Albania - beyond the bunkers


If bunkers are your thing, Albania has them in abundance. But how many exactly? Every source I check gives a different number. While visiting, we were told 180,000 were planned during the Cold War but fewer were built. Atlasobscura states there are 750,000; a BBC report from 2014 says ‘up to 700,000’, while Wikipedia offers 173,371.

Anyway, there are a lot. Small domes, dotted randomly across the landscape, in towns, on beaches and beside main roads. Their mushroom shape reminds me of a spaceship from a Spielberg film and my first close encounter with one is on Mount Dajti just outside Tirana.

“Cable car? Mount Dajti?” we ask a taxi driver, hopefully. Furrowing his brow, he nods and sets off confidently in the wrong direction.

We point at our map and a guidebook picture of a cable car. He scratches his head, pulls over, rings his student son and hands the phone to my son, Alex. Through this younger generation intermediary, we learn that a cable car is ‘telereferik’. It becomes our Albanian word of the day.

The telereferik ride takes twenty minutes, soaring high above farms and hamlets, mostly smooth but sometimes bumpy as we crest minor summits. At the cable car station exit stands a smart hotel and restaurant set in gardens with breath-taking panoramic views over Tirana. We stroll a few hundred metres further on and arrive in a land that time forgot: sad, rundown hotels with locked gates dating from Enver Hoxha’s days when holidays in the mountains were reserved for people chosen by party officials. Just outside an abandoned hotel I’m excited to stumble upon my first bunker, painted in jaunty shades of blue.

​The term ‘bunker mentality’ could have been coined in Hoxha’s Albania. My dictionary defines it as “An attitude of extreme defensiveness and self-justification based on an often-exaggerated sense of being under persistent attack from others.” It’s said that Hoxha forced the engineer who invented the bunker to test his design by standing inside one while a tank blasted it! When Albania regained freedom, bunkers were seen as a symbol of oppression but now they form part of a quirky heritage helping explain recent history. Some have been converted into snack bars or storage units and painted vibrant colours.

While the mushroom-style bunkers are bijou, a vast subterranean bunker complex in Tirana extends over five floors and is buried 330 feet deep. Recently reinvented as Bunk’Art, a museum and cultural space, this is where Hoxha and his close associates intended to sit out an enemy nuclear attack.

We approach through an echoing tunnel, where ethereal music plays and water drips atmospherically from the ceiling. This creeping sensation continues as we tramp through overgrown parkland, passing abandoned children’s play equipment from the 1950s. We are the first visitors of the day and we trek in silence down concrete stairs and along narrow corridors, past signs warning us what to do if the lights fail. The offices and bedrooms of Hoxha and his prime minister, Mehmet Shehu are on display, austere, but fully-equipped for war with innocent-looking vintage radios, phones and typewriters.  

A warren of rooms leading off underground corridors exhibits recent history. Partisans and war heroes, smiling faces of female manual workers, monotonous black and white photographs of men in long overcoats, Italian-designed civic buildings from the 1930s and fascinating reconstructed room sets from a communist-era home. At the core of the building, a vast hall designed as a meeting place for ministers, has been converted into a venue for jazz concerts. But it’s hard to ignore a chill that hovers in the air, more oppressive than simple damp.

A second Bunk’Art has recently opened in central Tirana and this one has a truly chilling backstory. Illuminated faces gaze down on us from the walls and roof of the bunker’s dome: men and women, young and old, ministers of religion from every faith. This is where opponents of the regime were interrogated and tortured. Hoxha saw religion as a threat to his authority. Places of worship were destroyed, priests imprisoned and religion outlawed.

Today, the pendulum has swung back. Albania is a secular country but freedom of religion is protected under the Constitution. A majority identify as Muslims, a legacy from centuries of Ottoman occupation, but there are significant Catholic and Orthodox Christian minorities, followers of other religions and none. Yet outward signs of religious affinity are few and faith is no barrier to relationships. During our visit, our Albanian friend, who described himself as Muslim ‘on paper’, attended a Christian service at the Orthodox cathedral with his fiancée and her parents. Perhaps the legacy of a bunker mentality has recreated Albania as one of the most religiously tolerant societies in the world.

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