Continental Adventures Part I: To Andorra!

We just returned from 11 fabulous days exploring parts of Spain, France, and Andorra (where we’d never been).  The full accounting would make for a very long blog post, so we’ll break it up into three over the next few days.

We began in Andorra (after a cool rail journey, about which more below).  Why Andorra?  Many years ago when Kristen was teaching a geography class for Northern Light, the homeschooling cooperative we belong to in Ithaca, Isaiah developed a deep and abiding fascination with Andorra, the tiny co-principality (the world’s only) in the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain. 

When we learned we would be in London this semester, he expressed a hope that we might be able to visit there.  Both boys developed a keen interest in snowboarding last winter and once we determined that access to ski slopes in the Pyrenees is much, much cheaper even than Greek Peak, the small resort near Ithaca, we decided to make a ski weekend in Andorra during my spring break the boys’ main Christmas present.  So the anticipation for this trip had been building for two months.

We departed London late in the afternoon on February 27, watching a gorgeous sunset as the Eurostar raced toward Dover before diving beneath the Channel.  Flying along on a high-speed train never gets old.  In order to maximize our time on Friday to orient ourselves to Andorra we took one of the last remaining SNCF overnight trains south (which sadly may soon go extinct entirely). After the scores of trips via Amtrak to Missouri and back spent sleeping through the night in a reclining seat, we had long told the boys how much fun (and more comfortable!) it is to travel in a couchette, one of the 6 bunk compartments on these trains that allow you to sleep stretched out.  It is a glorious way to travel—we slept like the dead for almost 8 hours.  Unfortunately, a train crew failed to arrive in Toulouse, and we were awakened by an attendant at 6:30 AM and told we would have to disembark and take a later train.  Such unexpected changes are all part of the fun of travel, I suppose, but it was hard to leave that cozy couchette.  After some additional travel improvisations (the bus we had planned to take from L’Hospitalet-près-l’Andorre to Andorra la Valle had been discontinued last summer—an example of the internet not always having up to date travel info), we made it to Andorra la Valle (the capital) a bit after noon.  A warm breeze was blowing and the temperature was almost 60 degrees, which made skiing seem a bit fanciful.  We picked up our rented ski equipment and tried to imagine what the next day would bring.

But skiing there was, at the resort of Pal-Arinsal, which boasts peaks that top 2800 m.  We took a free ski shuttle to the base of a gondola lift that makes a vertiginous climb to the Pal ski station.  By shortly after 9:00 AM the boys were off, Samuel trying skis for the first time and Isaiah with his trusty snowboard. Being parents we had to caution them about being overly confident, got the expected, “yeah, yeah,” and didn’t see them again for 2 ½ hours.  The two of us made a few tentative forays on the beginner slope to get the hang of it again.  And then the feel began to return—cross-country skiing is quite different, of course, but we do enough of that for there to be some transfer.  I had skied several times more than 30 years ago at Rainbow Basin, a little resort in northeast Missouri that flourished for a few years before the climate really began to warm (see the first entry here).  It was enough for my confidence to grow as the hours passed, and by the afternoon the second day I joined the boys for a few runs down some expert slopes.

It was an unforgettable weekend.  We spent more than 6 hours each day on the slopes, and explored most of the mountains.  The views from the lifts were stunning, and often we would just contemplate the surrounding mountains as we rode up.  Kristen and I both felt drawn to return someday and hike there.  The weather changed frequently, as is often the case in the mountains, including one blinding snow squall.  It was fun to hear Spanish, French, Dutch, German, and, above all, Catalan (more about this fascinating language in the next entry) being spoken, along with a very modest amount of English. And no one hurt themselves.

Most of all, it was fun to watch the boys have the skiing/snowboarding time of their lives, a dream come true for them both to test the slopes of some big mountains.  We have had so many adventures together as a family, but almost all have been instigated primarily by Kristen or me.  This was the first time we were doing something that neither of us ever would have done without the impetus of the boys.  And without Isaiah’s fascination with Andorra, we probably would have gone somewhere else.  So this unforgettable weekend ended up being a gift that worked both ways.

Check back in a couple of days for an account of our time in Barcelona!

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