Bunkers and Art in the Albanian Capital
Kasem had told us he would be about an hour late but in the end he turned up after only 40 minutes.
We spotted him parking his silver Audi A4 estate opposite the hotel before he even saw us. After apologies and introductions we piled our luggage into the back and quickly set off.
Kasem, who was in his early 40s, worked in the utilities business, gas and water mainly, and told us that he had a lot of experience working with Italian companies. In fact he claimed that his Italian was better than his English. This surprised us a little because his English was almost perfect.
Over the Border
We stopped on the outskirts of Ohrid to fill up the Audi’s tank. Kasem explained that not only was fuel more expensive in Albania (40% more), it was difficult to find a petrol station that didn’t fix the pumps to deliver less into the tank than the driver thought he was getting. He complained that such things were all too common in his own country and typical of a “business culture” that included other scams such as taxi drivers fixing their meters and bars overcharging foreigners for drinks.
We skirted the lake along its northern shore, bypassed the town of Stuga and soon arrived at the border crossing. The frontier seemed to be suffering from staffing issues because we queued, as Kasem had predicted we would, to exit North Macedonia and then queued again to enter Albania.
As we sat at the border, Kasem entertained us with stories about his experiences with immigration. The funniest was one about the Greeks refusing him entry because he had refused to call North Macedonia by its new name. I wasn’t sure if it was totally true but the way he told it was certainly entertaining.
Once back in his home country, Kasem opened up even more. He was a great conversationalist and a wealth of information. As we climbed up from the lake and then descended towards Librazhd he told us his view on the great Albanian diaspora. He said people who had emigrated in former years had done alright, but people emigrating now were often worse off in their chosen countries. Moreover, Albanian gangs operating abroad gave the country a bad name and he felt it was a constant struggle to try to get people to see Albania in a better light.
As we drove through the Albanian countryside we commented on the large amount of bunkers we were seeing everywhere. They looked broadly similar to the WW2 pillboxes often seen in the UK. Kasem told us that they all dated from Hohxa’s time and the total number was well over 750,000. They were all constructed because the regime was paranoid about being invaded by the west.
He also told us stories of his youth when, after the country had emerged from dictatorship, he and his friends used to play games in the bunkers. It sounded almost idyllic until he told us there was often TNT left in them and they used to play games with that too.
For most of the way we were driving along a river valley and we commented that the earth seemed to be a deep red colour. Kasem mentioned that chrome and other minerals used to be excavated from the area and exported. It had become uneconomic to continue though and he pointed out a couple of the former mining communities in the distance.
The closed railway line from Elbasan to Pogradec was also alongside us for much of the trip. As we passed by its various viaducts and tunnels, I came to the conclusion that it would probably have made quite a spectacular train trip.
Eventually we arrived at Elbasan, a city with a population of 140,000, and stopped outside the 15th-century fortress in the centre. Kasem took us for a walk around the castle and then onto the Via Egnatia: an ancient Roman road linking Durres with Istanbul.
He told us that the city had originally been known as Scampis and then explained the role it had played in the development of the language of Albania. Elbasan had been the location of the first teacher training college for the Albanian tongue. There were statues and memorials to commemorate the pioneers who had contributed to independence and to the creation of modern written Albanian.
We found a lovely little tavern near the castle walls and then had a wonderful lunch of local Elbasan cuisine. We ate Elbasan Tava (actually famous as Tavë kosi around the whole country) which was a dish based on lamb and rice baked in a casserole. We tried a cheese version of the same basic dish too.
For dessert there was Kabuni: rice braised with neck of lamb and then flavoured with spices and served mixed with raisins. It tasted a lot nicer than it sounds.
The restaurant owner explained how he decorated the interior with local artefacts and visited surrounding villages to get new items. He expressed his sadness that more and more of the young people he encountered in rural Albania were ready to abandon the lifestyle of their parents and head for the city.
Kasem added that rural communities were suffering because local roads were not getting built due to corruption. He also mentioned that as Albania is a candidate country for the EU 100% of its laws are now compliant with Europe. He joked that due to the endemic corruption only about 30% of them were actually obeyed. He wasn’t a fan of the European Union and didn’t think that Albania would fare well if it ever managed to join.
Coffee in the garden
After we had left Elbasan, Kasem asked us if would like to stop off to meet his grandmother. She normally lived with him and his wife and kids in a large house in Tirana (typical of many multi-generational families in Albania) but at the moment she was staying with his aunt and uncle in a nearby village. He added that it was actually the place where he had been born. We were honoured to accept his invitation.
The family owned a vineyard and ran a butchers shop. We spent a very enjoyable hour with them. We picked grapes off the vines and then sat in the garden eating them whilst drinking Turkish coffee and chatting to his wonderful 86 year old granny. In the shed behind us his uncle was busy slaughtering a veal calf. It was all wonderful stuff and one of the highlights of the trip.
Just before we got back to Tirana we made one last stop at Petrela Castle. We parked the car and walked up the steep path to the castle at the top of a hill.
The 15th century castle was part of the signalling system for Kruja and played a role in Skanderbeg’s struggle for Albania. It was actually run at one time by his sister. The view from the top, with the outskirts of Tirana in the background, was spectacular.
Part of the castle had been renovated and turned into a restaurant. As we descended the path back to the car we all debated whether that was a good thing or not. We came to the conclusion that it probably was.
Kasem deposited us back at our hotel in Tirana just before 6pm. We thanked him and took him up on his offer to take us to the airport at the end of our stay.
Bunk Art 1
The taxi driver who took us out of the city the next morning didn’t speak much English. He did manage to tell us that as his son was living in Manchester all of the family were now Manchester City supporters.
We were heading to one of Tirana’s suburbs to visit “Bunk Art 1“. It was to be the first stop on a little itinerary I had created that aimed to discover more about Enver Hoxha and his 1945-1988 regime.
Sad to say, but when I was growing up in the UK in the 1970s the only thing I knew about Albania was that it was a secretive Stalinist dictatorship. Now, having visited and found a warm welcoming people, fantastic scenery and wonderful food, I am glad to say I know a whole lot more.
Yet, I was still curious to learn about what life was like in the country during this dark chapter of its history. Given the amount of museums on the subject, it seemed the Albanians were keen to tell the story too.
The Bunk Art 1 museum was housed in a former bunker. The structure was built in the 1970s to house Hoxha and his cabinet in a nuclear attack and it had remained a secret for much of its existence. Now it hosted exhibits that combined history with pieces of contemporary art. Hence the name – “Bunk Art“.
Just arriving at the bunker was quite an exciting experience; we went through a long, dark concrete-lined tunnel cut in the hillside and emerged next to the entrance of a still-active Albanian military base.
After buying tickets from a little hut, we walked up a wooded path past a gas mask-fitted doll guarding the entrance. There were all sorts of intimidating warning signs outside the entrance. We were informed that we were about to descend 5 stories down through the bunker and told what to do if the power suddenly failed.
Inside the bunker itself there was quite an eerie atmosphere. There were lots of heavy metal hatches to climb through and several decontamination chambers. We wandered through the furnished rooms intended for the communist elite and on through endless corridors with dozens of smaller rooms where support staff would have been housed. Every so often we descended to another level. The whole thing took about 90 minutes to negotiate.
The various rooms were used to tell the story of Albania under Hoxha. The story began with the 1939 Italian invasion and ended with the overthrow of communism in the 1990s.
There were various methods used to tell the story; in many of the rooms there were just photographs, artifacts and documents on display, but there were also recreated apartments and shops using furniture and fittings from the 1960s. In one room there was was even a simulated gas attack using coloured steam.
Towards the end we came to a large underground assembly hall, designed for Hoxha’s government in hiding, but now used for concerts.
It was all fascinating stuff and very educational.
If you trust Trip Advisor, Bunk Art 1 is the top attraction in all of Tirana. Several of the other sites that are associated with Hoxha are also in the top 10. Bunk Art 2, back in the centre of the city, is actually second on the list.
Bunk Art 2
We managed to visit Bunk Art 2 as well. It was located in a separate underground tunnel system below the Ministry of Internal Affairs. It had a narrower focus than Bunk Art 1 and it reconstructed the history of the Albanian Ministry of Internal Affairs from 1912 to 1991 revealing the secrets of the Sigurimi: the political police who were used by Hoxha’s regime.
House of Leaves
Across the main square from Bunk Art 2 was a building known as the “House of Leaves” (because of the plant covering its facade). It was the home of the Sigurimi for many years but now it housed the Museum of Secret Surveillance. We went there too. It had an even narrower focus and concentrated on the use of surveillance by the Sigurimi.
Each of the 30 rooms had a different story to tell about the different forms of surveillance used. There were also vivid and harrowing details about the arrests, internments, torture and severe punishments (many for innocent people) which resulted from the surveillance. It was actually quite fascinating and perhaps more moving than either of the Bunk Art locations. Fittingly, it is dedicated to all the victims.
We then walked around to one building that was actually intended as a memorial to the achievements of Hoxha. The Pyramid was co-designed by his daughter and opened in 1988 -3 years after his death. It was, at the time, the most expensive individual structure ever constructed in Albania. Today it is a derelict ruin.
It has had several uses since the change of regime. There have been plans to knock it down but apparently it is now destined to become a computer learning centre for young people.
Around the corner from the Pyramid was the quirky Komiteti bar. It was dedicated to a kind of “nostalgia” for days gone by and decorated with old radios and posters. Across town, the Bunker 1944 bar (which we visited later) offered a similar experience and it was located in a real bunker.
Finally on the Hoxha theme, we visited the little Postbllok Checkpoint park dedicated to the victims of totalitarianism. It was situated just in front of the main parliamentary offices. There was a piece of the Berlin Wall on display, but much more poignantly there was the chance to get inside one of the little bunkers that we had been seeing everywhere in the countryside.
In an attempt to rise above (literally) Albania’s dark past, we took a ride on the “Dajti Express”. This Austrian-built cable car took us from a suburb of Tirana high up onto the Dajti mountain.
The journey took just 15 minutes and the views were quite spectacular. At the top we found a grill restaurant and we joined in with the traditional local Saturday feast of spit roasted lamb, chips, salad and red wine. It was outstanding.
Like most people who visit Tirana, we were totally amazed at the sheer number of bars and cafes in the city. Kasem had told us that the city has the highest number of bars per capita in Europe. He had also told us that a lot of them are probably there as a source of money laundering for the gangs.
Whatever the reason, the result is that street after street is lined with bars and cafes. Most of them seem to be bustling with people all day long. Although surprisingly almost none of these bars served much in the way of food.
Some of the best bars were located in Blloku. Ironic because it was once the neighbourhood reserved for senior members of the communist party. These days it is the trendiest area of Tirana. In Blloku we walked past Hoxha’s official house. Once it was strictly off limits, but now it is surrounded by clubs and bars pumping out loud dance music.
What would the man himself have thought about modern Tirana?
As we set off with Kasem to the airport we talked about the future of the country. He told us he was generally optimistic. I told him that we had a fantastic time not least because we had found the local people to be amazingly friendly. We thought the place had a great future as a tourist destination.
“We just need to work harder on our tourist infrastructure, stop ripping visitors off and provide people with a nice holiday so they will come back again.”
It is hard to disagree with that.