If there ever is a nuclear holocaust, Albania is the country you would want to be in. Dotting the landscape across the country like odd shaped mushrooms are bunkers – hundreds and thousands of them along the hillside, between mountain passes and by the side of city streets. They persist as a symbol of the paranoid imagination of Albania’s communist ruler for 40 years, Enver Hoxha.
Albania’s Communist dictator Enver Hoxha was in a constant fear of foreign invasion. During his forty-year rule between 1945 and 1985 he built an extraordinary 750,000 bunkers fearing nuclear war. In a country that’s just 28,700 square kilometers in size, that’s an average of 24 bunkers per square kilometer. At that time there was one for every four Albanians.
When the prototype bunker was finished in the 1950s Hoxha asked the chief engineer how confident he was that it could withstand a full assault from a tank. The engineer answered, « Very confident ». The Communist Party supremo then insisted that the engineer stand inside his creation while it was bombarded by a tank. The shell-shocked engineer emerged unscathed and Hoxha ordered thousands of these built.
The project was a massive undertaking. Building the structures required three times as much concrete as was used to create France’s Maginot Line, and cost twice as much. The cost of constructing them crippled Albania’s development, diverting resources away from more pressing needs such as dealing with the country’s housing shortage and poor roads.
Following the death of Enver Hoxha the bunkers were abandoned, but their solidity made them difficult to get rid of. Most are now derelict, though some have been reused for a variety of purposes including residential accommodation, cafés, storehouses and shelters for animals. A few briefly saw use in the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s but their most common use now is said to be as a convenient place for young Albanians to lose their virginity.
Travel writer Tony Wheeler puts it in his book Lonely Planet, « Albanian virginity is lost in a Hoxha bunker as often as American virginity was once lost in the back seats of cars. » In fact, until very recently cars were in short supply in Albania.
Albania’s bunkers have now become a symbol of sorts for the country. Pencil holders and ashtrays in the shape of bunkers have become one of the country’s most popular tourist souvenirs.
In 2009, a pair of Albanian graduate students started a project called Concrete Mushrooms that aims to catalogue the country’s network of bunkers and encourage local residents to turn them into something else.have even plans for these monolithic domes, dotted across the country.