Each year on 8 September, Andorra celebrates the festival of Nostra Senyora de Meritxell (Our Lady of Meritxell), the patron saint of the valleys of Andorra, and therefore the Principality’s national holiday.
In the Catalan-speaking areas, the Christian celebration of 8th September is popularly known as the festa de les marededeus trobades, a festival of “found virgins”. After all, this is the date for the celebration of the images, which, according to 15th-century legends, were hidden during the Muslim invasion and virtually miraculously appeared later in the middle of nature, apparently found by shepherds, hermits and even pasture animals. And so, hermitages and sanctuaries were erected at the locations of those sightings.
The legend of the Virgin of Meritxell tells the story of a shepherd who found the image on a freezing cold day of the Magi (6th January), beneath a dog rose that was in bloom, despite the low temperatures.
The worship and admiration of the virgin throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, along with growing feelings of nationality, led the General Council to proclaim Meritxell the patron saint of the valleys of Andorra in 1873. This was later ratified by Pope Pius X in 1914.
Hence, on the day of Meritxell, all activity in the country stops (virtually everything is closed, although at illa Carlemany you’ll still find cafés, restaurants and the cinema open) and all attention is focused on the sanctuary basilica, which was built by Ricard Bofill. The prestigious Catalan architect rebuilt the edifice after the September 1972 fire that destroyed the old hermitage and the original polychrome wooden sculpture of the Virgin of Meritxell.