Meet the Famous Bunkers of Albania From the Iron Curtain Era

Have you ever heard about the bunkers of Albania? Their story might just interest you.
Christopher McFadden

How much do you know about Albania? Perhaps you'll know where it is geographically, or that its capital is Tirana, but have you heard about their bunkers

Here we'll explore some of the most interesting things about the country, and take a peek one of their most ubiquitous landmarks — thousands upon thousands of tiny concrete bunkers. 


What is Albania famous for?

Albania, located next to Greece, Macedonia, Kosovo, and Montenegro, is fast becoming a popular tourist attraction. Its capital is Tirana, and it commonly attracts beachgoers and food lovers who are drawn to the nation's fascinating mix of beauty, history, and rich cultural heritage. 

The country has seen a lot of change after winning its independence from the Ottoman Empire  108 years ago in 1912. 

facts about Albania
Source: Etrit Bardhi/Flickr

But what is it actually famous for? Well, there are some notable things about the country that it is best known for. 

1. Albanians love to take evening strolls called "xhiro". These nighttime rambles are used as an excuse to not only stretch their legs but also chit chat with their friends, family, and neighbors. 

2. When greeting you, Albanians tend to shake their head. When they disagree with you they will often nod their head. 

3. Albania is a majority Muslim nation with Sunnis and Bektashi Shia making up around 58% of the population. Most of the remaining population are Christian. 

4. Albania has a lot of scarecrows — which can sometimes be seen in very odd places. Traditionally, some scarecrows were placed to ward off the envy of neighbors when erecting a new building. 

5. At the time of the Iron Curtain's collapse, there were only around 3,000 cars in the country which had a population of roughly three million people then.

6. The highest point in the country is Maja e Korabit or Golem Korab. Standing at around 8,850 ft (2,700 mt) tall, its peak sits directly on the border with Macedonia. It attracts many tourists who love hiking and climbing. 

albania bunkers hills
Some examples of Albania's famous concrete bunkers. Source: Monika/Flickr

7. The nation's capital Tirana is one of the few capitals in Europe that doesn't have a McDonalds. 

8. It is estimated that more Albanians actually live outside the country than in it today. It is estimated that around seven to ten million Albanians live throughout Europe and only three million live in their native country. 

9. The most popular alcoholic drink in the country is Raki or rakija. Made from grapes, this highly potent drink is commonly made at home. A hangover — pun intended — from the nation's time under the Ottoman Empire, this drink is popular throughout the Balkans, Greece, and, of course, Turkey. 

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10. The Albanian traditional dress is made of wool, cotton, and silk and usually features embroidered patterns such as a silver or gold Albanian Eagle. Many other symbols are also common, including moons, stars, suns, and snakes. 

Which country has the most bunkers?

Since you're reading this article you won't be surprised to hear that the country with the most bunkers per area is Albania. Built during the 40-year-long Communist rule of Enver Hoxha, the bunkers were built to repel potential invasions. 

example of albanian bunkers
A good example of the many concrete bunkers that litter the countryside in Albania. Source: Fingalo/Wikimedia Commons

Hoxha led the country from 1944 until his death in 1985 and the bunkers formed part of his policy of isolationism from both the Soviet Union and NATO nations. For this reason, he had very real fears of invasion from all sides. To combat this hypothetical threat, Hoxha built the bunkers laid out in lines, spreading from central command bunkers.

The bunkers formed part of the Communist leader's plan for a "people's war," based on the experience of Albanian resistance during the Second World War that Hoxha led. Each concrete structure was reinforced with steel and iron, and they ranged in size from two-person gunner boxes to massive domes with huge underground networks for high-ranking party members and military staff. 

Thankfully they were never actually needed. By 1983, somewhere in the region of over 175,000 had been erected. 

Albanian bunkers in city
Another example of a bunker on street in Shkodër, Albania. Source: Jeroenvrp/Wikimedia Commons

The bunkers were built under the ruling parties "bunkerizimi" (bunkerization) program when the country was still named the People's Republic of Albania. The program was so large that it drained away precious resources from other key areas of the economy, like housing and infrastructure. Today many of the bunkers are finding completely new leases of life as museums, restaurants, and other leisure outlets. Built from concrete, there are so many of them in the country that are pretty much a ubiquitous part of the landscape.

Smaller bunkers are laid out in lines that radiate out, within visual distance of a large command bunker that would have been permanently manned. Commanders would, in theory, communicate via radio, and visual signals would be sent out to the small bunkers through slits in the bunkers. 

To help man the bunkers in case of attack, many civilians were also drafted into the army and trained to defend the nation if necessary. In many instances, civilians were trained from the age of 12 to seek shelter in these bunkers if an attack should ever materialize. 

Civilians were also drafted to clean and maintain their local bunkers, and defense drills were carried out regularly. 

According to some estimates, there are around 5.7 bunkers for every square kilometer of the country. Following the fall of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the Albanian Communist regime, the bunkers were abandoned and left to dilapidate. 

Albanian bunkers larger
A larger Albanian bunker located on the border with Macedonia. Source: ILMOTOREDIRICERCA/Wikimedia Commons

The most common type is small, 9.8 foot (3 m) diameter concrete domes with a circular bottom extending down to the ground. These were just large enough to house two armed soldiers and were prefabricated and transported into place. 

In some places, usually along the coastline, these bunkers were built in groups of three, with a narrow reinforced concrete tunnel connecting them together. Most of the bunkers were designed by the military engineer Josif Zagali, who served with the Partisans during WW2. He later trained in the Soviet Union. He noted how domed structures were excellent at withstanding artillery fire and bombs. Using this knowledge, he set about designing these now-ubiquitous structures. 

The larger command bunkers tend to measure around 26 feet (8 meters) in diameter and are made of a series of prefabricated concrete slices. Each one weighs in at around 8 to 9 tons and the slices are connected together to form an interlocking dome structure. 

plan of an Albanian bunker
Diagram of a "Qender Zjarri" type of Albanian bunker. Source: Elian Stefa and Gyler Mydyti/Wikimedia Commons

When fully assembled, these structures weigh somewhere in the region of 350 to 400 tons each.

Other large bunker and tunnel designs also exist. They are more like complexes than bunkers actually. These structures were tunneled into mountains. In Linza, near Tirana, a large network of tunnels runs for around 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) and was built to protect the Interior Ministry and the Albanian secret police. 

Some of these were used during the Albanian insurrection in 1997 as well as the Kosovo War of 1999. During the latter, civilians would use them as shelter to escape the heavy shelling that became so common during the war. 

Today, the vast majority are completely derelict, apart from the few interesting exceptions we will discuss in a little while. Some are even being raided for scrap metal by scavengers. 

plans of albanian bunkers
Diagram of the larger "PIke Zjarri" bunkers. Source: Elian Stefa and Gyler Mydyti/Wikimedia Commons

The bunkers have since been granted protected status by the Albanian government in an effort to protect this part of the nation's tumultuous history. 

What are the Albania bunkers used for today?

More than a quarter of a century after the death of Hoxha and the collapse of communism in Albania, many of the larger bunkers have found new uses for various forms of entertainment and other uses. Some are now used as sheep barns, bars, public toilets, museums, hotels, and even homes.

One of the most impressive of the structures is a huge, five-story underground hideout on the outskirts of Tirana. Built to protect the country's elites in case of a nuclear attack, this massive structure is now something of a tourist attraction. 

It has been converted into a cultural space where exhibitions, performances, and concerts are held regularly. Called "Bunk'Art", it has gained so much popularity that it is officially one of the most popular tourist sights in the area. 

bunkart albanian bunker
A view inside "Bunk'Art". Source: Bunk'Art

A similar space has also been opened in Tirana by "Bunk'Art's" owner. This second converted nuclear bunker called "Bunk'Art 2", used to belong to the Ministry of Internal Affairs. 

One interesting story about the reuse of these bunkers is that of Kujtim Roçi. As reported by Euro News, in 1992 he converted one into a small beachside business in the coastal town of Golem. 

First converting it into a small bar, the enterprise was a gamble during the tough times after the collapse of the communist regime. Many of his friends scoffed at the plan, but his business soon started to grow. It became a restaurant shortly after and later grew into a multi-story hotel. 

Many others have refurbished or decorated by local artists in a bid to change the view of these bunkers from visible symbols of past horrific times to useful symbols of positivity and prosperity.

For example, The Treffpunkt Bunker project involves revitalizing a bunker on a hill overlooking Tirana. The project, led by a group of German students, gathered together several Albanian artists who each painted and re-designed different parts of the bunker. 

albanian bunkers painted
Another bunker in Fier, Albania. Source: Monika/Flickr

Other interesting uses abound for the many Albanian bunkers dotted around the country. Local architect Arnen Sula is interested in exploring different uses for the remaining structures, including converting them into tattoo parlors and animal shelters. 

“It shows the anger people had with our communist past and our economic difficulties so that they took everything they could from them like furnishings, electrical wires, air filtration materials, or even the bricks,” he explains to Euro News.

He passionately believes that bunkers that are still in good condition should be seen as a precious resource that could be the key to developing the Albanian economy. By transforming them into indoor farming areas, cold storage facilities, cinemas, hostels, exhibitions halls, workshops, and whatnot, they might be just what struggling Albanian citizens need. 

“It would increase employment, boost tourism, and generate the economy of the areas where bunkers are located,“ Sula added.

So, if you ever find yourself in Albania, you might want to check out these fascinating structures for yourself. Since there are plenty lying around, you should have little trouble finding one near where you stay or visit. 

You might even want to see some of the more interesting reimaginations of them too?

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