One hiking book my family owns described Spain as the second most mountainous country in Europe. Several online sources claim the same:

Spain then and now:

After Switzerland, Spain is the most mountainous country in Europe.

Sustainable event alliance:

it [Spain] is the second most mountainous in Europe after Switzerland.

Wikipedia, Tourism in Spain:

Spain, as the second most mountainous country of Europe, (...)

I've travelled in Spain and there are indeed quite a few mountains. None of those sources define what they mean by most mountainous. I can think of quite a few possible definitions, and although I did not back it up by sources, for all of those I suspect there are at least two European countries that would rank higher:

  • Total area covered by mountains? What is a mountain? Probably more in Norway, Sweden, Russia, maybe Switzerland, Austria…
  • Fraction of total area covered by mountains? (Again, what is a mountain?) More in Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Andorra, Norway…
  • Actual surface area divided by surface area projected onto the geoid (close but not equal to previous one)? See also Is La Palma the steepest island in the world?.
  • Number of (ultra) prominent peaks? Switzerland, Austria, Italy have more.
  • Number of ultra prominent peaks per unit area?

Is there any (reasonable) definition of mountainous by which Spain is the second most mountainous country in Europe?

  • I expected the answer to be average elevation, but Wikipedia lists a few countries with higher elevation. Andorra is first, but could plausibly have been overlooked by the claim's originators; Montenegro's independence may be more recent than the claim's origin; but Austria surely excludes this as the origin (unless there was a major oversight). Jan 18 '16 at 14:56
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    Don't neglect that someone wanting to construct a claim (to draw tourists, say) has semantic wiggle room in the word "Europe" as well as in the notion of "mountainous". Ad people are second only to politicians in deliberately constructing defensible but misleading phases. Jan 18 '16 at 17:58
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    @dmckee I'm aware. That happens to be pretty much what inspired the question.
    – gerrit
    Jan 18 '16 at 18:15
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    @Gilles Oh, I'm sure it's not a case of Wikipedia citogenesis. I've first read the claim some ten years ago in a hiking book that was printed several years earlier, which possibly copied it from Fodor's or some earlier reference.
    – gerrit
    Jan 18 '16 at 19:25
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    @dmckee You're not answering a question about the suspicious attribute "second most mountainous" with an equally suspicious "second in deliberately constructing ... phrases", are you? Jan 18 '16 at 20:34

As the question demonstrates, the actual definitions used are unclear, and there could be many possible answers.

Chapter 3 of the Nordregio's 2004 report for the European Commission, Mountain Areas in Europe: Analysis of mountain areas in EU member states, acceding and other European countries provides a number of different measures, most of which Spain is nowhere near the top, but some in which Spain comes second - but not to Switzerland! - or even first.

  • % of municipalities that are at least 50% mountainous, by area: FALSE

    See Table 3.1. Spain (at 55.59%) is well behind Switzerland, Norway, Slovenia, Austria and several others.

  • Percentage of total country area that are mountain areas: FALSE

    See Table 3.2. Spain (at 55.7%) is well behind Switzerland, Norway, Slovenia, Greece, Austria, Ital and other countries.

  • Population that live in mountain areas: TRUE

    See Table 3.3. Spain (at 15,681,826) is second to Italy.

  • Percentage of total population living in municipalities that are at least 50% mountains by areas: FALSE

    See Table 3.3. Spain (at 38.5%) is behind Austria, Greece, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Slovenia, Norway and Switzerland.

  • Total Mountain Area: TRUE

    See Table 3.4 and the description above.

    Norway, Spain and Sweden are the countries with greatest extent of mountain areas in absolute terms

    The table shows Norway beating Spain, and Spain beating Sweden. Switzerland doesn't make it into the top 11.

  • Mountain Population: TRUE

    See Table 3.4 and the description above.

    As regards population, Italy, Spain, and France have the largest mountain populations

    The table shows Italy beating Spain; Switzerland is further down the list.

  • Percentage of Mountain Area: FALSE

    See Table 3.5.

    Spain doesn't rank in the top 11.

  • Percentage of Mountain Population: FALSE

    See Table 3.5.

    Spain ranks 8, with Switzerland at the top.

  • Number of massifs: FALSE

    Spain is number #1 in this measure.

    The number of massifs per country ranges from one massif (Belgium, Slovakia) up to 13 for Spain.

In conclusion, the claim is poorly defined. Under some measures Spain is second only to Italy or to Norway. In other measures, it doesn't make the top ten.

Of course, there could be some other definition that places Spain second to Switzerland that wasn't considered here.

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    This article suggests two criteria: the proportion of land that is higher than 600m, and the proportion of land with “moderate to steep slopes”. Jan 18 '16 at 19:06
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    @Gilles Proportion of land above 600m isn't necessarily a good measure of "mountainousness". Much of Nebraska is above 600m and as flat as a pancake, for example. Jan 18 '16 at 19:31
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    @DavidRicherby While your point stands for the world as a whole, in Europe >600m is a fairly reasonable if not perfect definition of mountainous.
    – DRF
    Jan 18 '16 at 20:16
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    @DavidRicherby I know. Oddthinking's answer shows that whatever objective criteria may have been considered to make that claim, they'd have to be pretty weird. Jan 18 '16 at 21:23
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    Most of, if not all, the city of Madrid is >600m and, while it certainly is not flat, I don't think anybody would consider it mountainous. I actually live at ~720m, and IIRC the average height is ~640m.
    – Darkhogg
    Jan 19 '16 at 8:18

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