On Wednesday I came straight off the plane to Sarajevo into a car to drive to BL with a spectacular thunderstorm and sever road flooding to help our progress. We went a quicker route than last time through the "ghost" Croatian shopping centre but diverging somewhere afterwards. The shopping centre is far from ghost, just a big out of town sprawl of warehouses and building materials, not out of place in France, but instead of "out of town" it is "without town", just in the middle of nowhere. After a 4am start to get to Gatwick I was not really with it, but noticed the usual Bosnian mountain roads, hills, trees, plus rain.
Banja Luka is the "capital" of Republika Srpska, one of the two entities which form the country Bosnia and Herzegovina. See Google maps here
We arrived in BL in bright evening sunshine and I was parked in Hotel Bosna for the night. For those of you who like to indulge in Soviet hotel nostalgia, I can offer you a new genre: the Yugoslav hotel nostalgia. Hotel Bosna was a real treat, a "modern" Yugoslav hotel. These photos are taken from the website. Please visit it to get the full "night and day" slide show complete with twinkling stars.
So instead of the standard highrise concrete block hotel in the Soviet style, we have the modern architectural curvaceous exterior with pleasant setting. Inside it is not so bad on the ground floor with a range of pleasant bars and shops, not really 21st century, but comfortable for a provincial town. A lift to the second floor took me to curving corridors with one side built with glass panels reminiscent of art deco 1920s and 30s. You could see what architectural magazines the Yugoslav architect had been reading. After misleading numbering and being confused by the curving shape which seemed to have 3 corridors not 2 as you expect from the photos, I saw more of the corridors than I would have liked. The thick glass was not so clean, and had been broken in many places, leaving lots of sharp edges for the next round of drunks to fall against, the carpet has seen many years of wear and the doors were painted matt black, giving a strange "modernist" and grunge impression at the same time.
This "effect" was continued into the rooms. Mine was quite spacious with twin beds, twin circular mirrors (1.5m dia and 0.5m dia) randomly placed. The room furniture was wooden in the basic demob style last seen in the 50s, before the advent of Habitat and IKEA, painted black or green, with occasional "architectural" light green lines. The carpet looked like a rare form of felt, (but made from plastic) in a specially obnoxious lime green/olive colour, (for some reason I associated the colour in my mind with the colour people go when seasick). I spare you the photograph, since I didn't take one. The carpet wasn't dirty except for the previous leakage under the radiator, but it wasn't so clean your bare feet wanted to linger.
After this, you can imagine the state of the plumbing in the bathroom, if you are used to the Soviet genre. No chrome, the original burn marks from the plumber's blow torch. The typical short bath, with tiny shower head and missing knob to switch from bath to shower. But what the hell, you could still shower, and who needs a shower curtain? You can always paddle from the bathroom onto the green carpet (yuck).
But, and here is the real difference in the Soviet and Yugoslav genre, they put me in a double room at no extra cost, (all of 40 Euros) so I was not disturbed by the loud graduation party going on that evening (more later about Serb graduation parties*). The receptionists were friendly and English-speaking. For dinner I was not so adventurous as to explore the town so I just went to the hotel restaurant Ambassador. This was decorated as if it was a country inn, with rural stone "walls", tinkling waterfalls, and plastic greenery but quite pleasant. There was a big choice on the menu. I ordered the air-dried ham (prsut/prosciutto) and pepper steak. Remembering that this was serious meat eating country, I asked about portion size for the steak, and the waitress offered a half portion, which was quite big enough for me. The air-dried ham came with extra air-drying on some edges of the ham, but was a full plate and quite tasty. So was the pepper steak, which was acceptably underdone as ordered. After two local beers, the total came to 26KM, 13 Euros, so quite cheap. So I think the Yugoslav hotel genre's motto is "we try harder".
A quick wander outside the hotel showed I was just opposite the orthodox church with the clock tower and an extremely smart classical style municipality. People were doing the usual evening promenade or sitting in cafes.
The next day I had three meetings which were more or less successful, and we had time to grab a pizza and an icecream in the best icecream parlour before setting off back to Sarajevo.
There are three mobile networks in BiH but the coverage is not universal (as you might expect with such complex politics). It seems that Federation phone cards are not sold in the RS and vice versa, so I had a small problem with phone credit in RS with a FBiH sim card, solved as usual by our fixer and interpreter Sanja who carries spares of both cards. But even with credit, and the ability to switch networks, there was no signal in a lot of the rural area on the way back. This allowed me to escape most of my callers and have a rest on the way back.
Altogether a very pleasant impression and I am sure I could spend a few weeks here quite comfortably. It seems so different from the impression of Bosnians Serbs created by the refusal of their politicians to hand over war criminals, and their (politicians') well known reputation for corruption and obstinacy. Talking to some of the officials (or politicians in disguise, since most ministry positions are filled with party loyalists) it seems they are one of the last remaining bastions of socialism in ex-Yugoslavia. But the rest of the people are clearly anxious to move on.
*A note about Serb graduation parties:
When we arrived, there were huge crowds milling round Hotel Bosna and the police were directing traffic away from the hotel. Our driver had to hassle to deliver me. Clearly this was a big event. Then I remembered trying to organise a big international conference in Belgrade in June in 2004. There were only two big enough hotels in Belgrade at the time, one modernised and one not. In fact the unmodernised one was reported in the Belgrade In Your Pocket (now defunct) as "still having Arkan's blood on the carpet, from where he was shot".
The big modernised one claimed it had no rooms free at all in June because of graduation parties. Eventually they made their best offer, one date with rooms at 250 Euros per night. This was only twice my budget, so I had to decline their offer and relocate the conference to Athens where prices were more reasonable. At the time I failed to understand how there could be 20 working days of graduation parties in June, with all beds full at 250 Euros a night. I know graduation is a big thing, but out of town grannies would be staying with family to see their grandson or daughter graduate, not living it up in a smart hotel. So clearly this hotel did not want to work. Or they had enough work from the mafia, who seemed to be busy with wedding parties, the only time I went there. I guess also the decor was in the style mafia-kitsch.
From Banja Luka and the noise from the Hotel Bosna disco, I guess that after the formal part, these graduation parties are not that different from May Balls in Oxford, where apart from the difference in expense and pretension, it is just an excuse to celebrate the end of the academic year and have some fun.