Banja Luka’s best

Banja Luka is Bosnia and Herzegovina’s second biggest city. It’s located in the North of the country, close to the border with Croatia. I had never thought to go to Banja Luka and it’s certainly not on the tourist radar where I am from, but I wanted to explore a different side of Bosnia and found out that Banja Luka has an airport. It may be a tiny airport, but there are about two flights a day and on Sunday, one of them goes to Berlin. So I ended my one week trip in the Republika Srpska.

IMG_9062From Sarajevo I decided to take a train to Banja Luka. I bought my handwritten ticket in the window and walked to the train. As soon as I entered I felt like I’d entered an ash tray. It was clean enough, but the smell was quite overwhelming. Luckily it got better as we got moving and the fresh countryside air flowed in through the windows. The ride is beautiful, passing little towns and a few cities, watching daily life go by. It wasn’t exactly direct though. We went up first, heading straight to Banja Luka, but then turned East, North and South-West, before finally going North again and arriving in the city.

IMG_9073It didn’t seem like I’d arrived in a city. The train station is out of the center and there isn’t much there. And still… it was only a short walk from my accommodation and the actual center. I checked in and found out that my hostel was just a bunch of rooms for rent, but the rooms were not bad. Then I had enough time to check out the tourist information, where a lovely girl helped me out arranging the two days I had in the city. I was so excited. I was going to go rafting, on a trip outside the city and do some sightseeing in the city.

That night I woke up feeling absolutely terrible. All my plans were ruined because I was hanging above the toilet half the night. I cancelled the rafting and stayed in that morning. I just ate some dry bread and forced myself to go out. I was not going to waste my time here. It was Saturday and a lot of people were out and about. I walked through the center into the suburbs, past a cemetery and onto a mountain, Banj Brdo. It was a long walk that most people used as a fitness trail. There was even some equipment at the side of the road. I walked up in my flipflops.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt the top was a small shop and a monument. I bought 2 drinks from a lovely man who tried to ask me questions but could only speak Bosnian. A confused smile was all I could give him. Then I made my way to the monument. I had hoped to get a bit of a view from the top, but the only view was of the monument. The surrounding trees were a bit too tall to see anything of the city. Dark clouds were rolling in, so I tried to quickly make my way back down. In the evening I decided to try to find some soup, something simple to eat. While I sat on the terrace, a big rain shower started.

The next day it was perfectly fine again, with only some white clouds in the sky. I’d arranged a half day trip to Krupa na Vrbasu with Good Host Banja Luka. You could go out there by bus, but the Sunday timetable is horrible and in the evening I had to catch a flight so I didn’t want to risk it. Besides, I was still not feeling super strong after not having eaten much more than soup and some bread. In the end it turned out they could bring me to some more places than I could have seen by myself and this made it absolutely worth it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI got picked up by 2 local guides and we drove out to Krupa na Vrbasu. The Krupa is a small river that makes its way to the Vrbas. There are meant to be very beautiful waterfalls, but unfortunately the end of summer wasn’t the best time for that. It was still a very pleasant place. Like in Jayce, there were some small, wooden huts built over the water. The water powers the mills and they make a special type of wheat here. You can buy small donut-like balls with kajmak cheese, as fresh as it can get.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWay above the mills you can find the ruins of Greben, an old fortress. I’m not sure I would have found the way up myself, or dared to venture far enough. We parked at a farmhouse and then took a small path up from the side of the road. It wasn’t exactly clear, or marked or anything. My guides paved the way while they told me they wished the government would invest a bit more for tourism. At the top, there wasn’t much left from the fortification, apart from the remnant of what must have been a watchtower. The view though was spectacular. We looked out all the way over the valley, following the Vrbas.

I think the most amazing vista of the day, was that from the stone bridge. Again, this wasn’t exactly a huge tourist spot and there certainly weren’t any signs or facilities. We crossed the Vrbas, walked up along a path and then saw a beautiful, natural stone bridge. My guides asked if I was ready for some adventure. Sure! So we started our scramble towards the top. It was pretty humid and I was sweating like a pig, while one of the guys, who didn’t speak much, went up the path like a mountain goat.

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Standing on top of the stone bridge

ABLU4457Parts of the path were very slippery and parts were very narrow and I could see myself falling to my death. Of course I didn’t. I held onto the trees and quietly thanked them for handing me a helping hand, or branch. At the top I had to steady myself. We were standing on top of a huge rock, overlooking the valley again and it was breath-taking. The short but intense hike brought some of my appetite back and the smell of fresh cevapis made me hungry. I was slightly hesitant since my stomach hadn’t been great and I didn’t know if loads of meat would be the best way to start eating again. But we were sitting in a beautiful restaurant along the river, full of locals, and this huge plate appeared. I didn’t want to disappoint my hosts and dived in. They were the best cevapis I’d had during my trip!

The Good Host is a fairly new company and they are constantly developing new day trips and activities. They told me they could also offer a ride on a dajak. Traditionally they were used to move things across the river, but now it’s a sport and a popular weekend activity. The local club was practising and taking passengers along the way. Our ‘driver’ had been going for a while and looked pretty tired. He had to push us upstream with a long stick. After a while we turned around and took the easier way back downstream. We past lots of people who were enjoying the refreshing water, or catching dinner.

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All of us in the dajak!

My time in Banja Luka didn’t start great. It didn’t finish great either. My flight got cancelled and they didn’t tell us until 3AM. So instead of going to work on Monday, I spent the day getting home. But everything in between those moments was something I wouldn’t have wanted to miss. I wish I had more time. I wish I had done the rafting. But I guess it just means Banja Luka will be on the list again for next time. Because I definitely will visit Bosnia again.