Concrete bunkers are a ubiquitous sight in Albania, a reminder of a time when the secretive communist state styled itself as the North Korea of Europe. Completely cut off from the outside world by a regime that seemed to take great pleasure in executing people for the smallest of transgressions, Albania spent most of the 60s, 70s and 80s filling every inch of space with fortifications to protect themselves from the perceived threat of... well, everyone.

On the shores of Lake Ohrid, near the Macedonian/Albanian border.
On the shores of Lake Ohrid, near the Macedonian/Albanian border.

Money that otherwise would’ve paid for housing, roads and food for the people was instead channeled into an endless sea of domed structures which would never be used, and which now serve as anything from homes for stray animals to brightly painted works of art sitting by the roadside waiting to surprise passing visitors into driving into Lake Ohrid.

Looking across Lake Ohrid towards Pogradec.
Looking across Lake Ohrid towards Pogradec.

In Tirana alone, thousands of bunkers radiated out from the city in concentric circles, protecting the citizens of the capital from a threat which never existed, and from the supposed colonial ambitions of neighbouring Greece and Yugoslavia, neither of whom cared for a moment what their slightly nutty neighbour was up to behind its iron wall of secrecy. The bunkers remain to this day, simultaneously a blot on an otherwise beautiful landscape and a curiosity which attracts the sort of tourists who aren’t bothered that an Albanian passport stamp will almost certainly guarantee an assumption of mafia connections and a cavity search at every border station for a thousand miles in every direction.

One of many Cold War era bunkers, reimagined for a modern world.
One of many Cold War era bunkers, reimagined for a modern world.

Many bunkers remain surprisingly dangerous into the 21st century, the general consensus these days being that the best way to approach them is to not approach them at all and hope the bunker fairy comes along and takes them away in the night.

In 1994, a casual survey of a bunker on the outskirts of the capital revealed a stockpile of mustard gas just sitting there, unguarded, waiting for a war that would never come. During the Kosovo war of 1999, people close to the border used their local fortifications as shelter from badly aimed missiles, and occasionally a story hits the news that somebody has been unexpectedly sucked into a whirlpool by an underwater gun emplacement while swimming. On the whole though, this sort of thing isn’t that uncommon in and around the countries of the former Yugoslavia. Just ask Bosnia, where anyone visiting Sarajevo is cautioned not to walk too far off the beaten track because nobody really knows what happened to all the land mines.