The Balkans in 2014 is decidedly “on” the backpacker trail, and as one makes their way up from Dubrovnik to Mostar, one begins crossing paths with travellers headed to Sarajevo, or headed the other way, down to Kotor and ultimately Albania. The stop after Sarajevo is typically Zagreb, reached after a 10 hour train ride through the whole of the Bosnian countryside. Flash forward a moment to a conversation with our hostel owner in Sarajevo as we wanted to get train times for our trip to Banja Luka. “Banja Luka? This is not touristic place. I don’t know. I must call.” Ironic in one way as the train to Zagreb passes through it we later learned, however understandable in another due to the horrors of the war, which saw the Bosnian Serbs desire to establish their own mini-state in Bosnia — Republic Srpska.
I had expected this kind of response in Sarajevo, but when I posted to Facebook that we got a cheap flight from Banja Luka to Belgrade and an NGO worker friend who has lived in…umm..Kabul, made a joke about Banja Luka at one time feeling like the most dangerous place in the world – I began to really wonder. How could the other entity in Bosnia be SO different than the Federation and Sarajevo? I knew it was not dangerous at all today, but would it feel cold & unfriendly?
So, after several lovely days in Sarajevo, our train rolled out of the station on a rainy, dreary day. After several hours of rolling through the countryside outside Sarajevo the carriages slowed and the locomotive was switched from a Federation locomotive to one of Republic Srpska. This, while normal at country borders, is more than a bit strange considering they are simply different “entities” within Bosnia/Herzegovina. Our friendly Federation conductor clad in a tracksuit top left the train and a smartly dressed conductor in a blue suit from Republic Srpska would take us the rest of the journey. Hmmm.. this didn’t seem like the forgotten corner of Europe that it was made out to be.
Banja Luka definitely lacks the Ottoman feel of Sarajevo, or the Austro-Hungarian charm of Belgrade…..it is a decidedly newer city. A beautiful river, the Vrbas, runs through it’s heart though, and if the local government could work together on it, I’m certain this could be a gorgeous focal point for the town. Instead, one has to really seek out a place to even see the river from, which can be a bit strange. In a way, this is the story of all Banja Luka. Our hostel owner excitedly told us of the amazing rafting and waterfalls a short drive away – yet one couldn’t find a single brochure or advertisement of how to get there. Instead a highly educated young population is left to try to make the best of their “capital” city without any real support of government which seems much more interested in plastering the city with absurd election posters.
The coming years will be interesting for Banja Luka & Republic Srpska. Once Bosnia begins talks on EU accession – one will again have to address the question of this entity within a country. Will they decide to go their own way and become the latest “youngest country in Europe?” Or will the country one day return to the integrated, multi-ethnic land it once was. The latter seems less likely, as the isolation brought on by the conflict only has made the two capitals of Sarajevo & Banja Luka more different than ever.