As you travel through Albania’s capital of Tirana, you may be surprised to see large circular cement domes located throughout the city. It might also surprise you to learn that these domes are actually the entrances to underground nuclear bunkers, which were created in the 1960s and 70s, and they are everywhere.
In fact, these bunkers served as a grand propaganda campaign by the communist leader of Albania, Enver Hoxa, who served as the First Secretary of the Labor Party and as the symbolic head of state of Albania from 1941 until his death in 1985. Using the country’s limited resources, Hoxa built more than 173,000 of these bunkers throughout Albania, most of which were abandoned by the fall of communism. Though most of the bunkers fell into disrepair, a few of the bunkers were repurposed to serve as shelters for animals and the homeless, as coffee shops, and as residential housing.
One of the most extensive examples of these bunkers is Hoxa’s own 5-floor presidential bunkers, located on the outskirts of Tirana. In 2016, the bunker was permanently turned into an underground military and art museum called Bunk’ Art.
Though a taxi to the museum only costs 300 Leke (around $3), I chose to walk the 3 kilometers away from the city center to reach the bunker. Once I arrived at the entrance to the museum, I was led to a tunnel that took me directly through the mountain. On the other side of the tunnel, I came to a ticket booth and was asked to pay 500 Leke (about $5) to gain entrance to the museum.
Upon entering the museum, I was greeted by one of the eeriest and most fascinating museums I have ever been to. After ducking past the thick cement doors which lead into the heart of the bunker, I spent the next 3 hours exploring all 5 floors of the bunker.
There are 106 different rooms in the bunker. Many of them are used to display various military uniforms, video installations, and exhibitions that show what life would have been like for those who planned to permanently live in the bunker should the necessity arise.
The exhibits themselves were fascinating to see. However, what really struck me about the place was the historical significance of the long halls in which I walked. One can feel the ghosts of those who built the palatial bunker, many of whom died in the process. It is also a chance to put oneself in the shoes of someone who may be forced to live for long periods of time in this underground neighborhood.
While I was there, there were no other visitors and no staff to monitor my movements. Surrounded by mannequins wearing gas masks and with each room offering a glimpse of what life after the nuclear holocaust might look like, to say I was a little uneasy would be an understatement. Scared would be a more accurate description.
The Bunk’Art museum of Tirana is not an easy excursion. Not because it’s challenging to get to, but because the museum itself is daunting. The subject matter that the museum highlights are both enlightening and somewhat difficult to stomach. Still, if you are interested in history and like the idea of repurposing a site once built for war into a museum of artistic and cultural expression, Bunk’Art is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
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