February 09, 2020

Everyone out to get you? Build a city underground like Enver Hoxha. Tirana

You could argue that the Enver Hoxha, the communist leader of Albania from 1941 to his death in 1985 was a little paranoid. He believed everyone was out to get him, which led to an extreme bunker mentality. This not only manifested itself in the 170,000 plus small concrete bunkers built across Albania but in his preparations for governing Albania in the event of an attack.

Of course, with the USA, Great Britain, the USSR, and even China, falling out with the maverick leader there was more than an element of truth to his paranoia. Particularly when as recently as 2006 details were declassified of an elaborate plot by the CIA and MI6 to overthrow Hoxha in the 1950's and 1960's.

The well-founded fear of being attacked led to Hoxha burying deep under the western outskirts of Tirana to hide the apparatus of government. Built to withstand a nuclear attack, the complex descends over five floors and hundreds of rooms to resemble an underground city.

A fountain plays in the gardens with little clue to what lies beneath
Once so top secret you would have been shot if you had got anywhere close to the entrance it has been opened to visitors since 2014 and acts as a space to host art exhibitions. Now known as Bunk'Art 1, the lure of the underground cities cold war history far outweighs any of the, although often pretty reasonable, modern art exhibits that make use of the underground rooms.

The approach to the complex is made through a long and eerie tunnel under a military base (which is still in operation with camouflaged netting covering much of it). A small booth sells tickets for a bargain US$5 and there is a short walk through a pleasant garden with fountains which would have been used by the lucky few who would have won the golden ticket to be based here in times of high tension.

Five small rooms each with a bomb-proof door lead into the complex
An entrance on the left leads to a series of bomb-proof doors that take you through to a decontamination unit with a shower. Then you are inside the underground city. I visited midweek, soon after Bunk'Art 1 opened and I had it to myself, which made the experience even more unusual.

I certainly did not feel I belonged here, and half expected a soldier to pop out of one of the many rooms and order me to leave.

One of the many underground corridors
Long corridors lead you into the complex, often splitting off into different directions, with offices and bedrooms behind the many doors. A room belonging to an officer is set up as it would have been used at the time.

Somewhat claustrophobic, and with a damp smell, it was clearly not luxury accommodation. Simply furnished with a single bed and desk, along with uniforms, gas masks and other protective gear, with some nice motivational Albanian revolutionary prints on the wall.

An Officers room
However, if you were the leader you deserved something a lot better. Enver Hoxha's rooms are a lot more plush, with carpet, wall coverings and decent furniture. If you lift up the phone on the desk you hear his voice talking to you, which is a little strange.

The bedroom behind the living room has a decent looking bed, and its own en-suite, which is bizarrely larger than the actual bedroom itself.

Enver Hoxha's living room and office
The highlight is undoubtedly the Assembly Hall, deep down on the fifth floor. After walking through a multitude of small rooms, and the occasional larger conference rooms, the size of the hall comes as a surprise.

Built to host the Albanian parliament, and large enough to have two levels with balconies at the back and along the sides, it is an impressive engineering feat. It was designed to host the full 265 MP's and ministers of the government and was a result of The Minister for Defence paying a visit to North Korea and seeing a similar building there (although there is little information available as to where this secret underground parliament in Pyongyang is).

The space is not wasted nowadays as it is used as a theatre for plays and performances by Bunk'Art.

The Assembly Hall, now used as a theatre.
The construction of the government headquarters began in 1978 and a photograph of Hoxha visiting the complex as it was being built hangs in one of the rooms. It was nearing completion when he died in 1985 but, for all his (reasonable) paranoia Hoxha and his staff were never forced to retreat to his underground city.

With the end of the cold war, and the changes that swept Europe soon after his death, it is likely it would never have been needed. But with the whole world against you, as it was in 1978, who wouldn't build a nuclear bomb-proof underground city, just in case.

Far Flung Tips

* Bunk'Art is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, open every other day from 9 AM to 4 PM. We recommend a weekday visit, with an early start, to get the best experience.

* Catch a taxi for around US$10 or catch the bus for 40 LEK (approx US$0.40). We chose the bus as it was simple and cheap. Catch the blue Porcelan bus from outside the Plaza Hotel (Murat Toptani St), say "Bunk Art" to the conductor and he will helpfully tell you when to get off. The bus stops right outside the entrance now.

* Walk 500 metres (uphill) to the Dajti Express Cable Car if you want to explore the Dajti mountain. Lots of the smaller military bunkers can be easily found here.

Enver Hoxha visiting the underground city as it was being built

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