Posts Tagged ‘bunkers’

The Tattooed Bunker: Colorful “Repurposing” in Shkoder, Northern Albania

This article originally appeared on the TIES blog Your Travel Choice. See the original article here. October, 2010.
The article was reposted on, environmental news and information portal, October 2010

In Albania, around 750,000 bunkers form a gray mushroom network across the country. This drab legacy of recent communism presents a creative challenge today. Albanians are transforming the bunkers into more purposeful structures, often with tourism in mind.

Tattoo Bunker, Shkoder Albania

Remnants of a Paranoid Past

Built of thick cement and iron, the bunkers are phone booth-sized subterranean fortresses with rifle windows and cement dome roofs above ground. Communist dictator Enver Hoxha built them in the 1970s in paranoia of nuclear warfare and xenophobia toward the rest of the world. The bunkers were never used. When Hoxha died in 1985, the communist regime lasted about five more years and collapsed with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Only two decades later, this history still haunts the present. Most of the 750,000 bunkers are still standing and crumbling slowly where they were built. Moving or destroying them is no small task. Each one was built with 5 tons of cement to withstand nuclear warfare. Myth has it that Hoxha hired the bunkers’ engineer by instructing him to shelter himself in the prototype while it was attacked by military explosives. The engineer survived, so Hoxha ordered almost a million of his bunkers to be built.

Creative Re-purposing

Today, Albanians face the question of how to address these scars from the past. Most are simply worked around, while some have been destructed by explosives in order to build in their place. While the majority of the 2-person pillboxes continue to blight the landscape with concrete and iron, a rare few have been “re-purposed” into worthwhile structures such as planters, cafes, playground equipment, and pieces of graffiti art.

The creative re-purposing of cement bunkers is a telling metaphor for Albania’s recovery from its recent communist past. One project, Concrete Mushrooms, has secured resources for the research and documentation of Albania’s bunkers. The organization works toward “inverting the meaning” of these symbolic structures by “giving bunkers value instead of having them as a burden.” Concrete Mushrooms identifies ecotourism-related uses for the bunkers, such as tourism information points, cafes, and even accommodation, as an area with real potential.

The Tattooed Bunker in Shkoder

On the highland road north from Shkoder to Tamare, where population is sparse, bunkers are also fewer and farther between. Here, a bright example of creative re-purposing can be found. A large bunker has been converted into a tattoo parlor. This one is easy to spot – the concrete is colorful, with “tattoo” painted on the outside dome in graffiti-style lettering.

For fearless tattoo shoppers, ink enthusiasts, or those who are simply curious, it is worthwhile to pull over and see this place and the tattoo artist, Keq Marku Djetroshan, who works there mainly during the summer season.

Having lived in the United States for several years, Keq is fluent in American slang. When his time in the U.S. ended, he came back to northern Albania with his tattoo business. He serves mostly Albanians and Montenegrins who cross the nearby border. Inside the bunker-turned-parlor, the walls display more graffiti and an array of dog-eared tattoo art magazines sit on the table in front of the couch. Keq’s arms are covered with layers of tattoos, perhaps a re-purposing of his own scars from the past.

To visit the tattooed bunker, go to Shkoder & Albanian Alps Hotels, a local connection, for accommodation and tour information about Albania’s northern region.


11 2010

Weird Albania: 5 oddities to notice while passing through

This article originally appeared in the blog.  See the original article here.  September 2010.

A “deeply weird place” is how New York TImes travel columnist Seth Kugel aptly described Albania in 2006. While still coming of age as destination itself, it attracts more adventurous travelers who treat it as an odd little piece of the larger western Balkans puzzle. Some quirks of note in Albania:

1) Bunker madness

If good data existed about military bunkers worldwide, Albania would probably top the list for bunker density. By some high estimates, the 750,000 bunkers built during communism translate to 28 bunkers per square km and one bunker for every 4-5 citizens. The numbers square away with the landscape — these “concrete mushrooms” are ubiquitous.

weird albania: bunker madness

2) Car washes and Mercedes Benz

The chaotic traffic in capital city Tirana is Benz-heavy. Old ones, new ones, even the taxis are Mercedes Benz. Why? By one account, the Benz went out of style in the rest of Europe in the mid-90s when more fuel-efficient vehicles were introduced, so Albanians bought them at clearance sale prices. Others chalk it up to theft and corruption.

To keep the Benz fleet shiny where roads are gritty, an industry of car washes has sprung up. These “lavazh” stations are about every 100 meters. The fully automated car wash is still a thing of the future. Here, it’s usually a guy with a high pressure hose in a covered parking spot.

3) Nodding “no” and shaking “yes”

This source of endless confusion can be enchanting. Shaking one’s head from side to side does not mean “no” here. It means “right, I agree, I’m listening” while someone else is talking. Conversely, nodding one’s head up and down does not mean “yes” here. It means “sorry, I’m afraid not” and seems to accompany bad news.

Talk with the older generations to get these reversed gestures. Younger and more urban Albanians have caught on to more international non-verbals.

4) Stuffed animals at construction sites.

Where there are unfinished buildings, there are also large teddy bears hanging eerily for all to see. This is pure superstition — it wards off the evil eye. Other superstition on construction sites: mixing ram’s blood into the foundations and hanging horseshoes over the front door.

Occasionally you can spot dolls hanging in gardens and crop fields. This is for the more practical purpose of scaring off birds, but can have the added effect of spooking tourists.

5) Boxy buildings painted in technicolor.

Edi Rama, the mayor of Tirana, is also an artist. His efforts to beautify the capital have been recognised internationally. His most famous endeavor is the vibrant painting of Tirana’s previously uniform buildings with “Edi Rama colors” such as violet, green, and orange.

Some buildings are even painted in fantastic patterns like colorful plaid and argyle.

Albania is growing steadily as a destination so check it out soon. This off-beat place will only be off-the-beaten-path for so much longer.


11 2010