Like everything else in the Balkans, the Una river's name has a legend behind it - this one from Roman Times. "The one and only," a foot soldier declared when spotting the river. He had never seen anything quite like it. Even though there are 7 major rivers in Bosnia and Herzegovina and around 28 smaller ones, the Una is widely considered unique, a treasure, almost mythic. They say that it's a place of meditation and enlightenment. We met it at the very end of the second rainstorm in two days. We'd just been thinking that the sudden, intense showers had made us feel our first real sense of "summer." Standing at the side of the Una, we had a realization, because I guess that's just what happens on this river. What had given us that familiar feeling of summer was all the green. The Northeast corner of Bosnia is a constant landscape of lush fields, and after weeks of Mediterranean climate, it felt familiar. It felt like summers throughout our lives. And there it was, the Una River showing its powers of enlightenment right off the bat.
For most of its 132 mile length, the Una is surrounded by gorgeous, untouched nature. It's as if people have known that if an eyesore was built by the Una's side, she'll punish them by reflecting their mistake back clearly and brightly. The water is remarkably glassy, its reflections are a stunning study in symmetry above and below the horizon line. It's also so so blue that when a duck glides over its surface, it's as if its tail is pulling down a zipper sewn into blue satin. Down at the very bottom, the riverbed is smooth limestone. Shelves of it can be seen raised up above the water in some spots, giving the river a unique and intriguing look. It feels more like a mountain river than a valley river. The dense forest rising up on each side, painted in the river's reflection, only adds to that feeling. It is truly beguiling.
Fish can be seen darting around in such abundance that you feel like you could just throw a net or even a hand in and come up with a shiny, slinky fellow. If it were only that easy. This fishing house, set up on stilts, stands behind a roadside restaurant named "Stari Mlini," (Old Mill). The restaurant's building, much newer, also stands in the river on stilts, between which mill wheels turn. We'd gotten out of the car to look at it and were then distracted by wildflowers and these amazing blue dragonflies with velvety indigo wings. Beyond them, we spotted the wooden relic out there alone. The green river grasses have grown up at the same rate as the structure has broken down. Even a river can sit still for a moment, this scene communicated to me. My own little lesson from the Una, from which Bosniaks have been drawing inspiration and wisdom for centuries.
Young couples sit on the banks, staring in to see how good they look together. Maybe they drop a pebble in to distort the reflection, so the rings of their two faces move in toward one another. To see what their children would look like. This young boy came to shore in his skiff, using a thick stick as a paddle. His two friends stood on a bridge above him, poking fun at his makeshift oar. This isn't to say that the locals' relationship with the Una is purely serene, contemplative, laid-back. Rafting is exceedingly popular and big, heavylooking rafts were strung upside-down to the tops of vans that past by. We saw one red tray carrying a sixpack of yellow helmets cruise by, but were a few days too late for the big spectacle that is the annual Una Regatta.
Thousands of participants from here and abroad take to the water in rafts, canoes and kayaks, conquering the many waterfalls along the Una's course. It is a non-competitive "race" that takes 3-5 days. It's a celebration of the river, a bowing down to its powers and probably just a really great time. We went to Bihać to inquire about the event, and were welcomed by a sign that read "Bihać: A City in Love with the River." There would be no point in specifying which one. The river is the Una, here and throughout Northeast Bosnia and Herzegovina. She loves this country as much as it loves her - which can only be assumed by the way she keeps bending toward it. For most of the Una's length, the river runs right along the border of Croatia and Bosnia. At three different points, though, it deviates from this clear path and curves in to the nation that adores it so much. Bihać is situated at one of these points, a very pleasant, small city/large town with short, simple bridges arching over the river and picnic tables, parks and cafes edged up to the waterside.
Many say that the people of Bihać are the most ecologically minded Bosniaks in the country. So, they don't just profess their love of the river, they really let it guide their decisions. Which is wonderful. Unlike other beautiful bodies of water we've visited recently, the underwater inhabitants of the Una are not currently at a risk of endangerment. While fly-fishing is a popular recreational activity and fishing is touted as a unique tourist experience, the licensing system is responsible. Unska pastrmka (Una river trout) are widely available on riverside menus, but larger species like carp and the prized grayling are left more to the fishermen themselves. Let them eat carp! I'm happy with pastrmka. The trout of the Una happen to be uniformly plump, pink-fleshed and delicately flavored. Trout is something that carries a huge dose of terroir and you can taste the purity of the Una. No muddiness or earthiness, these trout taste like crystal blue water.
In Bosanska Krupa, we came across the young boy pictured earlier while walking across a wood-planked bridge, trying to get a nice photo of the three yellow, red-roofed houses set on stilts above mills. Their placement is at the end of a mini peninsula, their surrounds are wholly water. Across the way, a castle sits atop a hill. Old guns, painted blue, point down directly at the quaint trio, an unfortunate coincidence. On the other side of the hill is an amazing sight. A mosque, a Catholic church and an Orthodox church stand literally side by side, or at least across the street from one another. Following the waters for a few days, visiting it at one spot or another, letting it speak to me like the locals told me to, I really felt that the wide expanse of the river right at this point had to do with that successful coexistence. There's just something very magical about the Una.