Cold War-Era Bunkers In Albania

Laughing Squid published some awe-inspiring photos yesterday of Cold War-Era bunkers throughout Albania. According to the article, the country hosts over 700,000 bunkers. Laughing Squid breaks that number down by saying that means there’s one bunker for every four Albanians. These bunkers are on farmland, beaches, city streets and residential communities. The photos published by Laughing Squid were taken by Dutch photographer David Galjaard. Check out the photos here and maybe make a point to photograph some of these bunkers yourself if you’re planning a trip to Albania.

[Photo Credit: David Galjaard]

Albania’s National Museum faces up to Communist past

A new wing of Albania’s National Museum in Tirana opened yesterday that’s dedicated to the abuses of its former Communist government.

Under the harsh rule of Enver Hoxha, shown here in a photo courtesy Forrásjelölés Hasonló, some 100,000 Albanians were executed or sent to prison or forced labor camps, this in a country of only three million people. Torture and intimidation were rife and a network of informers made everyone paranoid.

For a disturbing look at the surreal daily life in this regime, read The Country Where No One Ever Dies by Albanian author Ornela Vorpsi. The last days of Communist rule are seen through the eyes of an adolescent girl whose main dream is simply to be left alone.

That was the dream of a lot of Albanians. The new wing to the museum displays photographs and artifacts documenting the torture and extermination of dissidents. People lived in fear of disappearing into a jail or camp. Hopefully this exhibition will go a small way towards helping Albania come to terms with its past and heal some open wounds.

Visible evidence of the old regime is everywhere in Albania. While Tirana is undergoing a beautification program and the countless statues of Hoxha have been pulled down, thousands of bunkers still litter the country’s beaches, fields, and neighborhoods. The paranoid regime put up an estimated 700,000 of the ugly things despite needing roads and adequate housing for its citizens. One set of them can be seen in the photo below courtesy the Concrete Mushrooms Project.

Roman shipwreck found off Albanian coast

An underwater archaeological survey has turned up a Roman shipwreck off the coast of Albania.

As the above video shows, the remains of the ship are now little more than a heap of amphorae, the characteristic pots the Romans used to transport wine. The team hasn’t had a chance to excavate the site yet, so more finds may lie hidden beneath the bottom of the sea.

The archaeologists estimate that the ship was from the first or second century BC and was part of an extensive wine trade on the Adriatic Sea. The ship was about 30 meters long and contained an estimated 300 or more amphorae. The excavation was funded by the RPM Nautical Foundation, which has discovered numerous shipwrecks in recent years.

Shipwrecks can tell us a lot about early technology and trade. Several museums are dedicated to them. In Stockholm, Sweden, the Vasa Museum houses the well-preserved remains of a warship that sank in 1628. Despite its impressive appearance, it was badly designed and sank less than a nautical mile into its maiden voyage. In Portsmouth, England, the Mary Rose Museum has a warship that sank in battle in 1545. The Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark, houses five Viking ships dating to about 1070.

Walking the streets of Tirana

Everyone has their own intimate reasons for traveling, be they discovering new places or simply leaving behind old ones. For me however, it’s about finding yourself somewhere that you previously couldn’t have imagined. The clichéd word for this type of travel is “off-the-beaten path,” though the experiences it yields are anything but cliché.

Several years ago, I landed in Athens intent on traveling overland through the Balkans en route to Vienna. While this was never a major tourist route to begin with, I did manage to visit some of the better-known sites: the hilltop monasteries in Meteora, the Dalmatian Coast in Croatia and the up-and-coming Montenegrin Riviera. Along the way, I took a slight detour into a country that I knew next to nothing about: Albania.

What little information I could remember from history class was the following bizarre account. During the Cold War, the Communist leader of Albania was a deranged paranoid by the name of Enver Hoxha. Fearing annihilation from above by Western powers, he charged his military engineers with the task of building almost one million concrete bunkers across the whole of Albania.

The Iron Curtain has long since fallen, but I confess that my image of Albania hadn’t changed with the times. As such, you can imagine my surprise upon arriving in the whimsically-colorful capital city of Tirana. Take a look at the gallery below, and then continue reading to learn how this once grey and gloomy city earned its multi-hued stripes.

%Gallery-124160% Prior to the Cold War, Tirana was a beautiful city. First established as an Ottoman outpost in the 17th century, Tirana quickly prospered as a major commercial center along the caravan trading routes. It was soon outfitted with all the architectural symbols of the ruling Turks, including mosques, hamams (bathhouses) and bazaars.

Following independence in 1912, the somewhat comically named King Zog I (yes, that’s his real name!) launched a massive building campaign to Europeanize the city. Noted Italian architects descended on Tirana, and gifted the city center with neoclassical buildings and grand boulevards. Of course, construction efforts were de-prioritized following subsequent invasions by Italian Fascists and German Nazis.

After World War II, Albania became a communist state and sided with the USSR. Tirana was thus transformed into a socialist-styled industrial powerhouse. Elegance gave way to practicality as historic buildings were ripped down and replaced with concrete block-style apartments, and any available green spaces were filled-in to accommodate behemoth factories. Tirana became the cold and dreary city one often associates with so-called brutalist architecture.

Since 2000 however, Mayor Edi Rama has launched a number of admirable campaigns to beautify Tirana. Some of his efforts are fairly standard urban renewal practices, such as knocking down abandoned buildings, cleaning up public parks, planting trees alongside river banks and renovating the few remaining culturally significant buildings.

But what separates Mayor Rama from your average fighter of urban blight is his love of color – yellow, orange, blue, green and violet to be specific. And in this case, the palette is the bleak concrete facade that typifies most of Tirana. Viewing his city as a work of art in progress, Mayor Rama has set aside subsidies for people and communities to spruce up their streetscapes. Indeed, a fresh coast of paint can often do wonders.

Walking the streets of Tirana is really the best way to capture his lofty vision. Some apartment buildings opt for geometric patterns of intersecting shapes in bold coloration. Others embrace softer undulating pastel lines that are reminiscent of waves crashing in a fantasy ocean. And then there are those with blunt racing stripes that draw attention away from glaring architectural flaws.

Soviet-era stylings still do predominate, and the frivolous nature of the project has drawn its fair share of justified critics. But as a living, breathing social experiment, Tirana truly is one of a kind.

We’ll be the first to confess that Tirana is not an easy place to visit. Your first hurdle is simply getting here as Albania isn’t exactly the crossroads of the world. But there are direct flights to Tirana from most major European capitals including London. There is no train station, so you can forget about the Eurorail pass, though international buses run to neighboring Balkan countries as well as to Greece and Turkey.

English is a rarity, so it’s recommended that you book a hotel in advance rather than stumble around in search of accommodation. Habitable rooms tends to gravitate towards the mid-range and top end, though rates here are much less than in other European capitals.

Eating out is very cheap, and you’ll find all manners of filling treats including byrek, a filo-dough style pastry with meat, cheese and/or spinach. More familiar doner kebabs and Italian pastas and pizzas are also popular. Local beer is excellent, though keep in mind that the local “Stela” is not the same as the Belgian “Stella Artois.”

In terms of sites, there are a few decent museums and performance spaces scattered around the city. The National History Museum is recommended if you want to get a better sense of the strange twists and turns that led to the creation of modern Tirana. Petrela Castle on the outskirts of the city is an impressive Byzantine structure lying at the top of a rocky outcrop. For something far less stately, check out Hoxha’s International Center of Culture, which resembles a giant pyramid of cement!

Need more inspiration? Check out the gallery images below.


[All photos and gallery images are the author’s own original work unless otherwise specified.]

Five ways to get more European stamps in your passport

Lake Ohrid, Macedonia.

Yesterday, I wrote about the fact that European passport stamps have become harder and harder to get. The expansion of the Schengen zone has reduced the number of times tourists are compelled to show their passports to immigration officials. For most Americans on multi-country European itineraries, a passport will be stamped just twice: upon arrival and upon departure.

Where’s the fun in that?

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying your passport’s stamps. They’re souvenirs. So ignore the haters and treasure them. You won’t be the first to sit at your desk alone, lovingly fingering your stamps while daydreaming of your next adventure. You won’t be the last, either.

And if you are a passport stamp lover with a penchant for European travel, don’t despair. There are plenty of places in Europe where visitors have to submit their travel documents to officials to receive stamps. Some countries, in fact, even require Americans to purchase full-page visas in advance.

The Western Balkans remain almost entirely outside of Schengen. Russia, Belarus, Armenia, and Azerbaijan all require visas for Americans, while Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia do not. Immigration officers at the borders of all of these countries, however, will stamp your passport when you enter and when you leave. Turkey provides visas on arrival. These cost €15. Among EU countries, the UK, Ireland, and Cyprus remain outside of Schengen for the time being, while Romania and Bulgaria will soon join it.

Pristina, Kosovo.

Ok then. How to maximize the number of stamps in your passport during a European jaunt? Here are five ideas.

1. Fly into the UK or Ireland and then travel from either of these countries to a Schengen zone country. You’ll obtain an arrival stamp in the UK or Ireland and then be processed when entering and leaving the Schengen zone.

2. Plan an itinerary through the former Yugoslavia plus Albania by car, bus, or train. Slovenia is part of the Schengen zone but the rest of the former country is not. Traveling across the borders of Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Albania will yield all sorts of passport stamp action.

3. Visit the following eastern European countries: Turkey, Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Georgia, Armenia, and/or Azerbaijan. Unavoidable passport stamp madness will transpire.

4. Visit San Marino and pay the tourist office for a passport stamp. The miniscule republic charges €5 to stamp passports. The bus fare from Rimini on Italy’s Adriatic coast is worth it for the bragging rights alone.

5. Visit the EU’s three Schengen stragglers, Cyprus, Romania, and Bulgaria. In the case of the latter two, visit soon.