I’ve already discussed how Albania basically has the prettiest, most budget-friendly beaches in Europe.
I’ve talked about the crazy roads and stunning views.
I’ve raved about Albania’s capital city, the amazing food, and the oh so friendly people I met there.
So I guess all that’s left now is that one burning question on all of our minds: what about the bunkers?
While camping in Montenegro, Dan and I were offered some hot schnapps by an elderly Finnish couple. They enthusiastically told us about their travels through the Balkans in their camper van, but when they mentioned their time in Albania their smiles faded.
“We didn’t like it,” they confessed. “We always felt a sense of danger while in Albania.”
I leaned forward in anticipation of their thrilling/horrifying tale from Albania, but none came. Nothing bad had actually happened to them while in Albania, they just felt that it could have.
While I was tempted to roll my eyes, I realized that their concern made sense. At least, it makes sense that they would be wary of a country that has been closed to foreigners for most of their lifetimes. Whereas my generation’s strongest reference to Albania would be Taken, and I’m pretty sure the main lesson of the film was to not share a taxi with a handsome stranger when visiting Paris. Or if you must, just go to his place.
I felt perfectly comfortable in Albania both times I visited. In fact, instead of danger I was only overwhelmed by hospitality while visiting what would likely be considered one of Albania’s most dangerous village for tourists.
That’s not to say that Albania isn’t dangerous. I did in fact sense some real danger there – for the teddy bears.
I eventually did learn that these are meant to ward away the “evil eye,” but I’m sure any fellow stuffed animal lovers out there can well imagine my dismay when I first started spotting these bears hanging off edges of buildings tied up by their throats.
But while Albania is a safe and welcome place for tourists now, that wasn’t the case just a couple of decades ago.
While chatting with me in Himara, my guest house owner mentioned that his 18-year-old daughter is on a student exchange in America at the moment.
My middle school math coach would be horrified to see how rusty my mental math skills have become, but I do know that I’m 27 and was born in 1988, which means that someone who is 28 would have been born in 1987, and so someone 10 years younger would have been born in 1997.
“Your daughter was born in 1997?”
His wife laughed and patted her imaginary pregnant stomach and then made two guns with her hands, “Pow pow!” while her husband shook his head and told me that they were able to get to Greece for the birth.
Because 1997 was the year that all hell broke loose in Albania.
After a government supported Ponzi scheme devastated households throughout the nation, violent protests broke out and the police and Republican guard deserted, leaving their armories open to be raided by gangs and local militias. And then the president and prime minister both resigned, leaving the country in chaos until the Socialist Party finally gained control and stabilized the government.
But this all happened after the communists lost power (1992), and they were the ones responsible for the bunkers – all 700,000 of them (that’s one for every four citizens).
Opposed to more moderate communist governments, the regime set up the bunkers to prepare the nation for possible attacks, where civilians would take up arms to defend Albania.
These bunkers are everywhere – from city parks to remote mountain passes to beaches to hotel lawns. In fact, the bunkers average an impressive 24 per square kilometer in Albania.
And as I imagine bunkers are fairly difficult to destroy because they’re, well, bunkers, it looks like they just might be here to stay as a continued reminder of Albania’s tumultuous past. As well as, apparently, a romantic hideaway for young couples looking for some privacy.
Um, at least the room comes with a view!