Croatia Q&A: what's with Croatian street names?

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Time Out contributors

Navigating your way around a town or city in a country you don't know can be a stressful pursuit, particularly if your roaming charges don't allow you to have your friend Google Maps or similar open all the time. Nowhere is that truer than in Croatia, where there seems to exist some kind of Kafka-esque plot to prevent you from easily understanding where you are and where you need to get to.

That such a plot could have been hatched purely to disorientate visitors seems unlikely, particularly as, despite the efforts of some waiters in Dalmatia, Croatia has a reputation for being generally welcoming and friendly to tourists. But ask a local for directions here and you'll often end up far more confused than you were before. Could it be that the locals are in on the plot? Could this plot even have been instigated purely for their amusement?

'If you want a local to help you find a street by its name, you are out of luck,' wrote Marina Petković in her insider's guide to Šibenik for The Guardian. 'Here, in most cases, folks use street names that are passed down from generation to generation, with meanings known only to them.'

What Petković describes with affection is, though, just the tip of the iceberg. Yes, locals will often have their own names for streets in Croatia, sometimes given for a business or industry that once was found there. But such monikers are usually unofficial; even with official street names here, as an outsider, you're walking a minefield of non-comprehension.

In his Zablogreb blog, American writer Cody McClain Brown highlights the differences between his native land and his adopted home of Croatia. 'All of our streets have big green signs on the corner of each intersection,' he says, and it's true that, more often than not, you can turn onto a street in Croatia with no indication of its name evident within eyesight. Even if the logical placement of street signs were a normal occurrence in Croatia, it might not help.

That's because street names in Croatia can change on a whim, depending on who's in charge at that particular moment and how popular they think a change in name might go down. For a country that has, at certain points in history, been ruled by the Romans, the Turks, the Austro-Hungarians, fascists, Communists and others, that's a heck of a lot of name changes to fit the wants of the current overlords.

For instance, take Zagreb's main square, now known as trg Ban Josip Jelačić after the famous army general and former ruler of the Croatian province within the Austro-Hungarian empire. The central square had been called Harmica, taken from a Hungarian word and in reference to the taxes folk were obliged to pay in this marketplace. But, in 1848, it became trg Ban Josip Jelačić, after the newly appointed buddy of the Habsburg family. Of course, the Habsburgs were no friends of the Communists who took control of Yugoslavia after the Second World War, and so it became the Square of the Republic with Josip Jelačić's statue banished to a basement for a number of years, until both it, and his name was returned to the square following Croatian independence.

This process of revisionism is not necessarily a speedy one either. You might imagine that newly installed regimes would sort this kind of thing out overnight. Not so in Croatia. It took until 2017 for Zagreb's city assembly to vote for a name change of the prominent and central Marshal Tito square. Rather confusingly, this then also became the Square of the Republic. Locals however still call it Marshall Tito Square, although it's unclear whether this is evidence of Yugo-nostalgia or just part of the Kafka-esque scheme to bewilder tourists. This was the eighth change of name for the square.

Even when a street has an official name that hasn't changed for a while, you're not necessarily in for an easy ride in Croatia. Ulica Grofa Janka Draškovića, street of the Count Janko Drašković, will usually be referred to by locals as simply Draškovićeva. You might have spent 15 minutes trying to master the correct pronunciation in order to ask directions, only to be met with a puzzled look and the information that you're already stood on Draškovićeva. Understandably, you might be wondering if it's the same place. It sounds kinda similar. And, indeed it is the same place. Draškovićeva is not the colloquial name for the street. Oh, no, that would be too easy. It's actually the street's official name. Its other official name, that is.

Once you've recognised that Croatia's street names can come in two official versions, one shorter than the other, you can find yourself lulled into a false sense of security; you imagine that you could actually be reaching an understanding of how this thing works. For instance, it would be quite easy to deduce that Harambašićeva ulica, in eastern Zagreb, is obviously named after the 17-year-old gorilla, Harambe, sadly gunned down at Cincinnati Zoo in 2016. Zagreb is, after all, a city that wears its love for simians on its sleeve; barely a day can pass in Zagreb without you hearing the shout 'Majmune!' (you monkey!) emanating from an open window, issued by a mother or aunt and directed towards a member of the family's younger generation. But it is not so. Harambašićeva is actually named after Croatian poet, writer and politician August Harambašić, the surname being derived from the Turkish word Harambaša, meaning bandit leader, something that also may or may not be popular in Zagreb.

Harambe the gorilla (not Croatian)

On many occasions though, you can absolutely rely on the consistent behaviour of Croats in regards to their naming of streets. In London there's a famous saying 'You're never more than ten feet away from a rat.' In Croatia, you are probably never more than 10 minutes away from a street called Vukovarska or Starčevićeva. Named respectively after a town in eastern Croatia and a writer and politician regarded as the father of Croatian nationalism, almost every town and village in Croatia will have a road named after these two. In fact, if you yourself are stopped in a Croatian village and asked for directions, you could probably answer cluelessly with 'I think it's near Starčevićeva' and you probably wouldn't be far wrong. Insider tip; don't ever wonder out loud if this repetition stems from the fact that Croatia has a limited number of famous people after which they can name streets, lest you be in the mood to have an extensive list of bronze medal-winning Winter Olympians reeled off by your slightly offended local friend.

The Croatian capital Zagreb at least has the advantage of having a city-wide tram system and you can easily navigate it using just that. Even on foot, tram stops are reliable local landmarks which can be more useful and universal than using street names. Unless you're looking for Heinzlova, that is, which actually could be one of two tram stations. Similarly, circumnavigating local landmarks is often an easier way to get from A to B than using street names, such as Džamija, the city's central mosque. Which isn't actually a mosque. Confused? Luckily, just as you're never far from a Starčevićeva in Croatia, you're never far from a coffee shop with WiFi. For the price of a coffee, Google Maps can once again be your friend.

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