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Bos/Hrv/Srp 21 Feb 12

Banja Luka Residents Fear For Kastel’s New Look

While most people want to see Banja Luka’s medieval fortress rebuilt, some fear that letting private companies open hotels and other facilities in the site may damage it.

Bojana Karanovic
BIRN Banja Luka
 
The walls of the Kastel fortress in Banjaluka | Photo by Bojana Karanovic  

On February 7 the city of Banja Luka announced it had allocated 2.5 million euro from European funds to start reconstructing the Kastel fortress, and work would start in spring 2013.

Dragoljub Davidovic, the city mayor, said the comprehensive nine-part project would cost between 30 and 35 million euro in all, with most of the money coming from private investors who will recoup their cash through concessions.

The Republic Srpska Institute for the Protection of Cultural and Natural Heritage has given the reconstruction project a green light and is committed to supervising the whole process.

While nobody disputes that the old, collapsing fortress needs a new face, a range of artists, heritage experts and students is voicing worries about the plan.

They fear it could ruin the authentic character of the fortress if hotels sprout inside the mediaeval military barrack and if garages appear underneath.

Some students have formed an NGO that is calling for a public debate on the project, and for changes if need be.
Kastel was built on the left bank of the Vrbas river between the 8th and 12th centuries.

Seated in the old centre of Banja Luka, the fortress is one of the few surviving architectural legacies of those times and is an important cultural monument.

The Institute for the Protection of Cultural and Natural Heritage of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1950 listed it as a “cultural property of great importance”.

Beside its historical significance, Kastel is one of the most visited places in town. It is one of the principal destinations for tourists besides hosting many cultural events.

But in the last few years visitor numbers have fallen. Neglected for decades, the fortress is now ringed by a protective fence bearing signs that warn visitors of the danger of falling stones.

Over last four years the city authorities developed a concept to revitalize the site as a project that encompasses nine units.

Artillery barrack, one of the objects that are totally ruined, according to the project should become hotel | Photo by Bojana Karanovic

These are a service centre, a tourist and information centre, a city square, a car park, a sports centre, garden, riverside zone, a museum and a hotel.

The plan also includes a hotel in the old artillery barracks, the largest object in the fortress.

Last year the city published an invitation for investors for building hotel in the place of old military barracks but after four months no one had answered.   

As yet, precise information on when and how the fortress will be restored is in short supply.

What is certain is that owing to a lack of financial resources, the city intends to sell concessions to private firms who will have the right to see a return on their investment and profits in the future.

While the need to restore the site is widely acknowledged by both the public and experts, not everybody is enthusiastic about private businesses virtually taking over the site.

Many wonder how the authorities can make sure that nothing is damaged.

One group of urban planning students at the Faculty of Natural Science in Banja Luka is petitioning to stop the project from being implemented.

They say parts of the plan are unacceptable, such as allowing companies to build underground parking lots, which they say could damage unexplored archaeological sites under Kastel.

“All those planned walkways that we can see on the project graphs will significantly change the landscape,” one said.

“This project gives too little room for the green space for which Banja Luka was once known in the region.”

One of the Kastels old buildings | Photo by Bojana Karanovic

The group has started an online petition and a Facebook group under the slogan “Save Kastel”.

Their petition needs 10,000 signatures before they can contact the city authorities and demand a public debate on the plan. Up till now they collected only around 700, however.
“We know it's hard to stop the project but our priority is to try to activate people and to find a compromise,” one backer of the petition said.

Brankica Jankovic, director of the Demofest music festival, which has taken place at Kastel since 2008, is also concerned.

“The negative side of this reconstruction could be the over-commercialization of Kastel,” she warns. “I’m not sure that underground car parks and sports arenas in a medieval fortress are appropriate.”

Ana Vidovic, a local artist, is also worried about Kastel’s potential new look. She doesn’t believe the announced reconstruction will benefit citizens in the way that the authorities promise.

“I fear they’ll ruin it, like they did with so many things, and that they will destroy the spirit of Kastel so that there won’t be a place for us artists in it any longer,” Vidovic stated.

Music professor and composer Muharem Insanic on the other hand supports the overall effort to start reconstruction, though he warns that the city authorities must retain firm control of the project.

“Private investments could ruin the look and purpose of the fortress,” he said.

“On the other hand, if they respect the site’s authentic form, these concessions can be good solutions. Still, the government must overlook everything.”

More wholehearted reassurance comes from the Institute for the Protection of Cultural and Natural Heritage.

Milijana Okilj says their experts were involved in every part of project, and will be supervising all the reconstruction activities.

“The new facilities in the fortress are being included with a view to the sustainable preservation of Kastel", Okilj said.

Most members of the public seem on the side of the authorities.

“We need to save Kastel from total ruin. This is first smart move by the government in years and I support it,” Martina Djekic, a student from Banja Luka, said.

“Maybe this project is not the best but it seems the only thing to do. We can’t wait any longer,” she added.

This article is funded under the BICCED project, supported by the Swiss Cultural Programme.

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