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Albania is a hidden gem. Bordered by the more-touristed Greece in the South and Montenegro in the North, Albania’s mountainous coastline meets the turquoise Mediterranean in a dramatic convergence of colors. Now awakening from a once isolated, totalitarian state, it is rapidly becoming one of the most welcoming new destinations. Beautiful landscapes are not the only attraction to this small country. A number of archeological sites trace history through Neolithic, Bronze Age and Hellenistic times and I am also particularly intrigued by the relics of a more recent era that dot the hillsides.

Albania remained under the Communist rule of Enver Hoxha from 1944 until his death in 1985. During that time, an estimated 800,000 little mushroom-shaped concrete bunkers were built and placed throughout the country to deter an invasion that never came. There is a story told that Enver Hoxha forced the bunkers’ designer to stand inside an early prototype while the army fired shells at it to prove its strength.

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Too expensive to remove, most remain, though they now serve different purposes. Some have been painted and decorated by local artists, some house sheep and goats, others have become love nests for courting teenagers. The new uses of these remnants of oppression demonstrate the spirit of the Albanian people.

On our drive along Ohrid Lake as we head from Albania back to Macedonia we always stop and wonder at the bunkers. How did the Albanian soldiers possibly fit themselves into such small, uncomfortable spaces?

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There is an old Albanian folk tale of a small boy who went hunting and saw a poisonous snake alive in the nest of a baby eagle. With his bow and arrow he speared the snake and saved the eaglet from the deadly snake’s bite. For this valiant deed, the eagle stayed with the boy through adulthood, always protecting and guiding him. He was named king of the land and called Shqipëtar or “Son of the Eagle.” To this day, Albanians call their country Shqipëria in honor of him, the “Land of Eagles.” This valiant spirit perseveres in Albania and rewards all who visit with incredible beauty and history.

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–Text and bunker photos by WT Trip Leader Ingrid Cercek, Hiking in Macedonia and Albania

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