Tiny Andorra often gets overlooked by many, especially given that the principality high in the Pyrenees is only 2.5 times the size of Washington, DC and has but 82,000 residents. But size isn't everything.
Andorra is one of Europe's few remaining tax havens
Roser Jordana gets an almost resigned look in her eyes when she talks about name recognition. The head of Andorra's national tourist office says she has gotten confused looks on more than one occasion when handing her passport to a border control officer during her travels around the globe. Often, they say they don't know where Andorra is, or even worse, they ask if she is Spanish.
"It's a crime to say that to an Andorran," Jordana says.
Andorra, she says with a little steel in her voice, maybe lies between Spain and France, but it is a country with its own identity, customs and culture. It is one of the oldest independent nations in the world. Its sovereignty was confirmed by a treaty in 1278 -- 500 years before the United States of America was even created.
Shopping is the thing to do in Andorra la Vella
Its heads of state may be a bishop from Spain and the president of France, but it elects its own government, has a parliament, and while not part of the EU, has special agreements with the bloc that allow for easy travel across its borders. That's important, since Andorra depends on travelers for its very existence.
More than 80 percent of its GDP of $2.77 billion is generated by the activity of the 11.6 million people visiting the mini-state each year. Many come to go skiing at one of the several resorts or engage in Andorra's other major activity: shopping.
Shop 'til you drop
Much of the capital city Andorra la Vella resembles nothing more than an outdoor shopping mall, with mountains as a backdrop.
According to Jordana, the country has more than 5,000 shops, and they are all clustered in the flatlands of the country's main Y-shaped valley. With their windows glittering with gold and silver watches, designer sunglasses or electronic equipment, Andorra's retail environment can seem overwhelming. But it has been a crucial element in pulling the country out of the backwoods poverty it endured for centuries.
There's no lack of selection in Andorran shops
Andorra is one of Europe's few remaining tax havens. There is no income tax and its duty-free status means that goods, especially high-end consumer goods, are cheaper here than they are in France or Spain.
Starting in the 1960s, Andorra began attracting bus loads of French and later Spanish tourists over the border with the lure of cheap wares and even cheaper cigarettes. The country's population boomed, from around 6,000 people in 1950 to today's 82,000.
"If you see photographs from the 1950s, Andorra looks like another place altogether," says Susana Vela from the country's national archive. "Then we had a commercial and tourism explosion in the 60s and 70s in the bottom of the valleys and that was followed in the 80s and 90s by an explosion in the mountains. It's been incredible."
There's more to Andorra
While the retail sector pulled Andorrans out of poverty and pulled thousands of immigrants from Spain, Portugal and France in to work -- Andorrans are now a minority in their own country -- it has had its downsides. Construction proceeded with little or no regulation, urban planning concerns were basically ignored, and the country's investment in infrastructure lagged behind its rising skyline and congested streets.
Today, traffic clogs the capital, air pollution is noticeable, and its natural beauty continues being overtaken by apartment buildings and hotels, which are inching their way up the mountainsides since vacant flatland space is all but gone.
Andorra has more to offer than just shopping
Ramón Villeró, an Andorran journalist and author, just has to look out from the terrace of his boyhood home to see the extent the country has changed. When he was growing up in the late 1950s and early 1960s, there were fields around his father's house. Today, it is surrounded by retail palaces and the cacophony of car horns.
"It has grown too quickly and too much," Villeró says.
The 52-year-old says he wishes more people knew about the Andorra that he loves rather than just the skiing and shopping. Although he lives in Barcelona, he comes to Andorra when he needs to recharge his batteries, something he finds he can accomplish by spending time in the mountains or on the country's many lakes.
"That's my Andorra that I really like," he says. "It's the silence, away from the center of Andorra, away from the shops and the banks. It's the Andorra I lived when I was young, when I was a child."
Many in Andorra feel the way Villeró does. The government has also tried to slow down the commercialization forces that some fear are overtaking the country's natural and cultural heritage. New planning laws are being discussed and some municipalities have put restrictions on new building. The country's tourist board is promoting other activities besides skiing and shopping, such as cultural tours of Andorra's Romanesque churches, its old iron industry, or its museums.
Andorra is located in the eastern Pyrenees mountains
With the possibility of climate change and warmer temperatures, Andorra is looking to improve its summer outdoor offerings, in case there is less snow in the future. Ski resorts are being turned into summer playgrounds, with horseback riding, mountain biking, and fourwheeling.
"Andorra is a place that is typically known for retail tourism, for its shops. But for a few years now, they've been stressing the mountains and activities like hiking and biking and the natural beauty," says Luíz Menéndez, who drove with his family from Spain for a camping weekend. "It's nice to have both, the shopping and the other things.
Andorra is an old country that has gone through a remarkable metamorphosis in recent decades. It is one of the countries in Europe with the longest tradition, but with one of the youngest constitutions -- its first was passed in 1993.
The principality has basically been at peace for 700 years, although officially it went to war against Germany in 1914. But since it only had ten part-time soldiers, it didn't see any fighting. The peace between the two wasn't signed until 1939, almost one month after Germany had invaded Poland.
Roser Jordan of the tourist board is proud of this unique and slightly quirky history. Although she doesn't like it when people don't recognize her passport, she does enjoy living in a country where she knows almost everyone.
"Sometimes it's a bit embarrassing, because everyone also knows your problems," Jordan says. "But it's nice that you feel at home here, wherever you go."