Advantages Some stunning buildings
Disadvantages Hard to get to know locals, run down with few signs of regeneration
|Value for Money|
|Ease of getting around|
"How did you find the people in Banja Luka?" asked a Slovenian friend of mine when we met up recently. We had just been to Bosnia and Herzegovina and had made a point of visiting both parts of the divided country. Under the terms of the Dayton Peace Accord in 1995 Bosnia and Herzegovina was divided into two territorial entities - the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska; the country has one government and people live under the same laws no matter which entity they live in but this symbolic division of the country more or less along ethnic lines is what keeps a fragile peace on the country.I knew Darko's family were Serbian but I didn't know they were Bosnian Serbs. Maybe I wouldn't have been so honest with my answer had I known this. I told him I found the people quite unfriendly though, admittedly, I hadn't had much more than fleeting contact with anyone in the time we were there. He told me it was probably because they don't speak English; this was true, very few people we met in Banja Luka spoke English but then again I've spent time in places like Georgia and Ukraine with people who spoke no English and found the people absolutely wonderful, Banja Luka was different.
Banja Luka is the administrative and cultural capital of the Republika Srpska and it's quite unlike any place I've ever been (and I have been to some unusual places - a breakaway Soviet-financed republic, a Communist stalwart in the middle of the Caribbean, a town whose only claim to fame is as the birthplace of Stalin). It has elements of countries like Russia and Ukraine (you'll see more signs in Cyrillic than in any other part of Bosnia) but the people are decidedly southern European in terms of appearance and in lifestyle. It has flashes of modernity and it's much nearer more western cities than the country's official capital, yet it is in many ways a throwback to Yugoslavia's communist heyday. It's a city of dramatic contrasts: old and new, young and old, welcoming and guarded. I came away confused and I still haven't worked out quite how I feel about Banja Luka.Banja Luka was the scene of the most severe ethnic cleansing of the Bosnian War. Today the population of Republika Srpska is around 88% Serbian and this is pretty much representative of Banja Luka too. While the landscape of the southern and western part of Bosnia is punctuated with evocative minarets, you'll be hard pushed to find one in this part of the country. In 2001when foundations were laid for a new mosque to replace those that had been razed to the ground in the war, the ceremony was attacked by Serbs, allegedly with the tacit support of the police. Having just been in Sarajevo and Mostar, I was immediately struck by the absence of mosques and of Muslims; on the other hand, had I traveled the other way, I'd probably not have noticed this at all.
We arrived by bus from the capital at the main bus station which is situated a couple of miles from the centre of Banja Luka. It's a run down place that made the bus station at Sarajevo look like a palace. There were lots of soldiers sitting around looking bored and smoking. As we cross from the intercity bus area to the local bus section we were approached by a dirty, bony dog; we both veered swiftly out of its path, immediately on the defensive. As the bus station was some distance from town we asked there and then about the times of buses to leave Banja Luka as it was too far to come back to later on. I've never before taken against a place so quickly as I did with Banja Luka but something about it made me feel quite uncomfortable; I clutched the piece of paper with the bus times thinking as if it was my golden ticket to freedom.Fortunately the word "centre" is pretty much the same across Europe so we were able to find a bus going into the city. As we traveled through the town I became more excited about being in Banja Luka. There were some magnificent buildings - Orthodox churches with shimmering golden domes, Soviet era monuments (guaranteed to thrill me) and government buildings and handsome nineteenth century residences - and some very attractive squares and parks. Perhaps Banja Luka and I would get a long just fine after all?
The lovely lady at Tourist Information insulted us in such a friendly manner it was hard to take offence. Me "We're looking for a double room for one night", unfeasibly cheery Tourist Information Office lady "And I'm guessing you don't want to pay very much". A fact, not a question. So my trousers were due a spin in the machine and my hair could have used a brush but really! She fixed us up with a room about five minutes walk away and circled it on a map for us. Although the owner knew to expect us her greeting was quite hesitant and her manner wasn't very friendly. Still, the room was clean and comfortable and cheap.It was in Banja Luka that we learned that I had not packed the right adaptor and if we wanted to be able to charge the camera (which was almost out of power) we'd have to buy one in town. After the less than effusive arrival at our accommodation I was starting to feel negative about Banja Luka again and I wanted to take some pictures before I left as I couldn't see myself ever going back again. At the first electrical store (where the staff didn't speak English) we showed them the adaptor and the staff just shook their heads. I showed them the map and made a questioning gesture (a bit like a Gallic shrug combined with a circling of the city centre on the map) but nobody knew where else such an item might be sold. Fortunately one member of staff remembered that there was another electrical supplies store behind this shop and took us there. The young guy didn't have an adaptor but he took us to another shop around the corner where there were none to be had either.
We ventured into "Boska" a Soviet-style department store with dim lighting and a significant lack of articles for sale. ( I later learned that this once busy department store is state-owned and the government can't afford to stock the shelves and aren't able for legal reasons to fire the staff and close the store). Curiously the assistant addressed us at normal volume until she learned we were not Bosnian then spoke only in the quietest whisper known to man. She came to the door and pointed to another shop where a terrified teenage girl told us she did not have such an item, nor could she think of anywhere in the city where one could be bought. I thought that perhaps a disposable camera might solve the problem; we'd be at our flat in Slovenia by the following evening where we had a working adaptor so a disposable camera would tide us over until then. But no, the assistant had no idea what a disposable camera was - despite my clever use of the international language of gesturing (take pictures, get photographs, throw camera in bin) - it seems Yugoslavia went directly from box Brownie to the digital camera. After another twenty minutes of trying we still didn't have one of these elusive items in our grasp but I didn't want to give up. It was becoming essential to my very existence. Somewhere in Banja Luka there had to be one - and there was. In a back street we found a shop that sold mobile phones and accessories - it was a very modern shop and the young man we could see through the window looked as if he might just speak English, perhaps he could help us find one. He did speak English but even better, he opened a vast drawer that ran under the counter and extracted from it exactly what we were looking for. Time to go back to our digs, charge the camera then explore the town.Our first stop was the castle; our Bradt guidebook described the medieval castle as "dominating" the town - not quite how I'd describe a few ruins that are situated slightly below the rest of the town so don't really dominate at all. There days, as far as I can see, the castle is merely a place where teenagers go to snog and to drink cheap beer from two litre plastic bottles. There are no signs and no visitor centre so all you can do is wander around and admire the partial view of the river Vrbas.
We decided instead to try to find those magnificent buildings we had seen from the bus. First we crossed the vast concrete plain that is the main square. Banja Luka suffered an enormous earthquake in 1969 and the heart of the city was destroyed. This soulless and typically Soviet square was built to replace the old centre. Moving quickly on we came to a smaller square which is dedicated to a group of Second World War heroes, another typically Soviet monument. Shortly after we came to a small sculpture beside the main road. A plaque in Serbian and English explained the sculpture which remembers the babies lost on a single night during the Bosnian War because oxygen supplies were not able to be delivered into the city's hospital. It's a very partisan, and perhaps unfair, claim but we are very much in "Serbian Bosnia" in Banja Luka.A couple of churches were our next destination. The very modern Catholic church is a striking church in its own right and reminded me of Icelandic churches I've seen pictures of and even a Dutch peasants' cap with its distinctive shape at the front, but the highlight of this memorable building is the free standing bell tower that is reminiscent of a helter skelter. The priest was standing outside the church when we went inside the grounds and in spite of us smiling and saying hello, he didn't stop to speak, which surprised me. Behind the wall the golden domes of the Orthodox church of the Holy Trinity were tempting us but we had to walk the long way round. It was worth it! These striped buildings are largely re-built but are well worth a look and the interior of the main church is exquisite.
Best of all is Banski Dvor - a 1930s hall that was the residence of the Ban (after which nobles the city derives its name). It's now home to the national assembly as well as other government offices and even a television company.We didn't get to visit the Gallery of Modern Art, which exhibits mainly Serbian artists but was inexplicably closed. However we found more than enough to interest us simply by strolling the leafy streets and stopping off now and then for a beer. It was Friday evening and there was a relaxed feeling to the city and later on when we went out for dinner and drinks the town was quite lively. One area of town near the national bank building was very lively with what appeared to be a fair but in actual fact these fast food kiosks and stalls selling t-shirts, cheap jewelry and mobile phone accessories only open in the evening when the city's young people meet up. Loud music was blaring from each bar so we looked further afield and found a couple of quieter bars in a small shopping arcade.
There were plenty of places for dinner if one wanted to eat kebabs or cevapcici (a Balkan speciality, spicy minced meat sausages) but we eat them a lot in the past week or so and fancied a change. It's not so easy to find an alternative in Banja Luka. People don't have much money so eating out isn't high on the agenda. We went to the restaurant in the grounds of the castle and sat outside next to a party of jovial middle-aged women who were having great fun joining in with the singer-guitarist. The menu was quite lengthy and, like everywhere else, included cevapcici, but it also had a number of national dishes. I tried one called "mother in law's tongue" - a huge piece of pork fillet wrapped cured ham and stuffed with cheese and hot peppers.The following morning we left Banja Luka. At the bus station we saw the same dog but this time we fed him tidbits from our tasty cevapcici breakfast; he was no longer the mangy threat he'd been the previous day but had become a sad little figure with his dirty 'kerchief and his long claws that scraped on the tiles outside the café. The man who served us wasn't very friendly but by now we had realised that nobody was going to be.
Banja Luka is a really attractive city but it is also very unfriendly. When I told people (Slovenians) this they all pointed out that people in Banja Luka are very poor but I fail to see the connection. In Turkey I went to places where people don't have much but everyone wanted to know where I was from and what I was doing in their town. In Georgia we stayed with a lovely family who made us very welcome in their home, they too had very little. In Banja Luka nobody was curious about us, nobody wanted to know what we thought of their city.Nevertheless, I'd like very much to visit Banja Luka again, but preferably guided by a local to get the most from the trip and to understand more about the Republika Srpska. I found the contrast between Sarajevo and Banja Luka quite unsettling. As Sarajevo is the country's capital it will obviously be more cosmopolitan and open to outsiders but Banja Luka is effectively a capital city too. I couldn't help feeling that the Bosnian Serbs are second class people in Bosnia and Herzegovina but now and again I saw indications that the Bosnian Serbs don't appear inclined to move forward. I had a strong impression that it is because of their stubbornness that the Republika Srpska is poorer and less developed. In Republika Srpska the buses were elderly Serbian cast-offs belching thick black smoke; in Sarajevo the buses were Scandinavian hand-me-downs, as good as new.
I doubt whether anyone would make a trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina just to visit Banja Luka. However, the city is only two hours from the Croatian capital Zagreb and is well connected by bus or train. If you are spending any time in Bosnia and Herzegovina I would recommend including somewhere in Republika Srpska if only to be able to experience life in both entities. If you are traveling, as we did, from Sarajevo to Zagreb then Banja Luka makes a convenient and scenic stopover but I would suggest that no more than two days is required to see everything in the city, and that would be at a leisurely pace.
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