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Too Much Tax‑Free Beer In Europe’s Largest Duty‑Free Shopping Mall

Photo by: Jo Turner

Too Much Tax‑Free Beer In Europe’s Largest Duty‑Free Shopping Mall

Beer in Ordino

Andorra might be one of the world’s smallest countries, but it is Europe’s largest duty-free shopping mall.

Tourists claim to come here for the skiing or the scenery, but really, they’re here for the cheap shopping. As our Spanish AirBnB host told us in Escaldes-Engordany, Andorra is “a shopper’s paradise.”

Walking down Carretera De L’obac, the main boulevard that connects Escaldes-Endorgany to the capital, Andorra-la-Vella, bears this description out. Imagine the biggest duty-free mall you’ve ever been to in any airport. Now multiply it 100 times, and drop it in a pristine mountain valley.

That’s Andrroa-la-Vella. Multitudes of shops hawking miles of Samsonite luggage, Canon lenses, Cartier watches, Chanel perfume, and, of course, booze and smokes. Nowhere else in Western Europe can you get a carton of Marlboro Reds for 15 euros or a bottle of Laphroaig for 12. Nowhere else in Western Europe can you advertise those Marlboros on huge billboards.

Spanish and French travelers pack their cars with these goodies, hoping that on the way out, the French or Spanish police don’t ask them to pop their trunks and explain how they didn’t believe 12 cartons of cigarettes and four cases of plonk were really over the limit.

How does this country pay for its roads? Does it have oil wells it’s kept magnificently hidden from the public’s view? Even the booze at the bar is tax-free, or at least it sure seems to be. You’re lucky to find a pint in France for five euros or less outside of a vermin-ridden hole. Here, you don’t find one over five euros.

When we arrived, it was mid-February, and the temperature in southern Europe had just made the leap into spring. In the beaming mountain sunlight, we ordered a couple Estrellas, neighboring Spain’s national brew. (We found no Andorran beers.)

We sat outside in beautiful Ordino, a magnificently medieval mountain village, a place where film crews go when the script calls for “IDYLLIC 15TH CENTURY EUROPEAN TOWN.” In front of us, a stone footbridge crossed a small canal. Behind us, a church, the French post office, and a series of apartments (we think) climbed up with the mountain.

There weren’t too many people around us, just a few youngsters drinking sangria, and the occasional family walking past in their ski wear. Weren’t they boiling hot? And where exactly is this mountain snow? The other side of the mountain? Granted, we did see snow on the way in. There are only two ways to reach Andorra by bus, east from Toulouse or west from Barcelona.

Maybe it’s the buses that are taxed in Andorra. They’re 34 euros per ticket, with no toilet, no wi-fi, and a unilingual Catalan driver who does not understand the words, “May we stop for the toilet please? I had too much tax-free beer.”

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