Around the continent in 80 years

30th August 1996 at 01:00
Having long nurtured an interest in history, the highlight of our holiday in the Pyrenees was to be a trip to Andorra. Perhaps a faint memory of Peter Sellers in The Mouse that Roared, in which a tiny Ruritanian state took on the rest of the world, was responsible for my eager anticipation, or maybe it was just the romance of this remote principality nestling in the folds of the mountains.

We knew it was particularly famous these days for cheap petrol and electrical goods, but were looking forward to sampling its quaint old world charm.

It was only 84 miles away; we could get there for lunch. It turned out to be the longest journey of my life. I should have realised that any road that appeared on the map to be a passable imitation of the large intestine was liable to provide some interesting moments. Initially, we ascended so far that passing airline pilots were nodding to us from their cockpits.

My wife tells me there were magnificent panoramas, and an alpine meadowland that lacked only a cuckoo clock and a lonely goatherd. I wouldn't know. I was white-knuckled while I negotiated an ever tightening corkscrew of hairpin bends which threatened to launch us into earth orbit. After hours of driving, we spotted what looked like a cross between a discount warehouse and a cattle mart. The sign said: "You are now leaving the European Community."

"It's the border!" I exulted.

The corrugated sheds were there for the bargain hunters, so we passed them by, along with the 10 in a row garage experience. "We'll head for the capital, " I said, with all the foolish bravery of a man who has read one paragraph of a tourist brochure. "That will be more old world and attractive; we could have a meal in a local inn."

Four hours into the journey and a meal would have been nice, but on we drove, until we started to descend at an alarming rate. I was looking for the stewardess with the sookie sweeties, as we flashed past half-built "ski and sun" developments that bore witness to the Andorran government's support for visually challenged architects.

Most of the road signs were in a mixture of Spanish, French and Catalan, until we reaching the big one, in English: Watch your brakes! Steep descent for 27 kilometres. Watch my brakes! I couldn't take my eyes off them. I expected them to burst into flames any minute.

When we eventually reached the capital, it resembled Argyle Street on a Saturday afternoon. Traffic was gridlocked in every direction, consumers flooded the pavements, grimly clutching cartons of electrical equipment, and the only hint of Ruritania was in the bright red blazers of the meter maids who stood on ineffectual points duty, impassive behind designer sunglasses.

Just as we realised that, even if we found somewhere to park, we had no local currency, we spotted a huge road sign: "Route to France blocked by heavy traffic; exit Andorra through Spain."

We finally arrived back at the camp-site after nine hours in the car, without food or drink. I was fast losing interest in matters historical.

However, perspective returned the following evening, during a camp-site international football match. Shouts were exchanged in a mixture of French, German, Scots and Flemish. And it struck me that we do no learn from history after all, for 80 years before, to the day, those same nationalities had been taking part in an altogether different kind of European contest, on the Somme.

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