This morning we got up early and got to the train station to catch a 7:45 train. We were going south into the Pyrenees Mountains. It was sprinkling lightly and we caught a cab to the railroad station. We had time to sit down in the cafe where we ordered coffee, one croissant, and one piece of bread. The bread turned out to be a miniature baguette, about a foot long, and was served with butter and a little jar of apricot jam. That's a nice and inexpensive breakfast.
Our train originated in Toulouse, so it was waiting for us at the track after breakfast. We found the first-class car, which was empty except for a party of four people, three men and a woman, all about 50, who talked animatedly with many pauses for laughter all the way to their destination, Ax-les-Thermes. We kept speculating about their relationship and finally decided (correctly, as it turned out) that they were coworkers.
Our train ride started off through the broad Garonne valley surrounding L'Hospitalet Toulouse. Pretty soon the rain stopped and we began to see hills around us. We made every little station stop along the track as we continued southeast. It wasn't long before we caught a glimpse of the Pyrenees in the distance, covered with snow. Last night's rain in Toulouse fell as snow in the mountains; the snow level was about 3500 feet. Those of our readers who live in Ridgecrest will recall the sight of the Sierras after a winter storm. The highest peak in the Pyrenees is about 10,000 feet, so the effect is similar.
Soon there were patches of blue in the sky, so the sunlight glistened off the fresh mountain snow. The train began going through a number of short tunnels as it snaked its way up a valley that soon turned into a canyon. We watched the snow level get closer and closer as we climbed higher. One of us grew nervous due to leaving warmest clothes and foot protection at the hotel. We could see snow on the shaded banks next to the tracks. Then we went into a tunnel and when we came out it was bright and white. In another kilometer, we reached our destination, L'Hospitalet.
As we descended from the train to the platform, so did everybody else. We looked around for the town and didn't see it. On the far side of the railroad station was a waiting bus, and before you knew it all the passengers were queued up. We had intended to go inside the station, look around, find the tourist bureau, ask about the shuttle bus for Andorra, maybe have a second cup of coffee, but that wasn't the way it was going to be. Clearly this was the bus, and we should get on, because otherwise we would miss it. We were last in line. The fare was sixteen francs each (we didn't even think to ask if our Eurail pass entitled us to a discount since it was a railroad bus). It started out with both of us standing, but the age of chivalry was not quite dead and one of the men offered Elsa his seat. Andorra border entrance
The bus ride was, if anything, more spectacular; cutting switchbacks up into the high mountains to the town of Pas-de-la-Case, just over the border into Andorra, about a mile high. The road was covered with snow, with icy patches, and we were glad someone else was driving.
We reached the border and everybody got off and immediately vanished up the hill into town, where they all disappeared into stores. We looked around and took pictures. If we were skiers we would have headed for the slopes. It was just above freezing, and the snow was melting on the sunny side of the streets. It was a little before 11:00, and the return bus left at 12:55. If we missed the 12:55 bus we'd spend the night. OK.
We walked through block after block of stores, hotels, and restaurants. We knew about Andorra in the old days of smugglers, but this was a different kind of pirate trade. The stores were full of merchandise, and there were plenty of buyers. In addition to the people on the train, there was a steady line of cars coming up the road from France, loaded with shoppers. We saw plenty of expensive merchandise for sale.
Well, we had just come to see the country and the mountains, and not to shop, so we thought we'd have lunch. Of course we're Americans, so we thought we'd just go into a restaurant, sit down, and have a nice leisurely meal, and still have time to catch the bus. Well, it turned out the nicer the restaurant, the later it opened. 12:30 was the customary dining hour. Nobody was serving anything at 11:00, except for a few street counters which had sandwiches to eat standing up. There were a few places which would begin serving at 11:30, but they didn't look very good, and they had names like Pizza Restaurant. So we walked some more on the snowy streets, slipping on the frequent icy patches. Getting information was tricky, because the primary language is Catalan, followed by Spanish, then French.
There's something about a border town. It doesn't seem to matter which side of the border you're on, it's full of bandits. There always seems to be some reason for people to cross the border to get goods or services, and the other side is dispensing these goods or services to non-natives. This leads to a disdain on the part of the natives towards the non-natives, who are regarded as the targets. What you do in Andorra
We quickly grew disenchanted with Andorra. We were not Frenchmen, we were not there to buy things, but as tourists. But there are only two things for tourists to do here: outdoor mountain sports, and shopping. We found the tourist bureau, and their literature confirmed this judgment. They told us to catch the bus at the other side of the border. So we meandered back down the hill and bought our sandwiches at a street counter and sat down at their picnic table to wait for the bus back to the railroad station.
We watched the people around the little streetside restaurant. The proprietors spoke German. There were a couple of other customers. One young man sat down at the picnic table to wait for his order. He was carrying a shopping bag with a fancy stereo amplifier. His sandwich was stuffed with french fries, sort of poutine on a roll, and he marched down the street towards the border.
We finished our sandwiches, and walked to the border, where we found the bus stop -- a wide part of the road where some cars were parked. No benches, no shelter. The young man from the restaurant was the first in line, so we struck up a conversation.
We wanted to find out what it was that would bring people on a long train and bus ride high into the mountains to go shopping. So we began by finding out that the savings were enormous (50 to 60 %) on certain goods -- whisky, tobacco, electronics, gasoline, etc. Moreover, Andorra didn't charge the 15% VAT. We realized that these were all goods that were not made in France, and the French government had imposed enormous taxes. So much for free trade and the European Union, we thought.
Of course French products such as wine and cheese are ridiculously cheap in France. Perhaps we've read The Economist for too long, but we couldn't help thinking that the loss of this huge amount of trade to Andorra was indicative of illnesses in the French economy. We thought that the high protective tariffs were doing a lot to hold back economic growth and increase unemployment. In fact, the differences in the economies between the U.S. and France are quite significant.
But we still didn't understand everything about the Andorra shoppers; we continued to question the young man, learned that Frenchmen may bring up to 3600 francs worth of merchandise back without duty, as well as certain quantities of alcohol and tobacco. We didn't get a straight answer when we asked how often one could make these shopping trips to Andorra. At first he said you could come back every day; then he allowed as if the customs agents would get to know your face. So there must be some limit on the number of trips per year.
We wondered if the time and expense of travel -- by rail to Andorra and then by bus up the mountain to Pas-de-la-Case -- wouldn't eat into the savings you could make on 3600 francs worth of merchandise. The young man blushingly admitted he worked for SNCF (the railway) and that many people drove to Andorra since gas was almost 60% cheaper than in France. So the travel expenses were not high.
While everyone wanted to be first on the bus getting off the train, and first off the bus upon reaching Andorra, the pressure was down now that their shopping was completed, and we were able to get on the bus early and take the seat right behind the driver. This meant we could watch the other people get on And then wait to return the bus. One after another they opened their wallets and showed their SNCF passes. Virtually the entire trip was SNCF employees! So for these people, the costs of the trip were negligible. Since the railroads operate seven days a week, and Frenchmen by law work only 35 hours, these people were all probably on a day off.
We had another half-hour to wait in L'Hospitalet for the train back to Toulouse, and we began to figure out the rest of the arrangement. If you worked for the SNCF, you could travel to Andorra on your day off virtually free. You could buy things like 21-year old single malt scotch (which we saw in a store window) for much less than in France. You could then quietly sell this scotch to a friend -- for more than you paid but much less than it would cost your friend -- and, whenever enough time had passed so you didn't arouse the suspicion of the customs agents, return to Andorra and do it again. It might even be possible to become friends with the customs agents so that they didn't become suspicious, but this is quite speculative.
When we got on the train we found that the four people that had got off at Ax-les-Thermes boarded the train at L'Hospitalet, where they stowed their now-heavy backpacks. So in fact everybody on the train was doing the same thing! When we started out, we had thought the days of smuggling in Andorra had come to an end, but it turns out that only the players have changed. Now instead of Andorran mountain men leading their pack trains over hidden Pyrenees mountain passes, we have French railroad employees who may be moonlighting by making the occasional free trip to Andorra where they can pick up some very select merchandise and no one cares whether they bought this merchandise for themselves or happened to be doing a favor for a friend.
We had gone to Andorra to see the beautiful mountain scenery, and because we were curious about Andorra. We found the beautiful mountain scenery, and discovered that the country of Andorra was able to accomplish the ridiculous feat of locating a successful market at an isolated and wintry mountain location and rake in the money, by the simple expedient of cutting out taxes.
Incidentally, we also learned, from reading guidebooks, that Andorra ceased to be a prinicipality in 1993, and became a democratic republic. Apparently the change in government was bloodless, which is not surprising since every Andorran is prospering through trade with the French!
As we returned to Toulouse it grew cloudy, and was overcast when we arrived. We walked back, picked up some goodies at a pastry shop, and got to the hotel just before it started to sprinkle again.