Albania is a unique country, certainly of those in Europe, in that it has an abundance of history, past and recent, as well as the greatest variety of wildlife and nature on the continent. However, despite this and its affordability and accessibility, it rarely ranks when lists of places to visit, or sites to see come up.
This may be down to a reputation it forged in the 20th Century and that it is still moving away from. For over 40 years, Enver Hoxha ruled the country as dictator, locking down the country for what was effectively the duration of the Cold War, with few other countries for allies, making it one of, if not the most isolated state in the world. Since reopening its borders to the outside world in the 1990s, the quirks that the country’s extraordinary past has left behind have been put on show for the rest of the world to see.
The bunker among the buildings in the centre of Tirana
One such landmark is the concrete defence bunker, which on its own may not seem incredibly impressive. This is especially true when compared with the likes of other Cold War-era constructions in Tirana, such as the surreal Pyramid of Tirana.
The bunkers, concrete shelters which vary in size, are built into the ground to protect whoever or whatever from whatever war or conflict may (or as it played out, may not), be happening. What is truly incredible, however, is that there are thousands of these across this small Balkan country. Estimates ranging from at least 175,000 to as many as 750,000 concrete bunkers across the length and breadth of the country. For further context, the population of Albania is less than 3 million people.
A narrow corridor in the underground bunker
Built at a time of incredible paranoia across Europe during the Cold War, exacerbated in Albania due to its isolation, Enver Hoxha had these bunkers built over the course of the 20th Century when his leadership meant that Albania was aligned to neither the West, the Soviet bloc or even the unaligned countries such as its then-neighbour Yugoslavia. Some were built to shelter individuals caught up in the moment, others within a network of winding tunnels and offices for strategic and military personnel, but seeing them as relics among whichever bit of Albania’s stunning scenery is a surreal experience and a true testament to the country’s past. Since the fall of communism in the early 1990s, a number of the bunkers have been reported to be repurposed or redecorated, some for art and some for living, either as emergency accommodation or even as beach huts.
The sheer quantity of them make for a great game of eye-spy when travelling this eclectic country. Whether you’re wandering through the mountains, the crystal clear beaches, or in or around the towns and city, these little grey domes can be seen pretty much anywhere.
A bunker nested among the trees up towards the Dajti mountain as seen from the cable car
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Tirana, Albania’s capital, plays host to the two largest and most famous, both repurposed into museums and art galleries. These are inspirationally named BunkArt 1, on the edge of the city, and BunkArt 2, in the heart of the city. These bunkers, open for a modest fee, offer a truly unique and fascinating look into Albania’s modern history, scattered with disturbing truths and anecdotal stories of the suffering of the Albanian people during the near 50 year rule of Enver Hoxha.
Read about Tirana:
- Tirana’s Dajti Mountain Cable Car: A Short Trip from Albania’s Urban Chaos to Mountain Serenity
- Pyramids in Europe: Albania’s concrete Giza
- Europe’s forgotten Mediterranean paradise: Albania at Christmas
This recent history remains a sensitive topic in the country, not widely discussed in the museums, or with the people on the streets, BunkArt offers an Albanian history lesson unlike any other.
To find out more about BunkArt, or to take a virtual tour, visit their website by clicking here!
Where is BunkArt?
… and BunkArt 2?
If you are interested in learning more about Tirana and Albania, our friends at Inspire Me World Travel provide more information on their website, as well as flexible and customisable day or package tours, transfers and everything else you might need for a simple and fascinating stay in one of Europe’s hidden gems. Click here to find out more!
Article and images by Tom McBeth & Natasha Bryan
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