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 the controversial 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 autonomous community of 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 remains the city I’ve 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 Jersey – I visited this crown dependency in 2014.
- 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 Alaina was in Strasbourg. Our next was in Brussels, which has become 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 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, plus the more remote Ålesund (in 2009) and the much more remote territory of Svalbard (in 2016).
- The Netherlands
With a Dutch partner, it should be no surprise that this is my most visited country – except that as most trips are to see our friends and family, I only rarely write about them. But my first visit was long before Alaina and I met: way back in 2007, a two week stay for Summerschool Utrecht which was at that 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 until 2015, from which point I started to make three or four visits a year – although it still wasn’t until late 2017 that I finally gave Amsterdam a look.
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 for climbing events.
My first transatlantic flight was not, as I had imagined, 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. I’m surprised it’s been so long since I was last in Sweden!
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 has become one of my most frequently and thoroughly visited countries – even though there’s still so much to see!
- 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 gave me only a glimpse of Rome’s transport infrastructure, 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. Most recently, our honeymoon included stops in Zurich and Chur and rail travel across the Swiss alps.
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 or trip to Valencia 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.
This gives a lower bound of just 17 of the 193 states with full membership of the UN; plus the territory of observer state the Holy See. At the other extreme, the TCC lists would consider this to be 25 countries. I’ve been to three of the UK’s four nations; six of the United States; and thirteen of the EU28. I wonder which of these counts I’ll add to next – but whichever option I take, there’s clearly plenty out there to explore…