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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.