And unlike all those little bunkers dotting the Albanian landscape, this one on the edge of Albania’s capital Tirana
was to be a real monster of a bunker, stretching over five levels and containing over a hundred rooms, including a comfortable special suite for Hoxha and a similar one for his prime minister and “right hand” Mehmet Shehu.
Shehu’s case, by the way, is an intriguing one. He was a dyed-in-the-wool communist
who had fought in the Spanish Civil War
on the Republican side, and later became a partisan leader who was instrumental in the liberation of Albania. As minister, inter alia, of defence, the interior and then prime minister, he was dictator Enver Hoxha
’s closest ally and a co-architect of Albania’s staunch Stalinism. However, his end came in 1981, when he was found shot dead in his bedroom. Officially it was declared a suicide, though the fact that Shehu’s family was also arrested and incarcerated and his name later purged from the official historiography of Albania under paranoid Hoxha suggests what many suspected anyway, namely that Shehu was murdered, most likely on direct orders from Hoxha. Apparently Shehu had dared to voice criticism of Albania’s increasingly isolationist course that was causing more and more economic woes. Or maybe Hoxha didn’t want to be outshone by Shehu who could have been a likely successor of the dictator …
Anyway, when the bunker was constructed they were still best buddies and so Shehu was given almost as comfortable accommodation in this complex as the Number One man in the state.
There isn’t an awful lot of information about the history of the bunker other than that it was constructed between 1972 and 1978 … although at least one source claims that the bunker wasn’t yet completed when Hoxha
died in 1985. The Bunk’Art website, in contrast, claims that Hoxha participated in two military drills inside the bunker shortly after it was put into service in 1978. Most sources do agree, however, that Hoxha never actually used his bedroom in the bunker.
The structure was kept a carefully guarded secret and only became known to the outside world long after the fall of communism. In 1997 it came under attack by protesters and was partially looted. Repaired over the next year it remained in military use until 1999, after which it was left unused. It first opened temporarily to the public in 2014 on the 70th anniversary of Albania
’s liberation from WWII
The interior was then refurbished and the site was turned into a museum and art centre, opening to the public in 2016. It’s apparently the brainchild of two journalists, one Italian, one Albanian, and is run by the NGO “Quendra Ura”, with government support.
The Bunk’Art project has been a remarkable success story. In November 2016 a second branch was opened in the city centre called Bunk’Art 2
, located in the cellar of the Interior Ministry. On the well-known travel platform “Tripadvisor”, Bunk’Art 1 is listed as the No. 1 of the “things to do in Tirana”, while Bunk’Art 2 is the No. 2, ahead of Skanderbeg Square, the National Museum or the Grand Park.
What there is to see:
Quite a lot! It’s the tourist site I spent the greatest amount of time at in all of Tirana
The scene is set, as it were, by the approach tunnel – a narrow long hole in the hillside, just wide enough for one car and pedestrians if they keep close to the wall. This tunnel is ironically also the lead image on the site’s entry on Tripadvisor, even though it isn’t actually part of the bunker.
From the ticket booth you then have to walk along a wooded path that already takes you past parts of the bunker, whose concrete structure you can see poking out of the mountainside rock, and with several closed side entrances. There’s also a sentry point manned by a dummy soldier in uniform wearing a gas mask.
The path leads slightly uphill and eventually takes you to a clearing with some picnic tables and seats as well as a stall marked “Bunk’Shop” and “BUNK’food”, but it was unstaffed at the time of my visit (maybe it only operates in the high season in summer?). Behind it there were two doors in the concrete, one closed, one open, and with the Bunk’Art logo painted on to the concrete in between.
Yet there were some staff about informing us (as the woman at the ticket booth had already indicated) that we’d have to wait a few minutes while they sorted out a slight problem with their generator. This was soon done and the assembled group of visitors filed in. Inside the group soon dispersed, and I often had whole rooms to myself.
Just inside is an overview map of the accessible parts of the bunker, already giving visitors a good impression of how much there is to come. The labelling and the text panels are all bilingual in Albanian and English. The translations could often be better and occasionally the English derails slightly, but overall it gets its information across alright.
The entrance with its two doors is designed as a first barrier against shock waves. So are the air ventilation safety valves inside the first bunker part, before you enter the first blast door. Behind a set of such concrete doors comes a decontamination area, then the corridor leads deeper into the mountain.
The next part is already one of the absolute highlights: Enver Hoxha
’s private rooms. You go in via an anteroom, which would have been staffed by Hoxha’s private secretary. On a small table stands an old telephone (with dial disk) and a sign next to it says you can pick up the receiver to listen to an audio recording of the voice of the dictator.
Through a door to the side you enter Hoxha’s private realm within the bunker. Not exactly five-star luxury, but definitely the swankiest part of the whole underground complex, with carpet, armchairs, wardrobes and cabinets and a coffee table with a photo album and – of course – an ashtray (Hoxha was a chain-smoker). The panelling of the walls is allegedly special, as a dedicated sign explains, made from a material that apparently was quite valuable at the time (the sign calls it “fibers”, though I’m not sure about that … to me it looked more like a kind of veneer). It’s the only part of the bunker with such wall cladding. At the far end of the room is a desk and chair, Hoxha’s “study”, as it were. A radio on the desk plays a Hoxha speech (at low volume, I barely noticed it).
Through another door you get to Hoxha’s bedroom filled with a double bed (yes, his wife was supposed to be housed in here as well) with a red day blanket draped over it. Finally there is the spacious bathroom with a shower, toilet and a red(!) bidet.
Back out on the corridor there is a timeline of Albanian history on the wall, from ca. WWII
up to 1999, but for some reason this is in Albanian only.
Further along is a room filled with all manner of military items, from rifles on a rack to large posters of anti-aircraft guns and various types of ammunition and suchlike.
At the end of this corridor you get to a staircase leading down to “Level IV”. At the bottom a long corridor leads away from level V at a right angle. It’s at that point that I realized that the bunker being on “5 levels” doesn’t mean these are on top of each other. Instead they are a succession of levels following the sloping mountainside down in five “steps” as it were.
Along this long corridor on Level IV a series of ca. 20 smallish rooms open up to the right-hand side. And today these contain the historical exhibition parts and the first of a set of art installations. The historical exhibition consists mostly of photos and documents with brief labels. This is all a bit fragmented, atomistic even, and rather thin on providing general context. So unless you’ve done your homework and read up about Albanian history ahead of your visit, you might get a bit confused and under-enlightened here.
Thematically the historical exhibition parts start with the period of fascist Italy
’s occupation of Albania
, followed by the Nazi German
invasion later in the war. The partisans’ efforts are covered and the early phases of the shaping of Albania after liberation. “Red Albania” obviously gets a section too, including the repression and mock trials, as well as the increasing Hoxha
cult of personality.
There are also artefacts on display, including period uniforms worn by mannequins. Some of the partisan outfits might be authentic but when it came to alleged Nazi uniforms I had my doubts. They looked rather home-made and improvised to me, so are probably not genuine. One room is full of vintage communications gear and other old electronics – photogenic in their own way, but again without much context being conveyed.
Opposite this room another corridor branches off, roughly parallel to that of Level V where you entered the bunker. The first room has an installation involving parts of a USAF
plane. The story behind this is that of an American C-53 transport plane with doctors and nurses on board that on 8 November 1943 got into trouble and had to make an emergency landing on Albanian territory.
Lucky to escape the by then occupying Germans, the 30 survivors were taken in by Albanian partisans who hid and fed them. To remove any evidence of the Americans’ presence, the partisans also completely dismantled the plane and hid the parts (some of which survived to the present day – and are now displayed here). The partisans then accompanied the Americans on an eight-week trek through the mountains (to avoid German patrols) and to the coast where a British evacuation boat had been organized. Three nurses who had been separated from the group were instead helped not by the communist partisans but by their internal enemies of a right-wing nationalist group. The three got out to Italy
in the end as well. This story of solidarity was kept secret during the Hoxha years after he had one of the leaders of the larger group executed on charges of collaboration, after Hoxha had decided to seek ties with the USSR
instead of with the USA
. In the exhibition the story is told by two “competing” text panels, but the basics largely overlap. In addition there’s a screen playing interviews with surviving ex-partisans involved in the story. Finally there’s also a display cabinet with books written about this extraordinary tale, including one penned by one of those rescued American nurses.
Next along this side corridor come the private rooms of Mehmet Shehu, Albania
’s Prime Minister under Enver Hoxha
and his “right-hand man” and closest ally within the government (see above
for his story). His rooms in this bunker are only very slightly more modest than Hoxha’s. There is also an anteroom for a personal secretary, and then the living room. In contrast to Hoxha’s this is wood-panelled, but also carpeted and with armchairs, a coffee table, and here a tube television set (still working – and showing footage of Enver Hoxha’s state funeral!), and again a desk in the far corner. On the wall behind it hangs the obligatory portrait of Hoxha. Shehu’s bedroom next door also features a double bed but has a turquoise day blanket draped over it.
At the very far end of this side tunnel you can inspect some of the air filtration and ventilation systems of the bunker.
Back at the main corridor another room to the side contains an installation entitled “barbed-wire wall” and is a reconstruction of a short stretch of border fortification – looking very much like the stretches of the Iron Curtain
along the Russian
border in Scandinavia (see e.g. Kirkenes
) or those
There’s another side tunnel branching off and the first room along it has a reconstruction of an officer’s room, complete with a simple metal bed frame covered with a gas mask, helmet and other military gear, and staring into a wall mirror is a dummy seemingly in the process of getting dressed.
Next door is a special exhibition section about chemical weapons and civil defence. Apparently, Hoxha was particularly paranoid about chemical weapons. On display are various gas masks (including one for horses) and a dummy in a rubber, full-body protection suit. You are invited to press a red button that supposedly would launch a simulation of a chemical attack by mustard gas (“harmless to health”, as the small print promised), but when I tried the button nothing happened.
Further along this side corridor come the rooms of the “Chief of the General Staff”. Again there’s an anteroom followed by a wood-panelled room, but in this case not furnished as a living room, but simply with a large table and seven chairs, so presumably this was some sort of meeting room.
The rest of this side corridor does not have any further rooms open to the public, so it’s back to the main corridor. Along this come more art installations, including one involving parts of a military truck, another with mirrored walls covered in war lingo, as well as a reconstructed school classroom.
And then you get to the next staircase, now leading down to Level III.
The first room branching off here is called “War Echo”. The door is closed and a sign invites you into the darkened room and asks you to close the door behind you while you take in the sound installation inside. As the name indicates, what you get to hear is sounds of war – sirens, falling bombs, missiles, explosions. At the time I was there in April 2022, Russia
’s war in Ukraine
was very much at the forefront of daily news and near constantly on everybody’s mind, myself included. So I didn’t take in this sound installation for very long, as I actually found it quite distressing.
Another installation is purely visual again, and is about the miners who dug these and others tunnels, including a memorial for those who lost their lives in the process. There’s also a section about the programme of “bunkerization
” of Albania. Plans of this bunker show the full size of it, of which only about half is now accessible to the public as this Bunk’Art museum. I wonder what the rest looks like, but there was no way of finding out.
Instead of another side corridor, an area opens up to the side of the main corridor, where there’s another “Bunk’shop”, though at the time I was there it was unstaffed. Apparently this space is also used as a kind of cafeteria (at other times), and there are toilets.
This is the anteroom to the very largest part of the bunker, the assembly hall. It is indeed huge, two storeys high and with a large stage and rows of theatre seats. The stage had some mock-ups of those numerous pillbox bunkers
you find all over Albania
. The side walls are lined with small display cases with a range of communist-era medals and above them large blow-up posters from the period are displayed. By the rear wall are two screens showing an A-B comparison of what the bunker interiors looked like before vs after renovation in 2014.
The assembly hall is often used as a venue for art events and concerts, but during the day it’s normally just part of the museum.
The exhibition continues beyond the assembly hall along the main corridor. Here some faithful reconstructions are insightful. One is a complete typical communism-era living room with Albanian-made radio and TV sets, original furniture and a bookcase with collected works by Enver Hoxha
. Another room is a typical kitchen of the era, and finally there’s a mock-up of a grocery shop as it might have looked back in the day.
Further along the main corridor is a section about the media and the role of sports under communism. A humorous element here is the copper-coloured Enver Hoxha bust having ended up inside a basketball net.
Then it’s down a final set of stairs another level down. Here’s another exhibition room, but this time not related to the museum’s main theme but about bats. Former bunkers when they are abandoned can become valuable shelter for bats and the small exhibition here specifies what species of bats can be found in such places in Albania.
There’s one last art installation (called “Promenade”), which actually blocks access to the continuation of the main corridor (which lies in the dark behind it). Then you exit the complex along another side corridor without any accessible rooms (just closed doors) leading to the exit halfway down the access pass you climbed earlier.
Back at the ticket booth you may want to have a look at the souvenirs they also sell there. I admit I couldn’t resist and bought one of the little pillbox bunker
models actually made of concrete …
All in all
, this is rightly considered a top tourist site in Tirana, despite its non-central location. It’s very much worth the long way out here. The historical information in the exhibition could be more transparent and better organized (and the English translations improved), but the main thing here are the visual impressions, especially the preserved private rooms of both Hoxha
and Shehu as well as the reconstructed period living room and kitchen. The assembly hall is another highlight. There’s lots that is photogenic, interesting and also to a degree bewildering. Such government bunkers (cf. Marienthal
, Hack Green
, etc.) always make me wonder what sort of mindset must have been behind them and how detached that was from the reality of the Cold War
and especially from a potential actual nuclear World War Three
. Nevertheless, a visit to Bunk’Art 1 can only be highly recommended!
on the eastern fringe of Tirana
off Rruga Fadil Deliu, some 3 miles (5 km) from the city centre.
Google Maps locators:
Access and costs: quite far out from the city centre, but quite easily reachable by taxi or bus; not too expensive.
Details: To get to the Bunk’Art 1 site you can take public transport, namely the blue bus line No. 11 to “Porcelan”; it departs from Rruga Ludovik Shllaku, near the Clock Tower in the city centre not far from Skanderbeg Square. Just hand the conductor on the bus the 40 lek fare or a 100 or 200 lek note and you’ll be given a ticket and change. You’ll have to go 17 stops.
A more comfortable alternative is getting a taxi (700-1000 lek). As the site is so popular, practically all taxi drivers will know the route. Have the driver use the meter or negotiate a fixed rate before you set off.
I did a combination of both transport modes, taking a taxi out to the bunker, to minimize navigational problems, and then got a bus back to the city centre. The taxi driver took me through the approach tunnel to drop me off right by the ticket booth. If you’re coming from the bus stop you have to first walk there and through the tunnel. It’s signposted, though, so perfectly doable. The tunnel is ca. 180m long.
Note that Google Maps does not know about this tunnel and instead gives you walking directions that are actually impossible, namely along Rruga Teki Selenica, which would take you through a closed – and guarded! – military area (!), so ignore that.
At the other end of the tunnel you come out on a sandy square and will spot the wooden booth with the Bunk’Art logo on, where you can buy your ticket – or show your combination ticket if you’ve been to the Bunk’Art 2
site before and obtained the double ticket there. The price for both is 800 lek, regular admission
to just this site is 500 lek.
Opening times: daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Thursday, and to 5 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
The actual entrance to the bunker is a ca. 300m stroll up a woodland path, but it’s impossible to miss. Just look out for the colourful Bunk’Art logo by the door (same as that used on the signs directing you to the approach tunnel).
Time required: one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half hours, depending on how closely you want to read all the texts.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
in general see under Tirana
The most obvious combination has to be visiting the sister institution of this bunker, the Bunk’Art 2
site in the city centre. Combination tickets are available for both sites that give you a 200 lek discount.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Quite close to the Bunk’Art 1 site (a ca. ten-minute walk away) is the lower station of the popular “Dajti Ekspres” cable car up one of the mountains that tower over Tirana to the east of the city. I didn’t do this, but it’s said to be a rather spectacular ride that takes 15-20 minutes. From the top you get good views over the city and the surrounding landscape.
Otherwise see under Tirana
- BunkArt 01 - approach tunnel
- BunkArt 02 - ticket booth and shop
- BunkArt 03 - path to the entrance
- BunkArt 04 - guarded by a dummy with a gas mask
- BunkArt 05 - outer concrete and ventilation grille
- BunkArt 06 - entrance at the rear
- BunkArt 07 - red star
- BunkArt 08 - air intake grille and blast hatch
- BunkArt 09 - overview map
- BunkArt 10 - blast doors
- BunkArt 11 - anteroom to Enver Hoxha private room
- BunkArt 12 - Enver Hoxha realm inside the bunker
- BunkArt 13 - telephone, photo album and obligatory ashtray
- BunkArt 14 - master bedroom
- BunkArt 15 - bathroom in the Hoxha section
- BunkArt 16 - you could listen to his voice
- BunkArt 17 - part of the air filtration system
- BunkArt 18 - stairs one level down
- BunkArt 19 - exhibition room with military gear
- BunkArt 20 - historical exhibition
- BunkArt 21 - another exhibition room
- BunkArt 22 - rather improvised-looking Nazi uniform
- BunkArt 23 - definitely not original
- BunkArt 24 - American plane
- BunkArt 25 - anteroom to the Mehmet Shehu section
- BunkArt 26 - random gas mask
- BunkArt 27 - Mehmet Shehu rooms
- BunkArt 28 - picture of the No 1 on the wall
- BunkArt 29 - second-master bedroom
- BunkArt 30 - yet another exhibition room
- BunkArt 31 - ancient communications gear
- BunkArt 32 - cables
- BunkArt 33 - vintage technology
- BunkArt 34 - border fence reconstruction
- BunkArt 35 - red Albania
- BunkArt 36 - officer room
- BunkArt 37 - chemical weapons room
- BunkArt 38 - gas masks
- BunkArt 39 - full-body protection suit
- BunkArt 40 - did not work
- BunkArt 41 - general staff meeting room
- BunkArt 42 - anteroom
- BunkArt 43 - cult of personality and repression
- BunkArt 44 - military truck mock-up
- BunkArt 45 - classroom
- BunkArt 46 - mirror-walled room installation
- BunkArt 47 - more steps down to yet another lower level
- BunkArt 48 - another stretch of main corridor
- BunkArt 49 - bunkerization
- BunkArt 50 - memorial to those who lost their lives in tunnelling
- BunkArt 51 - cafeteria and toilets
- BunkArt 52 - unstaffed shop
- BunkArt 53 - assembly hall
- BunkArt 54 - pillbox bunker mock-ups on stage
- BunkArt 55 - commie medal
- BunkArt 56 - before and after refurbishment
- BunkArt 57 - communist-era living room reconstruction
- BunkArt 58 - commie telly
- BunkArt 59 - commie radio
- BunkArt 60 - little creature comforts
- BunkArt 61 - kitchen reconstruction
- BunkArt 62 - shop mock-up
- BunkArt 63 - ideaology and sports
- BunkArt 64 - netted Hoxha
- BunkArt 65 - bats
- BunkArt 66 - another art installation
- BunkArt 67 - final corridor
- BunkArt 68 - exit