Bosnia. The country in the middle of Balkan peninsula. A melting pot. A crossroad between west and oriental east. A historical place where different cultures, religions and nations meet, fight, live and grow together for centuries. A tragedy for many, a history to learn from for all. But mostly, a country of immense beauty, open and warm people, excellent Balkan food, unspoiled trails and new opportunities. And all these just a bit more than 300 km away from us. A distance more or less the same as Saalbach if it happens you decide to go west (from Ljubljana).
We didn’t need much to make a decision. If most of the MTB bikers go west, we will take a chance and do the opposite. Go East. Saalbach is easy. Everything (and everybody) is already there, you know what to expect and you know it is gonna be great. I asked our Instagram followers to chose between Saalbach and Banja Luka. The result: 68% for Saalbach. That was not a surprise. We chose what we know better, where our experiences make us feel safe.
But exploring new terrains, undiscovered MTB trails, meeting new people and searching for new opportunities for our clients, all this is in our genes. And we like it. Our goal was to make an exciting weekend bike retreat for you.
However, you can dive deep into local secrets only if you find an experienced local guy. Mac knew Ozren for some time now. They met during a MTB event in Kranjska Gora. Ozren is a mountain bike enthusiast, riding his MTB almost daily and taking care of local trails practically alone. He was more than willing to meet and guid us during our stay.
So, in early October afternoon, Mac and I packed our bags and put our MTB bikes on the car’s roof-rack and hit the road heading east to Banja Luka, the biggest town and the administrative centre of Republika Srpska. Don’t ask political questions ‘cause that is not what we are interested in here. Anyway, Bosnia consists of three nationally divided entities and Republika Srbska is one of them. If your pragmatical mind is still comparing the road to Banja Luka with the one to Saalbach, here is the answer. 80% of the road is a highway. Even most of the Bosnian part. So, you can easily relax. Your trip will take 3,5 hours, the same as going west. However, you cross two borders, the second, Bosnian one, in Nova Gradiška. Sava river is wide enough there to give you some time to prepare for cultural change and the change of letters (or maybe not) from Latin to Cyrillic. You have just left EU.
I like those guys at the border control very much. You can always expect some seriously-funny questions from border control officers. “Any chance those nice two bikes will stay in Bosnia?”, asked me after checking our passports. “No, for sure, not!”
We reached Banja Luka at around noon. The weather was nice and warm. We met Ozren at his house in a pleasant and peaceful neighbourhood in the eastern part of the town. When you pass the mosque turn left, he had advised. I didn’t expect so many of them in mostly orthodox county. Honestly, we did not expect as well, that baklava would be served upon our arrival. One of the most delicious desert possible. His mom made them. Grateful.
The original plan was to take some rest in a local bar (you should call it ‘kafana’ as locals do) and discuss future business and daily life. Not with Ozren. He was so eager to go biking immediately that we couldn’t say no. He called a friend with a van, we changed our cloths behind the car in his garden, somehow packed all stuff including bikes into the van and off we went. Everyone has his or her own life story in Bosnia. The driver moved to Las Vegas, USA just before the war without any knowledge of English. Now he works in one of the casinos. His way was a hard one, but like most of them he was strong enough to survive. Ozren’s plan was to show us some great downhill trails just some 20 minutes drive from the city centre.
We left busy streets after a few minutes of driving and started to ascent on a narrow and steep asphalt road passing the private houses and villages on our way up. We probably made several hundred vertical meters before we stopped at the end of the road and finally continued our ride by bicycles. The world changed. Like being far away among trees, meadows and old abandoned houses. We left almost empty village behind. Only 5-8 people still live there, we were told. Banja Luka was down below somewhere. The views were enchanting and endless. Ozren led the way through bushes and forest and meadows at the top of the hill. We were alone. The trail down to the city caught us by a nice surprise. It was and old path used by locals and only reachable by horses (and by foot, of course). Tractors and vehicles of any sort are not allowed here. We were fast and furious, smiling and excited. The first part was even better. A nice flow down to the valley. The bottom part got heavier and a little bit more dangerous. There was really a narrow path with many wet rocks and roots going deep into the gorge. Finally it opened again, the sun hit us with his warm rays and the path changed to a narrow asphalt road again.
We reached the outskirt of the town. After a few hundred meters ahead we stopped next to the private house. There were Ozren’s friends distilling their own slivovitz in the open garage. We talked and laughed and spent some nice time together testing the strong drink so typical for this reagion . Then the van came and we did it again. Up to the hill and another trail down to the city center. It was great. We were delighted. The first part of our MTB weekend package started to get its shape.
We looked like aliens with those big modern bikes, helmets and backpacks. People still fight hard for their survival there. Unemployment rate is high, wages low, many young people have left the country for better future abroad. We were told there are not many active MTB riders in the city. We sincerely hope this will change soon.
We headed straight to Bajka, a nice local (I would rather say a hipster’s) bar close to our hotel. We were almost alone, sitting in the garden having a quick lunch. Not exactly Balkan food, more western style with burger and stuff. We finally started to discuss business with two more days for biking to go. So excited.
To be continued.