Country Facts #3: Croatia to France

This week: Limbless swimmers, assassination attempts, ice roads, anti semitism, abandoned towns, giant rats- and a foot powder that won a mayoral election.


Croatia – Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, is home to one of the world’s oddest museums, the Museum of Broken Relationships. The exhibition was the brainchild of Croatian artists Olinka Vistina and Drazen Grubisic who, after separating in 2003, decided to collect and display some of the items they had shared during their time together. They soon began to receive donations from similarly heartbroken people from around the world, from a bottle of tears to, more menacingly, an axe. READ MORE

Museum of Broken Relationships - Zagreb, Croatia, June 2012
Fake boobs, one of the many unusual exhibits at the museum of broken relationships –  Fake breasts at the Museum of Broken Relationships / Robert Nyman / CC-BY-2.0

Cuba – Fidel Castro, Cuba’s revolutionary leader for half a century between 1961 and 2011, once claimed to have survived more than 600 assassination attempts by the CIA. Plots included killer pens, molluscs, diving suits, radios and cigars, while another US idea was simply to discredit Castro by making his famous beard fall out… READ MORE

Cyprus –Since the invasion of Cyprus by Turkish forces in 1974, the city of Famagusta- located on the de facto border that divides the island- has become a partial ghost town- and a 70s timewarp. Several thousand Greek Cypriots fled Turkish occupation, and the areas of the city they inhabited have been fenced off left virtually untouched to this day.  READ MORE

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The dilapidated hotels of Famagusta’s abandoned district, Varosha – Verosia Hotels / User:Wikiolo / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Czech Republic – While the Iron Curtain ceased to be a barrier to humans decades ago, for the animals of Central Europe its legacy lives on. In the Czech Republic, deer living in the countryside on the border with Germany mysteriously avoid crossing between the two nations. In the past, electric fences created an impenetrable divide between the countries, and while the barriers have long since been dismantled, each new generation of deer tend to remain in the same habitat as their antecedents. READ MORE

Denmark – Copenhagen, capital of Denmark, is a cyclist’s paradise. Containing 400km of car and pedestrian- free cycle lanes and virtually no hills, there are five times more bikes than cars in the city, with more than half of the population commuting by bike every day. Coupled with Denmark’s major investment in green energy projects, it seems cruelly ironic, then, that low lying Copenhagen will likely be one of the major cities worst affected by the rising sea levels brought about by climate change… READ MORE

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One of Copenhagen’s many purpose built cycle lanes Cykelslangen / Orf3dus / GFDL

Djibouti – With the exception of Antarctica’s tiny Don Juan Pond, Lake Assal in Djibouti is the world’s saltiest body of water, with a salinity level ten times that of the seas. The world’s largest salt reserves are found around its shores where the water has long since evaporated, 300 million tonnes of it up to 60m below the surface, which is dug up and exported around the world. READ MORE

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The world’s saltiest lake outside of Antarctica Lake Assal Djibouti / User:Tyke / GFDL

Dominica – Aside from its pristine tropical beaches, the greatest natural attraction on the Caribbean island of Dominica is the world’s second largest boiling lake, the imaginatively titled… Boiling Lake. It is trumped only by the even more impressively named Frying Pan Lake in New Zealand. READ MORE

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As if Dominica wasn’t already hot enough… Kariben – Dominica / Göran Höglund / CC BY-ND 2.0

Dominican Republic – Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic and by some distance the largest city in the Caribbean, is the oldest continuously inhabited settlement founded by Europeans in the Americas. It was founded in 1496 by Bartholomew Columbus, just four years after his more famous older brother Christopher had “discovered” the Americas. In 1930 it was renamed by the egocentric Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo after himself, only reverting to Santo Domingo when the strongman was assassinated in 1961. READ MORE

DR Congo – The (often not particularly) Democratic Republic of Congo is home to the world’s most difficult to translate word. In the Tshiluba language, an Ilunga is “a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time”. READ MORE

East Timor – Musophobes look away now. Until it was driven into extinction by humans 1,000- 2,000 years ago, the world’s largest ever rat lived in the forests of East Timor. It weighed around 5kg- three times heavier than the current largest rat, and about 10 times heavier than a typical sewer dwelling specimen. READ MORE

Ecuador – In 1967, an election in the small Ecuadorean town of Picoazá saw a foot powder brand, Pulvapier, voted in as mayor. The company had ran an advertising campaign with the slogan, “Vote for any candidate, but if you want well-being and hygiene, vote for Pulvapies”. READ MORE

Egypt – As in many countries in the region, anti-Semitism and antipathy to Israel are rampant in Egypt, and this was made abundantly clear by a TV prank in 2012. Famous Egyptian celebrities were told during interviews that they were being filmed for Israeli television, and the consequences were often explosive: one man upturned furniture and hit his female interviewer, another mocked the holocaust, while one woman broke down in tears and attempted to flee. READ MORE

El Salvador – A World Cup qualifying tie in 1969 sparked the so called Football War between El Salvador and their northern neighbours Honduras. Rioting during both legs led the two countries to cut diplomatic ties with one another, which led to border skirmishes and eventually all-out war. READ MORE

Equatorial Guinea – One of the universal features of sport is how fans love to get behind the gallant underdog. At the Sydney Olympics in 2000, Eric “the Eel” Moussambani of Equatorial Guinea briefly became a global phenomenon thanks to his struggles in the 100m swimming freestyle. Having been given a wildcard entry to the games, Moussambani had only learnt how to swim one year earlier, and it soon became clear just how underprepared he was. Racing on his own after his two competitors were disqualified for false starting, the Eel somehow splashed his way to the end well over twice the world record time, roared on by 17,000 fans inside the stadium. READ MORE

Eritrea – One of the world’s most repressive countries, Eritrea is notorious for its sporting defectors. 12 members of the Eritrean football team fled while competing in Kenya in 2009; the following year, another 13 did the same while in Tanzania, and in 2012 17 players defected in Uganda. READ MORE

Estonia – The longest ice road in Europe connects the Estonian mainland with the island of Hiiumaa, 25km away across the Baltic Sea. It is subject to some unusual rules: drivers must be off the ice by sunset, cannot wear seatbelts, must not drive between 16 and 25mph to reduce the risk of ice fracturing vibrations and, of course, heavy vehicles are forbidden. Hundreds of motorists drive across the frozen sea every day during winter’s cold enough to sustain the road, with ferries making the same journey through ice free channels only a few hundred metres away. READ MORE

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One of Estonia’s frozen winter highwaysJaatee 2003 / Olavi Jaggo / GFDL

Ethiopia – Ethiopia is one of just two African countries, along with Liberia, that was never colonised by a European power (though it was occupied by Italy between 1936 and 1941). For this reason, it retains a lot of respect on the continent, and many African countries have adopted a variation of Ethiopia’s green, yellow and red flag as a symbol of their own independence. READ MORE

Fiji – The tiny South Pacific island nation of Fiji is one of four Australasian countries that maintain a national flag incorporating the Union Jack, the others being Australia, New Zealand and Tuvalu. Unlike these countries, however, Fiji’s flag also features a rather large St George’s cross shield, and since becoming a republic in 1987 plans had been made to remove these vestiges of the colonial era. But the contentious plans were put on hold after Fiji won their first gold medal for rugby at the 2016 Rio Olympics. The wave of patriotic fervour unleashed by the victory was so great that the President Frank Bainimarama was forced to back down, and instead encouraged his compatriots to welcome the returning Olympians with flags. READ MORE

Finland – The people of Finland can be forgiven for cursing the recent dominance of Apple in the mobile phone market. The Finnish economy has been hugely reliant on the success of its own telecommunications producers Nokia, which until 2012 sold more phones than any other company. Nokia remains Finland’s largest private employer, and at its peak it directly contributed 4% of Finland’s whole GDP and a fifth of its exports- but they were caught out badly by the onset of smartphones. Increased competition from their rivals has caused Nokia’s share price to drop by 95% since between 2007 and 2012 (though it has since improved slightly), and their woes have left Finland with increased unemployment and reduced tax revenue. READ MORE

France – In 1994, Frenchman Philippe Croizon suffered a near fatal electric shock which resulted in the amputation of all four of his limbs. But since then, instead of becoming bitter and despondent with his situation, Croizon has led a remarkable life that makes a mockery of the term “disabled”. In 2010, with the help of fins attached to what remains of his legs, he became the first limbless person to swim the English Channel, and two years later he completed a series of four intercontinental swims. And to cap it all off Croizon verbally authored his own autobiography using speech recognition technology. READ MORE

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Philippe Croizon, the heroic intercontinental swimmer – Dakar 2016 – Conférence de presse / User:Thesupermat / CC-BY-SA 4.0

If you have anything to add to any of these entries, you can offer a better one, or you just want someone to talk to, please leave a comment!

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