The Principality of Andorra – one of the oldest and smallest countries in Europe sits squashed between Spain and France. It is an independent country whose heads of state are the President of France and the Bishop of Seo de Urgel, Spain. Probably, the country is best known for winter sports and duty free shopping. At one time however, it was a smuggler’s paradise; dangerous work often carried out under the cover of the transhumance – the movement of sheep and cattle up to the high pastures in spring and back to softer ground in autumn.
It is a mountainous land tucked in the Pyrenees; small fields scraped out of the mountainsides; remote villages and vertiginous roads and secret tracks.
Smuggling was a pretty open trade which boosted the subsistence level of many families. One Andorran priest remarked:
“It is a hard country…The cattle begin to straggle down from the hills when the snow falls early in September. The winter is long and very cold and my people are so poor. But for the smuggling they would suffer. What would you?”
American author and traveller Herbert Corey visited Andorra and watched the trade openly carried out. In 1918, he wrote:
“the public square was filled with men putting impatient feet against the ribs of rebellious mules in the effort to pull tighter the ropes of the diamond hitch. Loads were going across the hills, fête day or no. Other tired men straggled in at the heels of tired mules, the pack-saddles empty, after a successful trip into France. Small boys were importantly aiding. Girls clung to the arms of the contrabandista, and old women waddled about with parcels that looked like provisions for the departing.”
Accounts of 19th century smuggling tell of houses set up as receiving points for goods inwards and outwards. Often there was a “master” who paid the smugglers about 7 francs a day. It the men were caught they were not paid and, as there was no defence against smuggling, went straight to jail.
The goods were transported as 25kg loads in a canvas bag reinforced by a wood frame. This made it easier for the smugglers to dump the load and take to their heels if necessary, hiding out in the rocky mountainsides to avoid capture.
The men travelled over French or Spanish “ports” – these were the little-known, narrow and often dangerous tracks and pathways through and over the mountains which ultimately led into France or Spain. Sometimes mules were used to carry the contraband or the men hefted the packs themselves. The men wore rope soled shoes which were light and quiet and usually made their silent way through the “ports” in small groups.
Tobacco and Spanish wine were popular contraband but market demands could change. During the First World War mules were an important cargo. Mules from Spain were in high demand by the Allied armies so much so that their exportation was frowned upon by the Spanish government. Although the smuggled mules were ultimately purchased for use by the French army, there was French import duty upon live stock. This created a unique opportunity for Andorran smugglers who obtained mules from Spain by any means they could and led them over the mountain paths, at night into France. The French gendarmes were persuaded to look the other way for a small percentage per mule.
The Spanish civil war brought a demand for smuggled foodstuffs, chemicals and pharmaceuticals and there was an inflow of refugees who crossed the border from Spain. Many children and wounded fighters died in makeshift camps set up just over the border.
Similarly during WWII smuggled goods entered Vichy France via the mountain passes and from 1942 onwards, cross-border networks, established along tracks not closely monitored, were set up so that smugglers could help families to escape from occupied France.
Nowadays, illicit free-trading has turned into duty-free shopping and the mountain passes are left to the hikers whilst those in search of cheap booze and fags take to the relative safety of tarmac roads.