Return to Bosnia and Croatia

Two weeks ago, I took F on his first trip to Bosnia. I lived in Banja Luka, the main city of the Republika Srpska (the Serbian part of Bosnia) from January 1997 to May 1998, and was joined by Anne and B from that September (B, who was born in June 1997, was very tiny). We then moved to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, from May to December 1998, before I got my first job in Brussels at the start of 1999; by then, F was on his way, but did not fully appear on the scene until July.

Since leaving Zagreb, I had been back to Banja Luka only once, in November 2002, though I'd passed through Zagreb a few times (most recently last June when I was stranded there one evening by air traffic problems). F had never been at all – we'd taken him to the Croatian coast when he was two, but not to Zagreb. So when I realised that I could take a long weekend of travel in advance of some work meetings in Zagreb on the first Tuesday in February, it seemed like a good opportunity to revisit the past.

Zagreb, nights 1, 4 and 5:
Night 1: Hotel Jägerhorn: good and central, boutique atmosphere, car park two blocks from hotel which made for slightly tricky navigation and suitcase-trundling, but at least there was a car park.
Friday dinner: Batak Grill, Flower Square branch, F's first ćevapi; basic but filling.
Friday drinks with T (former colleague) and H (T's partner): Grif Bar, newly opened, former button factory, smoky and noisy but didn't make me feel too old.
Zagreb, nights 4 and 5:
Nights 4 and 5: Hotel Westin, formerly the Opera, formerly the Intercontinental; standard international business hotel. Left to myself, I would stay a bit closer to the centre.
Monday dinner: Agava, nice traditional Croatian place among the many restaurants on Tkalčićeva Street (which has gone way more international and diverse than in my day).
Tuesday lunch: Vinodol, efficient business lunch.
Tuesday dinner: my former colleague P kindly cooked for me.
Wednesday lunch: at the airport.

Pictures here are from both legs of the trip to Zagreb, where we started and ended – F returned to Belgium on the Tuesday, but I had to stay an extra day. I rented a zippy little Clio from Enterprise at the airport.

F in front of the statue of Ban Jelačić in the central square.
(Statue by Anton Dominik Ritter von Fernkorn, 1866)

His parents and sister, 21 years earlier on the other side of the horse

Panorama with F in Flower Square (Cvjetni Trg)

His parents and sister in the same square in 1998

My old office at Preradovićeva 22. It's seen better days.

At the end of the street is Šoštarićeva 4, the building where we lived in 1998, then (left) and now (right x2).

St Mark's Church, in 1997 and 2019.

The great local physicist Nikola Tesla, decorated for the occasion. He wasn't there in 1998.

Memorial commemorating Croatia's EU membership, 1 July 2013.

St George doing some smiting. (Anton Dominik Ritter von Fernkorn again, 1853)

I had time to go to one museum, where the rocket attacks on Zagreb in 1991 and 1995 are commemorated, but no photography was allowed.

Here's the funicular between the lower and upper towns, my colleagues talking in the background.

Banja Luka, night 2:
Hotel Jelena: new since my time living there, staff very friendly especially over breakfast.
Lunch: Kod Brke Pizzeria, tasty and good value
Dinner: Kastel, the ultimate dining place in Banja Luka, in the old Roman fort.

In my day, the square at the centre of the city was a building site, with the Banski Dvor, which housed the main government offices, and the National Bank on the northern side of the square.

Now it's dominated by the new cathedral, the Banski Dvor is under wraps and the president's office has moved across the road to the former bank. (I was really lucky with the light here.)

When I arrived in Banja Luka in early 1997, the first thing I did was to hire Danijela Dabić, aged 21, slim as a rake, smart as a whip, sarcastic as only a child of war can be. She was my best friend in Bosnia, and I learned more from her than I can ever express.

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When I was last in Banja Luka in 2002, we met up for what we both knew would be the last time, and indeed we lost her a few months later. This was my first chance to pay my respects.

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After the cemetery, we went to see her mother. We don't have much common language, but sometimes few words are needed.

Danijela's best friend D sorted us out. She was a student back in those days, sometimes playing with young B and dropping by the office for a laugh.

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D now has a pretty responsible government position. For dinner we went to the Kastel, where I had last eaten with Danijela in 2002, and had a brilliant if somewhat emotional time.

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D's parents still live in the apartment that we rented from them in 1997-98. The streetscape has filled out with some more new buildings.


Her parents and brother were very hospitable to us before we took the road south to Sarajevo via Travnik.


Travnik, Sunday lunch: Ćevabdžinica Hari,

The drive over Mount Vlašić to Travnik was, er, interesting. The rain over the previous couple of days had washed significant parts of the road down the slopes, up to half of it in places, and elsewhere rocks from above had fallen onto the road surface; some of them rather big rocks.

As we drove I was listening to a Big Finish audio, The Thousand Worlds, starring John Hurt as the War Doctor, in which he returns to a planet where he has not been for a while and discovers that the young woman student who he had got to know on his previous visit has now has a pretty responsible government position. It seemed to fit.

I wanted to take F to Travnik because of its tremendous cultural history: the Coloured Mosque, and also the heritage of Ivo Andrić who made the town famous in his best book.

An added attraction, according to D in Banja Luka, is Hari's Ćevabdžinica which she assured us serves the best ćevapi in Bosnia. She was dead right – the ćevapi were very good. When we got to Sarajevo, I mentioned to everyone I met that we'd had good ćevapi in Travnik, and they all said, "Oh, you must have been to Hari's then." Unfortunately the weather did not co-operate, and the Coloured Mosque was closed for renovations, so all we did in Travnik was eat Hari's ćevapi and then leave for Sarajevo.


The rain was getting worse, and on the fringes of Travnik we were diverted across a park to avoid the main road which was underwater. As we drove south we found ourselves splashing through the Lašva at several points. The little Clio performed well.

Sarajevo, night 3:
Hondo's Pansion: where I had usually stayed on my visits in 1997 and 1998, still run by the same two brothers, still very hospitable if a little basic (but good value).
Dinner: Ćevabdžinica Hodžić, claims more modestly to just have the best ćevapi in Sarajevo; certainly they were very tasty.
Drinks with O: Wine bar Dekanter, very helpful with suggestions; where the political elite hang out.
Monday lunch: Preporod, former Gajret cultural centre, very pleasant airy space

When I first arrived in Sarajevo in 1997, I was struck by the view from Hondo's Pansion where we usually stayed:

22 years later, exactly the same instinct struck me, but the rain had now cleared and the light was glorious:

The National Library is particularly fine, especially with the castle in the background.

We met up with several old friends of mine, most particularly O, a former diplomat, who took us on his personal tour of the old city of Sarajevo, taking us around the confectionery shops and also very gently pointing out the street where he was born, and where his sister was killed during the war. We ended up in a very nice wine bar where the Bosnian elite hang out.


I felt that the old city had not changed much since the 1990s, but others assured me that I should have looked at the modern west of the city a bit more (I was fighting traffic jams when there, which perhaps proves their point about growth). F pointed out that there are very few Bosnian flags on display in either Banja Luka or the old town of Sarajevo (we saw one, outside the Bakijska džamija in the Baščaršija); again, I was told that you’ll see more in the western part of the city.

Time has passed, as demonstrated by these three pictures taken of the same building from the same vantage point over a period of 105 years, the second two by me:

Schiller's bakery (1914)

The remains of the former Young Bosnia Museum (1997)
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The Museum of Sarajevo 1878-1918 (2019)

This museum makes a brave attempt to interest us in life in Sarajevo under Austro-Hungarian rule, but the fact is that most of us are interested in only one thing that actually happened there. They have done well, though, in terms of mementoes of the event that sparked the first world war:

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The coffee cups used by Franz Ferdinand and Sophie Chotek just before the assassination;
the cutlery with which he ate his last breakfast.
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The clothes and weapons confiscated from the assassin.

On Monday morning it was snowing with thick wet flakes which melted on impact, and I discovered that a hole in my shoe was allowing my foot to be saturated with freezing mush. We did manage a bit more culture:

Inside the Emperor's Mosque (actually Sunday evening)

The Svrzo House museum, a wealthy family's residence from the 19th century

The Jewish Museum, and the somewhat disturbing woodcuts of Daniel Ozmo

Finally, the War Childhood Museum's usual Bosnian exhibits were not on display that week; instead, there was a very moving set of objects donated by children of the Syrian conflict, reminding us that this century has not escaped the sins of previous times.

We left Sarajevo after a hilarious lunch with an Irish friend, and drove up to Zagreb by what is the more usual route these days via Doboj. The road from Zenica up to Doboj is pretty dull, slow-moving lorries keeping you honest. The road from Doboj through Republika Srpska is amazing, though, much better than in my day, delivering you to the frontier at Gradiška in an hour (it used to take twice as long). And then I had my work meetings in Zagreb, and F went home, and I went home the next day.

You can fly from Charleroi to Banja Luka for €20. I might do that quite soon.

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1 Response to Return to Bosnia and Croatia

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