You’d be forgiven for missing Andorra on the world map, as the sixth smallest nation in Europe it shows up as no larger than a grain of rice nestled between Spain and France. When people in the UK speak of it, it’s usually in reference to skiing and tax-free goods. At least this is all I knew before I spent a year working there.
In short, Andorra is a collection of towns and ski resorts located high up in the Pyrenees. In the middle of nowhere yet full of stylish bars and shopping centres, it often comes across as clean, cosy, and detached from the rest of the world. As a result it was hard to initially grasp any sense of the country’s heritage. It did not help that I had no background in Andorran history whatsoever.
Fortunately my hosts were keen for me to learn, and each Saturday I would be whisked away for a magical mystery tour of old forges, tobacco museums and archaeological sites. Although, the experiences which fascinated me the most were of two houses: Casa Cristo and Casa d’Areny-Plandolit. Both dated back to the time before Andorra’s transition to democracy, yet both offered completely different perspectives of the period.
Casa Cristo is a humble abode built by agricultural labourers in the eighteenth century. A cramped house located in winding cobbled back alleys. It’s simply constructed from a traditional local mix of stone, mortar, and wooden beams sourced from the nearby montañas and bosques. The original owners have long since vacated to more salubrious digs, allowing the house and contents to be purchased and restored as an ethnographic museum.
Casa Cristo exterior: Photography by Cdani
Renovations remain faithful to traditional construction techniques, and the distribution of rooms have remained the same, making it a typical example of an Andorran peasant household, but entirely unique in the Andorra of today. The tour was intimate (just the two of us and our cheerful guide), which meant we had plenty of time to discuss and handle some of the more unique features of Casa Cristo.
Beginning on the ground floor, which I’d describe as a fusion of a workshop, a larder, and a space for the few animals owned by the family, we were offered demonstrations of how to walk in winter clogs and carry cumbersome water pails over the slippery paving outside. To this day I am happy to report that I have never been required to wear clogs again.
As we wound our way through the property we were offered detailed glimpses into the everyday life of an Andorran peasant household. The tools on display, accompanied with our guide’s engaging descriptions, were able to convey a sense of the spartan nature of rural life.
Everything seemed to serve as a reminder that I wasn't cut out for this kind of existence, even exploring the house was adverse, consisting of scrambling up and down steep wooden steps, knocking my head on ledges, and shivering in draughty rooms - sadly there’s little in the way of adapted access here, probably the largest issue with the majority of Andorran heritage sites.
Spread throughout the remaining floors were a kitchen-dining area, a living room, an attic where fruits were stored and dried, and bedrooms. Each bedroom was accompanied by austere woollen clothing, modest Catholic heirlooms, and coal heaters which would lie underneath the bed sheets. Pride of place was received by a hereditary baptism gown kept in near-perfect condition; as possibly the most intricate item on display it indicated the centrality of Andorran Catholicism in the life of the family.
Our guide was essential to our understanding of the house. He showed us hidden details of the property which indicated the family’s hardiness and cunning, including recipes concocted from the family recipe book. My favourite was a sweet pinecone liquor which our guide politely declined to disclose the recipe for.
I was inspired by the family’s ingenious use of available materials to survive the harsh Pyrenean environment. Animal fats became soaps, while bones and hides were repurposed into tools and wineskins. Pragmatism and functionalism were common themes, with a sink carved from a single stone slab, simple wooden furniture, and containers repurposed from tin cans. Items of luxury were sparse, in fact the only valuables other than the baptismal gown were kept in their original place - tucked away in a secret drawer.
While reflecting on the contents of this collection I was forced to re-evaluate the image of Andorra that had cultivated itself in my mind. The former inhabitants of Casa Cristo were more resilient and resourceful than I initially gave them credit for, and inhabited a drastically different Andorra than the comfortable one I was familiar with.
On the other end of the spectrum we have Casa d’Areny-Plandolit, the only remaining Andorran stately home. Dating back to the seventeenth century, it served as the summer residence for a prosperous Catalan family who owned iron mines in the Andorran valleys. The final family member departed the valley in the 1940s and it was eventually gifted to the Andorran museum service, along with the majority of its furnishings.
Unsurprisingly, the differences between this and Casa Cristo are distinct; the noble hall alone takes up twice as much space as one entire floor of the peasant residence. It’s full of gorgeously decorated spaces rather than bleak walls and small rooms. The exterior is grander too, with separate entrances for footmen and carriages. The carriage entrance opens out onto a courtyard, stable, and small gardens which can be explored separately from the tour. Clearly the structure has been adapted over the years, with the top floor and faux castle turret more modern in design than the rustic stone and mortar lower floor. Our guide was a fountain of knowledge regarding the developments, and she happily answered all our questions, and more.
We worked our way through the extensive selection of rooms, including a music hall, library and a miniature chapel. Rooms with ornate vaulted ceilings and gilded wallpaper were filled with objects recovered from various stages of the family's life. Collections include ‘basic conveniences’ which seemed like they would have been more at home with the Cristo’s, including a ‘cheap’ set of cutlery, and even more clogs. However the real draw were the luxuries that cannot be found elsewhere in Andorra: an ornate gemstone chessboard, ceremonial suits of armour, grandfather clocks, and chandeliers of a multitude of sizes and designs.
The mind boggled at the thought of some of these objects being hauled up mountain paths. These belongings were focal points prominently positioned in each room rather than tucked away in hidden drawers. They verged more on indulgences - indicators of the family’s social status - than necessary items for surviving Andorran life.
As we explored our guide revealed more and more about the family’s chequered history, one of wealth but also banishment and murder at the hands of scorned suitors. One of the biggest talking points of the collection is a framed letter of approval from the Pope, granting permission for one member of the family to marry their cousin.
A portrait gallery helped me visualize family members and emphasize their eccentricities. Don Guillem d’Areny-Plandolit is the most famous, his presence in the narrative helps weave the family’s story into the history of Andorra. An entrepreneur and reformer, in the 1860s he spearheaded the introduction of public voting. Although don’t be mistaken in thinking the transition was particularly drastic, universal suffrage in Andorra was not achieved until the 1970s. Clearly Guillem was not quite that forward-thinking.
The room that appealed to my curiosity the most was shown to us at the conclusion of the tour: a dental practise owned by Don Guillem’s sixteenth and last child, Pau Xavier. By this stage in the family’s history, Andorra had begun to embrace a service economy and the family moved on to alternate professions. However, Pau Xavier clearly maintained exuberant tastes. His ‘humble’ dental practise was less of a traditional medical theatre and more akin to an exhibition space for his taxidermy collection, which would have overlooked proceedings as he operated on what I assume were very confused patients.
Ultimately, the impression I got from this house was of a dynasty whose fortunes were closely tied with Andorra’s. The tour not only highlighted the daily rituals and important events in the life of one family, but also shed light upon the wider history of the small mountain nation.
Once placed alongside Casa Cristo, the dramatic class divide between Andorran industrialists and labourers becomes apparent. Each house provided drastically different vistas of Andorran life as it transitioned between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Together they helped me to realize that there was much more to this tiny mountain principality than meets the eye. So much history, ingenuity and personality have been crammed into such unsuspecting spaces, which I feel serves as a nice concluding metaphor to describe Andorra itself.
Generally 5€ per ticket however you can purchase a PasMuseu for 2.50€ that provides half price entry. Prices are reduced for groups of 10. On the first and third weekends of each month most museums are free!
10.00 -14.00 and 15.00-18.00
Closed most Mondays, other days vary depending on the season.
Each tour takes about an hour. English language tours are available, although only through advance booking.
These houses are located in the parishes of Encamp and Ordino. While they are close together parking is often limited and traffic congestion has the potential to extend journey times drastically, especially during the ski season (it once took us two hours to drive twelve km). The national bus service provides links to the major urban centers, although taxis can take you directly to each site, and are more likely to show up on time.
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An avid fan of all things history from an early age, I transitioned from tormenting my parents with facts from Horrible Histories to tormenting them with facts from my university studies. Following my graduation I spent time as a guide for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Ypres, and as an English language assistant at a school in Andorra.
I am currently back in the UK and working towards a Masters in Global History at the University of Sheffield. This has involved a work placement with Mr Straw’s House in Worksop, where I helped produce display pieces for an exhibition on the history of the National Trust.