The exact number of military bunkers strewn across Albania is a matter of debate. Depending on who you ask, the tally ranges from around 175,000 to some 750,000 of the burrowed, cement-and-steel, pod-like lookouts meant to protect this country on the Balkan Peninsula in southeastern Europe. The reason for this discrepancy is cryptically sinister: The mushroom-shaped cabins were built with Cold War secrecy, in the 1970s and 1980s, by a paranoia-fuelled regime. That was then. Today, three decades removed from Communist dictator Enver Hoxha, who ruled from 1944 to 1985, citizens see the omnipresent bunkers as painful reminders of a difficult past, to be sure. However, Albanians, resourceful by nature, are flipping the script, and giving the objects new lives as restaurants, bars, cafés, and even museums.
From the air, the turreted bunkers look like braille characters spilled across the landscape—embossed dots scattered in every corner of the country. The structures hide in valleys, blossom from mountainsides, and sprout along shorelines, slapped over and over by the Adriatic Sea. (A commonly used figure estimates 2.2 bunkers per square mile. Albania is nearly half the size of West Virginia.) They come in an array of sizes. A few dozen acted as command centres with mazes of rooms to wait out any war. Many served as tiny one- or two-person sentry posts. Nominally, the “pillboxes” were constructed to keep an eye on an ever-changing list of potential exterior enemies. The reality: Their raison d’être was to solidify a collective, internal, national fear.
“The vast number of bunkers shows how militarised and paranoid Albania had become during Hoxha’s rule,” says Vjeran Pavlakovic, a Cultural Studies professor at Croatia’s University of Rijeka. Pavlakovic focuses on collective memory in the Balkans. “Rather than invest in education and economic development, the regime allocated resources to isolate itself. However, post-communist Albania has proven itself ready to embrace bold interventions to deal with this architectural legacy, preserve heritage, and innovatively use an otherwise idle resource.”
Examples of that innovative repurposing can be found all over the country. There's a bunker-cum-tattoo parlour in Shkodër, a hamburger joint in Kavajë, and a 20-room hotel on the coast in Golem. In Tirana, Albania's capital, two museums have acted as standard-bearers for the conversion concept. Bunk’Art, Hoxha’s atomic bunker, received more than 70,000 guests during the first two months it was open in 2014. The exhibition space, which includes Hoxha’s chamber, shines a light on “the daily lives of Albanians during the regime's years.” About a 20-minute drive away, in the city centre, Bunk’Art 2 was opened in 2016. It’s 24 rooms served as the Interior Ministry’s atomic shelter.
“Bunk'Art 1 and Bunk'Art are places of memory in which both Albanians and tourists can scour the secrets of a regime and revive the past and the suffering of a people,” says Carlo Bollino, Bunk’Art’s general curator. “[To] transform as a tourist attraction … is also a way to compensate the country for the monetary, political cost and in terms of human lives paid for [the bunkers’] construction.”
Based in Zagreb, Alex Crevar writes for National Geographic Travel, among other publications. Follow him on Twitter. Australian photographer Robert Hackman travelled around Albania for the past several years, documenting the country's transition.
Lead Image: On the edge of Lake Ohrid, a Greek Orthodox shrine hides inside a bunker in Lin. PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT HACKMAN