Out of Albania: Invasion of the mushroom bunkers

KAVAJE - Albania is the sort of place that makes surrealists weep for joy. It is possible that in other countries waiters park their bicycles in hotel restaurants, but surely not when the restaurant is indoors on an upper floor? Such, however, is the practice at the Hotel Tirana in Albania's capital.

It was equally intriguing to see, on the road south from Tirana to Gjirokaster, that an enterprising private salesman of hand-woven rugs had draped his wares on the lower rungs of an electricity pylon.

For sheer lunacy, though, nothing beats the hundreds of thousands of dome-shaped bunkers that pit Albania's landscape like a form of demented concrete acne. These structures were the brainwave of the late dictator Enver Hoxha, who ruled Albania with a merciless grip from 1944 to 1985. His achievements included the deliberate and systematic isolation of Albania from almost the whole world, the abolition of religion and the prohibition of private ownership of cars.

They also included the mass construction of bunkers, a programme which began in the early 1970s and expanded like an uncontrollable hysteria. Eventually, all except the most remote and mountainous areas of Albania were covered, and the country now looks like a desolate moon bombarded by large concrete mushrooms from outer space.

It had long been my ambition to step inside one of Hoxha's bunkers. The Amazon river, Tahiti and the North Pole would have to wait, I'd decided, until I had contemplated the world, if only for a few minutes, from the mysterious depths of a concrete Albanian shell. In Hoxha's time the fulfilment of this ambition would have resulted in immediate arrest, for the ostensible purpose of the bunkers was to provide for Albania's military defence. Now that Communism has gone, the bunkers are available for all to investigate.

The initial problem was which bunker to select for entry. There is a rich choice. Hoxha's bunkers can be divided into four categories. The first consists of bunkers located near what might be considered strategic points, such as factories, railway lines, main roads, harbours and bridges. The second comprises bunkers in towns, where they are fixed at street corners or next to houses, apartment blocks, newspaper kiosks and cafes.

The third consists of bunkers on the coast. At the Adriatic resort of Durres, there is a particularly strange crop rising up in the middle of the beach. Families now use them to put drinks and belongings in the shade, and children clamber over them.

The fourth category comprises bunkers in the countryside, and it was here that I elected to venture into the unknown. Still, the choice was varied. Not every bunker is the same size, shape or colour. All are grey but are some have an extra rusty red hue. Some are so small that only one soldier or armed civilian patriot could fit inside. Others can house two people, while the largest can accommodate perhaps ten.

There is also, these days, the problem of decay. Some bunkers have subsided into the ground, so that only their tops are visible, like bald men's crowns. Other bunkers are submerged in rocks and rubble. Still others are overgrown with weeds and bushes. In fact, most bunkers in the countryside need a good trim around the slits through which the defenders of Albania were meant to poke their guns.

But if you drive around long enough, and eschew the bunkers that have donkeys standing at their entrances, and those in the middle of fields of ripening maize, then you will find a few that remain in good nick. A typical bunker looks like the upper one-third of a Dalek from the Dr Who series, turned upside down, scooped out and somewhat flattened. At its side there is a short concrete tunnel, sometimes cylindrical, sometimes obloid in shape. If you imagined a pipe turned on its head, then the path into a Hoxha bunker requires you to crawl through the stem until you enter the inverted bowl itself.

Just south of Tirana, near the town of Kavaje, I saw the bunker I had been waiting for. It was a small, compact bunker for one, with a well-cropped exterior. It stood next to an abandoned kiosk and overlooked a field of no military significance whatsoever. No people, only sheep were in view, but I felt rather self-conscious as I took my first steps into Enver Hoxha's concrete vision of Albanian independence.

From my first moment inside, I realised that I had made a fatal mistake. It was black as hell, and flies buzzed furiously around several noxious deposits of animal dung. I reeled back from the fetor, and banged my head painfully on the concrete wall. Crawling outside, I was blinded by the ferocious Albanian sun. As I struggled to regain my senses, it occurred to me that perhaps this was Hoxha's way of neutralising the enemy.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special
tvCould Mrs Brown's Boys have taken lead for second year?
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
news
Sport
Chelsea midfielder Cesc Fabregas
footballChelsea vs West Ham live kicks off coverage of all 10 of Boxing Day matches
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all