They were everywhere: gray domes surrounded by green grass, either in rows or scattershot across the landscape. Viewed from high mountain roads they had the appearance of large rocks; up close, traveling under ones that hugged hillsides, they looked like huge boulders that might fall.
They never lost their strangeness to me.
I first saw them on the road south from Durrës , heading to Vlore: one, then three, then a half dozen. After this they became more conspicuous, and I noted the different sizes, the small pillboxes and the ones as large as Quonset huts, all with gun slits. The oddest sight was to see them in the pretty valleys, in miniature, maybe a dozen of them in a row, like a small army encampment. I could not shake the impression that they looked more martian than militant, like a refuge for a character in a Bradbury novel.
These concrete bunkers, which everyone who traveled to Albania noticed, were the work of Enver Hoxha, surely a standout among the megalomaniacal whack jobs that ruled during the communist era. Hoxha seemed particularly afraid of the outside world, and had roughly 700,000 of these bunkers built — in theory, one for every Albanian family — in case of an invasion.
Many things the traveler encountered in Albania could some how be traced back to Hoxha’s brutal, paranoid 40-year rule, when he effectively sealed Albania’s doors to the rest and turned off its porch lights.”He spent all our money on these bunkers and defense,” said Leos, a bartender in the coastal town of Himare, where I was having a drink one afternoon in a bar called Manolo’s.
I was the only customer.
Manolo himself had just scooped out a helping of spicy shrimp salad from a Tupperware container and presented it to me. I had mentioned, with some marvel, the nonstop construction I had seen farther up the coast.
“Everything has been built in the last eight years,” Leos said.
“Why only these years?” I asked.
“Before nothing was happening. You still had this Hoxha mentality everywhere.”
Hoxha died in 1985. Yet here was Leos, citing the man as the excuse for the ways things were today.
Not that the country still clung to Hoxha.
The huge Hoxha statue that once dominated Skanderbeg Square in downtown Tirana was torn down, replaced with, well, nothing except a lot of space for kids to ride small electric go-carts.
But in many other ways, his legacy remained.
There were the bunkers, of course, the most ubiquitous leftovers of the Hoxha era. (Though some have been turned into rather creative things: Outside Shkoder one day, I saw a bunker that had been transformed into a tattoo studio).
The bunkers were just one component of Hoxha’s aim to arm the entire country against enemy invaders. Gun training used to be a part of school, I was told, and every family was expected to have a cache of weapons. Soon, Albania became awash in guns and other armaments — and the country is still dealing with that today, not just in its reputation as a center for weapons trading but in its efforts to finally decommission huge stockpiles of ammunition as part of its new NATO obligations.
Albania’s industrial complex has never really recovered from Hoxha’s death and, seven years later, the official fall of communism. That milestone was met by whole populations of Albanians who went around the country literally setting factories and manufacturing centers ablaze. The hollowed husks of some of those buildings could still be seen.
Hoxha had outlawed the anachronistic practice of blood feuding. But after communism the state weakened, grew more corrupt and lawless, and the justice system, reinventing itself anew, began failing at bringing criminals to account. Today, blood feuding was back in a big way, with around 1,600 families living in hiding around the country.
Even Albania’s drivers, among the most reckless I had ever seen, could be explained at least in part by Hoxha: He had generally prohibited the owning of cars, so, when you think about it, the country as a whole hasn’t been behind the wheel for all that long.
O.K., so that’s maybe a stretch.
I also saw something positive resulting from the Hoxha years, if one can truly say such a thing.
Religion was banned during his time and Albania was officially an atheistic country. Lacking a religious tradition, the country today still felt more secular and was certainly tolerant: Greek Orthodox, Catholicism and Islam coexisted here in relative harmony, sometimes in the same town.
“I am a Muslim,” Leonard Boduri, 23, told me one day in Tirana, “but I am not a fanatic. We are Muslims, Orthodox, Catholics. But we don’t see religion as political. We see religion as something individual. We think we are alone in the world for this.”
One of the more pressing questions in Albania, and it too was related to Hoxha, was when the tourists would begin to arrive — not just for the summer season but consistently year round.
For 40 years, Albanians were not allowed to leave the country and it was the rare foreigner who got in. Then came the breakup of Yugoslavia and the wars that followed, which affected Albania tangentially.
The country as a result had been left with hardly any infrastructure to support tourism, even as the government in recent years finally began to see the money-making potential in beefing up this industry. Albania now seemed like one giant highway project, with miles of road torn up. The coastal route south from Durrës to Serande was a particular priority. There was no road for much of that stretch, just stripped pavement and rocks.
It took most of a day to travel a distance that would be covered in less than two hours elsewhere in Europe. When the new road was finished, it would surely be one of the nicest in the Mediterranean. But when would that be?
I met one person who hoped the answer was never. “If that road is finished, man, the coast will disappear,” said Attin Fortuzi, a television reporter. “Now it’s untouched down there.”
There was some melancholy to this tourist watch. It seemed to me as if, in some small way, Albanians were looking at Montenegro and Croatia and thinking, Our neighbors are raking it in, when will our turn come?
The posh new Rapos Resort Hotel opened up in Himare two years ago. I stumbled upon it after taking a bad road a bit out of town. It was an unexpected sight that flashed at my windshield as I rounded a bend, standing out from its surroundings like blood on snow. There was a Vegas-style swimming pool, a veranda and expansive views of the sea.
There was one car in the parking lot.
At dinner that night in the hotel, over what I would see was some of the best food in town, I ate almost alone. One other table was occupied, and thr
ee waiters busied themselves at my table.
Soon, the town would be crawling with tourists, Leos and Manolo assured me the next day. For a country that had been sold many lies in its recent history, I hoped the promise of a tourism wave many believed would come wasn’t one of them. There is nothing more depressing than a tourist town with no tourists.
The bar remained deserted. We were watching loud Greek television.
“From where?” I asked.
“Albania, mostly, and Kosovo. But also Italy. Not so much from Greece,” Leos said.
The place was one of those sports-themed bars you find in unlikely spots, with walls festooned with soccer balls and tennis rackets and bicycle wheels. The bright light outside made everything inside seem too dark. I heard the surf against some riprap.
I thought Manolo’s could be fun with some young drinkers ensconced in booths or out on the patio. It surely looked like a better place than the town’s only disco, located down some unpromising stairs.
Behind the bar, Leos flipped bottles back and forth, then behind his back, like he was practicing his best Tom Cruise moves for a time when he might need them.
Yesterday: Into Europe’s dark corner
Tomorrow: The brutal custom of Albanian blood feuds