Once upon a time, you might have heard a story about a prince and princess who met at a ball with all the royalty of all the neighboring kingdoms in attendance. Did you ever wonder how there could be so many kingdoms so close together?
It’s not as though the royal families could have flown in for the ball from the different corners of Europe. They would have had to be within a few hundred kilometers of each other. Were the plentitude of kingdoms as fictitious as magic spells and poisoned apples? Actually, no.
For most of Europe’s history, there were literally thousands of sovereign nations, many of them no bigger in land area than an average-sized city, and with fewer people than a large-sized town of today. Until the 1860s, there was no Germany or Italy per se. At one point, Germany was divided up into hundreds of independent states, and Italy, a dozen or so. Spain has only existed since the famous 1492 unification of Catalonia and Castile, France and England have not really been around much longer.
Only over time were small states gobbled up like small companies in a major industry consolidation. Many people are surprised to learn that some of the fairy-tale size kingdoms still survive today. In Italy, there’s tiny San Marino, and the most famous micro-state in the world, the Vatican. Today, the Vatican is a section of Rome, but it was once a vast swath of land that stretched from the eastern to the western coasts of Italy, dividing the country like a belt.
Lastly, let’s not forget the tiny nation that for almost one and a half millennia has stood between the towering powers of France and Spain: Andorra.
Today, Andorra comprises only 468 square kilometers -- far smaller than the metropolitan area of a city--and about 70,000 people. Yet it is one of the oldest countries in Europe.
Andorra came to be.
According to tradition, the history of Andorra goes back to shortly after the Muslim invasion of Europe, when they took over most of what is today Spain. In AD 803, Charlemagne took control of what is today Andorra. His son, Louis the Pious, gave the people a charter of liberties. In 843, his son, Charles II, gave control of Andorra to the Valls d’Andorra (Valleys of Andorra) to Sunifred, Count of Urgell, of the nearby town of La Seu d’Urgell in Spain.
In 1278 and 1288 the Pareteges (Acts of Joint Overlordship) were written, establishing Andorra’s sovereignty right up until the present day, making them the oldest such documents still in power. The Pareteges were meant to settle the competing claims for control of Andorra made by the Bishop of Urgell (in Spain) and the Count of Foix (in France).
In the Pareteges, the two men agreed to share control of Andorra. The unique “co-prince” arrangement of the Pareteges set the stage for the unique place Andorra still has on the map today: an independent country under the guardianship of both the governments of France and Spain. France gave up its claim to the country after the French Revolution. But Andorra got Napoleon to resume France’s claim to Andorra, in order to balance out any future claim Spain might make.
Today, the official joint heads of state of the Principality of Andorra are the President of France and the Bishop of Seo de Urgel, Spain. During the Spanish Civil War Andorra was an important point for smuggling goods from France into Spain. During WWII, the smuggling changed directions, through Andorra from Spain to France.
The Fairy Tale Kingdom Today
Today, Andorra is now one of Europe’s major duty-free shopping paradises, and shopping makes up a large part of the country’s economy. Tourism accounts for most of the rest of the country’s wealth.
In the winter, Andorra’s location nestled in the Pyrenees makes it an deal skiing spot. In the summer, Andorra’s resorts are a great place to cool off. Andorra’s location at the crossroads of a number of European cultures has long made it fairly cosmopolitan, and tourism has only increased that.
Today, the major languages spoken are Catalan, Spanish, French, and Portuguese. In March 1993, Andorrans voted to establish a new constitution that officially declared the country a “parliamentary co-principality.” The head of government is the President of the Executive Council, though the nominal heads of state are still the President of France and the Bishop of Urgell (in Spain).
Andorra is not a full member of the European Union, but it is a member of the Council of Europe, and does participate in certain E.U. trade treaties, in addition to membership in a number of international organizations, including the U.N.
by Joel Walsh
Joel has written for numerous web sites, in addition to the Let's Go: Mexico travel guidebook, and translations for a Venezuelan human rights NGO. At university, he studied Spanish literature and the history of Spanish-speaking countries, spending his final semester at the University of Havana.