What’s that landscape of idyllic valleys nestled on the Pyrenees mountain range?
Is it a Spain?
Is it a France?
No, it’s the 16th smallest country in the world, the Principality of Andorra.
Join me in Today’s Geographics, as we explore some useful and pointless facts about this
We will learn about Andorra’s unique system of government, its history and about that
one time when a con artist became its King …
From the ‘Antiga èpica dels guardians i els venjadors’ Andorran Epic poem, 13th
Century” As I am a generous man, here are some quick
facts about Andorra that will give you the edge when the pub quiz turns to ‘The Geography
of Micro States’.
It is believed that the name Andorra comes either from Iberian words “ando”, meaning
“highest” and “ore”, meaning “iron”.
Or it could derive from the Celtic words “an”, blow, and “dor”, wind.
Both meanings sound pertinent though, as Andorra is squeezed between France and Spain, on the
Pyrenees mountain range – so no shortage of high mountains or blowing winds up there!
Andorra ranks 16th on the leaderboard of the Planet’s smallest countries, with a surface
of 468 Square Km.
In US units of measure, this is about 180 Square miles – or 2.5 times the surface
of Washington DC.
The population of Andorra is the 11th smallest in the world, with about 86 thousand inhabitants.
In US units of measure, this is about … well, it’s still 86 thousand inhabitants, of course
– or four thousand more than the spectators that can fit into the FedEx Stadium, also
in Washington DC.
The most densely populated city in the Principality is its capital, Andorra La Vella, with 28,000
This is the highest capital city in Europe, enjoying a stunning view from an elevation
of 1,023 metres.
[Caption: 3356 Feet] It may be the altitude and the fresh air that
boosts the health of Andorrans, who can boast the 8th highest life expectancy in the World.
They can also lay claim to be one of the safest nations in the World, as violent crimes are
Now, these 86,000 Andorrans: if you compare them to the World’s population of 7 billion,
they make up a tiny 0.001% (One-One Thousandth of 1 percent) of human life on Earth.
If I apply the same percentage to the number of subscribers to this Channel … I get 1.47
So, there is a chance that 1 and a half of our viewers today are Andorrans.
Let’s say one of them is Andorran, the other one only half-Andorran.
I’ll call them Antoni and Blanca.
So, Antoni, Blanca, if you are watching: Hi!
I invite you to correct me or otherwise comment on our video.
And feel free to private message each other, because, why not?
Now, for everyone else watching: if you were to spy on Antoni and Blanca’s private messages
… first of all: shame on you.
But you will notice that these guys are communicating in Catalan, a Romance language closely related
to Castillian Spanish and Provençal.
Catalan is widespread in Catalonia, of course, but is also the official language of Andorra.
The Economy of Andorra Antoni, Blanca and their friends and families
enjoy a quite high GDP per capita, about $50,000.
This ranks Andorra as the 32nd place for the highest GDPs per head.
For comparison, France sits at No. 40 and Spain at No. 49.
Until about the mid-20th century, the Andorran economy was based on transhumant shepherding
and the breeding of cattle and horses.
Andorrans also grew some tobacco, while agriculture was oriented to the production of cereals,
potatoes, and garden vegetables.
Today, agriculture has almost completely disappeared, with the only exception of tobacco.
Tons of it.
Its production has increased three-fold since the early 1970s.
Coupled with enormous quantities of imported tobacco, this production feeds a strong cigarette
industry, as well as smuggling to France and Spain.
Tourism is also an exceptionally strong sector; Andorra has the highest rate of tourists to
locals in the World, but more on this later.
What is perhaps the best-known activity in the Andorran economy is the banking sector,
because of the nation's status as a tax haven.
For those of you who are not familiar with the term, a ‘tax haven’ is a territory
which allows individual and businesses to legally reduce the total amount of tax they
owe to a taxing authority, such as the Internal Revenue Service.
Historically, Andorra had no income, capital gains, sales, gift, or inheritance tax, and
gaining residency was relatively simple.
This made it a favourable place in which to invest, do business or simply to hold your
capital in a banking system that traditionally has always favoured anonymity.
As it often is the case with tax havens, they end up attracting the capital of some shady
individuals and companies in the process…
In 2015 the Banca Privada d’Andorra (BPA), the principality’s fourth-largest bank,
was accused by US treasury officials of taking bribes to channel profits and facilitate laundering
of cash from Russian and Chinese organised crime, as well as from Venezuela’s national
These charges prompted Andorran regulators to take control of the BPA, and its chief
executive was arrested.
This was the first step toward a more transparent banking system.
The scandal also convinced Andorran authorities to negotiate a deal with the EU, meant to
cut down on the transfer of large capitals from member states into European tax havens.
As a result of this deal, Andorra introduced its own taxation system … which is still
very, very lenient!
Now, I don’t want to encourage your offshore activities, but here are some numbers: taxes
are capped at 10% for personal income over €40,000, while those who earn between €24,000
and €40,000 are only taxed at a rate of 5%.
Anyone who makes less than €24,000 is exempt from taxation.
Another aspect of Andorra’s institutions which deserves a closer look is its unique
form of Government.
Andorra has been an independent country since the 9th Century, making it the 14th oldest
country in the World.
And since the 13th Century it has been ruled as a co-Principality, that is a form of Government
in which two Princes – one French, one Spanish – alternated every year in the running of
What is even curiouser is who these two Princes are, by tradition: on the Spanish side, a
Catalonian Bishop; on the French side, none other than the President of the Republic!
Which takes us to my favourite bit: a history of Andorra, to understand how the co-Principality
came into being and what was the ‘glitch’ that for little more than a week, hit pause
on a centuries-long running system.
How Green Was My Valley The first settlements in the territory of
Andorra date back to the Ice Age, but larger and more organised dwellings were only established
between 3500 and 2000 BC.
These early inhabitants used bronze tools, worshipped the spirits of nature, forests
and lakes and constructed megaliths and dolmens.
These communities may have traded with other people from the valleys below the Pyrenees,
as proven by the presence of Iberian coins … unless of course the early Iberians went
up there as part of a tax-avoidance scheme …
Let’s fast forward some centuries until that bitter conflict that was the Second Punic
One of the war aims for both parties, the Romans and the Carthaginians, was the control
of the Iberian peninsula.
Roman general Scipio eventually defeated his counterpart Hannibal, and so also the tiny
Andorran communities became yet another dominion in the Roman Republic.
If Andorrans were scripted by Monty Python, they may have asked themselves
“What have the Romans ever done for us?”
The answer would be: ‘they gave us a new language, new laws, advanced agricultural
tools and techniques, resulting in larger, better harvests’.
Not bad a deal.
Andorra was a part of the Roman Republic, and later the Empire, until 414 AD, when the
country came under the control of a German Visigoth tribe that founded their kingdom
in Southern France and in Spain.
Now let’s pretend that for the next three centuries Andorrans lived in a quick montage
of every day events, with an energetic soundtrack signifying the passage of time.
Then, in the 8th Century, the Visigoth state was overrun by a determined foe, the Islamic
Ummayad Caliphate, whose armies had invaded Spain from Northern Africa.
The Ummayads did not stop in Spain; they had their sights on France, too.
The shortest path to get there?
As a memento to the Ummayad invasion, a Moorish tower still stands near Ordino, a 90-minute
walk north of the capital Andorra La Vella.
And now imagine that the montage has turned into a scene in super slow motion: two powerful
armies charging each other to the tune of an epic symphony.
It’s the October 10, 732, the day when the Muslim expansion into France, and Europe,
was halted by Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours.
According to legend, several thousand Andorrans had joined the fight at the side of the Franks,
led by one Mark Almugaber.
It is widely accepted that all the Andorrans numbered between four and six thousands at
that time, so unless infants and grandparents were also charging into battle, I am going
to call fems bovins [Caption: Fems Bovins.
Go to Google translate and set ‘Catalan to English’]
Any-how and any-dorra … 10 years after the battle, Charles’s grandson was born, also
called Charles, or Karl, later known as the Emperor Charlemagne.
[Caption: check out or Biographics video on him!]
As a sign of gratitude, Charlemagne proclaimed Andorra an “independent nation” whose
citizens were protected under his favour.
The state of Andorra was founded as a buffer for the protection of the Frankish empire
from Arabic invaders.
This independence was further ratified by Charles’ son and successor, Louis the Pious
But when the Frankish Empire collapsed in 843, Louis’ son, called Charles the Bald,
handed over Andorra to Suñer the 1st . He was the Count of Sardinia and of Urgell, a
Catalonian town some 85 miles [135 km] south of Andorra.
And so, Andorra remained under the Counts of Urgell under 1133.
Then things became complicated, so allow me to simplify them a bit.
In 1133, the then-Count Ermengol the 6th needed to raise some bezants, or doubloons, or whatever
type of cash they used in Northern Spain at that time.
[Caption: It was Pesetas] So, he sold the rights for the eternal usage
of Andorran valleys to the local Bishop, Berenguer.
The citizens of Andorra were obliged to pay annual tribute to the Bishops of Urgell from
Now, these Bishops collected taxes coming from wealth generated by the Andorran valleys,
But, the actual ownership of the valleys was in the hands of a noble family, the Caboets.
They had earned this ownership by volunteering to defend the valleys, under an oath of allegiance
to the Bishops.
Let’s turn the page to more than a century later, in 1257: after a series of marriages
between the Caboets and noble families from Southern France, the ownership of Andorra
was in the pockets of Count Roger Bernard de Foix.
This de Foix was one of the most powerful lords in Southern France and failed to see
why he had to pay taxes to some Bishop 85 miles south of his valleys.
The Bishop, Pedro de Castrobono, was not a cheerful chappy as a result and brought in
the Lord of Aragon to settle the dispute, which threatened to become bloody.
The Count and the Bishop were forced to sign a treaty on September the 8th, 1278, which
sanctioned a ‘double suzerainty’ over Andorra.
In other words: The Count and the Bishop had to live outside of Andorra and appoint ‘vicars’
to administer these territories.
In even years, the Bishop would appoint a vicar, in odd years, it was the Count’s
Andorrans were obliged to pay tributes to whichever vicar was in charge.
Ten years later, a second treaty was signed, according to which Andorra had to pay an additional
tribute to Spain and France, 430 pesetas and 960 francs correspondingly.
These two treaties are known as the first and second “Act-Pareage” and are still
valid up to this day.
It may sound that Andorrans were troubled by excessive taxation.
But this system of paying tributes to the larger neighbours, and of alternating leadership,
is what guaranteed their independence.
As of today, the successors of the Bishops of Urgell are still considered one of the
co-Princes of Andorra, while the rights of the Counts de Foix were transferred to the
King of Navarra, then to the King of France, and, finally, to the President of the French
In later centuries, Andorra managed to keep its independence from powerful neighbours
on both sides of the Pyrenees.
Andorrans enjoyed the benefits of a neutral state: they didn’t serve in the army, didn’t
pay military contributions and took profit from free transfers of goods through the Pyrenees.
The upheaval caused by the French Revolution, from 1789 onwards, caused some concerns to
the inhabitants of the valleys.
When King Louis XVI was executed in 1793, the revolutionary government revoked the “Act-Pareage”,
effectively renouncing their participation in the co-Principality, leaving Andorra open
to an excessive influence from Spain.
In 1806, after Napoleon had taken charge as Emperor, Andorrans petitioned him to retrieve
This would have secured their independence.
Napoleon agreed, noting that “Andorra is a political curiosity that needs
to be preserved”.
‘A Believer and Free’ In the 19th and early 20th centuries the world
slowly began to discover the small Principality.
European travellers visited Andorra and admired the beauty of its valleys.
Operas dedicated to Andorra opened in Paris and Madrid, in 1848 and 1852 respectively.
In 1911, the first motorway connected the country with the city of La Seu-de-Urgell,
on the Spanish side of the border.
At the outset of World War I, Andorrans made another effort to be noticed by Europe, and
formally declared war on Germany.
They sent exactly 0 troops to the front, which may explain why the Treaty of Versailles forgot
to mention Andorra in the peace settlements.
As a result, Andorra technically remained at war with Germany until 1957, when somebody
finally noticed and put an end to that seemingly endless conflict!
Luckily the Andorrnas didn’t send any soldiers, otherwise some poor sod would still be waiting
in some muddy trench on the Marne, cursing in Catalan.
In September of 1921, Andorrans reinvigorated their patriotic sentiment by inaugurating
their national anthem at a religious ceremony.
This is a remarkable anthem: it’s called ‘The Great Charlemagne’,
Or, in other words ‘The Great Charles The Great’.
And it goes like this: (one, two, three, four)
D, B, D, G, G, G, A, A, B, A, G, B, B [Note: I suggest Simon reads the above notes
in his best and flattest deadpan tone] but I realise you may be after the lyrics,
which reinforce once again the Carolingian legend at the origin of Andorra:
“The great Charlemagne, my Father, liberated me from the Saracens,
… I am the only remaining daughter of the Carolingian
empire A believer and free for eleven centuries,
a believer and free I want to be.”
The Andorran anthem was at the centre of a minor scandal, in September of 2019.
The French football national team was due to play against Albania, on their own home
Just before the match, some inspired soul must have fiddled with the playlist of national
anthems … and the Andorran one blared through the stadium’s PA system.
Note the second line of the anthem ‘liberated me from the Saracens’
… yeaaaaaahhh, not suitable for a Muslim majority country like Albania.
The Albanians asked for the mishap to be fixed before the match could start.
Luckily, the stadium’s MC quickly wiped away the awkwardness, by enthusiastically
announcing that the game was about to begin: “France
I trust that Antoni and Blanca found this peculiar anecdote most amusing.
If you allow me, I shall henceforth proceed with the principal narrative.
In 1933 Andorra had its own, small revolution.
It started on the 17th of July, when an electoral reform was introduced, granting the right
to vote for all males aged 25 or over.
This new electoral base voted into power a new General Council, or cabinet, which abolished
some of the remaining feudal rights and gave Andorrans the power to use their own local
natural resources, including lands, meadows, forests and waters.
This was a revolution because, surprisingly, up until then the Spanish bishops and the
French government still held those rights of usage!
While there was no opposition from Spain, France considered briefly occupying the Principality,
but eventually relented.
Soon after this revolution was over, Andorra would have to face its own coup d’etat.
King Boris I In July 1934 French and British press started
publishing rumours about a wealthy resident of Barcelona that had offered the 'General
Council' of Andorra a sum of money in order to be made king of the micro-state.
This would-be king was one Boris Skossyreff, a White Russian with a colourful back history.
He claimed to be a member of the minor Russian nobility, who had lost it all to the Bolsheviks.
But he also claimed to have served with the British Army in World War I, and to have performed
unspecified and classified services for the Dutch government in the 1920s.
These services had earned him the title of ‘Count of Orange’.
What he always forgot to mention, though, is that in 1919 he had been arrested in London,
and subsequently expelled from Britain, as he was found guilty of forging checks.
The details of what happened in Andorra are sketchy.
The simplest version goes that this spy slash con man slash aristocrat had already met with
the General Council in May, presenting a document outlining reforms to modernize Andorra.
He wished to make of the Valleys a new Monaco, or a new Luxembourg, with an economy founded
on gambling and tax exemption.
Boris was promptly booted out of Andorra.
Relocating to Catalonia, he made contact with the ‘legitimists’ in the south of France,
i.e. monarchists who wanted to install Jean Orleans, the Duke of Guise, as King of France.
[‘Guise’ sounds like ‘Geese’] We can only presume that thanks to the legitimists’
cash and support he was able to make a new bid on the 6th of July.
He proclaimed himself “King Boris I of Andorra, Regent for His
Majesty the King of France, Jean d'Orléans” This time the General Council accepted what
was virtually a coup d’etat, and on the 8th of July, it ratified the King’s appointment:
23 votes ‘for’, only 1 against.
Boris must have felt immediately bored of his new position, because on the 12th he declared
war on the Bishop of Urgell, whose name you can read below.
It sounds crazy, but this means that, formally, for some days, Andorra was fighting a war
on two fronts, against the Dioceses of Urgell.
[Justí Guitart i Vilardebó] Boris also found time to issue a new constitution,
which contained seventeen articles, the longest of them being under thirty words.
This constitution proclaimed liberty of politics, belief and opinion, protection of those in
need, and promotion of education and sports.
Alas, his Kingdom was short-lived.
That one member of the Council General who had voted against him?
He snuck out of Andorra and ratted Boris out to the Bishop of Urgell – who, at this time,
had even failed to realize that he was technically at war with Andorra.
The Bishop was fuming.
He had to get rid of that impostor!
What followed was the most anti-climactic counter-Coup in history.
The easiest way the Bishop could depose the King was to report him under a recently approved
Spanish law, the “law of vagabonds and malefactors”.
This law sanctioned the arrest of people with no clear occupation or residence, like the
homeless, nomads or pimps.
Four police officers and a sergeant travelled to Andorra La Vella, arrested King Boris I
and took him to Madrid for his trial – on a 3rd Class train carriage.
The Spanish Republican newspaper ‘Luz’ had a field day, with the headline:
“At last, Law of vagabonds to be applied to a King”
This Boris Skossyreff … he sounds like someone out of a Tintin story, filmed by Wes Anderson,
who lived many adventures before and after his short-lived reign.
If you want to know more about him, you know what to do …
Life After Boris When the Spanish Civil War broke out in July
1936, the French government was concerned about the conflict spreading into Andorra.
That is why they dispatched a small force to occupy the Valley.
The French soldiers remained until June 1940, when the German invasion prompted Paris to
During World War II, Andorra maintained a neutral position, though it did shelter many
refugees from German-occupied France.
This neutrality was supported by the Vatican and its Nuncio – or Ambassador – in Madrid,
who interceded with Francisco Franco and Philippe Petain to avoid an occupation of the tiny
In the post-war years, Andorra thrived: its population surpassed the 12,000 mark in 1964,
while the economy grew thanks to tourists enjoying the national sport, skiing.
More than ever before, the country shed its state of isolation from previous centuries,
as well as the last remaining vestiges of feudalism.
On the March 14, 1993, a referendum gave Andorra its current statute: that of a sovereign parliamentary
Meaning that the co-Princes remain heads of State, but the executive function is carried
out by a local Government.
In July of the same year, Andorra became a member state of the UN and stopped imposing
taxes on goods coming from EU countries – although it never formally became part of the Union.
By 1997, Andorra had become a significant tourist and trading centre in Europe, helped
in no small measure by the absence of direct taxes in the country.
Several consumer goods, including fuel and cigarettes were – and still are – much
cheaper there than in Spain and France.
That is why hordes of Spanish and French citizens cross the border into the Principality on
a daily basis.
These visitors greatly contribute to the numbers of other tourists who visit Andorra throughout
The number ranges between eight and ten million tourists every year, against a local population
of barely eighty thousand – the highest ratio of tourist-to-local in the world.
So what’s up with Andorra at the time of producing this video, December 2019?
We already heard about the minor incident with the national anthem in September.
In October, the Principality was hit by another banking scandal.
According to Spanish newspaper El Pais, Andorran authorities froze $83.1 Million from an account
sitting in the BPA – remember these guys?
It belonged to a Mexican lawyer, Juan Ramon Collado, accused of unlawful association and
For a rare piece of good news, in December, the Andorran Government announced plans to
open the largest solar energy plant in Europe in cooperation with energy company Endesa.
This will produce almost 1.6 Mega Watts of clean electricity and completely replace the
current power plants fuelled by coal.
As is often the case, the littlest guy in the room has produced a great example to be
followed by the bigger players in the international community.
Conclusion So, my dear Antoni and Blanca, I hope that
today’s video has correctly represented your beautiful country, or, at the very least,
not offended its entire population.
We at Geographics realise there is much more to be said about this small, but charming
Country, rich in History, nature and culinary delicacies.
We focused on what we believed were some of its most interesting facets and I hope I can
get your thumbs up, below.
And if things work out between the two of you, and have three children ... you’d increase
the population of your capital by 0.01%.
And you know what to name your first boy …