So I woke up with a rather sour stomach. I’m not sure what I ate, but decided to go light on breakfast and start drinking massive amounts of water. By 10:00 a.m., I was ready to go and Gasie and I jumped in the SUV to head just outside the city to the former hidden bunkers, now turned museum, known as Bunk’Art.
Now Bunk’Art turned out to be an incredibly fascinating place. In 1971, Albania’s communist leader Enver Hoxha started a program of “bunkerization”, which was a plan to construct 207,000 bunkers all over Albania. (Ultimately, they ONLY constructed about 168,0000.). The bunkers were built over 8 years by construction workers, prisoners and solders, hundreds of whom died during construction.
Now Bunk’Art is the actual bunker that was built for Albania’s political elite, including communist leader Enver Hoxha. Construction of the project began in 1972. It took three years to dig the bunker and build the walls and another three years to complete the infrastructure. The completed bunker is 2,685 square metres, encompasses 5 levels and includes 106 rooms used for housing, communications, strategy and meetings. In addition, there were apparently tunnels connecting the bunker to various parts of the city. Significantly, the location of Bunk’Art was hidden for years. In fact, the plans for the construction of the bunker where not even released to the public until 2015.
And the drive to reach the site was something else. We had to drive through a long, narrow tunnel constructed in the hillside. Once through the tunnel, we got out of the car and walked up a small hill to the entrance of the bunker.
Inside, we had to pass through 3 decontamination chambers with each room fronted by a massive steel door. After the third chamber there was a place where a guard would “measure” you to make sure you were decontaminated, and if not, you were not permitted to enter. This was only the beginning of the communist regime’s paranoia about a potential invasion of Albania.
We then passed a sign commemorating Albania’s liberation following World War II and walked down a hallway to the first of many, many rooms. Of course, the first room was the command center and living quarters for Enver Hoxha. There was a secretarial area, working room and a bedroom and bathroom.
We then continued to follow the hallway passing by rooms dedicated to weaponry, communications and living quarters for other politicians.
In other parts of the bunker there was a written, pictorial and video history of Albania spanning from 1939 through the end of communism. The history detailed the invasion of the Italians and rise of fascism to the German takeover during World War II and finally liberation at the end of the war and the resulting rise of communism under Enver Hoxha, whose paranoid version of communism lead him to barb wire all of the borders of Albania to prevent any migration out of Albania.
We wandered through room after room of pictures of the war, Enver Hoxha’s rise to power, the many death tribunals Hoxha instituted for anyone who crossed him, including priests, immams, intellects, professors and civilians who did not support communism.
And to make sure everyone towed the line, sham elections were periodically held where each citizen had to vote with a coin. There were two wooden boxes, one box for the communists and one for a “no name party”. If your coin did not make a noise in the communist box, the communists knew you were not a supporter. Yikes!
There was also a room dedicated to the death of Enver Hoxha in 1985 complete with pictures of crying children, crying military and crying adults. There were pictures of the massive state funeral as well as a video on a T.V. showing the funeral. Just six short years later, the communists were overthrown and Albania began several years of turmoil before its current democratic process was instituted.
As we neared the end of the bunker, we walked down another flight of stairs to visit the grand and massive Assembly Room, complete with red velvet chairs and a large stage. On one side the room there were pictures of Enver Hoxha and his band of merry men enjoying the good life drinking fine French wines, wearing Italian suits and eating large meals. On the other side of the room there were picture of ordinary Albanians in bread lines. I’m pretty sure these pictures were not here when Hoxha was alive.
Anyway, we made our way back to the entrance, which was remarkably easy since we had come almost full circle. We then drove through the very familiar “sh*t show” that is Albanian traffic. Pedestrians just walk out in the middle of the street without waiting for cars. Bikes weave in and out amongst the cars. And people try to merge into traffic by simply jamming up the lanes waiting for someone to let the in. It is an incredible mess.
We finally reached my hotel around noon and parked the car. We would be finishing the short day tour today with a walk around the historic part of Tirana. The area was close to my hotel and turned out to be remarkably small. We walked past bars, cafes, stores and shops, where consumerism was on full display to reach the massive Skanderbeg Square which dominates the center of the city. I found it interesting that on one side of the square there was a clock tower, a mosque and a statute of Skanderbeg and on the other side of the square there was National Museum (built of course during the communist era) replete with communist propaganda on the façade.
We walked away from the square and over one of the many bridges crossing the Lanë river, which runs through the middle of Tirana. One of the important post-communism acts was to widen the boulevards in the city and construct bridges over the river to ensure that the river would continue to flow.
After the bridge, we passed by a monument that was constructed to the memory of Enver Hoxha. At one point, it was supposed to be his mausoleum, but when communism fell, the plans were scrapped and the building fell into disrepair. Some folks think the building should be preserved since it is part of Albania’s history. I tend to agree.
We moved on from the wacky looking Hoxha monument to the government buildings, including a memorial to fallen police officers and the officer of the Prime Minister. I only saw two police officers guarding the building so I guess there’s not a lot of concern about break-ins or violence against the Prime Minister.
Now one interesting site we saw outside the Prime Minister’s office was a group of young people holding signs including “#Friday for Future” and “System Change not Climate Change”. I immediately knew that these young people were participating in the world wide movement started by 16 year old Greta Thunberg to motivate politicians to do something about climate change. Today was the day kids all around the world were uniting in protest. Good for them. Now, Gasie is clearly a glass half empty kind of guy. He did not see the point. And while he acknowledged you have to start somewhere, he thought there was simply too much waste and hypocrisy by green movements to accomplish anything. Good Grief!
After that, we crossed the street headed to what once was a walled region of the city where all the high ranking communists lived. The region had been surrounded by thick concrete walls and barbed wire, with guards armed with instructions to shoot any intruder. There were at least three bunkers I could see all of which were connected by tunnels. Gasie told me that there are likely tunnels all over the place under the streets of Tirana. Now that would be a tour I would love to take.
Anyway, we circled back around, crossed yet another bridge over the Lanë river, walked through an upscale part of Tirana past an Orthodox Church before arriving back at Skanderbeg Square. From there is was a short ten minute walk to the hotel.
Once at the hotel, Gasie left me for the day and I took a walk through a pedestrian promenade near my hotel were there were lots of cool little restaurants and a rather large green market. By now it was close to 3:00. I had not eaten so I stopped and had some lunch (in case you hadn’t guessed it, I have not found Albanian food nearly as tasty as Macedonian food) and then headed back to the hotel for a rest. Tomorrow we head to the southern portion of Albania and towards the Ionian Sea.