chances with calamari, anchovies, and Fried Potato with Spicy Sauce—which is actually soggy fries with ketchup.  Everything else comes smothered in greasy breadcrumbs.

I assume a second bottle of rioja will help us see a more pleasant side to Andorra. But I presume too much, momentarily forgetting the secret to happiness:  low expectations. 

Four local womenFrumpy, Dumpy, Stumpy, and Grumpy take a table next to ours.

“I cant get an urge in edgewise,” says Van Stein, speaking into his cassette recorder.  “This is a short, stocky people.  Dark and serious and traditional.  This little hole of a microstate has been here thousands of years.  Little has changed.  People come through one end, six million a year, buy a bunch of stuff, and gurk out the other end.  I bet the locals can trace their lineages back fourteen generations—to the same family.  Over the last two generations this place has become consumerism central.  The local culture has dissipated, but the people are stuck, landlocked, no where to go.  I sense a lot of unconscious rebellion.”  Van Stein  likes to roll into a place, figure it out, tap its psyche before setting up an easel.  

“And/or-ism,” he concludes.

“What’s that?”

A few tables away, Bull Man has manifested himself.   Hes with a woman—his wife?  Or maybe someone posing as his wife.  Are they here to suck Van Steins energy—or keep tabs on me?  And if so for whom?  (Potential priers have propagated of late.)  

“Maybe Andorra is nicer when its dark out?” says Van Stein, reeling me back from semi-paranoia. 

Turns out, it isnt.  

But theres no leaving.  Once youre there, its a long way out.  And, anyway, I have business in the morning. So I seek refuge on my balcony facing the mountains.

As usual, Van Stein is the decoy, suspiciously prowling the dark streets in the early hours of the morning, keeping Bull Man occupied, while I do secret work, dry-cleaning my tracks next morning through car-parks and department stores for my covert meeting. 

As soon as its over, Im ready to bail this bog, with no plan to return. Ever.