Srpska, past and present

My wife, Arlene, and I were visiting Belgrade in Serbia & Montenegro for a week in June ’05 and decided to take a day trip to the Republic of Srpska in Bosnia & Herzegovina. Srpska is off the usual tourist itinerary but well worth visiting because of its natural beauty and geographic location in the Balkans.

The history of Bosnia & Herzegovina is extremely complicated and involves Serbs, who are Christian Orthodox; Catholic Croats, and Turks from the Ottoman Empire, who introduced Islam to the area.

In the 20th century, from World War II Marshal Tito united the six republics in Yugoslavia into a federation, which he ruled with an iron fist until his death in 1980. At that, nationalist passions were predictably let loose and, with the breakup of the USSR, Communism collapsed. Yugoslavia disintegrated, and in 1992 civil war broke out in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The war was fought along ethnic and religious divides, between Christian (Croat), Orthodox (Serb) and Muslim.

In 1994 the Dayton Peace Agreement was signed. A new map was drawn up separating the Republic of Srpska (Serbs) from the Muslim-Croat Federation, assigning 49% and 51% of the territory, respectively. The capital of the Republic of Srpska is Banja Luka (Bath of St. Luke), and the capital of the Muslim-Croat Federation is Sarajevo.

The republic and federation together comprise Bosnia & Herzegovina, with Sarajevo the official capital.

This country of two entities has a common president and a council of ministers whose main function is in relation to foreign affairs. However, each entity has its own government, constitution, president, assembly, judiciary, army, police, Customs, money, postage stamps, flag and coat of arms.

There is little cooperation between the two entities. In 2005 the European Union turned down Bosnia & Herzegovina’s request to start negotiations to join the E.U. because of its failure to implement universal police reforms.

The population of the Republic of Srpska is approximately one and a half million, with about 300,000 people in its capital. The country is mountainous but has some rich farmlands, and forestry is an important industry.

Banja Luka is spread along both banks of the River Vrbas and is the administrative, economical and cultural center of the Republic of Srpska. The city is known for its numerous parks and tree-lined streets; it is said that there are more than 10,000 trees in the city. The most important heritage site is the Fortress Kastel, built by the Romans and rebuilt by the Ottomans. The Banja Luka Summer Festival is famous and attracts large numbers of people each year.

At the moment, no visas are required by U.S. citizens to visit Srpska, but it is not very easy for a traveler to get to since the airport in Banja Luka is not always open and there are no regular flights. The national airline of Srpska went bankrupt a few years ago.

For our day trip in June ’05, we hired a private English-speaking guide/driver, Milenko (mobile phone 063 202 512 or e-mail mmilenko@eunet.yu), who spoke excellent English as well as Serbian, German and Spanish and was an encyclopedia of knowledge. We highly recommend him. The cost for the car, an air-conditioned Mercedez-Benz, plus Milenko’s services was €280 (about $360) plus €5 for each hour spent in Banja Luka. I would not recommend the trip on your own by rental car; there are too many potential problems and you will probably not find anyone who speaks English.

The driving time from Belgrade to Banja Luka is 3½ to four hours along a good road that passes through Croatia. We had no problems with Immigration or Customs. We visited on a Tuesday, market day, and the center of town was crowded with people and merchants selling their produce from the surrounding countryside along with many other items. It was similar to a gigantic swap meet.

We had a relaxing lunch at the restaurant Kazamat (e-mail, situated inside the Kastel Fortress and with a marvelous view of the River Vrbas. Lunch, which included a salad, entrée (I had veal; Arlene had pasta), dessert, beer and soft drink, cost €20 ($26) for the two of us and was delicious.

We spent a couple of hours sightseeing in the town and then had an uneventful journey back to Belgrade.
Milenko also took us on a 2½-hour tour of Belgrade for €60 ($77); a 4½-hour tour to the monasteries north of Belgrade (southwest of Novi Sad) and the Fruska Gora areas for €140 ($180), and, also for €140, a 4-hour tour to the monasteries south of Belgrade.

La Jolla, CA