Do you count countries visited? There’s a club, The Travelers Century Club, for people who have visited 100 or more countries.
We were once forced to stay the night in Ethiopia when our ongoing flight to Cape Town on Ethiopia Air had mechanical problems. Because we were accommodated in a dangerous area, we were asked not to leave the security of the hotel grounds until our flight the next day. One night in Ethiopia, where we only saw the airport and the hotel, would count as a country visited for a travel club member.
We, on the other hand, don’t count countries. We like to stay in one location for a month or more to allow the country’s culture and traditions to wash over us. We love to interact with locals and learn how they are different, or the same.
Our travel style is very different from those who travel for limited times every year, and maybe collect countries like merit badges. Sometimes, when someone mentions how many countries they’ve racked up, and we’re feeling a little cheeky, we ask them if they’ve visited the Principality of Ilheu da Pontinha. Because we have!
This tiny micro-nation is little more than a big rock in the port of Funchal on the island of Madeira. It was once the majestic Fort of São José, but in 1903 the Portuguese government needed money to finish building the harbor, so they sold the island to a British family that made wine in Madeira.
In 2000, the family, disinterested in the atoll, sold the land to a young Madeiran art teacher. It was discovered that the original warrant says the government sold the “possessions and the dominions” of the island. Since it’s not under any dominion, the new owner proclaimed the island to be an independent nation.
Never mind that a good chunk of the fort was cut down to build the harbor road and wall. Never mind that the island supports the harbor bridge. The rock island is still, at least in theory, a nation that answers to no king but its own.
Most people arriving in Madeira on a cruise ship take a shuttle bus or tour right past this speck of wonder. Others just walk by it on their way in and out of the port.
The ruler of this Liliputian nation, Prince Renato Barros, has a great sense of humor. He has made up an official flag, a crown and composed a national anthem. He has even declared a national dish – “takeout”!
The Principality of Ilheu da Pontinha has its own passport stamp. So when people tell us how many countries they’ve visited, we proudly present our passports and ask “You don’t have one of these, do you?”