Last weekend, I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to take the night bus to Banja Luka, the 2nd largest city in Bosnia, for the day. I wanted to get away, have time to think, pray, and process this semester, and I figured a 24-hour venture to Bosnia would offer me just what I desired. So I boarded the Eurolines bus at 8:30 p.m., and arrived in Banja Luka at 2:30 a.m. While on the bus, I met two friendly Turkish guys who were serving in the multi-national peace-keeping force near Sarajevo (in the south of Bosnia-Herzegovina). They asked lots of great questions, and we chatted about politics, weather, Turkey, USA, and Bosnia. The 6-hr ride passed swiftly, and before I knew it, we had arrived in BL.
To my great - and pleasant - surprise, the city was teeming with young people (16-30 yr olds), all out celebrating the Orthodox Christmas (also celebrated as the arrival of the wise men to visit the baby Jesus). Almost immediately after walking to the city center, I ran into 2 Serbs who invited me to celebrate with them. So we went off in search of food and drink, and enjoyed ourselves until 5 a.m., when we went to the local cathedral for the liturgy. After our stay at the church, we napped in their car for 90 minutes, and at 6:45, I sent them on their way and set out to find a cafe. I found this very nice cafe attached to a local hotel, and there I stayed for a few hours, reading, praying, people-watching, and enjoying a nice cup of coffee (it cost 1.50 marka, about $1).
Once the sun was up and shining, I ventured out to explore a little of Banja Luka. I discovered that BL is the capital of the Republic Srpska, which is about 1/2 of the country of Bosnia-Herzegovina and populated mostly with Orthodox Serbs. The Federation is the other 1/2, and its largest city is Sarajevo and its people are primarily Bosniak Muslims. As I spoke with my Serbian friends, and also a Bosniak on the bus ride home to Graz, the geopolitical (and religious) situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina is incredibly complex, and I couldnt hope to learn it all in a few short hours! Regardless, I found Banja Luka to be charming, and it does resemble a city emerging from both war and a slumbering economy. Who knows, perhaps in ten years it will be a very popular tourist destination?! I got some strange looks as I walked around the city snapping photos (I was the only person I saw the entire time with a camera, which is unusual for Europe, where it seems every place has at least a few tourists at any given time!) I was asked by the police force to not photograph the president's house (but I did manage to get a photo before they asked me not to take a picture). I also photographed the two main orthodox churches, and found a few fun statues. The alphabet is both Cyrillic and Roman, but most (~ 90%) of the written things I saw were in Cyrillic. Fortunately, the "bus station" was written in English! :) Here are a few photos of my stay in Banja Luka.
Where I met the two Serbian guys who took me around the city at night. This place had hundreds of people, and I met 2 of them!
The presidential office (Republic Srpske). No photos, please!
Some famous Serbian guy.
Oh, that's who this guy is. Thanks.
A memorial to the fallen comrades in wars past.
In front of a yellow building.
The Hotel Bosna! To get this pic, I set the timer and put the camera on a lamp post ;)
A local theater.
The church where we had the Orthodox christmas liturgy.
Oh. Thank you. Now I know which way to go!
Banja Luka is famous for its tree-lined boulevards. This one would be very impressive in summer. (The photo doesnt do the length justice ... this boulevard is straight and tree-lined for at least a mile.)
Hey, abstract art with the flags of the Republic!
Art above the doorway to the Orthodox church.
A building within the church grounds. Maybe it's the home of the priest?
The Orthodox church.
A sign with both Cryillic and English!
A government building in Banja Luka.
Wow, and OKC radio station! 95.9, dial us in!
One of the remnants of the war. I guess people lived here? Couldn't really figure it out.
A very nice park on the edge of the city-center (and along the tree-lined boulevard). Even saw a guy jogging laps.
There are indeed very flat lowlands in Bosnia-Herzegovina!
The long line of cars, trucks, and buses waiting to cross the border into Croatia. A 6-hr bus ride to Banja Luka turned into 9.5 hrs home because of the delays getting back into the European Union.