Roadtrip to Andorra

Roadtrip to Andorra

Switzerland, South-Western France and Andorra

July 26th - Aug 14th, 2021

This is a blog about my road trip starting in Munich and ending in Toulouse. I was scheduled to meet up with my friends from New York for a 9 day stay in a lovely estate in the Dordogne, and I decided to drive to Bordeaux from Munich and see a few of the sights in Switzerland and France along the way. So I started my voyage with a 5 day road trip from Munich to Bordeaux.

After a brief stop-over to catch up with friends in Zurich, my first sightseeing stop was the Swiss city of Bern. Founded in 1191 the historic old town was built on a hill surrounded by a narrow bend of the river Aare. It's a beautiful setting and there are a number of great viewing spots from the surrounding hills, where you can take in the whole city and admire the turquoise waters of the river. 

Bern's old town became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983, as one of the best preserved medieval/Renaissance city centers in Europe.

Although Switzerland as a Federation of Cantons has no official capital, Bern is considered the de facto capital as it is the seat of the federal authorities. The Bundeshaus, the Swiss Parliament, is an elegant neo-classical building that was completed in 1902.  

One rather unusual things, Bern is famous for, are its bears. The bear is in the seal and the coat of arms of the city, and the earliest mention of live bears being kept in the city is from 1440. For centuries several bears were kept in a rather small enclosure called the 'Bärengraben', but in 2009 they received a much larger and more natural enclosure right next to the river.  

Bern Cathedral of St Vincent is an imposing late-Gothic building that towers of the rest of the old town. Construction started in 1421 and continued well into the 19th century. The very intricate main portal tells the story of the Last Judgement. 

This small and unassuming house in the old town of Bern is the location of one of the greatest intellectual achievements in the history of mankind. While working as a clerk in the patent office of Bern, Albert Einstein lived in a modest second floor flat in this house, and it was here where he completed those five papers (including the theory of special relativity) published in 1905, which completely revolutionized several separate fields of physics. Today, two floors of the house are an Albert Einstein museum. 

One other place worth visiting in Bern is located a bit outside of town, and it is the Paul Klee Centre, which is housed in a interesting modern building shaped like a wave. Paul Klee was born and grew up here in Bern. He developed his distinct artistic style when he returned from his studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich to his childhood home and discovered his own drawings as a child. The center includes a museum with an extensive collection of his works.

On my drive from Bern to Lake Geneva I stopped for a couple of hours in the beautiful city of Fribourg. The capital of the Canton of the same name is located on the border between the French and German speaking parts of Switzerland. Founded in the 12th century the old city was built on a steep rock above the valley of the river Sarine.

The city was an important trade and manufacturing center during the middle ages.

Lake Geneva
At Lake Geneva I stayed in Lausanne, which is mostly known for being the seat of the International Olympic Committee and a number of other international athletic organizations. The city is built on a hill overlooking the lake. The imposing Gothic building of the Cathedral of Notre Dame is situated on the highest point of the city. 

The history of the town goes back to Roman times, as a Roman camp called Lausanna was located on the lake shore just below today's city.

The Lavaux Vineyard Terraces, stretching for about 30 kilometers along the northern shores of Lake Geneva between Lausanne and Montreux, are an absolute must-see. The wine terraces cover the entire hill side all the way down to the deep blue waters of the lake. Wine has been cultivated here for more than 1,000 years, and has played a significant role in the culture and development of the whole region. This was recognized by UNESCO in 2007, when it awarded World Heritage status to the vineyards of Lavaux. 

Continuing further south, I had time for an afternoon stop-over in Geneva, Switzerland's second largest city. Beautifully located at the southern end of Lake Geneva in the French speaking part of Switzerland, the city is a global center of finance and diplomacy, as many international organizations and hedge funds have made their home here. The most famous landmark in the city is the Jet d'Eau, a 140 meter high fountain in the lake.

Leaving Geneva, I entered France. Despite recent announcements that France will only let vaccinated visitors enter the country, the border to Switzerland was completely open, and none of the cars were stopped or checked when crossing the border.

France's third largest city, Lyon, is located about two hours drive west of Geneva at the confluence of the Rhône and the Saône. A great way to start a sightseeing tour of Lyon is to take the funicular up to the 300 meter high Fourvière hill to the west of the old city. From up there you have fantastic views over the whole of the city.

On top of the Fourvière is the imposing building of the Basilica de Notre-Dame de Fourvière, which was constructed between 1872 and 1896. It was built entirely from private funds and has an unusual style, best described as a mix of Neo-Romanesque and Neo-Byzantine.  

The basilica is particularly impressive from the inside. It is a huge space with incredibly detailed gold and green mosaics and beautiful stained glass windows.

On the other side of the Fourvière hill are the enourmos and very impressive remains of the Roman amphitheater, which is still used as a concert venue today. Founded in 43 BC, Lugdunum became the largest Roman city in Gaul.

The Historic Sites of Lyon were awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 1998, recognizing the city's over 2000 year history and the varied architecture from different historical periods. Among them is the beautiful Renaissance center of the old town, sitting just below the Fourvière hill. It is a short walk through a forested park from the hill down into old town center.

This is the Saône river, which separates the old town from the newer parts. I particularly liked the view from the other side of the cathedral and the basilica towering high above it.

I ended my tour of Lyon with a walk along the Rhône, just before a torrential downpour made my flee inside.

Lascaux Cave
After spending a night in Clermont-Ferrand, I stopped at another very special site, which I had wanted to visit for a long time. It is one of the most important archeological discoveries ever made - the astounding cave painting of Lascaux. The Lascaux cave system is part of the UNECO world heritage site called "Prehistoric Sites and Decorated Caves of the Vézère Valley".

Discovered in 1940 by a group of local boys, whose dog had fallen into a hole, these caves contain among the most extensive, best preserved and finest example of prehistoric art. Lascaux cave was open to visitors until 1963, when it became clear that the humidity from people's breaths was causing irreparable damage to theses priceless artifacts. It was decided to permanently close the cave, and instead build a complete replica for visitors nearby.

The replica does a very good job in conveying the rich splendor and the astounding sophistication of the many detailed drawings of animals all over the cave walls. These paintings weren't the doodles of some bored cavemen, these are carefully planned works of accomplished artists - people who had figured out how to represent three dimensional objects in two dimensions, how to use perspective for maximum effect, and how to represent movement in paintings. These are truly astonishing masterpieces, painted around 17,000 years ago by artists whom we will never know anything about.

Legend has it that Pablo Picasso visited these caves, and when he came out uttered the words "They knew everything". Obviously it is sad that we can no longer see the original, but the replicas are very worthwhile visiting. The center is huge, but elegantly fits into the landscape, and it also has an interesting museum that shows how the cave replicas were constructed using fiberglass hanging from the ceiling.

Having arrived in the Dordogne region, in southwestern France, I met up with my friends from the US, including my 4 year old godson Max. We stayed in a wonderful large manor house near the town of St Aubin de Cadelech for the next 9 days. Since the pandemic had prevented me from seeing Max for almost 18 months, we had a lot of time to make up. So I spent most of those 9 days playing with Max, but we did do a few excursions to see the small towns and impressive castles this region has to offer.

The Dordogne region is named after the Dordogne river, which is one of the most beautiful rivers in the world. During the middle ages the river formed the fiercely contested border between areas controlled by the English and French monarchies, which lead to enormous castles being built on the steep cliffs on both sides of the river. Two of the most impressive examples are the towns of Beynac-et-Cazenac (left) and La Roque-Gageac (right).

And even though the conflict between French and English territories ended with the conclusion of the Hundred Years War in 1453, to this day local people refer to the English and the French side of the river. One day we took a boat trip on the river, which started in Le Roque-Gageac and reached Castelnaud-la-Chapelle (on the right here). The river was full of kayaks and stand-up paddle borders.

Following our boat trip we visited the beautifully manicured gardens of Marqueyssac, which are located on a high cliff above the river. The views across the river valley in all directions were amazing.

After 9 days in the Dordogne, Lara, Gary, Max and Pearl had to return to New York, and I decided to continue my sightseeing trip further south. After dropping them off at the Bordeaux airport in the morning, I had the whole afternoon to explore this beautiful city. Bordeaux is a port city located on the Atlantic at the mouth of the huge Garonne river.

Bordeaux is the sixth largest city in France, with a metro area population of around 800,000, but it has the feel of a much larger city, with its wide avenues and monumental buildings. The style and grandeur of the architecture reminded me a lot of Paris. Due to its unspoiled urban ensemble of a large number of historical and protected buildings, mostly from the 17th and 18th century, the entire city center was awarded world heritage status by UNESCO in 2007.

The Place de la Bourse is the best example of the classical French architecture of the early 18th century.

Despite its large size, Bordeaux is a very walkable city. Many of the streets have been converted to pedestrian areas and most of the restaurants and bars have outdoor seating.

The first mention of a church of St Andrews here was in 814. The current Cathedral of St Andrew of Bordeaux was started as a Romanesque building in the 12th century, but in the early 13th century it was decided to switch the ongoing construction to the new Gothic style, that was just becoming popular in France then.

Since Bordeaux was an important waypoint along the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostella, two other churches together with the cathedral were included in the UNESCO world heritage dedication of "Routes of Santiago de Compostella" - the Basilica of St Michael (left), which is particularly noteworthy for its beautiful modern stained glass windows, and the Romanesque Basilica of St Severinus, which was built in the early 11th century.

I wished I had had more time for Bordeaux, which is a beautiful city and well worth spending several days there, but there were so many other places to see. And my next stop turned out to be a very special one indeed.

Before this trip I had never even heard of city of Albi. I found it in the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites in France, and since the pictures and descriptions looked interesting, I decided to stay there for a night, even though it was about an hour's drive out of my way. And, boy, was I glad I did. The Episcopal city of Albi and its cathedral turned out be one of most unique and beautiful places I have ever seen. Truly stunning. This is the postcard perfect view of the Pont Vieux (built in 1034) across the river Tarn and the cathedral in the background.

The entire city is built in orange and red brick, which was locally produced and gives the city a unique and very distinct character. Some of the buildings are from the 10th and 11th century, but the city reached great prominence in the 13th century as one of the centers of the Albigensian Crusade (named after the city), which was a 20 year campaign (1209-1229) to stamp out Catharism in Southern France.

Having visited countless Gothic churches and cathedrals all over Europe, I usually don't expect to be completely blown away by them anymore, but the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Cecilia in Albi did just that. Constructed between 1280 and 1390, it is the largest brick building in the world.

But the austere, almost fortress-like, exterior does little to prepare you for the overwhelming splendor of its interior. Every inch of the walls and ceiling of the huge nave is painted in beautiful bright colors.

Apparently it took Italian artists only 4 years, from 1509 to 1513, to complete the interior decorations, which remarkably have remained completely unchanged and unrestored for over 500 years. I had never seen anything like that.

The city is also home to the Toulouse -Lautrec Museum, since the artist was born here in 1864, but I did not have enough time to visit the museum.

Moving from one spectacular small southern French city to another, la Cité de Carcassonne is among the most stunning places I have ever seen. Carcassonne is one of those places that don't even look real when you see photos. It looks like something out of a fantasy video game or a Disney movie.

Carcassonne is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in Europe. There is evidence of Neolithic settlements, and the origin of the citadel goes back to the Romans, who first fortified the hilltop around 100 BC. In the 5th century AD the area fell under the rule of the Visigoths, who continued to extend the fortifications. Throughout the middle ages different rulers and fiefdoms controlled the city, but the castle was considered as almost impenetrable and many powerful rulers and kingdoms failed to conquer it.

It is hardly fathomable by today's standards, but in 1849 the French government decided to demolish the entire fortress. It was only after significant protests, that they reversed the decisions and charged the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc with a complete restauration of the cité. The restauration did receive some criticism for its lack of historical accuracy, but it left behind a truly stunning monument of medieval architecture. The medieval city is enclosed by two complete and formidable rings of outer walls that include 53 towers.

The strange faint circles you can see in the picture on the right above are the remnants of an 2018 art installation by Swiss artist Felice Varini. It was a rather controversial piece, that originally looked like this:

The medieval city inside the fortifications, while somewhat touristy, is amazingly well preserved and restored. Walking along the cobbled streets and through the narrow alleyways, particularly in the early morning before the tourist hordes arrive, makes you feel like you've been transported centuries back in time.

The newer parts of the main city lie just across the river Aude which is crossed by the 14th century Pont Vieux.

The Canal du Midi, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site in itself, also runs through Carcassonne. Built between 1667 and 1694 it is an amazing feat of Renaissance engineering. The 240 kilometers of water ways link the Mediterranean with the Atlantic through a series of locks, bridges and aqueducts. Initially meant to facilitate the wheat trade, the canal played a huge role in enabling the industrial revolution in Southern France.

Since I was already so close, I obviously had to drive a couple of hours further south to visit the last country in Western Europe I had never been to. The Principality of Andorra thus became the 97th country in my collection. Andorra is located high up in the Pyrenees nestled between France and Spain. With an area of 4,698 square kilometers and population of around 77,000, Andorra is the sixth smallest county in Europe and the 11th smallest in the world. The official language here is Catalan, but most people seem to speak Spanish and French as well. I stayed in the capital Andorra la Vella, which at over 1,000 meters is the highest capital in Europe.

I don't think anyone would visits Andorra for its historical sites or towns, which really are just a collection of giant hotels and shopping malls. The whole country seems to be a very large ski resort in winter, and a hiking and cycling destination in the summer. The surrounding mountains of the Pyrenees however are absolutely beautiful. Due to their more southern location, the tree line in the Pyrenees is much higher than in the Alps. So even the steep mountains above 2,000 meters are densely wooded.

I went on a very nice hike in the Madriu-Perafita-Claror valley. The valley was given UNESCO world heritage status in 2004 for both its natural beauty as well as its importance as a cultural landscape, that shows how people have used the harsh conditions in the high Pyrenees to survive and thrive here for centuries. I came across a couple of very isolated farms and saw hardly any other hikers.

Following my two nights in Andorra, I drove back into France, where I returned my rental car at the Toulouse airport and flew back to Munich. This was an incredible trip, where I visited many places I had long wanted to see, and discovered new jewels of places I had never even heard of before. Reminding me what an incredible place Europe is.

No comments:

Post a Comment