For centuries a Spanish bishop and a French prince (latterly the President of France) have been Andorra's titular “princes”- joint heads of state of this principality - but in reality Andorra was left to run itself, concentrating on farming and trading with its larger and wealthier neighbours on both sides of the Pyrenees. In the 20th century the first decent roads arrived and soon after came the great new European sport of skiing, which seemed ideally suited to Andorra's steep mountainsides and isolated villages. Andorra also had another attraction for skiers: it was VAT-Free and mostly Duty-Free, so alcohol, tobacco and electrical goods have always been cheaper than in almost anywhere else in Europe.
And until the 1990s, this was the main force behind the 'cheap and cheerful' image of Andorran skiing. The mountains were not as high as in the Alps, the lifts were not as new, and the snow was not as plentiful, but everything was less expensive, the ski instructors were keener on speaking English, everyone was more friendly and the whole country was an enormous duty-free bar, so who cared if the pistes weren't very impressive?
From the 1990s onwards, howver, Andorra realised that cheap booze can only get you so far as a Winter Sports holiday destination. So massive private and government investment programs were channelled into the ski industry and individual resorts were linked together to create two large ski areas that were meant to compete on equal terms with anything found in the Alps.
Andorra's biggest ski area is Grandvalira. It has 210 km of skiing and snowboarding at altitudes of up to 2,560m among the mountains above a sequence of villages and towns. the most important of which are Soldeu (1,800m) and Pas de la Casa (2,100m). The others are Encamp (1,300m), Canillo (1,500m), El Tarter (1,710m) and Grau Roig (2,120m). The individual resorts still have their own identities. Pas de la Casa on the French border is a brash, lively, fun, ugly but super-convenient party town. Soldeu is much quieter; parts of it actually look quite chic, but it lacks atmosphere.
The smaller ski area of Vallnord has more charming resorts. Overall it has 89km of skiing and boarding, but only 66km of these runs are around the linked resorts of Pal (1550m) and Arinsal (1475m), with lifts rising up to 2,560m. The rest of it is at Ordino-Arcalis (often simply referred to as Arcalis). This is where Andorra's highest and toughest skiing is, and where the best off-piste skiing, freeriding and ski touring opportunities are, with lifts rising from 1,940m to 2,625m. But you can not stay in Arcalis itself, so skiers wanting to access these slopes tend to stay in Arinsal, Pal or down the valley in in La Massana. La Massana is very much a town rather than a ski resort, but has its own lift into the Pal-Arinsal area, and is the best placed of the Vallnord accommodation centres for making day-trips to Arcalis and also to Grandvalira (most ski passes entitle you at least one days's skiing in the other ski area).
And so has Andorra succeeded in taking on the Alpine ski resorts and beating them at their own game? Partly is the answer. The Andorran resorts tend to be sited at the same altitude as the major French, Swiss and Italian ski resorts, and significantly higher than most of the Austrian ones; and Grandvalira now has the same quantity of lifts and pistes as some of the major resorts in the Alps. But the lifts don't rise quite as high - 500m to 750m maximum verticals are all you can expect here, whereas there are plenty of resorts in the Alps with more than double that. This means there are less opportunities to tire out keen, piste-bashing intermediates; and there is less tough terrain, on-piste and off-piste, for advanced skiers. There is less powder too, because in most years not as much snow falls in Andorra as it does in the major Alpine centres, and the temperatures in Andorra are slightly warmer as well. Moreover in the drive to get big, a lot of the traditional Pyrenean charm has been lost. Pal and Arinsal might be two of the nicest ski villages in Andorra but no one would put them on a list of the top ten most beautiful ski resorts in Europe.
But perhaps we are being too snooty. The ski resorts in Andorra still tend to be good value for money compared to their equivalent-sized counterparts in the Alps. For beginners, all the Andorra resorts are great places to learn to ski, and for most intermediate skiers, the runs and the snow in Andorra are good enough to have a fun winter sports holiday. And the fun is likelyto be enhanced by knowing you can buy a large round of drinks on the slopes or in a bar or restaurant without having to take out a second mortgage.