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Eternal return to the center

The city has been an important center in the early modern era (1580-1639), then at the time of the Viceroyship of Vrbas (1929-1941), and is so now, as the capital of Republika Srpska (the Republic of Srpska). In every period the city displayed great enthusiasm and splendor. This classy and very neat town, with nothing Oriental in its character and appearance, is called the city of culture, youth, sport and „beautiful people”. The city is known for its alleys, its green river, its castle, museums and university, the „nectar” beer and dayak boats: the city that is celebrated in songs for its libertarian spirit, without which it would not even exist
By: Zoran Pejašinović Photo: Mladen Šukalo Zoran Pejašinović and the Photo Archive of the Government of Srpska
In ancient times, the travelling chroniclers have noted how „fruit blushed, and plum branches broke under the weight of the fruit” in Banja Luka. One of them especially praised the morello cherry „which can not be found to the edges of the world”. It remained thus until the nineteenth century. Then came the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and with it the enforcement of order, in German fashion, „tight as a tick”. It was so with the city greenery, which has always been the hallmark of the town. Left over since Turkish times, the streets and alleys of Banja Luka were lined with stunted apples, plums, pears, šeftelia peaches and other fruit, whose branches ignorant children once used to break, picking the unripe fruit. Now the new colonial government arranged the first parks and along the edges of Banja Luka’s streets, instead of crippled fruit trees, planted chestnut, linden and other deciduous trees. So the famous avenues were conceived, the most beautiful landmarks of Banja Luka to this day.
Two versions of the nameAlthough it has been known for more than five centuries, the origin, meaning and spelling of the name of Banja Luka since the time of Kočić have caused serious controversy and confusion. Philologists, however, think that the city got its name from the adjective banj and ban’s, of the ban, belonging to the ban (from the Avar word bayan, meaning rich) and the noun luka, which means a plateau or meadow by the river. Which is the medieval ban in question is not known. However, centuries later, during the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, another ban, Svetislav Tisa Milosavljević would establish the modern city and - somehow retroactively - give meaning and substance to the thesis that Banja Luka is Ban’s City. Meanwhile, the writing of the name of the city separately (Banja Luka) and connected (Banjaluka) is equally accepted. According to the aforesaid etymology, it requires a consistent, dual adjectival declension in Serbian.

Most of the credit for the development of the avenues goes to the Austro-Hungarian general, Alfred von Jelson (1831-1913). From 1882 to 1885, under the leadership of this senior imperial officer, with the title of baron, seventeen kilometers of tree lines with nearly 5,000 trees were planted. Some of the Banja Luka locals, unaccustomed to change, could not come to terms with Jelson's project, so the new government threatened with large fines and even posted soldiers to guard the young seedlings. To the satisfaction of all of later inhabitants of the city, as well as visitors, the seedlings thrived and, in time, grew into a tranquil row, which now includes more than 20,000 trees along fifty kilometers of tree lines. Thanks, therefore, to General Jelson, for more than a century the luscious avenues have formed magnificent „tunnels” which make a drive through the streets of Banja Luka into a magical journey, like a drive in 3D cinemas, or even more sensuous, since the avenues, especially in June, smell of linden like few other places in the world. In fact, the whole town is permeated with their aroma!

GERM of the city in the fortress
At the heart of the older – once Oriental - part of Banja Luka, there is a fortress, Kastel. Presumably, on the same plateau there was a settlement in Roman times. The archaeological finds indicate that there was a Roman camp, Castra, and next to it, in the vicinity of the River Crkvena, a civil settlement with a temple of Jupiter. This is indicated by the foundations of late Roman administrative buildings that were discovered inside the fortress. Later the great citadel was built by the Turks in the same place. Ancient scriptures say that the present form of the fort was given by Ćuprilić Numan Pasha, who had thoroughly reorganized it, expanding it and building walls, bastions, towers, underground passages and a deep trench (in times of war it was filled with water from the River Vrbas), at the beginning of the eighteenth century.
Petrašin in bronzeIf we move from Kastel towards today’s city center and go to the other side of the main street in front of the famous hotel „Palas”, we will find ourselves in a smallish park with a modern décor. Hidden in the shadows of big trees for almost eight decades, this park has been home of the monument to the famous Krajina tribune and satiric writer, Petar Kočić. „Petrašin in bronze” is the joint work of two sculptors, Antun Augustinčić and Ivan Vanja Radauš, inaugurated in November 1932. On its pedestal one can read Kočić’s last message and warning: „Whoever sincerely and passionately loves Truth, Freedom and the Fatherland, is free and fearless like God, and despised and hungry like a dog”.

Today, the fort, which still keeps many secrets of the past centuries in its known and hidden corridors and chambers, can be entered from three directions: from the north (from the Market), the West (from Ferhadija) and east (from Vrbas). If we decide to take the north gate, a stone building will appear in front of us, and further on, in the interior, hidden behind former prison walls and bars, the restaurant „Kazamat” („Casemate”), with its garden alongside the ramparts of the fortress and a beautiful view of the green River Vrbas. Beside the „Casemate” there is a passage which leads to another part of the fortress, through which an important Turkish road once ran. It ran from the direction of Ferhadija, the west („Kapi kula” – „Gate House”) and the east gate (Sukapi), and ended at the Ferhat Pasha's Bridge, the connection to the Mala Čaršija and military training area on the right bank of the Vrbas. At these gates, presumably, a fatal love was born that would give rise to the well-known Banja Luka legend of Safikada... In this part of the Kastel today there is an open stage, on which classical, rock, folk and ethnic music concerts, poetry and folklore, and occasionally plays are performed.

With the arrival of the Habsburg authorities, the town center was moved a few hundred meters north of the Kastel, across the River Crkvena (which has since been „swept under the asphalt”), with the focal point of trade and cultural life shifting to the Gospodska Street. With the creation of the Banovina (Viceroyship) of Vrbas in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, Banja Luka flourished. The town center was formed around the newly built Orthodox Church. On the Holy Demetrius of Thessalonica Day (Mitrovdan), the 8th November 1929, Svetislav Tisa Milosavljević, the first head of the Vrbas Banovina, arrived in Banja Luka. Thus began the golden era of the city. This energetic and enterprising Viceroy (Ban) transformed the face and soul of the city. In just thirteen months, the building of the Vice Regal Administration was built (now the Central Administration of the city), on the third anniversary of his arrival the Vice Regal Court was occupied, while the theater and the museum were also established, the newspaper was founded, apartment houses for clerks were erected, the new hotel, and the park in the center of town were built. It was, as someone said, „the Periclean times of Banja Luka”.
A dayak was carried by the Waters of the VrbasThe guests who visit the castle (Kastel) walls during the summer will almost certainly have the opportunity to see a dayak from the walls. This unusual vessel is a symbol of the city of Banja Luka and its pride for over a century and a half. The body of the boat, 7-9 meters long, is made of pinewood, the tip and the stern of a harder wood (oak, acacia, or ash). The boat is in fact pushed and steered by the dayak, a special pole after which it was named. This wooden pole, several meters long, has a top reinforced with a metal crown and tip, which makes it safer and easier to push off against the rocky bottom of the river. The dayak ride is a special experience and a matter of the city’s prestige.

On the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Viceroyship of Vrbas, in 2004, the Banja Luka residents erected a monument to Ban Milosavljević overlooking three of his most important legacies: the City Administration, the Vice Regal Court, and the beautiful Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the construction of which was aided by Milosavljević so the thankful Banja Luka locals invited him to be in charge of its consecration in 1939. This church was short-lived (it was razed to the ground in 1941), but in 1992, its reconstruction began. It was consecrated in June 2009 on the day of the Ascension of Jesus Christ (known as Spasovdan in Serbian) and today it shines like a chandelier of gold and stone above the surrounding buildings.

One of the most remarkable monuments from the time of the Vrbas Viceroyship is the „Mortgage Bank”, now Parliament of Republika Srpska. Although the construction of this building is often mistakenly associated with the first Viceroy, Svetislav Tisa Milosavljević, it was built by the third Viceroy, Bogoljub Kujundžić (who headed the Vrbas Viceroyship from January 1935 till October 1937). The Parliament Building, with its corner position, together with Milosavljević’s Foundations (the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, Viceroy’s Court, Viceroy’s Administration – today the City’s Central Administration), makes up the nucleus of the modern city. The building was built in the spirit of the Bauhaus and classicism, and designed by the Belgrade architect Miodrag Vasić. It is recognizable by the monumental bronze figures at the entrance, the work of the White Russian artist Vladimir Pavlovich Zagorodnjuk, a native of Odessa. The artist completed his studies of sculpture in Paris. The October Revolution brought him to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, where he stayed for three decades. Most of the time he worked as an artistic director of the Belgrade National Theatre, where some of the famous artists of the Russian school of decorative painting gathered around the legendary Jovan Bijelić. He moved with his family to Sydney in 1950 where he died in 1976. In the meantime, from 1927 onwards, he also did decorations of public buildings such as the Patriarchate in Belgrade, the „Mortgage bank” in Sarajevo (now the Central Bank), the hotel „Avala” and others. For the building in Banja Luka he did the reliefs along the facade, but apart from the fragments of „Adam and Eve”, which still decorate the space above the main entrance, nothing remains. Other reliefs between windows were severely damaged in World War II and removed during the renovation of the building. Fortunately, Zagorodnjuk’s freestanding figures of two Krajina peasants – a man and a woman, dressed in national costume, still adorn the main entrance of the Parliament of Republika Srpska.

With the creation of Republika Srpska and the deployment of its institutions in Banja Luka, the city became a kind of capital for the third time, which offered it a new opportunity for accelerated development. The symbol of Banja Luka in the early twenty-first century is certainly the Central Administration of Republika Srpska, which started to function in 2007. This modern complex is dominated by the tallest building in the city, the seventeen floor Government of Republika Srpska. In the vicinity is the new home of Radio-Television of Republika Srpska and the business skyscraper which houses the Taxation Office. At the top, on the fourteenth floor of this building, there is a sizable restaurant. It can be accessed by an external, glass elevator, which offers visitors the magic trip through another one of Banja Luka’s „tunnels”, this time a glass and vertical one, and so prepares them for a unique view of the city - the capital of Republika Srpska.
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