Croatia has been racing up the tourist boards in recent years. Everybody’s heard about its other-worldly islands, impossibly clear waters and Edenesque landscapes – and most people will know of its starring role in Game of Thrones. But there’s a lot more to this sunny, cultured corner of Europe than HBO series and holiday resorts: here are some facts you may not have known about this extraordinarily beautiful South European destination.
1. Croatia invented the pen
Slavoljub Penkala invented the mechanical pencil in 1906. Things escalated quickly, and a year later he had fashioned the first solid-ink fountain pen.
We also have him to thank for the hot water bottle – so fans of irony will be delighted to learn that Penkala died of Pneumonia.
2. The country hosted one of the largest Neanderthal populations in the world
In 1974, the Vindija cave was discovered in north Croatia. Inside it was an archaeologist's wet dream: the largest and best-preserved collection of Neanderthal fossils in the world. A similar treasure-chest of remains was unearthed in 1899 at the nearby sight of Hušnjakovo brdo - there were so many remains, in fact, that there’s now a whole Neanderthal museum in the northern city of Krapina.
3. On the subject of Krap...
Dubrovnik was one of the first places in Medieval Europe to install sewage systems. They were built in 1296, and, remarkably, they are still in use today.
4. And then they (kind of) invented the necktie...
It came about during the Thirty Years' War: Croatian mercenaries in French service caught the attention of their Parisian peers, who were fascinated by the Croats’ uniform neck ribbons.
Soon, all of Europe was in a cravat-related frenzy – everyone tying strips of fabric around their necks in increasingly creative ways. The Croats are so proud of their sartorial export that they celebrate International Necktie Day on October 18.
5. Croatia has more sunshine than Sydney
On average the country simmers under 2,715 hours of sun a year, which makes it officially more glorious than Australia.
6. And sunsets spectacular enough to impress Alfred Hitchcock
The legendary director said that Zadar's sunset was 'the world's most beautiful' during a visit in 1964. Once you've watched the sun slink into the crystal blue Adriatic, you'll struggle to disagree.
7. The native name for Croatia is Hrvatska
Pronounce it "herr-wat-ska".
8. Croats have their own alphabet, called Glagolitsa.
The glagolitic alphabet came to be in the 9th century, making it the oldest slavic script. A byzantine monk who went by the name of Saint Cyril invented it as a middle ground between Romance and Slavic scripts, with the aim of spreading Christianity among the Slavs. The Croats continued using it - for mainly liturgical purposes - until the twentieth century.
It's charmingly ornamental: highlights include slovo - the equivalent of C - which looks like a mushroom, and Kako - K - which looks like a lightening bolt.
9. Dalmatians hail from Croatia
Paintings of the spotty-coated dogs were found in Croatia, suggesting that the breed originated there in the 17th century. Since then, the pups have suffered Cruella De Vil's sadistic machinations and strutted their stuff at dog shows all over the world - but they'll always be tied to their Croatian roots; they're named after Dalmatia, one of the country's main regions.
10. It's seal friendly
If dogs aren't your animal of choice, maybe you'll be more impressed by the nation's seal collection. The seriously endangered Mediterranean seal (there are fewer than 700 left) swims along the Adriatic coast, and there's a protected habitat for them at Gortan Bay, on the northern peninsula of Istria.
11.The Croatian currency is named after a rodent
Kuna is the Croatian word for a marten - a disarmingly cute variety of rodent, famed for its silky soft fur.
12. And its coins are named after trees...
One Kuna is made up of 100 Lipa, which are named after a variety of lime tree. Their leaves are embossed on the little gold and silver coins, and are decorative and majestic.
13. It boasts over 1,000 islands
Which means that, from a distance, it even looks a bit like a Dalmatian. Of its 1244 islands, just 50 are inhabited, and only 15 have a population greater than 1,000. Some have found their place on the tourist map, such as Hvar: party-seekers flock to this sleepless island on summer nights. But others are utterly untouched.
14. It has the most 'untouchable treasures' of any European country apart from Spain
Unesco have a lesser-known category for untouchable treasures - so that's any kind of significant abstract cultural phenomenon, like music or festivals. Croatia currently shares the number one spot with Spain. Unesco cited its crafts (lacemaking, gingerbread baking, wooden toy carving) and singing traditions as part of its unique cultural heritage.
15. It's home to the world's largest truffle...
Giancarlo Zigante and his million-dollar-nosed dog Diana dug up a 1.31kg truffle in 1999. They cast the beast in bronze, and made a copy to display in the Zigante Tartufi Shope in northern village Livade. Heavier truffles have since been unearthed, but this football-sized mound of delicious mould is still the largest in the world.
16. ...the world's smallest city
It's in the northwest, it hosts roughly 20 permanent residents, and it’s called "Hum" – an onomatopoeic name for this sleepy village.
17. And the oldest city in Europe
Settlers first came to Vinkovci, in eastern Croatia, 8,000 years ago - and it's been inhabited ever since.
18. Dubrovnik's city walls are pretty impressive...
The formidable fortifications protected Dubrovnik, which was the centre of a city-state known as the Republic of Ragusa, from 1358 until its capture by Napoleon in 1808. The walls, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, managed to ward off all enemy armies during the middle ages – so it’s little wonder the King's landing in Game of Thrones was filmed against this spectacular backdrop.
19. It's a good place to be old...
Forbes Magazine included Croatia on its list of the 12 top retirement destinations, thanks to the glorious climate, rich culture, cheap cost of living and tax breaks for seniors: everything your granny could ever desire.
20. And it's a wonderful place to be thirsty
Water quality in Croatia beats most places in Europe, which perhaps is no surprise considering its array of impossibly blue, impeccably clear lakes.
21. Roman gladiators used to fight there
Along with most of the Roman world, Croats were partial to man-on-half-dressed-man combat, and the remaining amphitheatre in Pula is the sixth largest surviving Roman arena. Built around the 1st Century AD with seats for 26,000 spectators, it’s one of Croatia's most impressive monuments. The ancient structure is still used today, for the considerably less aggressive sports of ice-skating in the winter and music festivals in the summer.
22. Shakespeare was inspired by the country...
He may never have actually been there, but the Bard could sense there was certain magic in the Croatian shores. Twelfth Night's enchanted forests are in Illyria - now Dalmatia - meaning that Croatia was home to the world's most highbrow fairies.
23. And plenty of writers followed in his footsteps...
Vladimir Nabokov spent his childhood summers in Opatija, Agatha Christie honeymooned in Split and Dubrovnik, and James Joyce taught English in Pula in 1905 - a bronze statue of the Irish writer still stands outside café Uliks (that's Croatian for Ulysses).
24. King Edward VIII loved Rab Island so much he couldn't keep his clothes on
During a royal visit to the northern island's Kandarola Bay, the monarch stripped off and dived in. This was in 1936, and the English have been disgracing themselves in other countries ever since.
25. Queen Elizabeth II holidays there too
Her royal highness swapped Sandringham for the Brijuni Islands, off the northern coast, in 1972. It's unclear whether she continued the skinny dipping tradition.