The Traveller / Idealogical Parking in Albania

Monday, 10 August, 2015

Behind an unassuming building in central Tirana, the Albanian capital, there’s a car park where you can find some apt symbols of the nation’s past and present. The first and most conspicuous of these are the communist statues oxidising on the perimeter of the property. Two colossal figures of the ideology – Lenin and Stalin – are there, sculpted in twice life-size proportions. Lenin is cast mid-oration, but his now-severed arms and the banal setting nullify what might have once been a powerful likeness. Stalin looks as stern as ever, unmoved (literally) by his downgrade from the great squares of Eastern Europe to a tiny Balkan car park. Among European capitals, Tirana was one of the last strongholds for statues of Stalin. The city’s main tribute to the ‘Man of Steel’ (a description apt in both a figurative and literal sense) was only toppled in 1990, and subsequently carted away from its proud position near the front of the National Gallery of Art. Unlike the majority of communist era statues, however, the two historical curios tucked away in the car park were spared the smelting furnace. They have been attracting visitors (and surprising motorists) ever since.

If the statues are representative of communism in its broadest sense, a small bunker in the corner of the property is representative of communism’s rather unique Albanian manifestation, implemented by hardline dictator Enver Hoxha. The concrete dome is just one of 750,000 built by Hoxha, who ruled Albania for more than four decades (from 1944 till his death in 1985). He closely modelled his personality and political strategy on Stalin’s, including the widespread use of secret police, purges and capital punishment. Hoxha’s close ties with his comrades to the North cooled significantly following Stalin’s death, and his relationship with communist China would later follow a similar trajectory. Albania became increasingly isolated from the rest of the world and Hoxha became increasingly paranoid. In 1967, fearing attack from both former allies and long-term foes, Hoxha began his program of ‘bunkerisation’, eventually building one for every four Albanian citizens.

A big fan of accountability for all but himself, Hoxha apparently ordered the first of the bunkers to be put to the test with the chief engineer, Josif Zagali, inside. Both man and bunker survived the subsequent bombardment, so the story goes, and wholesale construction was approved. The bunkers were built the length and breadth of the country, averaging 24 per square kilometre, with even the smaller models costing as much as a two-bedroom apartment. At a time of economic hardship and chronic housing shortages, Albania could scarcely afford this unusual military excess.

Fast-forward several decades to an Albania which is vastly different but still home to the virtually indestructible relics. The enemy never came and the bunkers were never used… at least not for their intended purpose. Today, some of the bunkers have been repurposed as houses, cafes or storage units, and losing one’s virginity encased in two-foot thick protection (ultra-safe sex) is a rite of passage for many Albanians. Fortified fornication aside, the bunkers are largely considered an annoyance, a waste of resources and an unwanted reminder of a former leader.

The car park, however, is more than just a memorial to communism… it’s also a car park. And if there’s one vehicle sure to grace a piece of lined tarmac in Albania, it’s the Mercedes-Benz. The last of the Eastern dominoes to fall, Albania broke its communist shackles in 1992 and capitalism arrived – most conspicuously on four wheels. Throughout his rule, Hoxha had maintained a ban on the private ownership of cars, but had favoured the German manufacturer for his personal collection. The long-time forbidden fruit quickly became the commodity of choice in the post-communist era – a symbol of both new-found freedom, and of defiance of the former regime. Today, some two-thirds of the vehicles in Albania bear the Benz emblem on their hoods – a rather unusual symbol of peace. So ubiquitous is the Mercedes-Benz, in fact, that you can no longer use the letter ‘M’ as an I Spy clue (the same applies to ‘B’ for bunker).

The car park, then, is like a historical and cultural bridge that links a tumultuous communist past with the capitalist present. Albania is moving on rapidly from the Hoxha years, but the former leader and his heroes still loom large in the landscape and the national psyche. Lonely Planet aren’t likely to publish a ‘Car Parks of the World’ edition anytime soon, but if they were to do so, this car park in Tirana would be my pick for inclusion. There are, after all, few places where you can pull up in a Mercedes and use a towering likeness of Lenin to judge your distance from the curb. And if you’re not enamoured with the history and the ideological juxtaposition embodied by the car park, you can always have sex in the bunker instead. Just try not to meet Stalin’s disapproving gaze through the viewport.