Actually, our trip through Albania was not intended as a bunker tour, but it is difficult for any trip through Albania to not take on this feel given the literally millions of bunkers scattered across the country (more on that later).
We crossed into Albania from Macedonia by utilizing the border crossing at Debar. This is not a significant border crossing and so some maps and guide books may not mention it, but we had no problems at all crossing into Albania through Debar. Also, if you cross through Debar, you will drive through the beautiful Mavrovo National Park in Macedonia.
When we were leaving Macedonia, the Macedonian border guard asked me if I had permission to bring our rental car into Albania. Of course I did not, but I confidently replied that, of course, I did have permission. The border guard was skeptical and asked to see some documents establishing this fact. I smiled pleasantly as I confidently handed over the rental contract which was written in Bulgarian (we rented the car in Sofia, Bulgaria). I gambled that the Macedonian border guard would not speak a word of Bulgarian and I was right. After pretending to read the document for a short while, he handed it back to me and waved us through. Confidence will take you anywhere…
Through the Macedonian border checkpoint and approaching the Albanian border… It is remarkably easy now to visit what was once one of the most closed countries in the world:
Crossing at Debar takes one into the northeast section of Albania. Robert Young Pelton is his seminal work, The World’s Most Dangerous Places, describes the north of Albania as follows: “The most lawless place in Europe. A drive into northern Albania will take you back to the Wild West. Once you go north of Krume, on the Bajram Curri road, you’re in bandit country.” Obviously, I was excited to arrive…
It is fairly remote out here – in the Albanian countryside on the way to Maqellare:
At Maqellare, we turned left onto the road toward the coast, passing through towns like Homesh, Bulqize, Klos and Burrel. Given our success with using a GPS unit in Turkey and Sicily, I was a little concerned about not having a GPS unit for the Balkans. However, this was not a problem in Albania as there were either crude, but sufficient, road signs or no other options. We didn’t have to stop and ask for directions once.
There are some nice homes out here around Maqellare and Homesh even though the area is quite remote:
I was later told by an Albanian waiter in Kosovo that any nice homes in this area “must” belong to a smuggler – particularly given the close proximity to the border:
Interspersed with EVERYTHING in Albania are millions of bunkers. Millions of these pillboxes were sunk into the fields and hillsides, most of them during the 1970s under the rule of Enver Hoxha when Albania left the Warsaw Pact. The most frequent type is the small, single-person bunker with two slits above the ground. The bunkers are set 4 to 5 feet into the ground and are, therefore, difficult to remove.
The small bunkers are laid out in lines radiating down from a large command bunker (such as those pictured immediately below) and have a line of sight back to the command bunkers. The large bunkers were permanently manned; the small bunkers were not. In the event of an invasion, every able-bodied male was expected to collect a gun and and take up position in his assigned pillbox until ordered to leave it.
The commanders in the large bunkers had radio contact with their superiors, and from their positions they could control the road or valley along which the invaders would be coming. The men in the small bunkers, further down the chain, could receive visual orders by looking through the slit on one side of their pillbox, and shoot the invaders through the other.
If you believe it to be paranoid to think that your country is about to be invaded, consider that between 1947 and 1953 Britain and the United States did in fact attempt to infiltrate anti-communist agents into Albania on multiple occasions. These attempts failed dismally; all of the agents were captured almost as soon as they landed, and were either killed on the spot or executed after being tried as spies.
To see particularly clear examples of the strategy behind the positioning of the bunkers or simply to see extensive and relatively intact bunker sites, try the following areas: a few miles south of Peshkopia near the village of Melani, the Drinos valley between Gjirokastra and the Greek border and in central Albania just south of the big roundabout at Rrogozhina overlooking the Myzeqe plain.
Of those that are still standing, most bunkers are used as outhouses, a place to store animal feed, stolen goods or, ummm, to dump used cartons of oil apparently…
Matters do not change all that significantly upon arriving in an Albanian village. I felt very much as if we were back in Kurdish Turkey.
Near the village of Milot, we veered north toward Shkoder and the border with Montenegro. Back in the countryside:
Keep your eyes open, because you’ll see a number of interesting things along the road – like this pack horse miles from nowhere…
…Or scenes like this wrecked monument to past Communist glories – perhaps to Albanian partisans resisting the Italian invasion and occupation during world War II…
…Or scenes like this in the road:
Which are a frequent occurrence on blind corners:
The agricultural sector, which accounts for over half of employment but only about one-fifth of GDP, is limited primarily to small family operations and subsistence farming because of a lack of modern equipment, unclear property rights, and the prevalence of small, inefficient plots of land. Sure makes for pretty pictures though…
Small farms dot the landscape, even up in the mountains:
Where irrigation channels such as this are used – one of the few functioning components of Albanian infrastructure…
I found the mountains of Albania to be quite attractive:
Even up in the mountains, look around a little and you will find the ubiquitous bunkers:
The business end of one of the bunkers:
Doesn’t look like much fun to me… This is what the bunkers look like on the inside:
The homes in the mountains are constructed differently than those on the plains – utilizing more of the local building materials in the form of rocks and timber:
An industrial town we came across:
A closer look revealed that most of the buildings were abandoned:
A typical Albanian road led out of town. Private cars were prohibited in Albania until 1991 and so, well, it is taking a little while for things to get up to speed… We turned left just before Shkoder and headed toward Vladimir which is just inside Montenegro.
Just before crossing into Montenegro, we slowed for traffic that was taking turns to cross a bridge only wide enough for one direction of traffic at a time. A beggar stepped in front of our car, imploring us to give him money and then changing his demand to cigarettes or alcohol and, finally, to bottled water as we refused his requests. And then, the man bent down and started kissing the hood of our car, slowly working his way along the edge to my window. Even though I was impressed by his performance, we had nothing to give him.
Eleonora commented that she’d never had someone kiss her car before. After some reflection, I confessed that I too had never before had the experience.
Background & Specifics
1) Readers of this blog who wish to visit Albania may choose to focus their attention on the northern part of the country…
– Certain criminal clans run whole sections of the economy in the form of smuggling cigarettes, coffee and stolen cars. And blood feuds are still commonplace.
– The scenery is beautiful (but look out for landmines left behind by KLA fighters to cover their retreat from Kosovo into Albania).
2) The Albanian Lottery Uprising:
I believe Robert Young Pelton describes this event aptly:
“Albania’s fun all began in January 1997, when the inevitable end of pyramid investment schemes vaporized more than half of the Albanian population’s savings. Having no one to blame except their own greed and gullibility, the people quickly blamed the government. Soon the riots and the looting escalated into full-scale anarchy. The “Albaniacs” were born. Tens of thousands of repressed, newly impoverished people attacked, looted and burned banks , jails, museums and government armories until all were picked clean or destroyed. And the fun has pretty much continued ever since.”
I am told a decent AK-47 assault rifle can still be found for as little as $50.
3) Bradt publishes a solid guidebook specifically covering Albania.
4) Embassy of the Republic of Albania
2100 S Street, NW, Washington DC 20008
5) The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has the following comments on Albanian criminal activity:
“Trafficking in persons:
Albania is a source country for women and girls trafficked for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation and forced labor; Albanian victims are trafficked to Greece, Italy, Macedonia, and Kosovo, with many trafficked onward to Western European countries; children are also trafficked to Greece and Italy for begging and other forms of child labor; approximately half of all Albanian trafficking victims are under age 18; internal sex trafficking of women and children is on the rise
Tier 2 Watch List – Albania is on the Tier 2 Watch List for its failure to provide evidence of increasing efforts to combat trafficking in persons in 2007, particularly in the area of victim protection; the government did not appropriately identify trafficking victims during 2007, and has not demonstrated that it is vigorously investigating or prosecuting complicit officials (2008)
Increasingly active transshipment point for Southwest Asian opiates, hashish, and cannabis transiting the Balkan route and – to a lesser extent – cocaine from South America destined for Western Europe; limited opium and expanding cannabis production; ethnic Albanian narcotrafficking organizations active and expanding in Europe; vulnerable to money laundering associated with regional trafficking in narcotics, arms, contraband, and illegal aliens.”