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.

12.30.05 | 1:56 PM ET

andorra graphicsArt by Jeff Wilson.

I. Many Travel Stories Begin as an Attempt to Impress Pretty Women

A. Once you have walked across the small Pyrenean nation of Andorra, you should proceed to Barcelona. Here, you will look for a nightclub called L’Arquer. According to your guidebook, L’Arquer contains a fully functioning archery range, and you are intrigued by the idea that one can shoot bows and arrows inside a nightclub. As with Andorra, you are attracted by L’Arquer because you find it charming that such a place exists. 

B. In actuality, of course, L’Arquer will not likely live up to your expectations. The archery range, for example, will probably be in a separate, cordoned-off area, and your fantasies of chugging beers while shooting arrows over crowds of drunken revelers will not come true. For this reason, you will not look very hard for L’Arquer, and you will end up settling for a pub called Shanghai. This way, L’Arquer will remain perfect in your imagination—unlike Andorra, the memory of which has now been tainted with jagged brown ridges, chintzy souvenirs and drunken Scotsmen.

C. In the Shanghai pub, you will meet a Canadian woman named Lisa, who has come to Spain for two weeks of vacation. Eventually, she will ask you what you’re here for, and you will tell her that you just walked across Andorra. Lisa isn’t exactly sure what Andorra is, so the implicit gag (that Andorra is in fact a very small country, quite easy to walk across) is lost on her. Instead, she asks a neutral question: “How was it?” You reply that it was quite interesting.

D. After this, there will be a pause, which implies that Lisa wants you to elaborate. This is when the real Andorra story begins. What immediately follows the pause will not be the final and definitive story, but it will set the tone for how you’ll remember Andorra in the future. This is where you begin to pick and choose, to play games with reality, to separate the meaningful from the mundane and hold it up for display. Later, when you are writing the story down, you will add details of history and culture—but for now you just want to hold Lisa’s attention, because she has clear blue eyes and a captivating smile. 

E. Skipping over the actual details of the hike, you tell Lisa about the Festa Major celebration in Andorra la Vella. Here, a group of mentally handicapped Andorrans singled you out from the crowd and cheerfully bullied you into joining them in a Catalan dance called the sardana. You choose to reveal Andorra through this story because it’s funny and self-deprecating, and you want to single yourself out to Lisa as a charmed person who is instinctively adored by retards. 

F. The story goes fairly well upon first telling, save the fact that: (a) Lisa seems faintly offended when you use the word “retards”; and (b) You flub the phrasing near the end of the story, inadvertently implying (to Lisa’s ears) that you were insensitive to the mentally handicapped Andorrans while you were dancing with them. You make a mental note to sharpen the clarity of your phrasing, since you were not, in fact, acting insensitive when it actually happened.

andorraArt by Jeff Wilson.

II. Historical Details Make it Look Like You Know What You’re Talking About

A. After you have left Spain and returned to your home, you will decide you need to know more facts about Andorra before you properly begin to compose your story. Reference books and websites tell you that Andorra has 67,000 residents, only 33 percent of whom are Andorran citizens. Andorra has an area of 180 square miles. This is half the size of New York City, but two-and-a-half times larger than Washington, DC. Since you don’t want to make your hike sound too easy, you will use the Washington comparison when composing your Andorra story.

B. You’ll try to spruce up basic facts by clumping them together in a telling manner. Start by saying that Andorra has no airports, no trains, and no independent universities. Mention that Andorra’s small army has not fought a war for 700 years, and that most of its ammunition consists of blank bullets used for public ceremonies. Point out that, while Andorra has a National Automobile Museum, it did not have substantial roads until the middle of the 20th century. If possible, say: “More like a neighborhood than a country, Andorra’s tourism boom has transformed it into a peaceful suburb of ski runs, luxury hotels and duty-free shopping.”

C. Touch on the history of Andorra, but—since this is primarily a travel story—try to deal with it in a concise manner. Write: “Andorra is the lone remaining legacy of Charlemagne’s ‘March States,’ which were created to keep Muslim Moors out of Christian France in the 9th century.” Then jump forward a few centuries to describe how, in the 1200s, a local power struggle between a French count and a Spanish bishop led to a compromise that made Andorra nominally sovereign. “Called the ‘Pariatges,’” you will write, “this treaty plays French and Spanish influences off one another, and has ensured Andorra’s independence for centuries.”

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.”

III. Editors Are Impressed By Tidy Narrative Formulas

A. Now that you have prepared the historical facts, you must choose a manner of storytelling. Were you writing a book about Andorra, you might begin your story from a personal or emotional premise. You might say, for example, that your lover has just left you, and you resolved to walk across Andorra in an effort to heal your pain. Or, you might say that your home was lacking in good taste or authenticity, and you walked across Andorra to discover an older and more genuine way of life.  Or, you might say that you’ve been fascinated with Andorra since childhood, and to walk it’s breadth would be to actualize a lifelong dream. 

B. You are not, however, writing a book. Nor did you go to Andorra to heal your pain, seek a more genuine way of life, or actualize a lifelong dream. Rather, your Andorra sojourn was an extension of a trip to Paris, where you were teaching a seminar in (of all things) travel writing. As you walked across Andorra, in fact, your backpack contained a folder full of student papers. Every so often, you took these papers out and wrote things like: “Show how the villagers act, don’t tell.” Or: “Establish that you are inside the castle before you introduce the janitor.” Or: “Describe what the geishas looked like.” Or: “Don’t give away the samba dancer’s secret at the beginning.” Or: “Tell me more about the one-legged man with the sausage.”

C. Regardless of what happened to you in Andorra, you must choose a template.

(1) You could, for example, present yourself as a connoisseur who traveled to Andorra to sample Formatge de tupí (a local specialty consisting of cheese fermented with garlic and brandy in an earthenware container). 

(2) You might present yourself as an avid hiker or skier, who came to compare the slopes of the Andorran Pyrenees with those of the French Alps. (“They are not as tall or dramatic,” you might say, “but the casual lack of crowds lends a certain appeal.”) 

(3) If you are good at humor, you could present yourself as a hapless wanderer in a tiny land full of baffling cultural differences and bizarre local folktales (be sure to mention the legend of L’Auvinyana, a feisty Andorran peasant who made her fortune as a prostitute in Barcelona and returned to her homeland, dressed in velvet and ostrich plumes, to seduce lumberjacks at gunpoint). 

(4) Another option is to follow in the footsteps of a famous historical, literary, or mythical traveler, making comparisons and contrasts as you go.

andorra, graphicsArt by Jeff Wilson.

D. You are pleasantly surprised to find that a famous literary-historical traveler named Richard Halliburton walked across Andorra in 1921. “I wasn’t sure whether the vaguely familiar word Andorra meant a fish or a fruit,” Halliburton observed in his book “The Royal Road to Romance,” “until one day I ran across it by accident on the map, and found it was nothing edible, but an independent republic of six thousand people and one hundred seventy-five square miles, all lost for ten hundred years in the tops of the Pyrenees.” Inspired, Halliburton traveled to the French border, rented a donkey named Josephine (which he promptly renamed Hannibal), and spent the next few days hiking the breadth of Andorra. 

E. Thus, much as modern wanderers seek to follow the trail of Marco Polo across Asia, you decide that your Andorra journey took place in the footsteps of Richard Halliburton.

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.”