The Art of Writing a Story About Walking Across Andorra

Travel Stories: He traversed an entire nation in a long weekend. Now Rolf Potts shows how you can impress members of the opposite sex and write a textbook-perfect travel article in eight easy steps.

IV. When Bogged Down in Description, Trot Out Some Colorful Characters

A. Think back to the beginning of your Andorra experience. Like Richard Halliburton, you started on the French side, in a village called L’Hospitalet. You hiked all day, slept your first night at Pedoures Lake, then crossed into Andorra at Ruf Peak, which is 8,500 feet high. From there, you hiked down the Vall d’Incles into the heart of Andorra. As usual, you have difficulty describing this hike, because you feel there is a sameness to describing mountains. 

B. You want to just say: “There were a few pines and far-off forests of beech-trees on some of the mountainsides. I climbed up and up and crossed another high Col, and I saw a whole new range of mountains off to the south, all brown and baked-looking and furrowed in strange shapes.” This seems such a simple and appropriate way to describe hiking in the Pyrenees. Unfortunately, it happens to be a direct quote from Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises,” which you read on a series of bus rides from Paris to L’Hospitalet. 

C. You don’t want to resort to the usual clichés, however—the “jagged ridges,” the “crystal clear lakes,” the “quaint chateaux perched on hillsides”—so you check your notebook. Here, you have scribbled observations from the hike, such as “Yellow frogs, brown spiders, orange butterflies,” and “French hikers carry what appear to be ski poles,” and (to your own chagrin) “Crystal clear mountain lakes perched below jagged brown ridges.”

D. In general, you are insecure about this first portion of your Andorran journey, because all you have is background and description, and (as you told your students) travel stories work better when they include characters and dialogue. Thus, you should hurry your narrative hike to the ski-resort town of Soldeu, where you met a retired Scottish ski instructor named Morrie. Morrie was very friendly, very colorful, and (by the end of the night) very drunk. Morrie clapped you on the back, bought you beers, and took you on tours of recently built hotels and bars. Morrie pointed to the local elite and said: “Look at that bugger. A generation ago he and his family were dirt farmers. Now they own half the hotels in Soldeu.” 

E. In one pub, Morrie introduced you to a number of British, Spanish and Argentine ski instructors. In your notebook, you wrote: “Ski instructors arm-in-arm, singing along to ‘Stuck in the Middle With You,’ by Stealers Wheel.” Beside this entry, in the margin of your notebook, you later added: “This could almost be the Andorran national anthem.”

F. As it turned out, the ski instructors didn’t know much about Andorra (“I think it became a country because France and Spain didn’t want it,” one Brit suggested). The best information you learned from these folks was that Andorra always wins lots of medals in the “Little Country Olympics.” 

G. Now that you’ve have a chance to confirm this, you are pleased to learn that there actually is a Little Country Olympics (officially called the “Games for the Small States of Europe”), which pits Andorra against Cyprus, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco and San Marino. The Vatican, you are somewhat disappointed to note, does not field a team. 

V. Be Sure to Contrast the Purity of the Past With the Superficialities of Today

A. Since the Little Country Olympics is a tangent at best, you go back to your notes and scan for details about the hike from Soldeu to Canillo. “Trail to Canillo actually a thin path following a stream near the highway,” your notebook reminds you. “Ski lifts and power wires. SUVs with French tags choking the highway.” There is not much drama here, so you decide to mention smuggling. 

B. Write: “Twisting down from the mountains, this trail is the legacy of Andorra’s time-honored smuggling tradition. Due to her location between two larger neighbors, Andorra has always profited from monopolies and embargoes on both sides.” Illustrate this with an example—say, the French match monopoly of the 1880s, when almost 2,000 pounds of matches were smuggled over from Spain each year. 

C. Point out that the smuggling trade has given way to a somewhat bland trade in tourist souvenirs and duty-free goods. Say: “If a country expresses itself through its souvenirs, it’s hard to tell what Andorra thinks it is.” Describe how one can buy Scotch whiskey, Barcelonan newspapers and even figurines of doobie-smoking Rastafarians (which, to your eye, look “disturbingly Sambo-like”) in Canillo. 

D. Imply that the superficialities of duty-free souvenirs in Canillo distressed you, and that you then had to find something authentic and redeeming. A church is always good for this. Our Lady of Meritxell would be ideal, since this is home to the patron saint of Andorra, who reputedly keeps her country safe from war and invasion. Unfortunately, you never visited this church. 

E. Briefly consider pretending you went there, since you can easily patch together an account from tourist literature. 

F. Choose instead, out of dull conscience, to describe St. Joan de Caselles, a 12th century Romanesque church that you actually did visit. Include the following phrases when describing the church: “rectangular nave with a wooden ceiling”; “semicircular apse with a Lombard-style bell-tower”; and “16th century Italian-German renaissance-style altarpiece, which includes scenes from the life of St. John.” Embellish the sense of history this evokes.

G. Since the hike from Canillo to Andorra la Vella is largely suburban, make a quick transition to the capital. Use this 1921 Richard Halliburton quote: “There, on the hillside, was Andorra City, climbing slightly above the verdant floor of this sunlit garden—the most pathetic, the most miserable capital city of any nation in the world.” 

H. Contrast above passage with the comparative modernity of contemporary Andorra la Vella. Mention luxury hotels, Spanish tourists driving Opel station wagons, and French middle-class shopaholics, who swarm the duty-free stores.

VI. Don’t Forget to Talk to a Local

A. Since it is bad form to write a story about Andorra without producing an actual Andorran, it is now time to bring out Ms. Roser Jordana. Mention that she was a small, sharp, no-nonsense woman. Recall how her pearls and rhinestones glittered as she fielded phone calls and answered your questions in the office of tourism. 

B. As it is somewhat lame for the Andorran in the story to be from the bureau of tourism, boldly bring this irony into the foreground. Say: “Andorra’s tourist economy has turned the nation into a country of visitors. So much so, in fact, that the first true Andorran I meet heads up the office of tourism in Andorra la Vella.”

C. Scan your notes from Ms. Jordana’s personal tour of the Andorran parliament house. Condensing facts, write: “About the size of a large dining room, the Andorran parliament chamber seats representatives from each of the country’s seven parishes. Before the days of roads, this small building doubled as a hostel, and representatives would often sit in the kitchen to eat their sack lunches and discuss politics.” 

D. Though your notes say as much, it’s best not to mention that Marc Forne, the current General Syndic of the Andorran parliament, looks a lot like the father from the 1980s American sitcom “Family Ties.” 

VII. Public Festivals are the Holy Grail of Any Travel Story

A. Festivals always lend color and climax to a travel story, so you should segue into the Catalan Festa Major, which you had the good fortune to experience on your second day in Andorra la Vella. Establish the scene: orchestras and fireworks; a medieval market; Spanish wine for a dollar a bottle; rowdy parades with huge-headed Catalonian “giant” puppets. 

B. Describe the traditonal sardana dances in a square near the park: the old Andorrans dancing in perfect step-step-step; the Spanish oom-pah band under the gazebo; the pretty young women in short skirts, singing. Mention that, because of geographical access, Catalan Spain has had a stronger influence over Andorra than France. 

C. You have no choice now but to deal with the mentally handicapped Andorrans. Recall how they began their sardana with inspiring concentration, but soon shook free of their minders and flapped across the plaza with ecstatic abandon. Each of them wore a nametag, so you know that it was a hefty fellow named “Gordoneau” who fixed you in his small-eyed gaze and yanked you out onto into the plaza to join the dance—which by that point was rapidly disintegrating into a gleeful mosh-pit. 

andorraArt by Jeff Wilson.

D. Jigging and swirling across the plaza, you slowly came to realize that the spectators regarded you and Gordoneau with the same bemused stare. When Gordoneau stopped at a plastic table and took a sloppy gulp of some stranger’s beer, the old Andorran sitting there merely flinched and smiled up at you, as if you might do the same. 

E. You think back to how you tried to explain this instant to Lisa two days later in Barcelona: how there was a wonderful freedom in the notion that—loosed of all expectations—anything you do in Andorra might be forgiven in advance. You intended no moral or quip-joke by saying this; you meant only to imply that one takes one’s epiphanies where one can find them, and you were happy to be invited for a glimpse into Gordoneau’s world. 

F. You’ve since forgotten how long the dance went on before the harried minders corralled Gordoneau and his companions back into neat lines. No doubt it lasted mere minutes, but you realize that any accomplishment is relative, and that Andorra was somehow more knowable for the experience. What, after all, did Hillary know of Nepal? What did Armstrong know of the moon? More than most of us, perhaps—but neither of them had the chance to dance with Gordoneau along the way.

VIII. End With a Tidy Generalization, or Perhaps a Knowing Wink

A. Since esoteric digressions make editors nervous, you must find a more conventional way to end your story. Uncertain how else to proceed, you search the Internet for one last detail that might sum up what you experienced in Andorra. 

B. Stumbling upon a random webpage about traditional Catalan nativity scenes, you read about a peculiar figure called the “caganer.”  The caganer is a harlequin of sorts, a grizzled old man who squats—trousers at his ankles, stogie in mouth—casually defecating in the background of the nativity. A sociologist, Xavier Fabregas, is quoted: “The caganer reminds us that even in the midst of the greatest mystery of humanity, the birth of the Redeemer, there are these ineluctable and physiological necessities.” 

C. It occurs to you that a travel writer is not unlike the caganer within his own narrative—an odd character, always squatting in the background, casually presuming the observer will ignore the fact that these brightly colored surroundings have been painted and positioned well after the events they represent.

D. Thus, from this metaphorical squat, you will write about how you packed your bags, bade farewell to Andorra la Vella, and made for the Spanish border. 

E. You will write: “I know that I have only experienced the slightest taste of Andorra, but there is a certain joy in concise goals and knowable quantities—of entire nations that can be strolled across in the course of a long weekend.”

10 Comments for The Art of Writing a Story About Walking Across Andorra

Tom 01.21.09 | 6:57 AM ET

Well Rolf, that is quite a nice guide. I always like to find all the information possible about country I wish to travel to. I use internet books, tv shows et cetera. Currently I am planning to visit Japan, as I heard people there are great and also lot of unique styles of architecture and technology is there to be found so I am pretty excited to go there.


Kirsten 03.31.09 | 7:26 AM ET

D. Mention that, to this day, power is officially shared by the president of France and the bishop of Urgell in Spain. Say: “Thus, Andorra has the current distinction of being the only nation in the world to have two heads of state—neither of whom live in Andorra.”Rolf, you are the man. Kirsten Willis

Unpublished (Writing Story) Guy 04.18.09 | 3:04 PM ET

I really enjoyed the template for a travel diary. I created a process for writing fiction that was more entertaining than informative. Your article has the advantage of being both. Entertaining because by being grounded in Andorra, it already reads like a story. Informative, because any other country or trip could replace Andorra. A person could follow the template for nonfiction, creative nonfiction, or fiction.

h.n. 05.07.09 | 1:02 PM ET

Gee, Rolf, you tricked me into an Andorra trip report though i had never planned to read anything about *Andorra*. But with your witty style you smuggled Andorra in and now i know more about it than i ever wanted.
Yes, well written as usual even though i’d say the hints for aspiring travel writers come so discretely that they are only obvious to those in the know already. On the other hand, the hints come in a very entertaining style.
As usual with Rolf, i sense the text is very very slightly overdone, just too much of a stylish prose, but it is just a very fragile notion. I enjoyed it immensely, this mix of travel writing and writing writing.

ngan hang 09.17.09 | 11:08 PM ET

Great post, your blog is helpful for me, i will come on frequently.

Nuoc hoa 09.17.09 | 11:16 PM ET

good guide, thanks for sharing.

acb 07.27.10 | 1:03 AM ET

After I read it , I understand better than about word ! thanks

tava tea 08.13.10 | 2:32 PM ET

You make a mental note to sharpen the clarity of your phrasing, since you were not, in fact, acting insensitive when it actually happened.

Ngan hang 08.24.10 | 10:17 PM ET

Uh ! I will note what tava tea say ! Thanks you for you

dekclip 12.13.10 | 9:42 AM ET

good guide, thanks for Article.

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