Bosnia, the heart of the Balkans part 1 : Banja Luka

General information: Banja Luka (the pronunciation – Bania Luka) has about 200,000 inhabitants, the official language is Serbian, the signs are in the Cyrillic alphabet, but the menus in restaurants are always in the Latin alphabet. In case you do not understand what Cyrillic and Latin means, well you will understand it when you come to the town and get lost. Cyrillic is used in Russia, for example. and Latin is used by the big majority of western countries. Sooo, Banja Luka and Бања Лука are the same thing. Fantastic. So you will get smarter by being in this town, because you will learn a new alphabet. In Bosnia where Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks live, the two alphabets are used, but this part is mostly Serbian, of Orthodox religion and they use Cyrillic more. The official currency is the BAM, convertible mark (marka in Bosnian). One euro equals two marks. There are exchange offices, but during the weekend they close very early like at 4 pm. Not everywhere you can pay with credit/debit cards (basically with any kind of cards) so it’s good to have cash. The city has an airport, half hour away from the city by car. Public transport consists of buses, but if you are going to stay just in the city you don’t need it, it’s more beautiful to walk around and get to know the city. If you decide to know the surroundings, there is a hill near by, and also the Krupa waterfalls, 30 kilometers from the city.

Where to eat?

“Kod Muje” – there you can taste traditional dishes such as “Karađorđeva snicla” (Karadjordje steak) or “ćevapi”(chevapi). There are several places with the same name in the city, but we ate in the one next to the river, because the view is wonderful. A meal is between 5-6 “marke” which is the Bosnian currency, and drinks are between 2-3 marke.

Žitopeka (this thing over the “z” you read it as “s” in the word casual-hope you understood) – bakery, it seems just one ordinary bakery, but they have an exquisite “burek”. Of course, there are other places to eat this typical dish, but this was recommended by a policeman who works nearby. So, if this man, who works there every day and obviously has lunch there, says that there is a good burek there are reasons to believe him. He talks from his own experience.

Where to go?

As I mentioned, there is everything and for everyone. The most famous music genre is “turbo folk”. But you have to be aware that the guys in those clubs usually wear a shirt (that is, more formal) and the girls usually have impressively high heels, v-neck dresses, and a lot of makeup. What you should understand is that you DO NOT go there to dance and have fun on your own. One goes to exhibit his look (well prepared for hours), and to eventually get drunk. But, it is good to understand the Balkan mentality of people who, even if they don’t have money, practically get into debt to buy branded clothes.

Luckily, Banja Luka also has suitable sites for me. There are several bars with live rock music. Not because I’m not a fan of Balkan music, I listen to it, but at home, I do not feel comfortable in a place where everyone comes to observe and be observed. I went out with my friends first in Mac Tire (which I knew right away that they would not like, it was just too alternative for some of them) and then in Rock Symphony, a place that I loved. The atmosphere was great, just like the band that played, the women didn´t put a lot of makeup, they seemed more focused on having fun. The only problem is that you can smoke inside, but the same happens in all countries of the former Yugoslavia, in some, in addition to cafes and bars, even smoking inside restaurants it’s allowed. For someone who is used to that, this is not a problem, but for someone who comes from a country that has stricter laws, I understand that this can be a problem. In addition to those two types of music, there are also clubs with electronic music, of which I was recommended “Rudi”. But I’d rather spend the whole night listening to turbo folk than being five minutes at an electronic music club. I just don´t like it and I would love it to disappear from the world music scene and for people to start listening to Latin American folklore. This will never happen, but I don´t care. I can dream. In short, there is a lot of offer to go out in this city and that is excellent.

Banja Luka :

Since I started living in Chile, my nostalgia towards not only Croatia but towards all the Balkans has grown. In particular, I had a crazy desire to, on returning to Europe, visit Bosnia again. Although nobody really knows what exactly the Balkans are, for us who are from there (although many of my compatriots do not consider themselves that way, it is very relative) it is the mentality that defines someone who lives in that region. Once in Sarajevo I found a map titled “The Balkans” and it showed all the countries of the former Yugoslavia, and also Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and Hungary. I deeply agree with this division, but I tell you there are thousands of other interpretations. You can also choose one. Why not? So, I consider Bosnia as the heart of the Balkans and at the same time I think it is one of the most interesting countries in Southeast Europe, with a very turbulent history and hard to accept even nowadays for the inhabitants themselves. What abounds in many Bosnian cities, and Banja Luka is no exception, they still must digest that difficult history. Although Croatia is the neighboring country of Bosnia, it took me a long time to visit the country for the first time. But when I finally decided, I did not regret it. In spite of all these history issues, people are so nice, kind and I got the impression they love tourists because they actually don´t expect them. And yes, it´s not so popular destination, but it could become. I enjoyed every single minute in that country. In the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, I spent some incredible days. Then, of course, I wanted to return. Only this time my destination was Banja Luka. In recent months my desire to go there was getting stronger every day and in the end, I convinced my friends to go all together to spend a weekend there. And, of course I was not disappointed. Banja Luka has 200,000 inhabitants, and at first sight it seems to be a central European city. But only partially. And there you can see that it belongs more to what is called southeastern Europe, or popularly called “The Balkans”, a region rich in multiculturalism that sometimes works, and sometimes doesn’t, because those cultural differences have a negative impact on the development of the country. We´ll speak about that a bit later, and now pretty things. Banja Luka is a city with a good atmosphere. On weekends during the day people walk through “Gospodska ulica”, which is the street with many businesses. They also drink coffee on the terraces (if there is nice weather) showing (women) new clothes and over-make up faces, as in any part of the Balkans. Although, I must admit that the women of Banja Luka have a reputation to dress up even more than the others. Older men, instead of coffee or shopping, which is the favorite sport of young people on weekends, play chess. There are large chess fields with figures in various parks and apparently, it is common to see about 20-30 men playing or giving advices. I must admit that I agree with that way of spending weekends. I do not like or be at home, or exhibit my physical appearance on a terrace, much less go shopping. But, as I’ve noticed, chess is reserved only for men. Considering that it is one of the most patriarchal regions in Europe, it is not surprising. But this is just a small sociological observation, I was there to see and enjoy the city. And I loved it. The truth is that my friends and I had a perfect guide, who showed us the most emblematic parts of the city, told us where to eat and where to go out at night. Fantastic. Speaking of food, it is absolutely spectacular, as in the rest of the country. I tried the typical dishes: burek and cevapi (which are made throughout Bosnia, but in Banja Luka they do it differently) and I enjoyed every bite. These flavors, smells … we were also in a restaurant on the side of the beautiful river Vrbas. Among all this food (one in Bosnia always eats too much, it’s like that and you have to know it before coming) and beautiful nature you have a feeling that Eastern Europe is being very underestimated as a tourist destination. Much more accessible from Western countries where sometimes I would really not be surprised that they charge me even the air in Paris, Barcelona or Vienna for example. In the end you don’t have money and you eat at fast food places because you need to plan every coin that you will be spending. Sad. Well, you can be sure that in Bosnia it will not happen, the food is delicious and cheap. Accommodation too. The people, as they are not used to welcoming tourists, are very friendly, they like to talk to tourists and advise if necessary. The nightlife is as varied as it is entertaining. From electronic music, through rock, to pop and jazz, ending with the most popular in the city, the omnipresent turbo folk (a kind of Balkan reagueton). And in almost no part they charge entrance. I listened to live music a couple of hours and did not pay anything. I mean, I do not know what else a tourist could look for? Oh, now, culture, tradition. There are, and a lot and very different. In one day I entered a mosque and an orthodox temple, I walked through a fortress of who knows how many centuries ago, I tried to read the newspapers and signs in the Cyrillic alphabet (I read it a little bad because I never really studied it) that is official in this part of the country, I was in a market that is enough even for bigger cities than this one, … I believe that these enumerations are enough to conclude that it is a really interesting city and that it is worth of visiting. Because, as you will see from a small history review that I will do, this city is not so multicultural due to the arrival of immigrants recently, no, it is because of the coexistence that, despite many discomforts, lasts many centuries.

And from the architecture of the city it is evident that it was part of different systems. It is well known that all the systems and nations want to leave physicals impacts of their presence and importance somewhere. What stands out at first sight is this type of “Austrian” urbanism, that is, Central European. Clean streets, arranged facades, the same as one can find in dozens of other countries in Europe. On the other hand, there are buildings that belong to the socialist era, gray buildings, unadorned, aesthetically not so attractive but reminiscent of a certain period in the history of the city. Moving away from the center is the “turkish” neighborhood, which in my opinion is one of the most beautiful in the city. It was built in the Ottoman period and preserves a special authenticity. If one goes further on the neighborhood there are houses of this style next to the Vrbas river and it is a very picturesque image of the city. I must admit that if I lived in that city I would live there, surrounded by nature. It should be noted that the rich history is also reflected in the quantity and diversity of religious temples. From orthodox temples (Orthodox believers are a great majority) to mosques, Roman Catholic and Greco-Catholic churches. There is everything. These religious temples are a clear proof that, in one or several eras, all these religions had to live together. As I mentioned before, Bosnia has a very tangled history, difficult to understand and practically impossible to explain. I usually say that the Balkans are a light version of the Middle East. So, draw your own conclusions. For my part, I will try to summarize this history. At present, more than 90% of the population is of Serbian nationality and of Orthodox religion, which explains numerous Serbian flags. But it was not always like that. An obvious thing in the town is also the Muslim influence, a consequence of the Turkish invasion in the second half of the fifteenth century. So that explains the mosques and the Turkish quarter. Also, in some point there were living Sephardic Jews. But before that, Croatians lived there too. That’s why the Roman Catholic churches, although it should be noted that many Croats leave the city when it came under Turkish occupation. At the same time the Orthodox come to settle down. And there is produced, with several changes, that mixture we have in the city today. But, when the Ottoman Empire began to recede, causing great joy throughout Europe, Banja Luka becomes part of the Austrian empire. That happens in the second half of the nineteenth century. In the first half of the 20th century the city is just as chaotic as other parts of Europe, it comes under fascist occupation, and it is bombed several times. After the end of the Second World War, at the time from 1945 to 1991 the city was part of the socialist country of Yugoslavia. From that time, it is important to mention the 1969 earthquake that destroyed more than one hundred buildings in the city. The current division of Bosnia comes from the year 1995 and the Dayton agreements, which put an end to the bloody war after the dismemberment of Yugoslavia, and with which the part of the country where Banja Luka is located became the so-called Republika Srpska, in which the strongest cultural influence is that of Serbia, a neighboring country. During the Bosnian war, many Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and Croats (Catholics) escaped from the city, so after 1992 until nowadays mostly Serbs live in the city, and there is a Croatian and Bosniak minority. I cannot not say what everyone knows, the fact that Bosnia and its cantonal separation does not work, so the whole country suffers the massive emigration of young people. The truth is that, after countless promises of the politicians of all the three nationalities, there are few people who believe in their good intentions. In addition, there are those eternal tensions between the Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks who mutually accuse each other of murders and war crimes in the 1990s. Whoever is the most guilty, the only normal conclusion would be to work hard on a policy of reconciliation, while there are still young Bosnians who can build a better future for the three nationalities and for their country.

 

Author: Antonija Dikovic

Antonija Diković, Master´s degree in Spanish literature and translation studies in French Interest : travels, foreign languages

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