Bosnia’s dramatic north: Jajce, the Vrbas River Canyon and Banja Luka

For most people, tourism in Bosnia and Herzegovina is synonymous with visiting Sarajevo and Mostar, and perhaps TrebinjeMedjugorje and the Sutjeska national park.

This, however is unfair to the rest of this stunning country, which does not only offer a lot of wonderful unspoilt nature throughout, but also ancient fortresses, churches and mosques, which have persevered through its turbulent past.

Last week I went on a family trip to Jajce, passing through the Vrbas River Canyon and with a stop in Banja Luka.

Jajce used to be one of the main tourist spots in Bosnia, thanks to the fact that post-WWII Yugoslavia was made there on 29 November 1943 during the 2nd session of AVNOJ (Anti-Fascist Council for the National Liberation of Yugoslavia). Tito could not have picked a more scenic spot for a meeting with representatives of Partisan resistance.

Tucked in the steep valleys of the Pliva and the Vrbas, Jajce is an ancient city of stunning beauty. Its stunning  14th century fort, which served as the capital of the Kingdom of Bosnia is perched on a steep hill, dotted with remains of an abandoned romanesque royal monastery and minarets of Ottoman mosques. Below the walled city, the Pliva plunges 20 meters to meet the Vrbas, making for a majestic waterfall.

Although sleepy after the destruction caused by the Bosnian War – during which pretty much all of its major churches, monasteries and mosques were damaged – Jajce offers a lot to see and do. Besides the fortress, you can visit a well preserved Roman temple dedicated to Mithras, an old Persian deity,  or check out the catacombs which held the remains of the Hrvatinić family, which founded the city. Then of course, there is the museum in the building where the meeting of the AVNOJ  and “Kod Asima“, a great restaurant in one of the city gates where you can try Bosnian specialities – I recommend the “cevapi in somun” (local meatballs in delicious bread) and “bosanski lonac” (a stew).

Up river from the city is a lovely picnic area around the Pliva lake which offers stunning views of the hills, and a dozen of small old mills, one of which still makes fresh flour.

North from Jajce, there is an old Catholic sanctuary above a healing spring in Podmilačje, whose water apparently helps with mental problems. As the sanctuary was burnt during the war, it is now being expanded as an extravagant concrete spiral with stunning underground extensions. Further down river, is the majestic canyon of the Vrbas, stretching all the way to the suburbs of Banja Luka. Although nature is stunning by itself, there is also an socialist era hydroelectric plant hidden in one of the hills for those who like industrial heritage.

Once in Banja Luka, after checking out the main square with the Banovina Palace and Church of Christ the Saviour, I recommend having walking around the Kaštel fortress and taking a peek in the newly restored Ferhat Pasha Mosque. If you are peckish, grab a nice “burek pod sačem” (local pie) in imagintelively named, “Burek pod Sačem” next to the School of Engineering or some of the wonderful cakes in “Manja” in faded, art-nouveau Palas hotel.

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