It’s my guess that Andorra is about 55 miles from Barcelona. We were in Barcelona for the Olympic Games in 1992, and it struck me that I had never been in a country as small as Andorra and to be that close and pass it up would be just too much to bear. John Walter, managing editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, was among the herd of staffers on the scene, in sort-of training for the Games of our own coming in 1996. He said he’d like to join me, and we set out one morning in one of our rented vans. Now, Andorra is but a dot on the world map, about 175 square miles in size. It is nestled among the mountains between southern France and the eastern reaches of Catelonia.
It was a nice drive and we shared time at the wheel. As we neared the town of Puigcerda, the last stop in Spain, we did notice that the traffic did thicken a bit, but we thought it was nothing more than Saturday shoppers, or maybe even Olympic traffic on the way to a rowing event. Then we noticed that even leaving the town limits there was no lessening of traffic. Vehicles were stacked up as far as we could see in both directions, all heading to or taking leave of Andorra. We inched our way along, fretting in our puzzlement, and wondering why all these tourists were headed for Andorra. Finally, after crawling about two miles in an hour or more, we came upon a huge shopping complex. Most of the traffic seemed to be coming away or heading into it, so we decided to have a look for ourselves.
What we had come upon, once the dawning burst upon us, was the biggest discount shopping center in Europe. Later, we would learn that some shoppers come from all parts of Europe, and that isn’t all. In the winter months skiing is a big attraction in Andorra, a sort of a vest-pocket Sun Valley, and that the sport was only beginning to set its roots. We had lunch at a hotel in the first town we came to, once we could find parking, which wasn’t eay. Andorra has a capital, and I think the name is Livia, but we never got there. Traffic being what it was, we had started walking—you could walk across Andorra in an afternoon—but after awhile we decided we’d better get back to our car in the little town, with a name of something like St. Julien.
By that time of afternoon, getting out of Andorra was not much easier than getting in had been. On top of that, we had to go through Spanish customs, which was expeditious, nor were the agents in a kindly manner. They were sick of having to trundle through all the merchandise Catelonians were bringing back into Spain, but being Olympians in a sense, we were not stressful. Besides, neither of us had done a lot of shopping. Mine, mainly, was single malt Scotch, which was about as cheap as beer in Andorra. Well, we’d had a nice day, an enlightening experience, and we had come to know that Andorra was Europe’s answer to Wal-Mart—then. I have no idea what it’s like now, and what brings all this to mind at the moment is a bit of saddening news: John Walter just passed away last week, and this is happening to too many of my younger friends. He had settled in Nantucket since leaving Atlanta, and I’ll say this with feeling—I had missed him. We had become good friends. He was a first-rate journalist, could smile, laugh and put out a good newspaper, and had a code that indicated newspapering could be enjoyable, informative, and an important instrument in the daily life of this city. Hadn’t seen him in a lot time, but had a note or two, and now he’s gone. But we’d seen Andorra together.