This post updates as I gain countries, and serves as an index of sorts to much of the content here.
Since my trip to Madrid, the Spanish capital, this is no longer a difficult question. You might imagine that it was never difficult, but counting countries visited is more complicated than it first seems, with both ‘country’ and ‘visit’ grounds for debate.
My own experiences with Spain are illustrative. Prior to 2012, the answer was indeed straightforward; I had not been there. However, that summer I visited Gibraltar – famously not Spain – and when our would-be plane back diverted to Malaga, we were sent by coach to join it. So, legally, I entered Spain a minute or so after leaving Gibraltar’s airport, and this was not just a technicality: we had to disembark the coach, find our luggage, and of course have suitable credentials to enter the Schengen zone. I then covered over a hundred miles of Spanish territory, and all told spent about fours in the country before eventually departing for the UK.
But does that really count as having visited Spain? Although I have a slim story to tell about my time there, it was otherwise lacking as an experience. I took no photographs; ate no food; spent no money (I had none of the relevant currency); uttered not a single word of the local language; saw neither a sunrise nor a sunset; and cannot offer a single recommendation for something to see or do. Yet legally at least, I had been to Spain; and in the eyes of, for example, the Travelers Century Club this even took me a step closer to being one of “the world’s most widely traveled people”.
Fast forward to 2016, and you’ll find me back on Spanish soil. After five days of sunshine and tapas, I have no qualms about counting that holiday as a visit – but a visit to where? For although Maspalomas is part of a Spanish province, Las Palmas, the Canary Islands sit some 800 miles from the Spanish mainland, closer to Africa than Europe. And if I were to claim this as a trip to Spain, how far can that argument be pushed? Was my time in Pyramiden enough to tick off Russia? Would a holiday in Martinique really say much about France? If Scotland splits from the UK, can I retroactively add a country to my count, or do I have to revisit the new nation? What of contested ground, such as Cyprus?
The obvious solution to these issues, of course, is to travel more, experience plenty, and leave no doubt 🙂 . So it eventually was for me and Spain… and I think I will have to resolve the question of Vatican City in a similar fashion!
Starting with the least controversial notion of country – the UN member states – here’s where I feel comfortable laying claim to thus far, and why.
- The UK
My country of birth. I grew up in South-East England, with occasional childhood holidays in Wales. I didn’t make it to Scotland until my 20s, but soon made up for that: Edinburgh was for a long time the city I’d spent the most time in as an adult, with nearly five years between 2006-10 and 2013-14. I’ve yet to visit Northern Ireland, but have been to one British Overseas Territory: Gibraltar (in 2012). Whilst not technically a part of the UK, this also seems the best place to include the crown dependencies of Jersey (visited 2014) and Man (2021’s post-COVID return to travel).
- France, Belgium and Ireland
The only other countries I visited as a child, via a couple of mid-90s school trips (language practice and historical tours, respectively) plus a family holiday to Brittany and a daytrip – by ferry – to Ireland. None of these necessitated having a passport of my own! Despite getting started over twenty years ago, I’ve spent relatively little time in France, although my first holiday with Alo was in Strasbourg. Our next was in Brussels, which became a regular stopping point when travelling to and from The Netherlands by train. Ireland remains the most neglected of the three, with just a pair of visits as an adult, both to Dublin in 2007.
My first ever flight was to Oslo – well, to Torp, then a bus to Oslo – just before Christmas 2004 (and shortly after my 21st birthday, for which my grandparents got me a passport). Perhaps an unusual debut, but a destination that would become a firm favourite; I’ve now visited the capital five times (most recently in 2022), plus the more remote Ålesund (in 2009) and the much more remote territory of Svalbard (in 2016).
- The Netherlands
A two week stay in 2007 for Summerschool Utrecht was at the time the most adventurous foreign trip I’d attempted. I followed it up with a second Dutch holiday later that year, and returned to Utrecht in 2008 on academic business. However, after that initial flurry, there was nothing for most of a decade; later, though, a few years with a Dutch partner resulted in some fifteen trips between the UK and the Netherlands (mostly to visit friends and family, and hence rarely documented here).
In 2007 I claimed two new countries in one trip by adding a German holiday to my Dutch summerschooling – this was so I could meet up with a Maltese friend I’d met earlier in the year in Ireland. I think it’s fair to mark this as the beginnings of a more international phase of my life, helped by entering gradschool. Or less pretentiously, this was the year I caught the travel bug, helped by gradschool funds! I’ve since made a dedicated return to Germany in search of curiosities in Berlin; dipped in and out as part of a three country adventure; and visited Stuttgart and Frankfurt for climbing events.
My first transatlantic flight was not, as I had imagined it would be, to the US. Instead, academic travel took me to Banff; I’ve since visited Toronto twice (the second time adding in Montreal and, er, Waterloo) before heading back to the west coast to tick Vancouver off my bucket list.
- Sweden and Denmark
I collected Stockholm, Gothenburg and Gävle in less than a week in late 2008; a longer stay in Copenhagen the following summer added Denmark, and also enabled a lunch break in Malmo. After considerable neglect, I returned to Sweden in 2023 for a long weekend in Stockholm.; more time in Denmark is definitely overdue.
I’m not sure how many people manage to tick off Malta before Italy, but here we are… and I can’t even blame an obscure mathematical conference for this one! I also managed to include Gozo and Comino on this holiday, back in 2010. Almost a decade later, I briefly returned to the main island.
My academic pursuits finally lead me to America in 2010, starting with Seattle, then adding New Orleans, Boston, and San Diego as I followed the Joint Mathematics Meetings. It having eluded me thus far, I had to deliberately include a stop in New York on my big tour of 2015; a couple of years later I did manage to get there for work. Factor in additional exploration along the length of the west coast, plus a fortnight focused on the Northwest, and the US had already become one of my most frequently and thoroughly visited countries pre-pandemic. When my travel properly resumed in 2022, I racked up most of a month here – starting with a seven state rail adventure, then returning for nearly a fortnight mostly in Salt Lake City.
- Italy and Vatican City
The last trip of my academic career opened up what has become a firm favourite, Italy – and marked the beginning of writing trip reports. Attending a conference in Assisi in 2012, all I saw of Rome was some train stations. So I returned to the capital the following year in tourist mode, briefly also setting foot in Vatican City (before being turned away due to a ticketing issue). Later Alaina and I would visit Rome together, which we enjoyed so much we made Italy the main part of our honeymoon. Travel with friends also gave us the opportunity to explore Tuscany in 2019.
2012 added a second new country, thanks to a trip to Zurich for a concert. The next year I’d return for a second gig by the same artist, this time in Geneva. The honeymoon itinerary included stops in Zurich and Chur and rail travel across the Swiss alps; I spent some more time in the mountains for the kick-off of 2022’s climbing world cup season.
Although I’ve not come up with any hard rules, I do consider 2016’s trip to Gran Canaria acceptable as a visit to Spain, placing it here in the ordering. But if you don’t, my subsequent weekend in Madrid, trip to Valencia, or Andalusian wanderings surely qualify.
2017’s addition to the list was decided by fate, as I picked flights to Larnaca by the roll of a die!
With no countries joining this list in 2018, I made sure that 2019’s first adventure would be to somewhere new. Inspired by a photo, I split a long weekend between Salzburg and Hallstatt, Obertraun and Dachstein.
It took until late 2022 to expand this list… and it was a country I didn’t even particularly want to visit! To get to somewhere I did, I travelled via Dubai, and stayed just long enough to confirm it wasn’t my kind of place.
Fittingly, it was the Extraordinary Travel Festival – a conference for country counters – that added my first unusual entry to this list, Armenia. I spent most of my time in the capital, Yerevan, but also joined a tour of various Soviet science sites on the slopes of Mt. Aragats.
This gives a lower bound of just 19 of the 193 states with full membership of the UN; plus the territory of observer state the Holy See. At the other extreme, I’ve covered 80 of the 1301 locations distinguished by NomadMania, or 81 of the 1500 tracked by their rivals Most Traveled People…
I’ve been to three of the UK’s four nations; thirteen of the United States; and thirteen of the EU28 (now twelve of the EU27, I suppose). I wonder which of these counts I’ll add to next – but whichever option I take, there’s clearly plenty out there to explore…