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Friday, 5 July, 2002, 14:51 GMT 15:51 UK
Albania's relics of paranoid past
Bunkers in a row of four
Look-out posts stare down from every hillside

For the first-time visitor to Albania it can be hard to shake off the feeling of being watched.

Since the fall of communism they have become the venue for lovers' trysts - or homes for displaced people

As the country's only dual-carriage way cuts a swathe through the dense countryside from the airport into Tirana, it slowly dawns on you that you are surrounded.

Looking down from every hillside, sprouting out of every bank, are the cracked and rusting domes of the defence bunkers - a concrete legacy of the paranoid imagination of Albania's communist ruler for 40 years, Enver Hoxha.

Launch new window : Albania's bunkers
In pictures: Albania's concrete legacy

More than 700,000 of these cement and iron monsters were built between 1950 and the dictator's death in 1985.

Maginot line

They cost more than twice as much as France's infamous pre-WWII Maginot Line, and consumed more than three times as much concrete.

Map of the region
Built to repel the threat of foreign invasion - a constant fear of one of the world's most isolationist Stalinists - the bunkers are an almost indestructible obstacle on the path to modernisation for Europe's poorest country.

Since the fall of communism in 1991 they have abandoned their military duty to become the venue for lovers' trysts and, in the most desperate cases, homes for the thousands of internally displaced people.

Precious few have been destroyed, though, and for that, as with so may things, the people have Mr Hoxha to thank.

Baptism by fire

When the prototype bunker was finished in the 1950s he asked the chief engineer how confident he was that it could withstand a full assault from a tank. The answer was, "Very confident".

Bunker with graffiti from supporters of the German football team
World Cup football fans used them for graffiti
The Communist Party supremo then insisted that the engineer stand inside his creation while it was bombarded by a tank.

Sadly for the current generation, the shell-shocked engineer emerged unscathed and his look-out posts went into production on a massive scale.

The Communist Party has now gone, as has the giant gilded statue of Hoxha from the main square of the capital, Tirana, but the bunkers remain and the prosperous future is nowhere in sight.

Football heroes

Not everyone is content to live in the grey shadow of these concrete clones and the former culture minister invited hundreds of artists and children to paint the bunkers between the airport and Tirana in the style of magic mushrooms.

However, the post-communist military could not countenance such a colourful break with the past and sadly blocked the scheme.

But the army can't stop everyone expressing themselves and, on a hillside outside the port of Durres, locals have daubed their cement domes with the names of their World Cup heroes.

Italy's Alesandro Del Piero and Germany's Miroslav Klose compete for pride of place in a testament to the current generation's break with the paranoid isolation of the past.

See also:

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