During the Cold War, approximately 750,000 military installations, referred to by Albanians as Concrete Mushrooms, were constructed throughout the tiny Balkan nation (one for every four citizens). Soldiers stood guard in them, protecting Albania from invasion.
Albania, the small Eastern European nation surrounded by Montenegro, Kosovo, Greece and Macedonia, was, until 1992, a member of the Communist bloc. Today, after much upheaval, it’s an emerging democratic republic, and it recently applied to become part of the European Union. But, back in the days of Cold War paranoia, the Albanians were well-prepared.
The mushrooms are everywhere. Though they range in dimension, there is not a part of the country where they can’t be found. In the urban areas, the Concrete Mushrooms are smaller in size, but more frequent, as they only needed to hold one soldier at a time. Along the over 250 miles of Albanian coastline the brownish buildings are larger in size, as was necessary hold more soldiers for the purpose of deterring Italian incursions. Indeed, the only thing standing between the heel in Italy’s “boot” is less than 100 miles of water from the Adriatic Sea.
In the mountainous, but sparsely populated Highland region (which are also the southernmost section of the European Alps), the little castles were made bigger as they had to hold more troops so as to repel any enemy that was brave enough to cross the rugged terrain.
In the past ten years, through a combination of public and private efforts Albania has transformed the Concrete Mushrooms from a relic from a bygone era to a symbol of the country’s resourcefulness and growing influence as a vacation spot. The effort seems to be working as over 2.5 million tourists made Albania their destination in 2009, a 42% increase over the previous year.
Many of the fortresses have been wired, modernized and remodeled. In the vibrant capital city of Tirana they’ve been refashioned to reflect the city’s teeming energy, serving as kiosks and information booths much like the ones that could be found in other European hubs. In beach towns like Durres and Vlora, they’ve been painted bright splashy colors and converted to snack bars.
But it is in the mountains that link Albania to the rest of Europe that the fortresses have gained in popularity. Once home to soldiers defending an isolated land, they now serve as hostels or bed and breakfasts, provide guests access to some of the most spectacular landscapes in the world.
The concrete mushrooms aren’t what bring tourists to Albania, but it’s what many visitors remember most.