Set in the eastern Pyrenees between France and Spain, the tiny Principality of Andorra is a rugged land which boasts the highest capital city in Europe. With plenty of snow and ten months of sunshine a year, the country is famed for its winter sports and great duty-free shopping.
For a spring escape, the Valley of Madriu is the perfect choice. Classed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the glacial valley extends over an area of 4,247 hectares, occupying nearly one-tenth of the country, and has elevations reaching 2,500 metres. Its steep wooded slopes, high pastures and mountain crags make it a haven for wildlife, and its natural and geological history reflects the long coexistence of man and nature in Andorra.
The Madriu Valley is home to a wide variety of flora and fauna, Romanesque churches, ancient paths and lakes that are all waiting to be explored by walkers and hikers who are well served by four separate hikers' refuges within the valley: Fontverd, Perafita y Claror, L'Estany ila and Riu dels Orris. Set in unique surroundings, the refuges are all open access. Here we offer five suggestiong for your visit to Madriu:
Sant Miquel d'Engolasters
This twelfth-century chapel lies close to the start of the trail through the park and is noted for its square tower, which is over 17 metres high. Inside, there is an exact replica of the Romanesque murals that originally decorated the apse and the presbytery.
El Cami dels Matx
This stone track follows an ancient trail used by transporters of coal for the iron smelting, by herdsmen and even by smugglers, and provides clear evidence of human activity in the valley for over seven centuries.
Despite its name, which translates as 'blue lake', the waters of Llac Blau are actually quite cloudy and greenish in colour. The trail leading to this 2.1 hectare lake is somewhat tricky, but offers the chance to discover the wide variety of natural habitats within the valley, which are a fairly complete reflection of the Principality's ecosystems.
After working up an appetite with a day's hiking and exploration, you can recharge your batteries with a meal in a borda: one of the old farmhouses converted into family-run restaurants. This is a chance for further discovery, as Andorran cuisine is little-known outside the Principality. There are a score of these traditional eateries in spectacular locations across the country, which offer high-quality local produce prepared according to traditional recipes: game, mushrooms, trout, trinxat – a hearty dish of cabbage, potatoes and salt pork – and a wide variety of cured sausages known collectively as embutidos.
A mountain spa
As well as the marvellous scenery, the Pyrenean principality offers other possibilities for relaxation, including a number of spas located in sites with stunning views where you can enjoy the latest treatments using natural products and the local waters. As well as the renowned Caldea and the Roc Blanc spa, why not try the wellness centres at the Carlemany, Princesa Parc, Rutllan, Sport Hotels Resort & Spa or the Plaza Hotel?