Banja Luka is a town in northern Bosnia and Herzegovina, about two and a half hours drive from Croatian capital Zagreb. We decided to go there to visit friends. Banja Luka is less famous than Sarajevo for example, but it’s a good stopover if you’re travelling through Bosnia. There is not much sightseeing in historical sense, but honestly, we needed a little break. The idea of long morning sleeps, good food and relaxing few days seemed perfect to us.
I have to mention right away that from my experience most foreign people haven’t even heard of Bosnia and Herzegovina. And if they have, they still think of Bosnia as a war-torn country but would be pleasantly impressed. Everyone who had a chance to drive through Bosnia and Herzegovina could not miss its lush green mountains. The roads get windy in central Bosnia, where you have the most beautiful scenery. That area is popular in winter, when the snow falls and people go to Jahorina mountain for skiing. On the other hand, driving through the country you can’t miss the oversized houses often with decorative pillars in front and no facade. Excess seems to be the fashion here.
The first morning in Banja Luka we started our visit with a coffee in town and then a short stroll through the Gospodska street ( main shopping area Everyone is out and about in Banja Luka, shopping or meeting up for coffee. The city is quite lush green and the river Vrbas gives an opportunity to cool down in the summer heat. Later on we walked towards the fortress Kastel by the river. Kastel is a medieval landmark but there has been settlements in this area going back to the Roman time. Today, it’s a popular venue for concerts and home to a fantastic restaurant Kazamat. Our sightseeing pretty much ended there.
Speaking about food we must warn you – in Bosnia one eats a lot. First, portions are big, second, locals tend to order too much food and lastly, locals look at you confused with an expression saying ’’how can’t you eat some more’’? And, everything is cheap, sourced locally and tastes delicious. Our favourite dishes were uštipci sa kajmakom ( bosnian donuts with cheese-like cream), banjalučki ćevapi ( local minced meat served in a special bun with onions and sauces ) and pita sa sirom ( cheese pie traditionally made on fire under a metal bell ), burek s mesom ( meat pastry ) and local trout. It feels pointless explaining what the food was, the real experience is tasting it ( together with local Nektar beer ).
This extreme change of diet needed an exercise to go with it. In Banja Luka, the locals love to hike up Banj hill ( also known as Šehitluci ). It’s not that high ( 431m ) but it’s a nice trek through the forest and little water springs. And just enough effort to build an appetite for some cheese pie and yoghurt. A more serious workout was river rafting in the Vrbas canyon. A group of eight of us set on a half an hour drive to our start point, packed with a bag full of cold beers. Not exactly what Thane and I had in mind, but when in Rome… We were the only boat on the river that afternoon. It is no ordinary river – a world river rafting championship was held here in 2005. The locals have a tradition of spending time on the river – either rafting, fishing or building little holiday houses. We saw many groups enjoying a Sunday barbecue and music as we passed by.
Unfortunately, we were ‘’tricked’’ at the start and haven’t put any wet suits on, just the life jacket. We expected more sun, but as it was getting late and the mountains were quite tall, the sun disappeared fast. The water was a bit chilly but it didn’t stop us from swimming or jumping from the bridge. A friend of ours, who is scared of heights, kept us waiting in the boat, wet and shivering, while she decided, attempted, changed her mind several times and finally – as a last person of the group – jumped the 10 metres high bridge.
After about two hours, our rafting tour finished at the steps of a restaurant. The food was ordered immediately. Piles of meat, potatoes, salads and snacks poured as we warmed up with local grappa ( a variety of pear, plum, apricot, quince, you name it… ). We talked about the situation in Bosnia with our friends. The food and culture we understood very well, but we’d get stuck at the politics. Bosnian political arrangements are baffling to everyone – having three presidents, a territory within the country that is semi-autonomous and corruption as the common theme between the parties, every attempt to understand this system ended up quickly. Instead, our friends suggested having a few drinks in town to see the nightlife.
We enjoyed our last evening in town, visiting some bars and getting to see the local night scene. Banja Luka is full of gorgeous girls, and it’s a famous statement that the women to men ratio here is 7 to 1. And it did seem so, the dressed up girls definitely over shined the boys.
For us, coming from London, traveling in Croatia and Bosnia, even more so, seemed like we got a discount on life. But we constantly had to fight with our friends to pay the bill, as everyone wants to treat their friends – another common thing in the Balkans. The next day, we said good bye to our hosts over a last round of coffees and headed on our way. Till next time Bosnia!
Bosnia and Herzegovina: 3.829 million (2013)
Capital: Sarajevo ( 527 049 people, 1991 data )
Banja Luka: 195 692 people ( 1991 )
Currency: Convertible mark ( 1 EUR = 1.96 KM )
Best time to visit Banja Luka: Summer and spring